James Beach: Catherine Neely Was Chattanooga’s Finest Treasure

Wednesday, November 18, 2020 - by James Beach
The author, Hall of Fame sportswriter James Beach, left, and multiple Hall of Famer, Catherine Neely.
The author, Hall of Fame sportswriter James Beach, left, and multiple Hall of Famer, Catherine Neely.
- photo by Contributed

 One of the first things you see when you walked into Catherine Neely’s home is a framed collage of pictures. It is displayed prominently. You can’t miss it. In fact, it is meant to be seen. There is no need to inquire about it because smack dab in the very middle of the frame, typed in big bold letters, is its explanation:

HALLS OF

 FAME

CATHERINE

NEELY

 

That’s right: Halls, plural with an s.

And neatly surrounded around the bold proclamation are eight different pictures, each taken on very special nights in which Catherine Neely was deservingly honored for her 50 years of sports contributions into eight different Hall of Fames. I dare say there are maybe a handful of people nationally with eight such pictures of eight such honors. If any.

 

It is something you would expect to find on the wall of someone so distinguished. It is something I personally would probably have printed on my business card, something that might somehow find its way on a yard sign, or a billboard for that matter. Just outside my neighborhood, you know, so it would not be quite so obvious I put it up

 

That said it is not something I would expect on Catherine’s wall. Maybe tucked away in her closet, or gathering dust beneath her bed, but not on her wall. When East Ridge High School named its Gym after her, it had to be done in top secrecy as much to surprise her as to avoid her wrath. Catherine Neely was never ever about Catherine Neely in anything she did.

 

Of course, one of the things I always got away with when it came to Catherine was giving her a hard time. She had raised me during my formative sports reporting years in the early 80s and one of the things she taught me was an ability to stand my ground when it came to big bad coaches. And Catherine was the biggest, and the baddest. I swear when she got riled up, you could see the curls tighten on the prominent perm on top of her head.

 

The first thing out my mouth after seeing the print the first time was “so, that’s what a framed ego looks like.”

 

She immediately dropped that lower jaw, her eyes steeled up and the curls got a little tighter. I might as well have called one of her volleyball players in the net on match point.

 

“Do you really think that picture is about me? The things you can’t see in every one of those pictures at every one of those celebrations are all the kids who played for me. If I had a thousand losses instead of a thousand wins, they probably wouldn’t have even sold me a ticket to attend a Hall of Fame induction,” Catherine said, her voice rising just a little with each syllable.

 

“The thing you can’t see is the support I had from my administration to get the things done to build an athletic program my girls deserved. The things you can’t see are all the great coaches around this town who pushed me to be the best I could be and allowed me to work with them so all our kids would benefit. And finally, the thing you don’t see is the sacrifice and the love my family had for me to allow me those countless hours away from them,” she finally took a pause to breath before adding, “I put that picture up as a reminder of all those things because those are the things I see in the picture.”

 

And that, if you wanted to cram it in a nutshell, is Catherine Neely.

 

But to those in her life who she left behind early Wednesday morning after a lengthy battle with health issues, there will never be a nutshell to fit the legend of Mrs. Neely within. Chattanooga has a long proud history of outstanding female dignitaries. Ladies such Betty Probasco, Juanita Merrill, Grace Keith, Susan Thurman, Sue Bartlett and Peggy Thomas come to mind but with apologies to each no one had a more inspiring legacy than the 78-year run Catherine Neely put together. Catherine was this town’s greatest treasure.

 

Neely was equal parts advocate, coach, administrator and friend. It is hard to pigeon hole her into just one category when she did them all so well.

 

As an advocate, she probably had more influence on high school girls’ athletics than anyone in our state. Volleyball will always be synonymous with her name and it is hard to argue it was where she had her greatest impact. It was also her greatest passion.

 

When I was assigned high school volleyball as a beat back in 1981 for the Chattanooga Free Press I felt there probably wasn’t a lower rung on the ladder. Oh, how wrong I was.

