Charles Kettering, an American inventor and philanthropist, once said, "Nothing ever built arose to touch the skies unless some man dreamed that it should, some man believed that it could and some man will that it must."
The Gainesville Kiwanis Club surely used those words to help them choose their 2008 Youth Service Award winner, Phil Niekro.
For many of us, Niekro is a hero because of what he did on the baseball field. "Knucksie," as he became known, was a fixture for the Atlanta Braves, where he played all but six seasons of his 24-year major-league career. Perhaps only Hank Aaron is a better known Brave.
Niekro won 318 games in the big leagues, including a major-league record 121 wins after he turned 40. He was selected to the All-Star team five times and he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.
What many people don’t realize is what Knucksie did after he retired from baseball. The Flowery Branch resident has become extremely active in the community, especially in areas that involve young people.
One of his favorite charities is the Edmondson-Telford Center for Children, through which more than 1,200 children and their families have received services. More than 500 interviews of sexually abused victims have been coordinated through law enforcement and other social service agencies.
Not long after Niekro retired, he was recruited to play in the center’s annual fundraising golf tournament, and a bond was formed. Today, the tournament bears his name, and it has raised more than $650,000 to benefit the center.
He is also dedicated to helping raise money to build a new facility to house the center and another child-service agency, the Hall-Dawson County Court Appointed Special Advocates.
But Niekro is more than a figurehead who merely lends his name to the cause. He works tirelessly to put on the golf tournament by lining up the courses and recruiting his friends from the ranks of pro athletes to play. Last fall, he even drove the backhoe that was used to demolish the center’s old building.
Another of Niekro’s passions is the "Field of Dreams," a project designed to serve the needs of children who are physically handicapped and confined to wheelchairs or other devices.
He obviously has a passion for baseball, and now he’s using that passion to engage children who are limited in their ability to play the game. When completed, the "Field of Dreams" will allow children the chance to play baseball on a rubberized surface that will cover the entire field.
The Kiwanis Youth Service Award is the highest honor the club bestows, recognizing someone in the community who has given extensively of their time and resources for the betterment of our children.
In an age of self-centered, egotistical pro athletes, Niekro stands as the kind of athlete we want our children to look up to. Never one to showboat on the mound, Niekro likewise likes to toil in anonymity in his community service work.
It’s nice, though, that he’s being recognized for his efforts. Our community is better off because he’s here.