Jimmy Wright commemorated in renamed gymnasium

COVINGTON — The gymnasium at the old R.L. Cousins High School could have fallen by the wayside long after the school was abandoned when Cousins Middle School was built. Instead, the former site is being transformed and its history being remembered as the gymnasium floor was recently renamed for former head basketball coach Jimmy Wright.

The accomplishments and memories of Wright were recalled at the dedication of the gym floor by District 4 Representative J.C. Henderson.

Henderson, who played under Wright, recalled how the coach was a very loving and fair man. He said that if a player could not afford the equipment needed to play, Wright would take the money out of his pocket to pay for it as an example of how he changed a lot of lives for the better.

“We were trying to go back so that it will be remembered,” Henderson said.

While he accomplished a lot during his time on and off the court, one of his best well known accomplishments was in 1965 when he was state runner-up with a record of 17-4. But it wasn’t until after his passing away in February when Newton County Recreation Commission Director Tommy Hailey knew something had to be done so he will not be forgotten. Of course, he could not do it alone.

“I knew him well and I knew his accomplishments,” Hailey said. “We called the family and told them what we wanted to do contingent on two things. One, that the Recreation Board would go along with it because we don’t have the authority to name anything, the Board of Commissioners does that. But seeing that this facility was owned by the Cousins Center, we approached the Cousins Center and they graciously took their name off the floor and put Jimmy’s name on it. I’m glad to have been a part of it.”

Everything started back in the mid-1990s when the property was bought by a group headed by Frank Turner and Forrest Sawyer, the Arnold Fund, for $500,000 from the Board of Education. However, the stipulation before the sale was finalized was that they would maintain the property.

Other groups wanted the property located on Geiger Street but they had other uses in mind such as apartments which would have been more profitable.

When they took over the property, the buildings and the fields were in bad shape because the school was all but abandoned. After the middle school was opened, the high school was used primarily for storage allowing the undesirable elements in the neighborhood to vandalize the school and put graffiti on the walls.

“It sat for six to eight years before they bought the entire property. They (Arnold Fund) approached us about using the area to practice baseball and softball and football. We were able to get the property and that really helped us out,” Hailey said.

While they were able to do some things with the ball fields, there was nothing that could have been done with the gymnasium because of lack of funding. That was when the Newton County Board of Commissioners and the Arthur Blank Foundation came in while working with Denny Dobbs and the Cousins Center Inc.

The Arthur Blank Foundation gave $250,000 for the renovation while $500,000 came from SPLOST.

“When we campaigned for it in 2005, people wanted to save this historic gym,” Henderson said. “I’m also on the recreation commission. One of the main things that most people wanted was to give the kids a place to play basketball and football. I think it was B.C. Crowell that said it best, ‘We would rather see them playing football and basketball than in the jail.’ As we know, the jails are beginning to fill up with mostly people that didn’t finish high school or didn’t participate in any type of sports. There’s a bigger benefit for the community, for the government, the county board of commissioners, to invest in recreation. The great thing about SPLOST is that the money goes out to create projects for the community.”

“It’s given this community a sense of pride,” Hailey said. “All this would not be possible without the Arthur Fund and the Cousins Center. They could have said no we don’t want to purchase this property and we wouldn’t be where now. All this was done by hard work and having a vision.”