 

Catherine and Juanita Merrill at Kirkman put their gracious arms around me and welcomed me like no other. As the years passed, I managed to climb more rungs on the ladder in my career. I witnessed Masters wins and Final Four tilts. I covered football bowls across the land from Sugar to Cotton and Fiesta and all the ones in between. I met sports personalities larger than life: Arnie and Jack; Bo and Barkley; Paterno and Majors; Elway and Marino; Mantle and DiMaggio.

 

None of what I did in this field over the last 40 years brought me as much joy as weeping with Catherine in the corner of the dressing room after she won her first state volleyball title in 1997.

 

And I have never seen a collection of peers more overjoyed for one of their own. The Lady Pioneers lost to a great Brentwood Academy in pool play in that state tournament and fought all the way back to the finals for what everyone assumed would be more of the same. Especially after Brentwood put a 15-3 first game trouncing on Neely’s bunch. But this was Catherine at her finest, and when her girls responded with a 16-14 win to force a winner-take-all finale, there was a buzz in the air.

 

I was as nervous as if  my own daughter was playing, but I was prepared to console Catherine just as I had many times, including in back-to-back championship losses in 1988 and 89, both of which I missed living in Knoxville covering the UT beat. Both were long phone conversations. Catherine was the ultimate class act, sportsmanship personified, but she hated to lose.

 

“The thing about Catherine is we are so much alike as competitors, but we always walked away best of friends afterwards. But the times I got the best of her, it was usually a day or two before she talked much,” laughed Susan Thurman recalling their rivalry when she headed up the great Red Bank program.

 

Catherine would bite my head off for saying this, but Brentwood was the better team in that ’97 field, but by the time the decisive game rolled around, everyone not wearing a Brentwood shirt was rooting hard for Catherine. Those who appreciated the moment realized the gravity of it.

Seven times she had brought a team to the state tournament and seven times she left not talking to folks for a couple of days.  

 

On this day, though, Catherine caught my eye to the side and as only she could do, looked at me and mouthed so no one could see: “We got this.” And between the energy inside the MTSU Arena and the sheer determination, East Ridge did indeed have it, winning one of the all-time great finales with a 19-17 victory for Catherine’s first of two state titles.

 

The number of appreciative well wishers was a testament to the appreciation for the lady former TSSAA executive director Ronnie Carter called “the queen of volleyball.”

 

“Everything that Catherine did was always bigger than her and bigger than East Ridge. It was always for the benefit of the sport and the girls who played it. She always knew how to work things to get it done. She would wander up to me or call me and it was always ‘Ronnie, I have an idea I want to throw you’ and the next thing I know it was done,” Carter said.

 

It was Neely along with Merrill who got the sport sanctioned in time for Merrill’s great Kirkman squads to reel off five straight titles beginning in 1976. It was Neely who got the field expanded beyond one division. It was Neely who got pool play incorporated into the event and later double-elimination brackets. Ideas Neely just happened to throw around. What began as one eight-team tournament in 1976, now has four championships and 32 teams total vying for them.

 

Neely won more volleyball matches than all but two people nationally with her 1,395 victories en route to becoming the winningest coach in the state of Tennessee. And as much as she loved winning games, she loved growing the game.

 

Thurman and her always travelled together with their teams and found themselves at the University of Florida for a camp in the 90s. With all the teams there, once matches began it was Red Bank from one bracket and East Ridge from the other making their way to a championship match.

 

“We spent all that money and travelled all that way only to wind up playing each other in the finals. That was the day, Catherine and I decided we could do that in our own backyard. We wound putting a plan in place to start a camp, and then it evolved into play days, and before long everyone was coming,” Thurman recalled.

 

“One year we had the state champion from Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina and all three Tennessee state champs at camp. People came because of Catherine. Her name carried that kind of weight across the South. She has done more for volleyball than anyone in the South. I was honored to call her my friend, and I loved her,” Thurman added.

 

As did just about everyone involved with the sport. With some people you meet them and it takes some time to form an opinion. With Catherine, you were never late to the party because she put you at ease. She was genuine. Even those she knew were there to compete with here, she was always confident enough to give away all her secrets.

