Two former Smith-Cotton athletes and a long-time coach are being inducted into the Smith-Cotton Athletic Hall of Fame.
Girls basketball all-time leading scorer and rebounder Donease Smith, former St. Louis Browns shortstop John “Bud” Thomas and longtime Smith-Cotton football coach Ralph “Stub” Dow make up the second class of Hall of Famers. The Hall inducted football players Charles Van Dyne and Norris Kelley and golfer Libby Howard were selected as the first Hall of Fame class last year.
“I feel very blessed and excited,” Smith said. “I had great coaches and teammates and it’s really exciting for me. I had great times in Sedalia. It’s just an honor to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.”
Smith started playing basketball in seventh grade. Before that she ran track, but her friends decided to play basketball instead and she decided to join them, even though she wasn’t all that good at it.
“I was horrible,” she said. “I kept at it and I got better and by eighth grade I was a lot better than I was in seventh grade.”
Smith scored 1,468 points for coach Brad Pollitt’s Lady Tigers and pulled down 901 rebounds, both school records.
“She had great hands and she could jump and she was strong,” Pollitt said. “She was only 5-9 and she could touch the bottom of the rim.”
Pollitt said she didn’t play much her freshman year but earned her way onto the court later.
“Coach Pollitt was a great coach and he pushed us,” Smith said. “We believed in him and his philosophy and we wanted to win. Going to basketball camps and doing those extra things he wanted us to do, we got better.”
Her junior year, 1992-92, the Lady Tigers went 20-7 and reached the district final.
“I saw a young lady that developed into a tremendous team player that strived to reach her athletic potential,” Pollitt said. “She was an extremely gifted athlete. She became an outstanding basketball player.”
Her senior year, the Lady Tigers reached the district semifinal where Smith set another school record, scoring 36 points in a game against Hickman.
“I always say quality athletes rise to the top against top competition,” Pollitt said. “Donease was always someone who stepped up against the better teams. She was never single-covered. She was always double-teamed in the post. She was always going against two people.”
Smith was twice named Class 5A first-team all-state.
“We just tried to win as many games as we could and make the program better,” she said.
In college, she played at the University of Central Missouri and was honorable mention all-conference three times during her career with the Jennies.
Then she stayed in basketball as an assistant coach in the National Women’s Basketball League with the Kansas City Legacy. She also worked at Kansas State, Moberly Area College and with the WNBA’s Detroit Shock before joining the University of Memphis as director of basketball operations in 2009, a job that involves coordinating travel and budgets and scheduling.
“I do everything behind the scenes,” she said. “You have to be very organized.”
It’s a job that allows her to stay involved in athletics.
“I always thought I wanted to teach and coach,” she said. “One of my friends was the director of operations at a college and I asked her what she did and she told me and I thought that sounded like something I would like to do.”
Once of the things Smith takes away from her time at Smith-Cotton is the team she was a part of.
“There are five of us who played basketball together and we’re still friends,” she said. “We get together and tell stories about basketball and coach Pollitt and how he pushed us and helped mold us into the women we are today.”
John “Bud” Thomas
Smith-Cotton did not have a high school baseball team in the 1940s, but that didn’t stop Bud Thomas.
“Most of the guys played junior Legion ball,” he said. “Most of the years I played we had very good junior Legion teams. We even played some of the semi-pro teams around here, grown men, and beat them. We went to two state tournaments and took second in both of them. That’s who the scouts looked for, people who were in junior Legion.”
Don Barbour remembers seeing Thomas play at Liberty Park Stadium.
“I remember he was just a tremendous fielder,” Barbour said. “He was a defensive player out of this world and he had good knowledge of baseball.”
Thomas was able to hit some, too.
“I could hit a home run on occasion,” he said. “Doubles are what I usually hit. I led the league in one place in doubles.”
In 1945, he was selected to the junior Legion All-American team. With World War II about to come to a close, 33,000 baseball fans saw him and the other All-Americans play at the Polo Grounds. Thomas’ team of players from west of the Mississippi was managed by Ty Cobb. The players from the east were managed by Babe Ruth. Thomas even saw Ruth hit a few balls into the seats while the east team took batting practice.
At Smith-Cotton, Thomas played basketball as well.
“I loved them both, but baseball was the game,” he said.
After graduation, he played briefly with a semi-pro team alongside his father, but soon the Browns offered him a contract. He played in the minor leagues, first in Belleville, Ill., in Class D, the lowest level in the minor leagues at the time. In 1948, he played Class A ball in Elmira, N.Y., and Class C in Globe, Ariz. The next two years he was in the Texas League in Marshall, Texas.
