John Shearer: Howard Grad And Former Softball Star Dank Hawkins Enjoying Parks Work

  • Wednesday, May 15, 2024
  • John Shearer
Dank Hawkins Jr. at Jefferson Park
Dank Hawkins Jr. at Jefferson Park
photo by John Shearer

As Dillard “Dank” Hawkins sat at a table under the pavilion at Jefferson Park near Main Street enjoying a sandwich during a lunch break recently, he was surrounded by parkland and new housing built in recent years.

He was also surrounded by memories, but not of the new scenery. He lived at 1611 Madison St. a short walk away, and the city park was once the site of the historically black William J. Davenport Elementary he attended beginning in the 1960s.

Despite the fact both his school and old home have been torn down, he still felt a sense of pride and aura in being there. “Everything started right here. These are my roots,” he said, adding that the connection continues into the present and future, as his extended family also has a reunion there the last Saturday of July every year.

Mr. Hawkins -- known for his upbeat and amicable manner -- would go on to play basketball under coach Henry Bowles at Howard when it had one of the top programs in the state. After graduating in 1976, he would later work with the city parks department for three-plus decades overseeing the Eastdale Recreation Center before retiring and later taking on his current job leading recreation and community outreach for the county parks department.

He has also been asked to serve on the new Chattanooga Parks & Outdoors Advisory Committee, and he recently found out he is being inducted into the USA Softball of Tennessee Hall of Fame on June 15.

Life has been good in many ways for this man able to find his way after being born as a black person in the then-segregated Chattanooga of the 1950s. He credits family and his extended neighborhood adults and school coaches and others for bringing him up the right way.

“The parents and extended family and even people in the neighborhood would discipline you if they knew you,” he said of those early years.

His father, Dillard Sr., had graduated from Howard High in 1958 and worked for years for TVA at the Edney Building and was married to Mr. Hawkins’ mother, Yvonne, for 50 years. Dank said he was told his father had been a good student and was smart, and he tried to be a good student as well and be a good mentor for three brothers under him.

There have, however, been a few small moments of adversity, like when his younger brother, Fernandos, was shot and killed as an innocent bystander in June 1995 during a time in which some growing crime problems in Chattanooga were starting to occur. “It opened up about the gangs,” he said. “It opened the eyes around here.”

It also emotionally affected Dank’s son, Danko, who was a blossoming athlete at Brainerd High and UTC football signee before later entering the military and becoming a successful father, he said.

I had received an email from Mr. Hawkins after I wrote about noted singer Usher’s father, the late Usher Raymond III, and his and others’ experiences playing basketball for Howard in the early 1970s at a time when both it and Riverside had great programs. He said he could connect me to one or two of the people I referenced, and he also offered to give me some of his own memories of playing at Howard at that time.

And while we were at it, he told me much of his life story, including where the Davenport school and sports fields sat a few steps east of where we were sitting under the park pavilion.

“You could leave here and walk home in 30 seconds,” he said. “We had some fabulous teachers.” One he remembers fondly is Evelyn Lovelady, who attended church with him at Second Missionary Baptist.

He said the first principal was John P. Franklin, later a city commissioner, and he was followed by C.B. Robinson, who went on to become a pioneering black state representative from Chattanooga. “He was a disciplinarian, stern but fair,” Mr. Hawkins remembered of Mr. Robinson.

Mr. Hawkins also spent time at the nearby Wesley Center for area youth. It was later closed after it merged with the Bethlehem Community Center, but the old gym remains off Main Street. He still remembers the wooden floors on the gym and the old clocks on the wall.

As his own internal clock moved from child to teenager, he also remembers being mentored by such older athletes as Jerome Jackson, Alfonzo Simpson, and Jimmy Allen. That was part of the whole community or village upbringing in those days that he referenced.

At Howard Junior High, which was located by Howard High, basketball was his first love, although he played other sports. He remembers during his ninth-grade year, his team under coach Larry “Chili” Miles won the post-season city junior high basketball tournament after finishing third behind Alton Park and Hardy.

