It has been several months since the Board of Trustees with the Wharton Independent School District announced that the new edifice for housing sports events such as Tigers football and soccer would be called Eddie Joseph Memorial Stadium.
With the dedication ceremony having been held last week that was attended by Joseph’s family and friends, some of them Wharton High School alumni, it provided the final step in what has been a short 10-month process.
It started when voters approved a $59 million bond in November 2018 that paved the way for construction of a new sports complex that would replace 50-year old Tiger Stadium, and progressed through the naming process in the spring of what to call the new stadium.
When trustees voted unanimously in June to name the stadium after a legendary coach who still owns the best record for varsity football wins as the Tigers’ head sports man, many still wondered who Joseph was.
Many more didn’t attend school board meetings to follow through in the naming process that began publicly in April at the request of trustees. More citizens were confused or distraught with the naming and wondered who Joseph was and what he contributed to the Wharton sports program that included a post as an athletics director through three decades here from 1967-1981.
Those who were involved in the naming process such as district administrators knew of Joseph when the community came up with three other names. Trustees, some who were elected through their constituents, knew even more about Joseph, and respected the names that were submitted.
During a June special meeting, most trustees had strong opinions on why they voted for Joseph. Some trustees also had firm opinions about how other former or current Whartonians, whether they were nominated or not, also had contributed to their community.
At present, there is not a way in place to recognize or honor more of them across Wharton ISD, which is the reason trustees were engaged in a conversation about this.
Besides Joseph, the other people who were nominated were Greg Baines, Paul Kearney and retaining the name of Tiger Stadium.
In my humble opinion
“After looking at the different names and looking at the people, I knew Greg personally and I looked at the things that he did in the community, but I look at the stadium, and it doesn’t match up,” said Steven Roberts. “I supported him, I worked with him, but if he was here, he would say I should not have a stadium after me.”
Roberts said he weighed what Baines did versus what Joseph did in terms of athletics and felt the stadium should be named after a coach who had as much impact on athletics as Baines did on community.
Trustee Rachel Rust agreed with Roberts and said despite being solid nominees because of their contributions to Wharton, the criteria is what ultimately made up her mind. She said the other men didn’t spend time in a football field or a stadium with young athletes.
“I have a sense that there is an outcry from the public that there be a way to honor people who have some other way to say how do we celebrate folks who have made a contribution,” Rust said.
Almost a decade ago, Rust said she and trustee Christine Stransky had a conversation about Wharton having a “Hall of Honor” not just for athletics, but in other forms – business, educators, successful alumni.
Rust said it never “got off the ground” primarily because the idea was just that - an idea that didn’t receive support from the superintendent, high school principal and athletics director at that time. She said it started with just a private conversation between two women, she and Stranskly, who wanted to recognize Wharton residents of the past.
The naming process for the stadium has shed a new light, however. She suggested that a committee could be formed to solicit names of people and nominate up to five people annually.
“I have a book in my car about Lester Smith, a philanthropist who died recently and went to school here,” she said. “Someone needs to know that there is a person who walked these halls, dug in the same soil and dirt around here and made an amazing accomplishment, but we don’t have a way to honor them.”
Trustee Curtis Evans said he knew all three men who were nominated, including Joseph.
“I’m going to piggy back on what trustees Roberts and Rust said. There’s quite a few people from our community who deserve recognition,” Evans said.
He said one needs to be careful and be “specific with contributions” when it comes to nominating names for facilities or anything else. He acknowledged that there are facilities appropriately named after playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, who died in March 2009.
When Evans spoke about Joseph, his words expressed a man who went beyond what he did on the football field or in the gym or the halls of Wharton High School, but in the community during a time of civil unrest in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.
Said Evans: “One narrative that hasn’t been talked about, but I’m going to bring it up anyway. When you look at his accomplishments and you think he was only here 14 years, and then you ask yourself ‘why was that.’ He had a winning record. His record spoke for itself. His contract wasn’t renewed. He didn’t leave this community because he wanted to. You might want to ask yourself as a board, as an administration as a superintendent, why did he leave this community. He didn’t want to leave.
“Some of the people who spoke, spoke on the fact that during his time, the race relations were as they are or wished them to be.
“Coach Joseph pretty much didn’t look at color. He played people because of their athleticism and I think that may have led ... or was the reason why his contract wasn’t renewed.”
It was Evans’ opinion that “some individuals, not all” who wanted to leave the name Tiger Stadium were the same ones who had a hand in seeing his leave back in the early 1980s.
Trustees Sherrell Speer, Chris Sparks provided their opinions during the meeting, too. Most trustees said they would be open to beginning dialogue regarding name recognition at facilities.