Think of North Carolina sports, and Michael Jordan’s high-flying dunks or Richard Petty’s iconic No. 43 might spring to mind.
Few would likely think of Walter “Buck” Leonard, a Rocky Mount native and 12-time all star in the Negro National League who won nine titles in the early 1900s. Far fewer Marge Burns, an amateur golfer who won 10 North Carolina state championships.
Don Fish wants you to know them all. Since taking over as director of the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame nine years ago, he’s worked diligently to raise the profile of North Carolina’s sports heritage, from the household names to the many who labor far outside the limelight.
During his tenure, the Hall of Fame has grown to 336 members, and annual nominations have increased tenfold; attendance at its annual banquet reached 1,000 this year.
He’s added fundraisers to put the hall onto firm financial footing, including an annual Golf Classic. The hall has a new website, and is developing traveling exhibits on little-known areas of sports history.
Most recently, he’s worked to add programs for student athletes, inviting a group of them to the induction banquet for the first time this year and creating a website where students can earn prizes while learning about the state’s sports history.
Bobby Guthrie joined the organization’s small staff last year after retiring as athletics director for Wake County Public Schools. He was impressed with Fish’s drive to try new ideas and initiatives, including the focus on young athletes.
“The guy never stops thinking,” Guthrie says. “He’s a big sports fan, but he’s also the kind of person who when he commits to something, he goes in full tilt.”
N.C. Museum of History Director Ken Howard says Fish, who took over the Hall of Fame position after retiring from a career at the Liggett tobacco company, has made an important contribution by promoting a key part of the state’s history.
“He’s a go-getter and he’s done a really good job of getting more people involved and bringing the hall into the 21st century,” Howard says. “Sports have been so important in the history of our state.”
A character built on sports
Sports played an outsized role in Fish’s life. He grew up working alongside his eight siblings on a tobacco farm in the Gorman community in northern Durham County and was identified early on for his talent in sports.
His coaches mentored him, and he went on to play quarterback on the football team and point guard on the basketball team at Northern Durham High School. He received a scholarship to play basketball at Louisburg College.
An injury sidelined his career in sports, but he says his mentors changed the trajectory of his life.
“Sports is about how strong and tough you are, but it’s also a means in which to learn the values of life,” Fish says. “I am where I am today because I was taught by a coach to behave and to study and to respect people and do my best and do what’s right.”
After graduating from Louisburg, a two-year college, he studied physical education, and later accounting, at UNC-Chapel Hill. He also took a job at Liggett. He rose up the ranks at his job and left school without a degree. He stayed with Liggett for 33 years, ending up as the vice president for marketing. He helped start up Skybox, an offshoot of the company that made sports trading cards, in the late 1980s before retiring.
When he retired, he moved to the beach to relax but says he was bored. So he moved back to Raleigh and looked for rewarding ways to spend his time, and soon settled in at the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
Over time, he’s been able to add two employees, though they all work part time for what Fish calls “little to nothing.”
“We just want to make a contribution,” he says.
Expanding the hall’s role
The Hall of Fame inducted its first members in 1963, and moved into its space as a permanent exhibit in the history museum in 1992, housing memorabilia from the inductees including signed balls, medals and uniforms from across the decades.
Hall of Famers must excel in their sports, and be from North Carolina or have spent significant time here. They can be athletes from any sport, including billiards and hang gliding, as well as coaches, sports reporters and administrators.
“We don’t want to overlook anyone,” he says.
When Fish took over in 1998, he sought to expand the reach of the Hall of Fame beyond the annual induction ceremony and the exhibit. He visited sports halls of fame in three others states and traveled across North Carolina talking to people involved in sports.
The organization was struggling financially, so Fish focused on raising money, and added the annual Salute to Champions Gala and Golf Classic. He worked to add a reception the night before the ceremony, where attendees can visit informally with hall of famers.
From there, he led a series of new programs. Last year, the hall started partnering with the N.C. Athletic Trainers Organization to create a traveling exhibit about the role trainers play in sports. Another traveling exhibit, on athletic directors, is planned.
“These are people that make a major contribution to the world of sports and don’t get a lot of attention,” says Fish.
Fish has been planning to create a youth initiative for years. For its unveiling this spring, 188 student athletes and chaperones attended the banquet, as well as a private reception with hall of famers and a tour and presentation at the history museum.
The plan is to expand the event to 1,000 student athletes and chaperones from every county in the state and to add a scholarship program – all funded through the Hall of Fame. The group’s Hall Pass program helps athletes keep in touch with the hall through online programming; Fish wants to create an app next.
But even with the new programs, Fish says the primary goal of the Hall of Fame is inducting new members, and the group’s higher profile of the hall has helped in that regard also.
When he started, the hall received about three nominations a year; this year, the hall received 42.
“That tells you that the word is out there that our Hall of Fame means something,” he says.
Donald Wayne Fish
Born: July 1939, Durham County
Position: Director, N.C. Sports Hall of Fame
Education: Louisburg College and later UNC-Chapel Hill; studied physical education and accounting
Family: Wife Alice; daughters Donna and Tammie; stepdaughters Alison and Diana; eight grandchildren