They managed to do that and beat both teams ahead of them at Notre Dame after Lorenzo “Jabbar” White was hurt in the semifinal game again Alton Park. Mr. Hawkins recalled that he made all-tournament and teammate Rick Stewart was the MVP.

Starting in his 10th grade year, he initially played B-team basketball, but was moved up to the varsity later that year under coach Bowles. “He came to me in the 10th grade and said that, from that point on, he wanted me to be his point guard,” he said.

That continued over the next two-plus years, with Mr. Hawkins also being known for his defensive skills. “I was the best defensive player,” he said with pride, adding that he remembers one time holding noted McCallie shooter Steve Mallonee to only five points. Mr. Hawkins in high school managed to play big despite being only about 5-foot-7 or 5-8 and weighing only 145 pounds.

He remembered that they had some great games against archrival Riverside, the other historically black high school in Chattanooga at the time, with the games played at larger facilities like UTC’s Maclellan Gymnasium or Memorial Auditorium to handle larger crowds.

“If you didn’t get a ticket early, you might as well have gone home,” he said, adding that he can still remember the smell of the chlorine in the indoor pool in the Maclellan Gymnasium complex.

They would always play the first game in the rivalry right after New Year’s, and he remembered that Riverside beat them in that game when Darrell “Big Apple” Brown hit a game-winning shot. Other Riverside players on that team were Ed Odom, Sylvester Ware, Clarence Smith, and Jerry Parks, while his Howard teammates were Cornell Williams, Houston Scruggs, Robert Hudson, and Ernest Gilbert, among others.

The Hustlin’ Tigers came back to beat Riverside in the second regular season game, but lost in the region championship in 1976, he said. Both teams made the eight-team Class AAA state tournament, but Howard lost to eventual state champion Nashville McGavock in the first round at MTSU’s Murphy Center, while Riverside reached the semi-finals.

Mr. Hawkins said that both Howard and Riverside players got along well for the most part and would actually travel and stay together when they would play similar opponents on the road during the regular season. That, of course, would not be the case if both made the state tournament.

“The Howard and Riverside guys commanded respect and showed love and respect for each other,” he said.

Helping keep the players in line on and off the court was coach Bowles, he added. Mr. Hawkins remembered that the coach was both a good strategist and worked to get the emotional respect of the players, too.

“We practiced the way we played in the game,” he said. “Coach Bowles was in your face. I never frowned or talked back to him.”

Mr. Hawkins was such a follower of coach Bowles as his coach on the floor as a point guard that he would sometimes get teased by his teammates. “The guys always thought he was my daddy. Whatever he told me to do, I did,” he remembered with a laugh.

After coach Bowles died in 2017, Mr. Hawkins was one of the speakers at his funeral at First Baptist Church on East Eighth Street. He remembered that after he spoke, he got ready to sit down and found himself saying a Howard chant that they had said for motivation when he was in school.

It went something like: “Gonna fight till we can’t fight no more. Lay down, bleed awhile, get up and fight some more. All for one, one for all. All for the Tigers.”

Mr. Hawkins said that brought appreciation from those in attendance. Actually, he was described as blowing the roof off the building by then-Times Free Press sports columnist Mark Wiedmer in a story.

“If I had a second life, I would have played under him again,” Mr. Hawkins added in summing up his appreciation for his old coach.

After Howard, Mr. Hawkins ended up signing to play basketball for Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Al. After just going through practices there, he later came back and played two years with Edmondson Business College. One of his Edmondson coaches was Walt Lauter, who had once made “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” for successfully playing basketball with one leg.

Beginning in 1978, he went to work for TVA after a recommendation from his former junior high principal, Willis P. Vaughn. Mr. Hawkins said that was one of several instances in his life where someone else unexpectedly helped him, adding, “You never know whose looking out for you.”

He worked there for six years and went on to work for the city of Chattanooga parks and recreation department from 1988-2019. During a good part of that time, he worked with the Eastdale Recreation Center. One youngster who came there and whom he would let practice his music there after hours with a group called Nu Beginning was Usher Raymond IV, better known as the world-famous Usher.

