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Phil Lee has long been backbone of Bullitt Park

Kevin Mays • Apr 27, 2020 at 1:00 PM

BIG STONE GAP — In the spring of 1969, gasoline was 35 cents per gallon, John Wayne won the Academy Award for best actor in “True Grit,” the top shows on TV were “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza,” the Vietnam War was still five years from its end and Phil Lee worked his first track and field meet at Bullitt Park.

Five decades later, Lee is still working meets at Bullitt Park.

“Through last year I had worked track meets for 50 consecutive years,” Lee said. “This year would have been 51 years, but this virus ended the streak.”

Lee, who has also been involved with the Big Stone Gap and later the Union P-Nut football programs for just about as long, would have been down in his starter position this spring. But the novel coronavirus pandemic wiped out VHSL spring sports this year as well as Lee’s chance to enter his sixth decade of working track and field events.

For Lee, it is a labor of love.

“I don’t do it for any money or other kind of reward,” he said. “I just try to do what I can to help out. Anytime I get a chance to help a kid, I’m going to do it.”

Lee graduated from Clintwood in 1966 and went into the Army. After three years, he returned to Southwest Virginia and set up residence in Big Stone Gap.

“I moved to Big Stone Gap because of my work,” Lee said.

In the spring of 1969, he found himself at a high school track meet in his new hometown.

“I ran track in high school and I liked track, so I just went down to Bullitt Park to watch the meet,” Lee said. “They were a little short-handed with help and asked me if I wanted to help out. I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Lee said he’s worked nearly every event over the years, except for the high jump.

“Gary Thompson also works the high jump and he’s been doing it for a long time, too. So I just let him handle that,” Lee said. “But I’ve done the shot put and discus and jumps and timed the runs. The last few years I’ve been the starter.”

In his half-century of working track meets, Lee has seen more state champions and future collegiate and professional sports stars than he can remember.

“There’s been a lot of great athletes in Southwest Virginia. I don’t want to name any because I don’t want to leave any of them out, but I’ve seen some really good track athletes over the years, boys and girls,” Lee said.

DON’T FORGET FOOTBALL

Track and field is not the only sport in which Lee has made a huge difference for athletics in Wise County.

For nearly 20 years, Lee has served as the public address announcer at Bullitt Park first for Powell Valley and then Union after Powell Valley and Appalachia consolidated to form Union in 2011.

He has also been involved in high school feeder programs for nearly 45 years. He worked as a coach in the P-Nut football league for 22 years and served as commissioner for an additional 15.

Lee is now the league’s administrator.

“I just do what I can to help kids out,” he said.

Lee is not sure how many players he’s seen come through the P-Nut program, but he knows a lot of them ended up in Powell Valley and Union varsity football uniforms.

“There’s been a lot of good ones,” he said. “You can usually tell at an early age if a kid is going to be a good player. And then sometimes there’s one that you don’t think is going to do a whole lot and they turn out to be a great player.”

When future VHSL Hall of Fame coach Phil Robbins arrived at Powell Valley in 1983 to coach as the football, he worked with Lee and others involved in the P-Nut program to make it more systematic with the varsity program.

“We ran the same offensive plays and defenses as the varsity ran,” Lee said.

Lee also took note that Robbins became involved with the feeder system.

“I can only remember one or two times in his career here that Phil Robbins did not come to the P-Nut games,” Lee said. “He would sit in the stands and the kids appreciated it.

“Now, we’re getting the same thing with Coach (Travis) Turner,” Lee said. “They just show up and sit in the stands, but the kids know that and they appreciate that.”

In addition to working with football’s youngsters, Lee also was a volunteer assistant with the varsity program at Powell Valley from 1983 to 2010, the same tenure as Robbins.

“I have seven state championship rings,” Lee said of his 28-year run with the Vikings. “I worked primarily as a scout. I didn’t coach much on the sidelines. I was going somewhere else about every Friday to scout who we were going to be playing the next week.”

Lee has also helped out with the basketball programs at Powell Valley and Union.

“I’ve just showed up and did some announcing from time to time,” he said.

STILL GOING STRONG

The shutdown of spring sports was a setback for everyone, including Lee. But when sports returns, he will be there, too.

“It just becomes a habit, I guess,” Lee said. “As long as I’m able to get up and go, I’m going to do it.”

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