There are many heroes walking among us. Sometimes we know them, but many times we don’t. And even if we know their names, we may not realize why they are heroes and how our community is better because of them.
A man named Johnny Presley is one of those heroes. For 29 years — from 1984 until this year — Presley has been a steady hand first on the city recreation commission, then on the board of the county recreation commission.
He was appointed by then-Mayor Bill Dobbs to the city recreation commission.
In 1995, the city began a five-year phase out from recreational programs to the county, and Presley continued to serve on the county’s recreation commission as the appointee of successive county Board of Commissioners’ chairs.
Always vice chair, Presley was elected chair in 2005 and was intent on completing 30 years of service at the end of this year.
A business career in the financial industry gave Presley critically needed experience in managing the recreation budget.
Never was it more in demand than during budget cuts the Newton County Recreation Commission took the past few years due to the economic downturn. The county has cut the recreation budget by $200,000 since 2005 while the department added four new facilities to serve an exploding county population and managed to avoid layoffs.
Presley was integrally involved in the tough decisions the situation required, said Tommy Hailey, executive director of the Newton County Recreation Commission.
Hailey knew Presley well as a local softball player — a pitcher — long before he was hired to run the recreation commission in 1984. Presley, born and raised in Newton County, played baseball and a little basketball at Newton County High School where he graduated in 1958. He joined the Army that year and spent 2.5 years in Augsburg, Germany, continuing to play baseball while attached to an ordnance battalion. When he came home from the army, he still played softball in church leagues until the age of 62 when he noticed his reflexes and eyesight weren’t what they once were, he recalled to me.
Presley is a true believer in the power of sports and recreational programs to transform the lives of children and thereby their parents and a community. “If you get the kids out of the house, their parents will follow. Recreation is the key to great kids and great communities,” he said. “It touches all facets of a community and is at the top of the list of what makes a community great. It definitely has a role to play in economic development because it’s one of the things that make people want to come here and live.”
In speaking of the under-construction Miracle Field, Presley said it will be “the greatest thing this county has ever had.”
It will be far more than a ball field for special needs children and their parents, but it will also draw crowds of other youths and adults there as volunteers, coaches and player assistants, he said.
He also predicts the facility’s potential to provide an entire outdoor experience. “I can see it hosting movies on the green and concerts, for example.”
Tamara Richardson, fundraising consultant for the Miracle Field, said the task of raising the money to build the complex seemed daunting in the beginning, but Presley as recreation chair was never anything but positive all the way.
“He knew we could do it,” she said. “Next to Tommy Hailey, Johnny’s been the number one cheerleader for the Miracle Field. Besides that, he’s just one of the great Southern gentlemen. He has a passion for recreation.”
Presley agrees with national statistics that show Newton County is recreationally underserved for its population.
He’s bold to say he’d have raised the millage rate to continue to expand options in the county.
“If I had my way, there’d be parks everywhere and green space and trails connecting every place to every other place.”
He’d like to see the county offer programs like aquatics and disc golf in the future. He holds nothing back in praising Tommy Hailey’s vision for expanding recreational options in Newton County to date.
Presley had hoped to remain as recreation commission chair to see the Miracle Field completed by the end of the year, but it is not to be.
However, in January, District 5 Board of Commissioners member Levie Maddox called at the behest of Chairman Keith Ellis to inform Presley that he was being made “board member emeritus.” Danny Stone was elected chairman.
Presley will attend commission meetings as emeritus member.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She can be reached at email@example.com.