Old Porterdale gym was once heart of a community

Each time a home is destroyed by fire, that family loses irreplaceable memorabilia and must begin again from ashes. Residents of the town of Porterdale, past and present, are members of a unique family. The same common experiences - workplaces, school, holidays, friendships, hardships, beliefs and good times - that bind folks into family also bind this community. When the Porterdale gym burned on Oct. 20, 2005, thousands of people encompassing two and three generations lost precious memorabilia. The Porterdale gym, constructed in 1938, was a gift to the people of Porterdale from Oliver and Julia Porter, the owners of Bibb Manufacturing Company.

The gym once bustled with activity on school days, weekends and summers, from early morning until late into the evening for more than half a century. The Porterdale Woman's Club, Boy Scouts/Girl Reserves and music students met in the gym. In addition to physical education classes and ball practice, other events such as wrestling and boxing matches, plays and high school graduations continued the gym's importance as the focal point of the community. The Porterdale gym was used formerly as a practice site for the Oglethorpe University and Georgia Institute of Technology basketball teams. The revered boxer Jack Dempsey refereed a wrestling match there. In the 1950s, the Harlem Globetrotters played at the Porterdale gym on three different occasions. The only time the Grand Ole Opry ever played outside of Nashville, Tenn., they played in the Porterdale Gym.

In the town where every family had someone who worked for the mill, crime was almost non-existent, jobs were within walking distance, as were school, stores, movies and swimming pools. The Oliver S. Porter-Porterdale Gymnasium was the place where the children of Porterdale played basketball and reached for the moon.

Many Porterdale residents fondly recall the annual Christmas party sponsored by Bibb Manufacturing. The mills would shut down. Townspeople, young and old, gathered in the gym. The centerpiece was a large Christmas tree surrounded by decorated boxes, all donated by the mill's owners. After everyone present received a gift, Christmas boxes with fruits, nuts and mint candies were also delivered to shut-ins. The gymnasium, dedicated Nov. 15, 1938, was meant to be Porterdale's recreation and social center. The name became synonymous for successful ball teams and excellent players and instructors. The facility could seat up to 5,000. Its wooden bleachers and polished wood floors were well built. The bleachers were actually on the second floor, with office space and lockers on the main level beneath the bleacher seats.

"It was the Taj Mahal of gymnasiums," said alumnae Betty Faith Jaynes.

No one should know better than Jaynes, who has been invited to many basketball courts since her time in Porterdale. In her career, Jaynes received the Outstanding Contribution to Girls Sports in Atlanta award in 2006; the Russell Athletic Distinguished Women of Atlanta 2006 award; National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Hall of Fame, 2006; special recognition Model Citizen from Gov. Sonny Purdue, 2005; the 2000 Pioneer Award by the Georgia Women's Intersport Network; Women's Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2000; Women's Sports Foundation President's Award in 1997; National Association for Girls and Women in Sports Honors Award, 1991; Communiplex Women's Sports Hall of Fame 1995; Georgia College Distinguished Alumnus in 1996; State of Georgia Outstanding Citizen Award for Excellence in 1996; featured as Top Atlanta Sports Champion in March 1999 issue of Atlanta Business to Business Magazine - the list of goes on.

Jaynes co-founded the Women's Basketball Coaches Association in 1981; chaired the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame Foundation, 2003-2006; served on the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame Board of Directors 1999-Present; on the Atlanta Tip-Off Club Board of Directors, Vice President 1992-1999; Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Trustee, 1990-2006; USA Basketball Board of Directors, 1986-2000; Center of the Study of Sport in Society National Advisory Committee; Georgia Women's Intersport Network (Ga-WIN), founder, past president and treasurer, 1996-2006; Women's Sports Foundation Trustee (current), Vice President (1990-1996); and Women's Sports Foundation Trustee Co-Chair of Coaches Council.

Jaynes is a result of the Porterdale gym. She is a native of Newton County, born in Porterdale Hospital. She took P.E. at Porterdale Grammar School in the gym, lettered in basketball both years at Porterdale Junior High and all four years at Newton High School, and was an All-State player in her junior and senior year. She earned her bachelor's degree from Georgia College and master's degrees from the University of North Carolina. She was the head women's basketball coach for James Madison University from 1970 to 1982, compiling a record of leadership, state tournaments and regional playoffs.

Her parents, J.T. and Ruth Jaynes, each put in more than 45 years with Bibb Manufacturing and worked a second job as Salem Campground caretakers for 20 of those years. In every speech, Jaynes recognizes the work ethics instilled by her mill town parents and the support and mentoring of teachers and coaches like B.C. Crowell, a 28-year veteran coach from Porterdale, who saw worth in and provided guidance to every child in Porterdale - including Jaynes.

The Friends of Porterdale Inc. want to bring back the gym. Approximately $500,000 from sales tax revenue has been earmarked for renovations to the facility. The city carried fire insurance on the gym but nowhere near what it will take to return it to its former glory. Porterdale is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the local Historical Society has been working to have the Porterdale gym listed separately on the register in the hope of getting specific grants.

According to Charles Turner of Chance's Gallery, a board member of Friends of Porterdale, the group will meet Saturday at 11 a.m. at The Coffee Shop in downtown Porterdale. Board members encourage all former gym kids to join the team to bring back the people's gym.

As Porterdale resident Gary Wilkerson said at the time of the fire in 2005, the old brick gym was "so much more than just four walls with a basketball court."