YMCA coach’s legacy remembered

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 1, 2002

They were his boys.

Even today, more than 50 years later, the imprint he left on their lives remains indelible. Although they are now older themselves, they still speak of him in hushed, almost reverential tones. And always it is “Mister Grist,” never the more familiar “Paul.”

“We’d rather for the Lord to catch us doing something wrong than Mister Grist,” John Russell says, trying to explain the depth of their feeling for the man.

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Paul M. Grist was the longtime general secretary of the Selma branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association. He began his association with the YMCA in 1919 and retired in 1972.

MCA coach’s legacy remembered

oDuring those years he touched the lives of literally thousands of young men. Tuesday, on what would have been his 104th birthday, some of them will gather to pay tribute to the man they call simply “Mister Grist.” And to remember.

“The Y was our life,” Russell recalls.

“That’s right,” Philip “Buddy” Moss chimes in. “When you left school, you dropped off your books and headed straight for the Y.”

“He had some kind of organized sports going on all the time,” adds John Callaway.

But it was more than sports that drew the throngs of Selma’s young people to the YMCA each day. Grist had the uncanny ability to impart a sense of importance to each of his young charges. For many, he served as a surrogate father, someone who was there to help them to rise above the bumps and bruises along life’s road and to challenge them to give nothing less than their best.

“I feel like I was closer to him than anybody else in the world,” Moss says. “But everybody else here will tell you the same thing.”

“I lived next door to Mister Grist,” recalls Clint Wilkinson, “and he treated me just like a son. In fact, he called me his boy. He wasn’t afraid to take a paddle to me, either, if I needed it.”

An eager Russell jumps in.

“I remember once I got into a shouting and shoving match with this other boy,” he says. “Mister Grist separated us, then he took me aside. He said, ‘Johnny, I’m surprised at you. This is the YMCA. We’re here to set a Christian example. There’s something you’re forgetting. That boy you’re fighting with hasn’t had all the advantages in life that you’ve had.’

“Well,” Russell says, holding up a thumb and forefinger, “I felt like I was about this high. But Mister Grist had a way of leveling everybody. Some of the boys couldn’t afford a membership, but that never made any difference to him. If you could pay for your membership, that was fine. If you couldn’t pay, that was fine, too. You still had a membership. He would personally solicit businesses to see that all his boys had memberships. He never turned anybody away because they couldn’t pay.”

The community responded readily to such dedication.

“The job couldn’t have paid much back in those days,” Russell says. “So one year they decided they were going to buy Mister Grist a new car. I remember everybody brought a dollar. You know, back then that was a lot of money. But they raised, I think, it was $600 and bought him a Ford. He was proud of that car.”

Grist’s interest in his boys didn’t stop when they moved on with their lives. When Wilkinson wanted to attend dental school in Atlanta, it was Grist who worked his connections to help him get a job so that he could further his education.

“That’s something I will never forget,” an emotional Wilkinson says.

In the silence that follows, Russell says softly, “Something that I don’t think a lot of people know about Mister Grist, but during World War II every time he heard one of his boys was killed he would go into his office and pull all the blinds and pray. He was so tied up in the life of his boys, it really hurt him.”

Grist had the knack of being able to get his point across without lecturing, a decided advantage when dealing with adolescents.

Once, when a handful of his boys accompanied the great man to a YMCA function in sinful New Orleans, they went to wash their hands prior to eating lunch only to discover that a slot machine was installed in the bathroom.

Unable to resist the temptation, the boys were busily feeding nickels into the machine when in walked Grist. Silence descended on the room as they awaited his wrath at such foolishness.

Grist approached the slot machine as though he had never seen such a thing and was not certain what it was. Then, tentatively, he pulled a nickel from his pocket, placed it in the slot and pulled the handle. Wheels spun, bells rang, but otherwise nothing happened.

Grist stared at the machine a long moment. His boys held their breath. Then, abruptly, he spun on his heel, placed his arms around the shoulders of the two nearest boys, hugged them close, and announced, “C’mon boys! I’m hungry. How about you? Let’s go have lunch!”

Fifty years later that unspoken lesson on the things that are important in this life, and those that are not, still lingers with this roomful of men. Is it any wonder then that they still speak of him with such profound respect?

Perhaps the most famous of Grist’s boys was Ralph “Shug” Jordan, the longtime coach at Auburn University and the nemesis of Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant. In a measure of the respect he afforded the man, Jordan often called Grist “my first coach.”

Even long after he had risen to fame and helped to lay the foundation for what many consider Alabama’s golden era of college football, Jordan continued to be one of Grist’s boys at heart. Moss once witnessed Jordan smoking a cigarette at a banquet when Jordan spied Grist entering the room.

That, of course, would never do for one of his boys to be caught smoking in the great man’s presence. So — and Moss insists this part is true — Jordan extinguished his cigarette in a nearby ashtray and then slid the ashtray under the table so that Grist would not know.

“That’s a pretty big-time guy,” Moss marvels, “to be afraid of Mister Grist.”

Grist’s own son was born Sept. 20, 1926. He died the next day, the same day that John Callaway was born.

The room grows quiet as Callaway retells the story he has shared many times, of a grief-stricken Grist standing at the glass-walled nursery staring at the rows of healthy babies, his heart a stone.

Callaway’s father, Eugene Callaway, walked up and put his arm around Grist’s shoulders. For a long moment the two men stood silently — one a proud new papa, the other an inconsolable man. At last Callaway spoke.

“Paul,” he said, “I’ve got so many boys, why don’t you take this one? He can be your boy. You can help me raise him.”

From somewhere deep inside himself, Paul Grist found the strength to accept that challenge. This week, his boys will gather one more time to remember the man who did the same for all of them.

There will be a memorial luncheon in honor and memory of Paul M. Grist at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Selma-Dallas County Public Library. For reservations, call Johnny Russell at 872-2124.