Former Alma coach David Hale was truly a 'gentle giant'
I stopped in my tracks the first time I met David Hale; this giant presence and enormous hand reached out during August of 1999 as I'm trying to make sense of my surroundings in a state I knew nothing about.
I was new to Arkansas; I knew zilch about Alma’s football program. I had soared through some old 1980s media guides (Arkansas, SMU, TCU, Texas Tech) … I couldn’t find a single former Airedale in any of them.
"Hello, I'm coach Hale."
Oh, this is the toughness my boss (Chip Souza) was telling me about. Now I get it.
Veteran sportswriter Leland Barclay, who I came to know and admire that first fall, grew up in Crawford County and, after college and settling in at Hiram Walker, where he's worked for four decades, Barclay and Hale played a lot of softball together.
"I remember one time we were playing a tournament at Hank Hayes Field," Barclay said. "It's a baseball field down by the Boys Club; the high school used to play there before they moved to the Field of Dreams.
"It's a legitimate baseball field, not a softball field. But we played wherever we could."
That night, as summer sounds engulfed the complex (crickets, children playing cup ball in the background), the sun long ago giving way to the moon, Hale sent a pitch soaring toward the heavens.
To be fair, it wasn't as if David Hale got on base every time he batted. He had his occasional 0-for-3 three efforts, too, Barclay said.
That night, he squared one up.
"We were playing a night game; this was the heat of the summer late at night," Barclay said. "He hit a ball that really and truly disappeared into the night. We didn't know how far it went."
The ball finally came to a stop on a nearby golf course.
"I think it was one of his kids, actually, who brought the ball back to the dugout and said that they had found it on the green at the golf course — over this little creek beyond the left field fence," Barclay said. "It landed on the golf course."
There are other stories, of course. Too many to compile into this column.
"We were at a tournament in Russellville one time and it was storming really bad. This was long before cell phones and the Internet," Barclay said. "David was soft-spoken with a baritone voice. The tournament director said they're reporting hail coming in from the west.
"David's standing there and he said, 'Well, I'm already here.' We all just started laughing."
Hale passed last week. He was just 66 years old. He'd spent more than half his life — thirty-four years, to be exact — coaching in the Alma school system.
“Loyal would be a word that would follow his name," former Alma grad and current Van Buren assistant coach Kevin Ross said. "Put him on a task and he would do his best to have his guys ready to the best of their ability, whether it was his immaculate defensive lineman technique, coaching the shot and discus guys, or making sure a guy was getting parallel on squats."
A 1982 Alma grad, Ross later coached with Hale at Alma High School.
"I never heard a complaint or a bad word about anyone come out of his mouth," Ross said. "(He) wasn't much on technology. When we switched over to computers for grades and attendance, that was a real challenge for Dave — pretty much to the point where we (other teachers) just said that we would take care of it. But eventually, he kind of got the hang of it.
"He was accountable, even after he shattered his tibial plateau at the Southside scrimmage (2000). He was back on the sideline coaching as soon as he could."
Big Dave could also rattle a few walls, remembers longtime Alma coach Tom McMurray.
"We went to a track coaching clinic in Fort Worth one time," McMurray said. "We all went to sleep, except none of us could sleep because of his snoring. After an hour, I said to Lenn (Hall), 'Can you sleep through this?' Lenn said, 'No, I can't!' "
After a pause, the coaches heard someone from the next room over get into the conversation — coaches from another school, no less. "We can't sleep, either," someone said through the paper-thin walls.
"If there was ever such a thing as gentle giant, David Hale was it," added Barclay. "He was truly a tremendous person."
“Dave was Dave; he was old-school and I miss that style in this day and age,” Ross added. “If he didn't like something or had something to say he would let you know. There was no gray area with him, and I appreciated that.”
Ross and a number of their coaching comrades reminisced over Hale this week.
“Like I said, where do you really start, there's not enough time or space in an article to give him justice,” he said. “I have been blessed to be able to call him my friend and a colleague for over 35 years and I'm going to miss him very much.”
If there is a Heaven, David Hale is there without pain; no more knee soreness!
Thanks for everything, Big Dave.
Kevin Taylor is a former sportswriter for the Times Record.