 

“If there was a new coach in town, Catherine was the first to reach out to them to help them. She shared drills, and invited them in to watch her practice. Her influence wasn’t just on her own kids, it was on everybody’s kids,” said Thurman.

 

Connie Young, who was the architect behind four Bradley Central state titles, agreed.

 

“She did so much for all of us in the sport. I knew early on that if you were going to compete you had to compete with her, and if you could do that, then it didn’t matter if you won or loss, you won,” Young said. “In my opinion, she ranks right up there with Pat Summitt.”

 

The comparison to Summitt is an interesting parallel. Both were rising tides who brought everyone in their respective sports up with them, and Catherine absolutely loved the Lady Vols. And she didn’t sit at home watching them on TV.

 

One of the reasons our relationship prospered so was our connection with the Lady Vols. I must have covered hundreds of Lady Vol battles, and I can’t recall one where I didn’t look at the best seats in the house and spot Catherine and her sidekick Grace Keith. Friends used to make a game out of spotting the two on TV in their prime seats.

 

“It was like the guy wearing the rainbow wig with the John 3:16 sign. They were everywhere,” laughed Thurman.

 

Keith coached Catherine at Hixson in 1959 and the two formed an inseparable bond.

 

“I was her coach first, but as we grew older, she was my closest friend. I can’t imagine her not being here. She just paid for our season tickets and I picked them up yesterday. She made sure it was taken care of even being in the hospital. She was always thinking of other people first,” Keith said.

 

Over the years, Keith and Neely were my dinner mates at the Women’s Final Four. My wife’s friends used to tease her about me being out of town covering girls all over the country, and she would just laugh and say if you only they knew the company my husband keeps at these things.

 

Keith, who is a legend in her own right, having started the UTC basketball program, was constantly being mistaken for Catherine because of the similar hair styles.

 

“Folks called us Q-tips because of our white hair,” laughed Keith. “One time I was officiating a game and went to find a drink between matches. I was walking the back hallways and some kid hollered at me from a distance ‘hey, Mrs. Neely’ thinking I was Catherine. When he got closer he realized it wasn’t her and tried to apologize. I looked at him and told him it was the greatest compliment I had ever gotten.”

 

After retiring from coaching, Neely remained as the AD at East Ridge and got heavily involved with, what else, a Hall of Fame. She was President of the Greater Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame, and her skill set there was unmatched.

 

“Catherine had more knowledge than anyone on the board and if she said you were a Hall of Famer, you were a Hall of Famer,’ said former TV personality and fellow board member Darrell Patterson. “When you have a board of 20 something people, it can get contentious at times, but Catherine knew how to run a ship. It’s like Congress with so many different ideas and opinions, but Catherine’s organizational skills were unmatched. And she commanded respect.”

 

Over the past 14 months, Neely has been in the hospital more so than out of it. Back in February when the Hall of Fame inducted its last class, she checked out of the hospital the day of the event and was there in a wheel chair. I was part of that induction class, and I had been told she wouldn’t be there, but when I walked out, she was the first person I saw.

 

“You think some doctor is going to keep me away from this,” she smiled.

 

I felt like I belonged to her every bit as much as I belonged to my own mother, and having her there was the highlight of my evening. She was so many things to so many people, but Catherine Neely made me feel like I was the most special person in the room.

 

The most telling example of the kind of woman Catherine Neely was, though, is most evident in her only child Allen.  As much as Catherine has been in the hospital, her husband William has also been battling illness. He just recently got released from the hospital and Allen ferried his way between caring for his father and Catherine.

 

Back and forth. Day after day, all the time working his job.

 

That’s the kind of person only someone special could raise, and of the things Catherine Neely has done, it was her greatest accomplishment.

 

(James Beach can be reached at 1134james@gmail.com)

The late Catherine Neely was a member of multiple Halls of Fame.
The late Catherine Neely was a member of multiple Halls of Fame.
- photo by Contributed

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