December 3, 2021

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James Seaside: Catherine Neely Was Chattanooga’s Best Treasure

12 min read

 1 of the very first issues you see when you walked into Catherine Neely’s residence is a framed collage of images. It is exhibited prominently. You just cannot pass up it. In reality, it is meant to be observed. There is no need to have to inquire about it because smack dab in the extremely middle of the body, typed in huge bold letters, is its clarification:

HALLS OF

 FAME

CATHERINE

NEELY

 

Which is ideal: Halls, plural with an s.&#13
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And neatly surrounded close to the bold proclamation are 8 unique pictures, every taken on really specific evenings in which Catherine Neely was deservingly honored for her 50 several years of sporting activities contributions into 8 various Hall of Fames. I dare say there are maybe a handful of people today nationally with 8 these types of pictures of eight this kind of honors. If any.

 

It is some thing you would hope to uncover on the wall of a person so distinguished. It is something I individually would probably have printed on my enterprise card, some thing that may well in some way discover its way on a yard indication, or a billboard for that make a difference. Just exterior my neighborhood, you know, so it would not be pretty so apparent I place it up

 

That stated it is not one thing I would count on on Catherine’s wall. Perhaps tucked absent in her closet, or collecting dust beneath her mattress, but not on her wall. When East Ridge Significant School named its Fitness center just after her, it experienced to be carried out in top secrecy as a great deal to surprise her as to prevent her wrath. Catherine Neely was under no circumstances ever about Catherine Neely in something she did.

 

Of program, a single of the items I constantly obtained away with when it arrived to Catherine was providing her a tricky time. She had elevated me throughout my formative sports activities reporting several years in the early 80s and one of the things she taught me was an skill to stand my floor when it arrived to significant terrible coaches. And Catherine was the largest, and the baddest. I swear when she bought riled up, you could see the curls tighten on the popular perm on top of her head.

 

The initially detail out my mouth following looking at the print the initially time was “so, that’s what a framed moi appears like.”

 

She straight away dropped that reduced jaw, her eyes steeled up and the curls obtained a minor tighter. I may as nicely have identified as a single of her volleyball gamers in the web on match level.

 

“Do you definitely believe that photo is about me? The factors you simply cannot see in each and every just one of those people pictures at each individual 1 of people celebrations are all the youngsters who performed for me. If I had a thousand losses rather of a thousand wins, they likely wouldn’t have even sold me a ticket to show up at a Corridor of Fame induction,” Catherine stated, her voice growing just a very little with every single syllable.

 

“The issue you just can’t see is the guidance I had from my administration to get the issues accomplished to establish an athletic software my girls deserved. The factors you just cannot see are all the great coaches all around this city who pushed me to be the ideal I could be and allowed me to operate with them so all our kids would profit. And at last, the matter you don’t see is the sacrifice and the adore my household had for me to enable me people plenty of hours away from them,” she lastly took a pause to breath just before incorporating, “I place that image up as a reminder of all these issues simply because those are the matters I see in the image.”

 

And that, if you wished to cram it in a nutshell, is Catherine Neely.

 

But to individuals in her existence who she remaining driving early Wednesday morning after a lengthy fight with overall health concerns, there will never be a nutshell to in shape the legend of Mrs. Neely in just. Chattanooga has a very long very pleased historical past of outstanding female dignitaries. Women these types of Betty Probasco, Juanita Merrill, Grace Keith, Susan Thurman, Sue Bartlett and Peggy Thomas occur to intellect but with apologies to every no 1 experienced a far more inspiring legacy than the 78-year run Catherine Neely set jointly. Catherine was this town’s greatest treasure.

 

Neely was equivalent parts advocate, mentor, administrator and friend. It is hard to pigeon gap her into just one particular classification when she did them all so properly.

 

As an advocate, she possibly experienced more affect on significant faculty girls’ athletics than anybody in our state. Volleyball will usually be synonymous with her name and it is tricky to argue it was the place she had her greatest effect. It was also her finest enthusiasm.

 

When I was assigned superior university volleyball as a conquer back in 1981 for the Chattanooga Absolutely free Press I felt there almost certainly was not a reduce rung on the ladder. Oh, how mistaken I was.

