February 16, 2013

Jerry Manis showed dedication to area’s young athletes

Marty Kirkland

— When Jerry Manis answered the call to serve his country during the Vietnam War, he missed a window of opportunity to pursue a college baseball scholarship.

But Manis wanted to make sure area youth never missed an opportunity to participate in athletics, and that drove his dedication during 21 years as an employee of the Whitfield County Parks and Recreation Department, said his daughter, Shara Cook.

“He found an avenue that helped him accomplish that goal,” Cook said. “... Nothing thrilled him more than to take Whitfield County youth teams to state. He would call me when they won and he would be ecstatic. You would think it was his own children.”

Manis had been officially retired less than two months when he died on Monday at 67. His memorial service is today at 2 p.m. at Calvary Baptist Church. Burial is Monday at 9:30 a.m. at Chattanooga National Cemetery.

The Dalton native actually worked his last day at the WCPRD on Nov. 2, having accumulated enough paid time off to last the rest of 2012.

That, too, was a sign of Manis’ dedication, said Roger Crossen, who worked at the WCPRD from 1985 to 2008, with his final 17 years as director. Other qualities that stood out to Crossen were Manis’ affability — “He was somebody that knew a lot of people, and that just makes it easier,” Crossen said — and versatility.

After being drafted into the Army and serving in Vietnam, Manis went on to work in the insurance and carpet industries for many years before starting his second career at the WCPRD. By that time, though, he had already been involved with youth athletics through coaching and officiating — with the latter activity something he did for nearly four decades and was still doing this past fall, working a multitude of sports at levels ranging from youth to high school.

Although Manis began his work at the WCPRD in maintenance, handling upkeep on the county’s fields and gyms, Crossen also found him capable of administrative duties. At the time of his retirement, Manis had been the department’s athletic coordinator for several years, an office job he had prepared for while being informally drafted into such work by Crossen.

Manis would help Crossen and WCPRD administrative assistant Debbie Roper handle such indoor chores as scheduling games and setting up tournament brackets.

“Jerry could ride a tractor one day and the next day be in there with me and Debbie,” Crossen said. “When you have a small staff, you have to be versatile. Jerry was perfect for the job.”

But Manis was more than a co-worker to Crossen, who was proud to call him a friend even when they no longer shared the same employer. When Crossen resigned under pressure from county administration five years ago, Manis was indispensable, he said.

“The day I lost my job, he stayed with me,” a tearful Crossen said. “He brought me home. I’ll never forget that. You just don’t meet people like that and you don’t have friends like that very often. ... He was just a special person to me.”

Brian Chastain had supervised Manis since becoming the WCPRD director in 2011, but he knew him well even before then, having worked for the department for a dozen years before going on to serve as director of the Murray County Recreation Department for eight years.

Chastain said while Manis certainly enjoyed the happy side of his work, he didn’t shy away from the difficult parts, and that people respected his straight-talk approach. “He could do the hard stuff” like telling a coach he would have to sit out a game for breaking a rule, Chastain said, being honest without being mean.

Sometimes humor helped him do the hard stuff. Chastain recalled he and Manis walking to the parking lot after officiating a middle school football game together several years ago.

“This lady hollers at us and says, ‘I just want to let you know, y’all did a terrible job,’” Chastain recalled. “Jerry being who he is, he said, ‘What did you say ma’am? We did a great job?’ And then we were hugging and celebrating. That poor lady didn’t know what to say.”

Manis’ support for youth athletics developed out of his passion for games. The Dalton High School graduate who might have gone on to a college baseball career later funneled his competitiveness into adult softball.

Bart Rich first knew Manis because he and Rich’s father, Tommy, were teammates on the same softball team and their families were neighbors.

“When they played softball, they had some really good teams back in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” the younger Rich said. “All of the carpet mills would have an industrial league team. ... Jerry was a good athlete and a very good softball player.”

When Rich got involved with the Dug Gap Community Association in recent years, he became reacquainted with Manis, whom he said deserves plenty of thanks with helping area youth athletics make progress.

“He helped create the department we have today and all the great facilities and tournaments,” Rich said.

Debbie Sosebee knew Manis because of her work in the Antioch Community Association. She remembered Manis as a dedicated worker who wanted the facilities to be at their best when the athletes arrived, as well as someone who was patient and diplomatic in dealing with others.

“I don’t know if I ever saw him really upset,” Sosebee said. “He was very easygoing, and if there was an issue he would jump right in and handle it.”

Roper saw Manis as “diplomatic,” “cordial to the bad and the good” and “fair with everybody.” She will also remember little things like his laugh and his penchant for taking the back roads of the area that he knew so well. And she found him a good co-worker on a small and busy staff when he began helping in the office.

“He lost his tan,” Roper said, “but other than that he enjoyed it. We just took care of each other.”

That role of caretaker was one that seemed to fit Manis well. Cook recalled that when her mother Diane died when she and her brother Wesley were just 5 and 6, her dad did his best to be supportive in every way even though she gravitated toward an activity he wasn’t familiar with — cheerleading.

“He said he didn’t know how to do that, so he would put me on the cheerleading team for the rec football team he was coaching,” Cook said. “He was a good man, and he loved to see kids excel.”

Part of that was the tough job — either as a game official or representative of the recreation department — of ejecting unruly adults from youth sporting events.

“We laugh about it, but he’s thrown a lot of people out of ballfields and escorted them out of gyms,” Cook said. “I told my brother we’ll probably have a lot of people come through the line at the funeral who tell us that our dad kicked them out of a game. But he was very adamant about making you be respectful.”

When he retired, Manis headed south for a vacation rental in Panama City, Fla., where he and his wife Linda were late last month when Manis developed health trouble that required hospitalization. The day before the couple was to return to Dalton, he “just couldn’t walk,” Cook said, and he spent his final two weeks in the hospital before succumbing to pulmonary fibrosis, or scarring of the lung tissue.

Cook said her father had been in good health since his retirement, walking six to seven miles a day and taking care of himself. Even after he was hospitalized, she believed he would to be able to return to Dalton.

“We expected him to be moved into respiratory therapy and come home,” she said.

In her grief, Cook has been comforted by people who have told her stories of what her father meant to the area’s athletic scene over the past decades.

“My dad was a humble man, very humble,” she said. “And never in a million years would he have expressed to us the impact he made on this community. He’s an icon for youth athletics, but I don’t know if he was aware of it.

“We have been overwhelmed with the number of people that have shared stories. He had a great sense of humor, and we have been very blessed by the words of comfort in those reaching out to us.”