A true small-town hero

-A A +A
By Tommie Kendall

While sitting at his dining room table in June 2005, Larry Jeffries emerged from a back room with a small stack of papers that had listed some of his athletic achievements, along with a few old clippings from newspapers that had followed Jeffries during his young, more athletic days 40 years earlier.

Jeffries was a modest man — I learned fairly quickly — who enjoyed talking about his playing days but would rather give credit to others that he played with along the way. Most people in Henry County didn’t even know how good Jeffries eventually became when he left the county until his story circulated in the Local a month after our interview at his home. The newspaper clippings filled with headlines and stories don’t lie — Jeffries was a true small-town hero that grew up in Henry County, traveled all across the country and returned back to his home town years later.

I know I’m a few weeks late — partially because of my work schedule and partially because I just recently found out the news — but I want to use this column to remember Larry Jeffries, who was one of the best athletes Henry County has ever produced. His story started on a Henry County farm during the 1930s, and ended Nov. 7 when he passed away at the age of 74.

Jeffries’ athletic achievements can be traced back to Sulphur and Henry Central high schools during the 1940s and 1950s when he was a star player on the basketball court, baseball diamond and softball field. Jeffries later played basketball and baseball at Transylvania University and then for the U.S. Army. He moved back to Henry County in the 1960s to teach and coach before retiring to become a farmer.

I was privileged enough to first meet Jeffries during that 2005 interview when I was prepping for my summer series, “Henry County’s Greatest Athletes.” I didn’t know too many people in the community at the time, and was shocked to hear all the stories of the past athletes. From Jim Green to Johnny Marcum, to Mount Sleets, there were some great ones. Larry Jeffries — who was a standout high school athlete but really stood out when he left the county — was in the mix as one of the best.

Larry’s younger sister, Willa Paget, wrote a letter to the Local nominating Larry for one of the elusive top-10 spots in the series that would run during a 10-week period in the summer of 2005. I will have to say his resume was impressive. When I finally interviewed Larry in his home five months after I received the letter, and when the series rolled around, he was No. 8 on the list, which also included Green, Marcum, Sleets, Buddy Berry, Wendell Gividen, Eric Bachelor, Steve Olsen, Keith Blackburn and Jadie Frazier. Larry was humble, but it was hard to hide the fact of how good he really was as the story of his past unraveled.

Larry, the oldest of six children, started playing sports at a young age. In the eighth grade, he was moved up to the Sulphur High School basketball team. Before Jeffries’ junior year, Sulphur consolidated with New Castle High School to form Henry Central. By that time, Jeffries had already started to make a name for himself on the local scene.

“My dad did not like sports because it took away from farm work. But that is why I liked it. It gave me a break from work,”Jeffries told the Local in the 2005 interview. “Basketball was the king of all sports back then. It was the only sport they offered at my high schools.”

During high school, despite breaking his leg during his senior season, Jeffries was named to the North Central Kentucky Conference Team twice, the 8th Region Team, the All-State Honorable-Mention Team and played in the first-ever East-West All-Star Game for the best high school players in Kentucky.

Besides basketball — the glory athletic event — Jeffries was a standout on the softball field, which was his “greatest love of all sports.”

During his younger days in Henry County, he was a star pitcher on numerous fastpitch teams around the area. Also, on the baseball field he was a pitcher for the American Legion team based out of Shelbyville.

After high school, he received a basketball scholarship to play under C.M. Newton at Transylvania University. While there, he also was a walk-on on the baseball team — he was the squad’s top pitcher and broke the career record for the most wins. While playing basketball and baseball for Transy, Jeffries also continued to play softball in the Lexington City Softball League.

A couple of days after graduating from Transy, after a stellar collegiate career, Jeffries was on his way to basic training for the Army at Fort Leonard Wood. It didn’t take him too long to pick up where he left off in sports.

“We went out to the baseball field and a lieutenant got out of a jeep and walked over to me,” Jeffries recalled years later. “I didn’t know what was going on. Out of all the guys there, the lieutenant  walked over to me and another guy and said they were having a baseball game later that day and wanted to know if we would play.”

Jeffries accepted the invitation to play and never looked back. He went on to pitch in both baseball and softball for the Army at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. During this time, Jeffries won the Fort Sill Post Championship, finished fourth in the Army Championships in Texas and finished third in the All Army Championships. He was also named captain and played point guard for the Fort Bliss basketball team. In 1959, Jeffries and his team won the All Army Invitational Championships.

Late in 1959, Jeffries was named the athletic director at Paige Aircraft, Inc. in Oklahoma, where he led his team to a win in the Oklahoma Industrial League as the top pitcher.

In 1961, Jeffries was named the athletic director in El Paso, Texas, at a YMCA. During 1961-1965, he was a star pitcher for Union Furniture Company — they defeated the world champions, Dautrick Jacks — and was captain on the basketball team. He played basketball games in Mexico and throughout the southwest USA, where his games were televised each Sunday. He played against the Texas Western players a year before they defeated the University of Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA finals, and played against the Harlem Globetrotters in their heyday.

Jeffries eventually moved back to Henry County in the late 1960s to teach school and become a coach. He played softball in Lexington in the Kentucky City League and played for the Shelbyville Jets before he ended his playing days in 1971. He coached the Pleasureville seventh- and eighth-grade basketball teams in 1967-71, the Henry County Middle School team in 1971-73, the HCHS freshman team from 1974-75 and also coached the New Castle little league baseball team in 1969-71.

Jeffries, who emerged as one of the great athletes from Henry County, is a person the younger generation should look up to. What he did while in the county was only an appetizer for what he was able to accomplish later in the life. Then, he returned home and gave back.

Despite his accolades, he remained modest and humble. I last spoke with him about a year ago, and of course he had a smile on his face as he remembered days long ago.

Henry County has produced some great athletes over the years, but it has produced only one Larry Jeffries. And it’s a name that should live on.

Tommie Kendall can be reached at sports@hclocal.com.