“We played some people that were professional ballpllayers that stepped down from Triple-A and Double-A,” he said. “It was a tough league even though it was Class C ball.”
After that, it was on to Dayton, Ohio, and then late in the 1951 season he was called up to the majors.
“I stayed at the Fairgrounds Hotel and it was time to go to the ballpark,” he said. “Other ballplayers were gone or weren’t ready to go. I get up to the ballpark and I wonder ‘how I’m going to get in here. These people don’t know me, the gate man doesn’t know me.’ But I found a gate and knocked on the door and they let me in.”
He had played at the stadium before, in the 1945 junior Legion state tournament, but this was different — this time he was there as a major leaguer.
He made his debut against Cleveland on Sept. 2. Ned Garver, a 20-game winner for that Browns team, was on the hill and Thomas came on as a defensive replacement at shortstop in the late innings.
On Sept. 16, 1951, the Browns were playing the Athletics at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Thomas came up in the third inning to face Alex Kellner.
“He was a left-hander,” Thomas said. “I loved left-handers.”
Kellner threw a fastball, letter-high, and Thomas put it over the left-field wall for his first and only major league home run.
“I hit the ball so I start running toward first,” he said. “I didn’t even look up. I round first base and nothing’s happening so I didn’t know if I hit it out or not, and I’m running around the bases and I thought ‘I’m going to look like the biggest fool in the world if that ball didn’t get out of here.’ But it got out.”
Ultimately, Thomas played 14 games in the majors. He started four games, had 20 major league at bats and seven hits (a career .350 average).
Against the Indians, he faced Bob Feller. His Browns went to Fenway Park where Thomas got to see Hall of Famer Ted Williams strike out against Hall of Famer Satchel Paige.
“We didn’t know how old he was,” Thomas said of Paige. “Some say 46 or 47, but he could hum that ball.”
The following season, Thomas played for several different minor league teams with stints in Memphis, Tenn.; San Antonio; and Scranton, Pa. He was with the San Antonio Missions in 1953 as well.
During his playing days he would spend winters at the University of Central Missouri and soon he began a post-baseball career in education thanks to his friend, superintendent Heber Hunt.
“He called me when I was playing semi-pro ball in Superior, Neb., and said he wanted me to teach,” Thomas said.
Thomas coached basketball at La Monte and Otterville. In 1962 he became the first principal of Heber Hunt Elementary, and he served as assistant superintendent from 1975-1986.
He still lives in Sedalia and even threw out a ceremonial first pitch on the first day of school at Heber Hunt this past fall.
Ralph “Stub” Dow
Thomas is going into the Hall of Fame alongside the man who was once his basketball coach, Stub Dow.
“I was about eighth grade or freshman and he had all the kids in there for basketball to see who could advance, and I was one of them,” Thomas said. “As a sophomore I was the sixth man on the team, sometimes started, and then junior and senior year we had some good ballclubs. We got beaten out the last game in 1946 but in 1947 we should have gone.”
Dow played football for the Tigers in the 1930s and went on to play at Warrensburg Normal, now the University of Central Missouri. After graduation he coached at Marceline before coming to Smith-Cotton.
“You always knew where you stood with Coach Dow,” said Charles Van Dyne, an end on some of Dow’s teams in the 1950s and the son of another Smith-Cotton Hall of Famer and former Missouri Tiger. “My sophomore year I was playing some defense and the previous game they had gotten around me a couple of times. He came out to the farm to have dinner with us one night. I was not looking forward to that. He started in on me and said ‘Your father used his hands and was tougher than you, and you’ve got to get tough.’ My mother and father never said a word to him. I guess I got tougher.”
As tough as Dow was, his players respected him. Van Dyne said most of the kids around town knew him and knew him to be fair.
“He was just a good coach,” Thomas said.
Dow’s football teams struggled in the first few years of his coaching tenure but soon found success, beating out teams from Jefferson City, Hickman and Columbia for a conference title in 1946 and winning two more in 1948 and 1949. In 1953 the Tigers won a fourth conference title in the new Jennie Jaynes Stadium, led by another Smith-Cotton Hall of Famer, Norris Kelley.
Two years later, Van Dyne, Kelley and Dow won another title, going unbeaten in conference play and 8-1 overall. Van Dyne said that team used a single-wing offense instead of the Split T Dow had used the year before.
After college, Van Dyne coached at Hickman with Bob Roark, who had been the Hickman coach when Smith-Cotton won the conference in 1955.
“Bob said to me one night you could always tell when Stub had a group he thought were really good football players, he always ran the single wing,” Van Dyne said.
Dow left coaching in 1960 following a heart attack, and died three years later.