He still remembers that Usher’s talents were noticeable then. “Usher started singing and there was no shyness,” he recalled, saying he went to Dalewood Middle School with Mr. Hawkins’ son. “You could see at a young age that he was going to flourish.”

Usher’s late father, Usher “Urkie” Raymond III, was three years ahead of Mr. Hawkins, and Mr. Hawkins remembers him as well. “He was about 6-3 and he was a good player,” he remembered. “I brought him to my family reunion years ago.”

Mr. Hawkins thinks Usher got at least some of his singing talent from his father, because he remembers the elder Raymond singing in the halls and being in talent shows back at Howard.

After retiring from the city and doing some other work, Mr. Hawkins was recruited for his current county job.

Amid all his career work and activities, Mr. Hawkins’ most notable accomplishments might have come as a softball player. He said he started playing more seriously at age 18 in a recreation league at Alton Park near the Emma Wheeler Homes on Saturdays and Sundays.

He was then recruited to play with Westside Athletic Club under sponsor Fred Dumas and with such older teammates as Riley Walker, Alvin Styles and Jim Crutch. He later played for such teams as the Westside Stars – a merger of his old Westside team and another one -- and Barnes-Rhodes. His teammate on the latter was Charlie White, the father of future NFL star Reggie White.

“Barnes-Rhodes was where I really took off,” he said. “That was bigtime softball.”

Over the course of his career, he became a five-time all-American, including a North American Sports Federation (NASF) all-American in 1997. Other all-American years included 1984, 1988, 1989 and 1996. He also got to do plenty of traveling, including for a national tournament in Cleveland, Oh., in 1988.

He was inducted into the Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame in 2004 for all his accomplishments and, as mentioned, will be inducted into the USA Softball of Tennessee Hall of Fame this June in Lebanon, Tn.

During his playing years, he could giveth as well as taketh away, as he was a skilled shortstop in the field who was also good with the bat getting hits and home runs, and he could run. He said matter of factly but in an ingratiating way that he saw a lot of other good softball shortstops but none he felt could field any better than he could.

Who knows what he could have done in baseball by possibly reaching the pros if he had concentrated on that instead.

He is also as equally confident that he was raised right and feels a sense of pride now as an older family man with seven grandchildren, several of whom are now attending popular schools or getting college degrees. Their accomplishments were not quite as easy to achieve while he was growing up due to more limited opportunities or resources for people of color.

As he highlighted some of his grandchildren, he enthusiastically said, “I am very proud of my two youngest grandchildren, Spencer at Baylor, and Michael the 3rd at CSAS. And my oldest grandson, Dillard IV, 23 years old, just graduated UTC last Saturday, May 4, with a B.S. in electrical engineering and has received a job offer with the engineering firm, Sargent & Lundy, in downtown Chattanooga. And my oldest granddaughter, Dillard’s sister, is graduating next May 2025 with a B.S. in biology from UTC.”

Like those before him were to him, he is now trying to be the positive mentor to those younger ones, once again becoming a proverbial point guard.

“Statistics say it’s slim and none for most African-Americans with all that’s going on in the world and our city, but hope is attainable if our young African-American people just stay focused. I am beyond blessed as a proud granddaddy of my grandchildren in Tennessee and Georgia,” he added.

Regarding ways to improve society in this era when many people do not have the family or even neighborhood structure he was blessed with when growing up, he said, “Treat people right and help those in need. That’s what the Good Lord wants us to do.”

Mr. Hawkins, who still does 80 to 100 pushups every morning and works out in other ways and still has strong-looking arms from his softball days, has tried to stay strong emotionally as well. That has been helped by his strong Christian faith, he said.

As a result, he has accumulated only a few regrets but plenty of positive life lessons along the way.

“I’ve had a good life,” he said. “I believe in God and dedication and hard work.”

* * *

Dank Hawkins Jr. at Jefferson Park
Dank Hawkins Jr. at Jefferson Park
photo by John Shearer
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