Red in the center

By on February 27, 2019

If you can, try to think back to the first day you walked into elementary school.

You may have been holding your mother’s hand, or perhaps the teacher’s, but there’s a good chance you were wide-eyed and a bit overwhelmed. Depending if you went to nursery (what it was called then) school, this may have been your first exposure to a large group of fellow toddlers, so it would be quite instinctual to quickly scan the mass of faces as you enter the room.

I think it would also be understandable to lock in on any who had striking features…such as, perhaps, red hair. You may also quickly take note of those with the most outgoing personalities, biggest smiles, etc. At that ripe young age, you don’t really know what it means to be a leader or the person everyone gravitates to…but you see it happening just the same and in a matter of minutes, you want to be friends with that person.

This was my first experience with the absolutely unforgettable John Dull.

Though I had no known skills to acquire such a friend — having spent the majority of my first five years on earth hanging with litters of terrier puppies in our Akron basement — I plunged forward, evidently wiping off fears of rejection to see if I could enter the exclusive club that had formed around this particular redhead.

I don’t know exactly why I had the courage to jump right in and pursue this friendship, but that is where my Buster Browns led me.

Luckily what I discovered was something so many found out about Dully through the years — he was willing to be just about anyone’s friend, and the more the merrier when it came to the circle. He not only made me feel very welcome but also gave every indication, as he always did, that a whole lot of fun was about to unfold.

And thus, a lifetime friendship began. A friendship that was cut way too short when the call came about two weeks ago that Dully had passed in his Akron basement, just blocks from where it all began some 50 years ago.

I’ve talked many times about the wonderful childhood we had in Akron. Of course, more special than the town itself were the relationships we had with those who also called Akron home.There is no doubt in my mind that growing up in such a small but vibrant community contributed to how close we all became through the years. Those of us lucky enough to have a Main Street address, had ringside seats to a Mayberry-like world we wouldn’t have traded for anything. Indeed, the Dulls were just a handful of houses down from us, going toward “the new” fire station. That meant that within easy walking or biking distance, we had the old park, the new park, the outdoor basketball court at MCC, the elementary school property, Shop Rite, IGA, Turkey Hill, the Akron Sandwich Shop, and of course, dozens of backyards, porches and front doors that were always open.

Over the years, I can’t imagine the number of pick-up basketball, and sandlot baseball games, kick the can rounds, or other (relatively) harmless activities played out among us. The Dull backyard had a perfectly-sized whiffleball field, with a short walk to the left leading to the MCC property, while a quick jaunt to the south led to endless opportunities on the playgrounds and fields of good ole Akron El. Those who knew Dully understood that it really didn’t matter what we were playing, he was going to excel. As much as he could be the life of the party, …always laughing and always smiling….everyone knew he was one of the finest athletes in school. A rare three-sport athlete, he not only starred in soccer, basketball and baseball, he also owned ice hockey, golf, bowling, volleyball, and tennis. And oh yes, he even dominated on the playground, from four-square to knock hockey. That was just Dully. But I suppose what stood out was his mastery on the hardwood and macadam.

Dully was precisely what so many think is missing from today’s youth hoops — a gym and street rat who played the game so often, nearly every movement and action on the court came without hesitation and seemingly by instinct. He had a wonderful high school career but perhaps his true greatness came out when he (we) would take the show on the road for some pick-up hoops. Wearing his trademark sport goggles, Dully loved to challenge the city players. Once while battling on the courts of Wildwood, he showed some Philly players what the bespectacled Dutchman from Lancaster could do. Later that week, they would come by our hotel asking if (Kurt) “Rambis” (former NBA player who also wore goggles) wanted to play on one of their teams.

With Dully, leadership, prowess and an ability to take over a room went beyond the playing fields. In social settings — dances, concerts, sleepovers, long days at the playground and even kids’ bowling parties — everyone circled around Dully. At Senior Week, there he was as we pulled into the parking lot of the old Seabird in Wildwood, on the top balcony with the boom box cranking out “Roadhouse Blues” by the Doors. It was the ultimate welcome to Senior Week…by the guy most assumed was its chairman.

I could spend countless columns sharing Dully stories, but I prefer to talk about some other special memories.

Like the golf tourney where just he and I stayed out on the course long after everyone else was done and eating dinner. We hadn’t been able to spend as much time together as we once did, so that time on a perfect summer evening was just about perfect.

I also got to see what a proud dad he was when his son Austin followed in his footsteps playing Ephrata basketball years ago. For the guy who was usually in the center of it all, it was really neat just watching him sit quietly off to the side, enjoying his son on the court.

Then at a golf tourney or class reunion, he’d be the one everyone gravitated to once again. He could take over a room like no one I had ever seen.

Sadly and ironically, that continued last Tuesday at the Lincoln House when dozens and dozens showed up to pay tribute and remember our good friend. The stories flowed and roars of laughter choked away most tears…just as I’m sure he would want.

But once again, there was no doubting who was the biggest presence in the room.

Thanks for a lifetime of letting us in on the fun Dully — we’ll miss you pal.

 

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