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Slim Hite, a former civil servant, reflects on his life as he deals with a cancer diagnosis

STAUNTON — Meeting in the morning was easier for Slim Hite, so he recently sat down with me at 7:30 a.m. That’s when he has the most energy. He has always been active, so having no energy is something new for him. In fact, his active lifestyle could be the reason the cancer wasn’t discovered earlier. Being active masked some of the signs that there was a problem.

The longtime sports official tires easily these days since being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late April. The cancer, which has spread, is terminal. Doctors won’t try to treat it. That would be too heavy for his 82-year-old body. His wife Sandy said it’s now about the quality and not the quantity of life. The hospice visits occasionally, once a week, Hite said.

There is a guest book on the dining table. When people come to visit – and oh, do people come to visit – they are asked to sign the book and perhaps leave a memory or two of Hite. A week ago the book quickly filled up.

“It was so impressive,” Hite said of the number of visitors who have stopped by since learning about the diagnosis. “Number one that they came to visit. Then they started writing things in that book that I had completely forgotten about. It just touched my heart.”

Hite started performing when he was in high school, calling youth games. He has been at it ever since, a member of the Virginia High School League officials since 1962. He has been a commissioner of associations in four different sports – boys and girls basketball, baseball and softball – and has worked in state playoff games in all of those sports.

Maybe he missed a game or two because of my dad. Slim’s real name is John Wayne Hite. My father is Wayne Hite. They are very distant cousins.

I remember as a child often coming home at night and hearing a message on our answering machine from someone who was desperately looking for a civil servant that evening. The caller had opened the phone book and called the wrong Wayne Hite. If we got home soon enough, my dad would call them back and give them the right number. If we got home late, I assume a basketball game somewhere in the Shenandoah Valley was officially short.

It went both ways. My father had a side job installing satellite dishes for a few years. Slim said he once got a call from someone who wanted to pay him for his work. He started laughing, told the story and said he told the person on the other end of the line that he only accepted cash.

He will be honored on Tuesday

Bill Johnson has known Hite for more than thirty years. He got to know him as an official and eventually helped Hite with the baseball umpire’s finances when Hite became the league’s commissioner.

“He is a well-known player in local prep sports at all levels, dating back to the late 1960s,” Johnson said. “That kind of longevity is quite rare in office these days.”

Hite will be recognized Tuesday evening during a junior varsity softball game at Wilson Memorial. Hite hasn’t been on the field at all this spring due to health issues. Umpire Russell Heinrich said the goal is to have Hite be part of the encounter at the plate before the game and then call as much of an inning as possible.

“Whatever he’s comfortable with,” Heinrich said. “I hope he gets to make at least one call on the bases.”

Then the game is stopped and Hite is recognized. The game’s entry fee will go to the Staunton-Augusta YMCA, where Hite was once executive director. The hope is that as many officials who know Hite will show up to honor him.

“For people like me who have been at it for a long time, he has been a mentor,” Heinrich said. “He has been a source of knowledge. He has mentored so many.”

Bringing inclusion to the YMCA

It may seem reasonable to know Hite only as a sports official. He is responsible for basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, soccer, volleyball, soccer, track and field and swimming.

Yet outside of his work, he has also had an impact on the youth in the region and on the community as a whole. In 1975, Hite was named executive director of the Staunton YMCA, after working at the Y for several years, including as physical director. Hite was only 34 when he was given the top spot and remained in that position for nine years, introducing T-ball and football programs at the Y.

One of the most important things he contributed to was something he said shouldn’t have been a problem. It was exactly the right thing. Hite helped start the integration at the YMCA. Hite didn’t think he had done anything particularly commendable: He said a boys’ club met at the Y on Fridays to swim, play basketball and table tennis. Two black youths were quite good swimmers, so Hite invited them to join the club.

He doesn’t even remember the year it happened and says not much was made of it. He also doesn’t remember any reaction from the white community.

“It was just new to them,” he said.

Hite had convinced the board of directors that they should make scholarships available to black youth in the community in an effort to achieve integration.

Former Virginia state delegate Dickie Bell served as youth director and program director at the YMCA during that time. He recently spoke about that time for a story that appeared in the February edition of the Staunton-Augusta Family YMCA newsletter.

“It was pretty seamless,” Bell said in the story. “I have to give Slim Hite credit for getting that ball rolling, and Kenneth Jones at the funeral home made sure black kids weren’t turned away because they couldn’t afford it. Slim has set up a scholarship program.”

Hite said it was just time to do something.

“My biggest thing is that my mom and dad both taught me that everyone is the same and treats everyone the same,” Hite told me during the interview. “So that’s what I’ve been trying to do my whole life.”

Helping others

After the YMCA, Hite worked in real estate appraisal and taught a real estate course at Blue Ridge Community College for 20 years.

In 2001, he was named athletic director of the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind in Staunton. He was there for twelve years and started a pathway program for blind students. He also revived goalball at the school.

Hite coordinated with Paul Hatcher, the basketball coach at what is now Staunton High School, to conduct basketball clinics at VSDB. Hite thought some of Hatcher’s successful ways might spill over to the VSDB program. Lee and VSDB also played against each other in basketball, with Hite believing this would help prepare his team for the national competition.

Hite and Hatcher were old friends. Their families used to go on holiday together. One time, when the two were at Hatcher’s house watching football, Jimmy Omps of Handley stopped by, game tape in hand to exchange with Hatcher. When Omps saw Hatcher and Hite walking out together, he said, “No wonder we never win in Staunton. Hite and Hatcher live in the same house.”

Hite served as athletics director at VSDB for 12 years.

He continued in office after leaving VSDB. It’s something he’s found difficult to give up, but his recent health issues have kept him on the sidelines.

“What a legacy you have been to this area,” retired Fort Defiance volleyball coach Sue Leonard wrote in Hite’s book. ‘And what a huge influence you have had on so many children. You have also had an impact in your official role and have been inspiring to us all.

Hite likes seeing those messages. No matter how tired he gets these days, he is always up for visitors. His wife, Sandy, said Slim recently wanted to hold an open house for some officials he worked with to come over and talk. That was on a Friday. He told Sandy he wanted to do it again the next day for those who couldn’t make it on Friday.

Hite realizes that Tuesday night will most likely be the last time he steps on a field. He just hopes that he has made a difference in people’s lives with the work he has done.

“I felt like I accomplished what I wanted,” Hite said. “To give (youth) the opportunity to play the sport or learn the sport, and remember that good sportsmanship is the key to everything. I feel like I’ve spent my whole life doing what I was probably meant to do: helping others .”

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Patrick Hite is The News Leader’s education reporter. Story ideas and tips always welcome. Contact Patrick (he/him/his) at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Patrick_Hite. Subscribe to newsleader.com.