March 2016
Homeplace & Community

Saving a Local Treasure

Paddle boards and paddle boats are available for fun on Grist State Park’s 100-acre lake (Credit: Billy Pope, ADCNR.)  

Community leaders unite to reopen Paul M. Grist State Park.

Financial belt-tightening is one thing, but closing a popular park named for a local legend was just too much to take for Dallas County residents who went on the offensive to reopen it.

The 1,000-acre Paul M. Grist State Park honors a man who spent much of his 82 years in Selma where he became known throughout Alabama for his coaching, mentoring and spiritual leadership.

Grist’s induction into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame was a no-brainer when his name was submitted for consideration. What made it extraordinary was the fact he never coached a college or professional football team or was involved in any other big-time, money-making athletic venture.

While the park never made much money, those who supported it said that wasn’t the purpose of a facility providing recreational outlets for youngsters, some of whom were from poor families.

Whatever revenue was derived from admissions was quickly eaten up by expenses and that was one of the deciding factors that ultimately closed the doors at Paul Grist and other low-performance state parks across the state.

  These signs point the way to the Paul M. Grist State Park as well as the Grist YMCA Camp that is no longer open.

When the other shoe dropped and Dallas County officials were notified that Paul Grist State Park would have to close, two men quickly responded with promises to do what they could to keep it open.

“We were aware that we had the resources and it wouldn’t cost much more than $10,000-$15,000 a year,” said Dallas County Probate Judge Kim Ballard. “We had three employees there, but cutting back to one and relying on volunteers did the trick.”

That one person was Roger Nichols, who has directed the sprawling park for 25 years and was happy to keep doing what he had been doing. The park is also his home. His house is on a hill not far from his office.

The park had been operating on a $170,000 annual budget and the $40,000 generated from admissions was basically a drop in the bucket, but operating with two fewer employees and relying on volunteers is expected to keep the ledger balanced.

Guided horseback rides were a hit with youngsters during one of Grist State Park’s family events. (Credit: Billy Pope, ADCNR)  

Ballard said they quickly stepped forward to do what they could to keep the park open, from cutting grass to clearing trails for walkers and riders. Bush Hog recently donated an expensive zero-turn mower to take care of grass once it begins to grow in the spring.

Dallas County Commissioner Roy Moore, who virtually grew up at the park as a teenager, joined Ballard in efforts to keep it open. They were joined by Anita Ellison, who came up with a “Save Paul Grist State Park” Facebook page that took off like a rocket once it appeared.

“We’ve been overwhelmed with public support to save the park,” Ellison said. “I can’t say enough nice things about people who let us know we could count on them to do what’s needed.”

The response was not only overwhelming, it was effective. Closed on Oct. 15, 2015, the park came back to life on Dec. 3 This summer promises to be as popular as it’s ever been since it was constructed during the Depression as a way to provide jobs for the unemployed.

For much of its existence, Paul M. Grist State Park consisted of two segments. The biggest was the park and its huge lake frequented by those who love to fish. The other was the Paul Grist YMCA Camp that hosted hundreds of children every summer.

  Park Manager Roger Nichols keeps this huge hornet’s nest in his office to show visitors.

The camp closed years ago, a victim of changing times, video games and other recreational outlets as summer camps began to fall out of favor around the country. Boys and girls in the area once marked the opening dates on their calendars because they couldn’t wait to spend their summers at the Grist camp.

With Gov. Robert Bentley and other officials looking for ways to save money because of funding problems, state parks came into the mix and the Dallas County site wound up on the fiscal chopping block.

The result was a transfer of $3 million from the State Park System to support other governmental agencies. The Legislature apparently felt they were more important than public parks.

Five parks were put on the closure list including the one honoring Grist, who died at the age of 82 in 1982.

Closing the park angered Dallas County officials, who didn’t waste time looking for ways to reopen it as soon as possible.

“It breaks my heart whenever I think about what has happened to those programs up there,” said Bill Porter, a Selma native now living in Auburn. “The camp drew children from all around Dallas County and in our region.”

Porter formerly was director of the Selma-Dallas County YMCA and served as a counselor at Camp Grist for more than a decade. He’s in his 70s today, but the years haven’t lessened the awe he still feels for a man who meant everything to him and other youngsters who felt the same way.

“Few have had such a profound influence on the lives of other people as did Paul Grist,” said Porter, referring to his mentor’s 45-year history working with children at the Selma “Y.”

Portrait of Paul Grist that hangs in the new YMCA.  

Born in Marietta, Ga., on Dec. 2, 1898, Grist arrived in Selma on Nov. 1, 1919, to work at the “Y” as physical education director. He remained in that position until 1950. Among numerous highlights of his tenure was organization of one of the South’s first basketball clinics in 1939.

Although he supervised a variety of athletic programs for children in and around Dallas County, Grist’s commitment to them was far beyond supervision of baseball, basketball, tennis and other sports.

“It was more than being a physical education teacher, a coach, a camp director and an executive that set Paul Grist apart,” Porter said. “He was the finest of role models both for youngsters and adults. Indeed, he was known as Selma’s No. 1 Citizen.”

Porter spent 16 of his summers at the Paul Grist YMCA Camp and hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t think of the man he says was “the moral conscience of the Selma community.”

“Whenever something happened in Selma and government leaders were not sure which way to turn, they would always say ‘Let’s ask Paul Grist what he thinks.’”

Grist’s memory remains a powerful reminder three decades since his death and can be seen at the YMCA – a $6 million facility that replaced the one that had become dilapidated after decades of use.

Step through the front door and there’s a portrait of Grist on a wall next to the chapel, not far from a plaque listing the names of “Paul Grist Boy of the Year” honorees dating back to 1949.

Porter once was a speaker at a “Boy of the Year” banquet and the praise he lavished on those nominated for the award brought nods and smiles from relatives of those selected for their outstanding achievements.

Grist mentored more future leaders than he could ever remember, but one who stands out the most was Ralph “Shug” Jordan, who became Auburn University’s greatest football coach, once leading the Tigers to a national championship.

One of Grist’s popular sayings is still used for emphasis today by those who learned from him.

“So many times during his life he said, ‘Son, don’t wait to be a great man, be a great boy,’” said Porter.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.