Tom Whitfield has been many things during his 76 years: patriarch for three generations of his family, Columbia County sheriff, football and baseball coach, teacher and assistant principal.
But one title that he will perhaps be remembered for most is as the winningest basketball coach in Harlem High School history.
With a record of 214 wins and 66 losses from 1955 to 1965, Whitfield led his Bulldogs to two CSRA championships, four region championships and six straight area championships. He also coached the Lady Bulldogs basketball team from 1956 to 1960 to 59 wins and 20 losses.
In honor of his record, several of Whitfield's former ballplayers honored their former coach in a ceremony dubbed The Tom Whitfield Era.
"We are very pleased to have this opportunity to honor him . . . and to celebrate the Tom Whitfield Era," said Pierce Blanchard, the emcee and one of the organizers of the event.
Former Harlem High School coach Tom Whitfield stands next to photos of himself as he speaks during a programSaturday honoring him at the school.
Photo by Donnie Fetter
The program included a barbecue dinner, a video presentation of old newspaper clippings, narration by former WBBQ disc jockey John Patrick and several interviews by Whitfield's players and friends.
The ceremony also included the presentation of a brass plaque embossed with Whitfield's image and a list of his basketball accomplishments that will be dedicated and hung in the Harlem gymnasium on opening day of the school's basketball season.
"The first basketball game I ever saw was one I played in," said Henrietta Jenkins, a former Lady Bulldog who played under Whitfield. "I was expecting to warm the bench the whole season, but Coach Whitfield called me up at a game and wanted to send me in. I was begging him, 'Please don't put me in.' He looked at me and said, 'Honey, if you're going to wear that suit, you've got to play the game.'
"That's the best lesson I've learned in life."
At the end of the ceremony, Whitfield stepped behind the podium and addressed his former players. A poster-size picture of Whitfield coaching from the sidelines in the 1960s hung behind him.
"I alone did not make basketball a household name in Harlem. It was the team," Whitfield said after thanking the committee that organized the event and delivering a series of anecdotes from his time as basketball coach. "I consider my days as a coach of Harlem High the happiest days of my life, because of you. This isn't Tom Whitfield night. This is homecoming."
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