SPORTS COLUMN: Barry Walker – Remembering a true friend and supporter of local sports
The Courier Herald, "Slices of Sports" – February 21, 2023
In sports and life, it's important to have good folks in your corner.
A lot of times, our biggest sources of inspiration as we pursue the different things we do are the encouraging coaches, caring family, wise mentors, generous benefactors and, a lot of times, just fans in the stands who are there to watch and cheer us on. Whether your arena of competition is a playing field or a career field, it's always great to know there are people who believe in you.
For local athletes, and those of us involved with sports in different ways around Dublin and Laurens County, it'd be hard to find one of those supporters as steadfast as Barry Walker.
Not all in today's generation of players had the privilege of getting to know him personally, but few – whether they recognize it or not – have had a more staunch advocate either now, or over the years.
We lost as good a friend to local sports as there was Wednesday, when he passed away after a long cancer battle at age 61. To some, he was Mr. Barry, to many "Coach Walker," others a dad and granddad. For many, also, he was a local insurance broker whose reputation embodied every word of the well-known jingle and slogan used by the Nationwide brand that was among those he represented.
He was also one of our area's most faithful Georgia fans, and somebody who was a pleasure to converse with at length about local high school sports and the Dawgs around tailgates on Saturdays in Athens and other spots where the opportunity presented.
The former Dublin High School multi-sport athlete made a major imprint as both a community coach and longtime torchbearer for Trinity Christian School as part of its board of directors. He meant a lot of things to many people in our county, but leaves as important a legacy as any in the local sports community for his heart of a champion, for generations of local youth on their different fields of dreams.
Put simply, he did a lot to ensure that thousands of present and future athletes had every opportunity and resource they needed to swing for the fences.
That started, simply, with volunteering his time as a rec and travel ball coach and serving as an official, in two roles (which we now often take for granted) that made it possible for those sports to even exist.
Back in the 1990s, he was also responsible for establishing a first-of-its kind training facility for baseball and softball players in Dublin called "The Strike Zone." Tucked just off the beaten path of Claxton Dairy Road near Springdale Park, the business offered lessons and training opportunities for players, along with batting cages and equipment they could use to hone their skills.
It closed its doors a number of years ago, handing off the baton to some similar local sports incubators that have popped up more recently, but for years was an amenity for local athletes that, beforehand, couldn't be found within a close radius of Dublin. And it no doubt served as a launchpad for many players who went on to successful careers in high school and beyond. Mr. Barry's vision for making a difference always went beyond how it benefitted just a few. He went above and beyond any ordinary expectation to ensure that what he was involved with did the most good for the largest number.
And that was evident in another investment of time and resources that has affected many generations before, and will for many to come, in Trinity's Claude Graham Athletic Complex, which was constructed as an addition to Trinity's original campus (before, confined to just one side of Trinity Hills Drive) back in 2007.
It was anything but a one-man undertaking, but he took the lead in helping put together plans and rally about a million and a half dollars of community investment to get the place built, taking it upon himself to negotiate past many of the obstacles that existed to making the project happen.
His vision for the now-sprawling athletic campus overlooking 441 didn't stop at one or two new fields, but four total between baseball and softball, one for each middle school program as well, on top of a secondary soccer stadium, batting cages and other additions over the years.
Much like the Strike Zone in its day, the new complex is as nice as they come, and has given athletes at all levels of the school the privilege of playing in state-of-the-art facilities right across the street.
And it was cool two summers ago, more than a decade after the construction, to see the school officialy name the softball field in his honor as a tribute to those efforts, not to mention plenty of other instrumental work behind the scenes in supporting the Trinity athletic programs, from filing softball game recaps in the paper to running some jam-up concession stands at home softball tournaments, both in the new complex and at Southern Pines the years before it was built.
A look back through some old sports notes reveals a sports brief he submitted on behalf of the TCS booster club ahead of a 12-team event in 2006 to let fans know, perhaps more importantly than the tournament's dates and times, what fans attending could expect on the menu of items they could enjoy while taking in the action: a spread complete with fried catfish (and hushpuppies and coleslaw), shrimp kabobs, grilled sausage, grilled chicken, ribeye steak sandwiches (plus ham, turkey, pimento cheese and PB&J) and fresh fruit.
"NO need to bring your own or go anywhere," he wrote.
Whether it was first-class ballpark food, sports complexes or team uniforms and equipment, Mr. Barry cared a lot about giving the best to local athletes and fans. For him, nothing was ever too much to ask if it meant making this community a great one to play ball.
From little league to high school, you'd rarely catch a game at a local stadium or gym where the sign of his insurance agency wasn't among those of sponsors. And that also went for promoting media coverage of our county's different teams.
I owe a debt of thanks to his support in my early years of calling local ballgames on the radio, when he was among the first – of only a few at the time – to sign on as a sponsor of the earliest broadcasts.
It was just as much about the teams and programs involved, but those investments were also instrumental for me in helping launch a sportscasting dream that's run side-by-side with my work here in the newspaper business, growing from those first years of football and basketball play-by-play to now an almost year-round on-air schedule that includes calling three different sports and hosting a Friday football show in the fall.
More than just offering the backing of his business as an advertiser, he also made a point of sharing compliments and constructive feedback on my work along the way.
Like any great coach, he was a true encourager, and one who never let his appreciation go without saying. And when you're chasing goals that, at many points along the way, leave you tired and frustrated, it's people like Mr. Barry whose uplifting and reassuring words remind you why working in and around sports, especially in communities as tight-knit as ours, is so worthwhile.
His bold vision was a bigger one than sports, coming from a foundational belief that athletics at all levels are most times a better classroom than school itself for building character, and a better means than any of imparting valuable lessons of life and faith.
Mr. Barry's quote inscribed on the plaque they placed behind home plate at the softball field describes it well: "You may see ball fields. What we see are mission fields."
He was one who not only cared enough to give, but felt a sense of responsibility to to step out and leave a mark that would last for years to come. And it's one that can be clearly seen in many places around Dublin-Laurens County, and still more in the lives of those who crossed paths with him.
Barry Walker was someone who was great to know. And I'm sure I can speak for a lot of people in expressing gratitude for his friendship, unwavering support and willingness to think big in challenging the limits of what was possible.
This community is definitely a better place because he was on our side.