FORT WAYNE – Its summer in the city for Fort Waynes kids again, and the forecast is exactly the same as it has been for the past several years: Intermittent baseball, sprinkled with golf, tennis and swimming.
Some schools are out, and so are the kids. Its the special time of year when the city extends its arms to its youth and embraces its future.
By now, the stories of two Fort Wayne summer traditions have been often told and well-chronicled.
Of how the Wildcat Baseball League began 52 years ago under the premise and promise that everybody plays.
Of how the Lifetime Sports Academy at McMillen Park began giving free golf, tennis and swimming lessons to the kids. And if the program owns its own motto, its come as often as you like and stay as long as you wish.
We have kids that have come back every year for a number of years, said Perry Ehrsman of the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department and director of the Lifetime Sports Academy. Just the fact that they can get hundreds of dollars of free lessons in a seven-week period is huge for the community. We have participants from all over the community, and even outside of Fort Wayne.
Its been huge to get kids started in those disciplines, and now were 15 years old, and to watch some of those kids play high school and college tennis and golf and then on swim teams, the community has benefited tenfold since we started 15 years ago. Some kids could have afforded to do it on their own, but many could not have.
The usage of the word lifetime is taken in a literal sense; that children who are introduced to and learn the basics of golf, tennis and swimming can participate in the events the rest of their lives.
It all began with the vision of the late Tom Jehl, who got loads of help from Jerry Fox and Doug McKibben. And to steal and paraphrase from a great movie line, build it, and they will come.
This year it could be around 1,800, which would push the 15-year total around the 20,000 mark.
A lot of cities have contacted us over the years and inquired about how we do things and how we managed to get this program off the ground, Ehrsman said. Obviously its because of some key people – Tom Jehl and Jerry Fox and Doug McKibben, who set the base and raised the money to get this thing off the ground.
I dont know of any other city that has actually packaged the number of sports in the one program that we have.
The same thing has been often said of the Wildcat League; that other towns have tried to plant similar seeds, but for some reason or another, they never took root the way the Wildcat League took off in the 1960s.
This year 3,000 more Wildcatters across 11 sites, in their T-shirts and red and blue caps, will take their swings and take the field.
The original philosophy to last for 52 years – everybody plays – I think were the first program that started that, league vice president Jack Massucci said.
By now, everybody knows the story, Massucci said.
Its the story of how Central Soya founder Dale W. McMillen Sr. saw two sad boys who were walking away from a baseball diamond and asked them what was wrong. When they told him that they got cut from their Little League tryouts, McMillen recognized the travesty that kids couldnt play baseball during the summer and formed a league in which everybody can play.
In 1961, a Fort Wayne institution was born.
Years later, another would follow. All for the kids.