A town that needs hope

by John Ring

Irv McVey and Gail Onion have a lot in common.

Both have lived in Abingdon all of their lives.

Both graduated from Abingdon High School -- McVey in 1982, Onion in 1980.

Both are avid, diehard Abingdon Commando basketball fans.

And both have just lost their jobs.

Irv McVey and Gail Onion are former employees of Briggs Manufacturing. The pottery plant, which had manufactured toilets and urinals for years and is now owned by a Chilean firm, was shut down abruptly in December. The loss of 150 jobs in a town the size of Abingdon can be devastating.

150 jobs lost. 150 families affected.

Onion had worked there for 16 years; McVey for 13.

Now it's all gone.

''We were stunned when we found out,'' said McVey. ''There had been rumors going around for years about a closing but to go in one day and find out you're out of work was real tough.''

''In February of last year we took a 6 percent pay cut to help keep the plant going,'' said Onion. ''So when we found out the bad news, yeah, there was a little anger.''

As McVey and Onion try to sort things out, they have one constant that keeps their spirits up -- Abingdon Commando basketball.

''It gets my mind off things,'' said Onion. ''I'm glad they're doing so good. It helps to keep us going. But I'm glad I bought my season pass before we lost our jobs. It was just $30 but we go to a lot of games.''

''We love to watch them play,'' added McVey. ''Coach [Jim] Youngman, he's all basketball. He eats, drinks and sleeps basketball. We like him a lot.''

Even though he's been in Abingdon just two years, Youngman was shocked when he heard the news about Briggs.

''We were at practice getting ready for a Christmas Tournament at Western Illinois University when we learned about Briggs,'' said Youngman. ''At the end of practice, we talked about it because the kids know people who work there. Some players have parents that work there.''

''I told them that this is their chance to give hope to a town that needs hope. A lot of guys not only lost their jobs, they lost their dreams. They lost their hopes for retirement. They were robbed of that.''

''It made our kids want to step it up. They dedicated themselves that day to doing the best they possibly could for the community.''

The community is doing its part to help the laid off workers. One example is that Abingdon school teachers volunteered their time to provide a math refresher workshop last Sunday to help former workers sharpen their mathematics skills.

''The town has helped us a lot,'' said McVey. ''They've really rallied behind us. There's a job fair at the American Legion we can go to. Classes are being offered on filling out résumés and how to fill out job applications and do job interviews.''''I can get money to go back to college but I'm not sure if I want to. I may go to a technical school instead to learn a new skill.''

For now, McVey and Onion are on unemployment, sorting out their options and following the Commandos. Their favorite Commando of all time is Dwight Foutch, who played in the early 1970s. Both admit their current favorite player is Tyler McCurry.

''One on one, McCurry is real tough,'' said McVey. ''I like watching him play.''

Commando fans, young and old, appreciate their team. During player introductions before every game, the sideline of the court is lined with little kids wearing Abingdon jerseys getting high fives from Tyler McCurry, Brad Arthur or Dan Leadbetter when they get introduced.

''That's the way it's been since I've been here,'' said McCurry. ''Those kids look up to us.''

It's not just them, Tyler.

The Abingdon Commandos have an entire community watching them, pulling for them and dreaming with them.

They dream of the state tournament. A Regional Championship. Playing in Peoria.

A lot of people in Abingdon over the weekend weren't too concerned about the Presidential inauguration of the 43rd President. Nor did they care about the 42nd President's precious legacy.

No, they worried more about paying the next utility bill, or finding a job, or putting gasoline in their car, or taking care of their kids.

But for a couple of hours on Friday and Saturday, they could forget about those problems and instead, bask in Abingdon Commando basketball.

That's a beautiful thing. Regardless of how bad things are, there's always a break, a respite, a temporary return to normalcy.

That's what sports is all about. It's not about the latest soap opera antics of Shaquille O'Neal or Ray Lewis or Mike Tyson.

You want to feel good? You want to forget your problems?

Go watch a kid like Sarah Pacheco play high school basketball. Talk to Tyler McCurry or Jordan Watson or Megan McCracken. Go to Peoria or Normal and watch the high school basketball tournaments.

Jim Youngman said it best. Hopes and dreams are special things. You need them, especially in tough times.

And as Irv McVey and Gail Onion will attest, hard times have arrived in Abingdon.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online January 23, 2001

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