 

Catherine and Juanita Merrill at Kirkman set their gracious arms all-around me and welcomed me like no other. As the many years passed, I managed to climb additional rungs on the ladder in my job. I witnessed Masters wins and Remaining Four tilts. I coated football bowls throughout the land from Sugar to Cotton and Fiesta and all the ones in amongst. I satisfied sports personalities much larger than life: Arnie and Jack Bo and Barkley Paterno and Majors Elway and Marino Mantle and DiMaggio.

 

None of what I did in this field about the previous 40 several years introduced me as a great deal pleasure as weeping with Catherine in the corner of the dressing area just after she gained her initially point out volleyball title in 1997.

 

And I have in no way witnessed a selection of friends far more overjoyed for 1 of their personal. The Woman Pioneers shed to a good Brentwood Academy in pool engage in in that point out tournament and fought all the way again to the finals for what all people assumed would be a lot more of the exact same. Specially after Brentwood set a 15-3 first activity trouncing on Neely’s bunch. But this was Catherine at her greatest, and when her ladies responded with a 16-14 gain to drive a winner-choose-all finale, there was a buzz in the air.

 

I was as nervous as if  my individual daughter was playing, but I was ready to console Catherine just as I had lots of times, including in again-to-again championship losses in 1988 and 89, each of which I missed residing in Knoxville masking the UT defeat. The two had been very long mobile phone conversations. Catherine was the top class act, sportsmanship personified, but she hated to shed.

 

“The thing about Catherine is we are so substantially alike as opponents, but we constantly walked absent finest of buddies later on. But the instances I got the very best of her, it was commonly a working day or two right before she talked significantly,” laughed Susan Thurman recalling their rivalry when she headed up the good Crimson Financial institution system.

 

Catherine would bite my head off for declaring this, but Brentwood was the improved group in that ’97 area, but by the time the decisive activity rolled about, absolutely everyone not donning a Brentwood shirt was rooting challenging for Catherine. Those people who appreciated the second realized the gravity of it.

7 occasions she had introduced a crew to the point out tournament and seven moments she remaining not talking to individuals for a few of days.  

 

On this day, however, Catherine caught my eye to the side and as only she could do, appeared at me and mouthed so no a single could see: “We obtained this.” And involving the electricity inside of the MTSU Arena and the sheer dedication, East Ridge did in truth have it, profitable one particular of the all-time great finales with a 19-17 victory for Catherine’s to start with of two condition titles.

 

The quantity of appreciative effectively wishers was a testament to the appreciation for the girl former TSSAA executive director Ronnie Carter identified as “the queen of volleyball.”

 

“Everything that Catherine did was constantly larger than her and bigger than East Ridge. It was often for the gain of the sport and the ladies who played it. She often knew how to perform matters to get it performed. She would wander up to me or contact me and it was often ‘Ronnie, I have an concept I want to toss you’ and the subsequent thing I know it was done,” Carter said.

 

It was Neely together with Merrill who got the activity sanctioned in time for Merrill’s great Kirkman squads to reel off five straight titles commencing in 1976. It was Neely who received the industry expanded over and above one division. It was Neely who got pool enjoy integrated into the occasion and afterwards double-elimination brackets. Suggestions Neely just happened to throw around. What started as 1 eight-group match in 1976, now has 4 championships and 32 teams full vying for them.

 

Neely gained much more volleyball matches than all but two people nationally with her 1,395 victories en route to turning into the winningest coach in the state of Tennessee. And as much as she loved successful game titles, she liked growing the video game.

 

Thurman and her generally travelled collectively with their groups and located on their own at the College of Florida for a camp in the 90s. With all the teams there, the moment matches began it was Crimson Bank from just one bracket and East Ridge from the other building their way to a championship match.

 

“We spent all that revenue and travelled all that way only to wind up taking part in each other in the finals. That was the day, Catherine and I decided we could do that in our own backyard. We wound placing a plan in place to start out a camp, and then it evolved into engage in times, and before very long absolutely everyone was coming,” Thurman recalled.

 

“One 12 months we experienced the state champion from Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina and all three Tennessee condition champs at camp. Individuals came due to the fact of Catherine. Her name carried that variety of weight throughout the South. She has done additional for volleyball than everyone in the South. I was honored to call her my mate, and I beloved her,” Thurman extra.

 

As did just about all people included with the sport. With some people you meet up with them and it will take some time to type an view. With Catherine, you have been by no means late to the celebration for the reason that she place you at relieve. She was authentic. Even all those she realized ended up there to contend with listed here, she was normally self-confident plenty of to give away all her tricks.

