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Celebrities gather in Helen for a good cause
United Way of White County holding celebrity golf tournament today
Former Baltimore Colts center Jim Nemeth and wife Diane, center, chat with Deborah Pender as they arrive at the Best Western in Helen Monday afternoon in preparation for Tuesday’s United Way of White County’s 2010 celebrity golf tournament.
HELEN — Eight years ago, former Major League Baseball player Darrel Chaney was asked to help raise money for the United Way of White County by playing in a golf tournament.

The group wanted a celebrity draw, and Chaney — the former chairman of the MLB Alumni Association who’d appeared in three world series and won one with the Cincinnati Reds in 1975 — provided that.

But for Chaney, there was one problem.

“I didn’t think I could raise more money (for the United Way),” he said. “My thoughts were, ‘Who’s going to want to play with me?’

“I was a player, but I wasn’t a marquee player. Nobody knew me.”

Chaney was wrong. Bill Thomas of Smile Science, Inc., in Cleveland knew him and paid $800 to spend time with him on the links.

“We (he and Bill) started talking about the third or fourth hole and I said, ‘Well, I have friends I played ball with and the MLB alumni does arrangements with the NFL alumni.’” Chaney said. “So we decided to pool our resources and start having a celebrity golf tournament for the United Way of White County.”

What’s come of that conversation on the third or fourth hole is the United Way of White County’s biggest annual fundraiser.

One-third of the money allocated to agencies annually by the organization is raised by the United Way of White County
Celebrity Golf Tournament which will begin at 8 a.m. today at Innsbruck Golf Club in Helen.

“Darrel’s contacts took us to another level,” said Bill Sutton Jr., who along with Chaney, co-chairs the committee responsible for the United Way of White County Celebrity Golf Tournament.

“This tournament is huge for us.”

Among the 40 celebrities participating in the event this year are Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro, former MLB catcher Javier Lopez, former NFL and MLB standout Brian Jordan and former NFL wide receiver Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson.

Dr. Mel Pender, who won a gold medal as a sprinter in the 1964 Olympics, is participating in the event for the fourth time and he isn’t the only returnee.

According to Chaney, he turns celebrities away every year and there’s a waiting list of former MLB, NFL and Olympic athletes hoping to get in next year.

“The people here are unbelievable,” Pender said. “The entertainment, the camraderie is great.

“These are real people putting on this event and living in this town and the way we’re treated is an indication of what America’s supposed to be about.”

Jason White, who is currently eighth in the point standings for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, echoed Pender’s sentiments.

“We love coming here for the United Way tournament,” he said. “It’s fun, but it’s also a way to give back.

“If you’re successful in life, you have a responsibility to give back.”

White, who won the pole in his series’ race in Daytona and finished fourth, drives for, which also serves as a sponsor for the tournament.

“I’m a firm believer in giving back,” said Steve Urvan, who developed in 1999 and resides in Helen. “I’ve been blessed in my life and believe that blessing others is as important.

“We do a fair amount of celebrity golf tournaments, but no place else is a two-day affair, and there isn’t another tournament where the people participating want to come before the actual tournament and want to stay after the tournament.”

There’s also something for the significant others of the men participating.

Judy Walker, President of the Helen Chamber of Commerce, takes the women companions on a wine tasting the day of the tournament and to lunch at a local restaurant.

“I like the fact that they do things for us,” said Debbie Pender, wife of the former Olympic golf medalist. “I’m from a small town so I’m kin to the surroundings here and that’s why I love coming each and every year.”

The locals have also embraced the event, as evidenced by local philanthropist and owner of Parker Traffic Marking, Donnie Parker, walking into the Best Western on Monday and handing Sutton a check that covered the cost of the post-tournament dinner at Unicoi State Park and Lodge Masters Hall.

“The people around here give significant amounts of money and volunteer beyond belief,” Sutton said. “People like Roger Erickson, who is a local celebrity, have supported our efforts from the beginning.”

Erickson, who will also be participating in this year’s tournament, was a pitcher with the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees from 1978-1983.

The festivities surrounding this year’s golf tournament kicked off Monday.

The participants filtered into the Best Western Riverpark Inn — where they stay for free during the two-day event — throughout the afternoon for an autograph signing session and refreshments before moving to Bigg Daddy’s American Tavern & Music Club for a pre-tournament party.

“Jeff Zerby (owner of Bigg Daddy’s) feeds the celebrities for free,” Sutton said. “Then (tonight), the Unicoi Lodge will feed everybody and we’ll have a silent auction and live entertainment by a band called Open Road.

“The Innsbruck, along with Jeff (Zerby), the Best Western and Unicoi have been invaluable assets to us.”

Tickets for tonight’s 2010 Celebrity Golf Tournament Awards Dinner at Unicoi state Park and Lodge Masters Hall are still available for $40 per person. The event begins at 6 p.m.

“We’re very blessed to be able to have this event,” Sutton said.
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