Voters in basketball town not ready to replace gym

Monday, April 1, 2002

PINCKNEYVILLE, Ill. -- Gene Schumaier remembers the first time his hometown high school won the state basketball championship, in 1948. The town bought the coach, Duster Thomas, a new Packard to say thanks.

It also hired builders to dig a big hole in back of the school and put up the Duster Thomas Gymnasium, complete with cement bleachers surrounding a sunken, brightly lit basketball court.

"Basketball holds us together," said Schumaier, 75, as he sat on a top bleacher recently watching two young boys shoot baskets below.

The gym "is part of our heritage, it contributes to the whole town," he said.

Shot down 2-1

That's a big reason that Schumaier and other residents last month blocked a $3.7 million bond issue that would have helped pay for a new high school, complete with a multipurpose gym. A state grant would have paid for the rest of the $15 million price tag.

While voters up the road in DuQuoin OK'd a similar plan March 19, voters in this town of 3,000 turned out in the biggest numbers in years to defeat the measure 2-to-1.

School officials said the 71-year-old high school is too small for their needs and that Thomas Gym is impractical for anything other than basketball.

But all agree it's one of the best high school venues for any sport in Southern Illinois.

Fans pack the steep bleachers for most home games, sitting under 28 blue and white pennants hanging from the ceiling commemorating conference championships.

More banners hang from one end of the gym noting the years the team took second or third place in the state, and champion Panthers of the past stare down from team photos nearly the size of highway billboards.

"It's a great place to play basketball," said coach Richard Corn, who has led the Panthers for 27 years. "Even the referees seem to work a little harder when they're in there for a game," he said.

Schumaier and others saw the officials' efforts to build a new school as an assault on the town's heritage, which is closely tied to high school hoops and Thomas Gym.

Although there were other problems -- personal antipathy between some residents and school board members, for instance -- at the heart of the fight was the gym and what it means to Pinckneyville, people on both sides of the issue say.

"I think the gymnasium probably was the major factor" in the bond issue's defeat, said superintendent Sandi Jerrells, who led the effort to build.

"But our motto is 'Anchored in the past, anticipating the future,'" she said. Opponents "are more anchored in the past than anticipating the future."

Known for basketball

The town in Illinois is known across the state for its boys basketball program, which has won two additional state titles since 1948 and has more Class A regional championships than any other team.

Fans camp overnight for playoff tickets. The team's mascot, a panther, hangs on banners on the town square even in the off-season. And the neon Santa that stands in front of the courthouse has been known to hold a basketball.

"Everybody goes to the games," said Debbie Blair, 37, as she waited for her dinner at Kitten's cafe. "You have to park a mile away from the school," she said.

But the school building, which stands across a parking lot from Thomas Gym, was built before the Depression, when computers weren't part of the curriculum and the town had to educate fewer students than the 450 ninth- to 12th-graders of today.

Buckets hang from some classroom ceilings to catch leaks. Puddles form on the floor, in one case, perilously close to where computers plug into a power strip under a classroom table.

Jerrells said she once had to put a group of "at-risk" students in a big storage closet for a class until she found more suitable space elsewhere.

Even Coach Corn supported a new building. Corn said the gym isn't well suited for practice or physical education classes, when more court space is needed.

School officials could try to pass a bond issue again in November, but Jerrells said the defeat was so resounding the first time that renovating the existing buildings is more likely.

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