 

“If there was a new mentor in town, Catherine was the initial to attain out to them to aid them. She shared drills, and invited them in to enjoy her exercise. Her affect wasn’t just on her own kids, it was on everybody’s kids,” reported Thurman.

 

Connie Younger, who was the architect at the rear of four Bradley Central condition titles, agreed.

 

“She did so significantly for all of us in the sport. I understood early on that if you ended up likely to contend you had to contend with her, and if you could do that, then it didn’t make any difference if you gained or loss, you won,” Young mentioned. “In my viewpoint, she ranks suitable up there with Pat Summitt.”

 

The comparison to Summitt is an attention-grabbing parallel. Both of those ended up rising tides who brought everyone in their respective sporting activities up with them, and Catherine totally beloved the Girl Vols. And she didn’t sit at household seeing them on Television.

 

A single of the good reasons our marriage prospered so was our link with the Girl Vols. I will have to have coated hundreds of Woman Vol battles, and I just can’t recall a single where I did not glimpse at the greatest seats in the home and place Catherine and her sidekick Grace Keith. Friends made use of to make a recreation out of recognizing the two on Tv in their prime seats.

 

“It was like the dude carrying the rainbow wig with the John 3:16 indication. They have been all over the place,” laughed Thurman.

 

Keith coached Catherine at Hixson in 1959 and the two formed an inseparable bond.

 

“I was her coach to start with, but as we grew older, she was my closest mate. I just cannot think about her not currently being right here. She just paid for our period tickets and I picked them up yesterday. She manufactured absolutely sure it was taken care of even becoming in the healthcare facility. She was normally imagining of other people today to start with,” Keith mentioned.

 

Above the decades, Keith and Neely have been my supper mates at the Women’s Closing 4. My wife’s friends employed to tease her about me staying out of town masking ladies all about the nation, and she would just snicker and say if you only they knew the company my spouse retains at these issues.

 

Keith, who is a legend in her personal correct, acquiring begun the UTC basketball application, was continuously being mistaken for Catherine simply because of the very similar hair types.

 

“Folks known as us Q-tips due to the fact of our white hair,” laughed Keith. “One time I was officiating a game and went to obtain a consume involving matches. I was strolling the again hallways and some child hollered at me from a length ‘hey, Mrs. Neely’ considering I was Catherine. When he received closer he realized it wasn’t her and tried to apologize. I looked at him and informed him it was the best compliment I experienced ever gotten.”

 

Immediately after retiring from coaching, Neely remained as the Advert at East Ridge and bought closely concerned with, what else, a Corridor of Fame. She was President of the Better Chattanooga Sporting activities Hall of Fame, and her talent established there was unmatched.

 

“Catherine had a lot more understanding than everyone on the board and if she claimed you have been a Hall of Famer, you have been a Hall of Famer,’ reported previous Television identity and fellow board member Darrell Patterson. “When you have a board of 20 something men and women, it can get contentious at instances, but Catherine knew how to run a ship. It is like Congress with so many distinctive concepts and views, but Catherine’s organizational abilities were unmatched. And she commanded regard.”

 

Over the previous 14 months, Neely has been in the clinic extra so than out of it. Back again in February when the Hall of Fame inducted its final course, she checked out of the healthcare facility the working day of the event and was there in a wheel chair. I was element of that induction course, and I had been explained to she would not be there, but when I walked out, she was the very first particular person I noticed.

 

“You imagine some medical doctor is heading to continue to keep me away from this,” she smiled.

 

I felt like I belonged to her each individual little bit as substantially as I belonged to my personal mother, and getting her there was the highlight of my night. She was so several matters to so a lot of men and women, but Catherine Neely produced me sense like I was the most particular man or woman in the place.

 

The most telling example of the type of female Catherine Neely was, though, is most evident in her only child Allen.  As much as Catherine has been in the hospital, her spouse William has also been battling disease. He just not long ago bought launched from the clinic and Allen ferried his way among caring for his father and Catherine.

 

Again and forth. Working day immediately after day, all the time functioning his job.

 

Which is the form of person only somebody distinctive could raise, and of the items Catherine Neely has finished, it was her biggest accomplishment.

 

(James Seashore can be attained at [email protected])

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