Thursday, October 31, 2013 12:20 AM
Gillette driving force in Midgets' success
By Paul Durham | Sports Editor
Burt Gillette didn’t start the Midget Football League for Wilson Parks and Recreation Department, but he was the driving force in the program’s popularity and sustainability over the first four decades of its existence.
Gillette, a Wilson native, returned home and began working as recreation supervisor under the first parks and recreation director Tom S. Miller in 1952, just before the fourth Midget season. Miller left the following year and Gillette was promoted to department director, a post he would hold until his retirement in 1990.
In those 37 years, Gillette transformed Wilson recreation dramatically. His successor, Kent Montgomery, praised Gillette’s ability to envision the city’s recreation needs decades in advance. The city paid homage to him just before he died in 2003 by announcing plans to name its new athletic facility on Corbett Avenue after him. The J. Burt Gillette Athletic Complex opened in 2005 and now is home to a sparkling soccer complex with six fields and a state-of-the-art Little League baseball facility.
But when Gillette started working at the Rec, the Midget Football program was in high gear and he quickly embraced it. He helped coach the all-star team that participated in the Pop Warner Foundation’s Santa Claus Bowl in 1952, his first year on the job.
Gillette made sure the Midget program thrived through support from the community, working tirelessly to get coaches and referees as well as building associations with civic organizations.
"Burt really made the Midget program a success it was right up to the ‘90s from ‘52,” said Mike Webster, who served as recreation director under Gillette. "He did it by convincing his friends and contemporaries to come help out. And it was a well-run thing.”
Gillette would hold a kickoff breakfast each year at the Rib Room restaurant in downtown Wilson for the coaches.
"Burt would get up and tell what he expected, sportsmanship-wise, give the whole spiel,” Webster recalled.
Montgomery added: "We used to include the head coach at Fike, whoever it was, and invite them to the meeting.”
The other sports leagues at the Rec never had such meetings but the Midget program was special, which is how Gillette wanted it.
Charlie Bedgood, who played for Park Avenue in the late 1960s and later coached the team for several seasons remembered Gillette’s imprint was on everything.
"Everything!” assured Bedgood. "I’m talking about where the trashcans were put out, where the ashtrays were.”
Bedgood likened Gillette to Pete Rozelle, the former NFL commissioner who brought the league to greatness in the 1970s.
"Burt ruled with an iron fist,” Bedgood said. "When he made a rule, he made a rule and that was just the way it was and you lived with it.”
Gillette’s rules didn’t always make everyone happy. When Recreation Park dominated over the course of two seasons in 1952 and 1953, Gillette moved some of the players to other teams, which didn’t go over well with Rec Park head coach Wade Barnes.
"He got a little aggravated at Burt Gillette because our team was just beating up everybody else and he started taking our players,” recalled Walter Brown, a member of the Rec Park team in those days.
Gillette was also known for standing in front the big clock that set on the ground beside the field in Fleming Stadium. That was done so no one could see if there was time remaining or not.
"If he saw where kids wouldn’t get a chance to play, he’d stand in front of the clock so they couldn’t see it,” Webster said. "He’d make sure the kids could get in the game because that was very important to him.”
That was Gillette, stern but fair and always putting the kids first.
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