By Patsy Parker
Robert Flournoy, the first director of the Central Park Community Center and adjacent recreation facilities, began this position in 1962. The center was the first building built on the south side of Opelika for youth recreation.
Upon Flournoy’s resignation from the Central Park Community Center after eight years to assume another job, the late W. J. Calhoun, Superintendent of Parks and Recreation, spoke of Flournoy’s superb performance as director of the center. He spoke of his organization and establishment of a top of the line recreation program that effectively served his community. Calhoun said Robert Flournoy’s leadership at Central Park Center not only provided a well-rounded program for local citizens but also was responsible for Central Park becoming a headquarters for a number of regional and sectional sporting events.
Flournoy impacted the lives of many present-day successful role models throughout the United States and possibly the world. He is fondly remembered by his former ball players and others who participated in the recreation center’s activities. Some of his players were Horace Menefee, Benny C. Ruff, Larry Kellum, Fred Jackson, Eddie James Card, Johnny Lee Harris, John Oscar Grady, Ronald Hodge, Bobby Stephens, Donald Hodge, Willie Wade Lockhart, Sylvester Brooks, Early Dowdell, Albert Lee Carlisle, Robert Lewis Williams, James Isaac Stephens, David Baker, and Willie T. (Boot) Thomas.
The general consensus of those of whom I inquired about Mr. Flournoy’s personality was that he was a quiet, strong, father-figure who conducted himself in a gentlemanly manner. He never raised his voice and loved to read. He would do anything for “his” kids. When any of them had a problem, they could always go to him for help. Opelika City Councilman Larry Gray spoke highly of him and his dedication to the welfare of the young men and women of Opelika.
One of Flournoy’s young athletes, Willie T (Boot) Thomas of Opelika, heralded him for his exceptional attributes.
He gave Flournoy’s motto from memory: “The only known substance in which a good man can be made is a good boy.” Thomas said there were two men who were exceptional role models for the young men in their charge and they were Robert Flournoy and William “Bill” Parker. Thomas said neither man cared who your family members were, they just cared about you as an individual.
Back to Flournoy: although the city had furnished a building and bare necessities for a new program, there was little else. Mr. Flournoy worked from seven in the morning until late in the night to make this center work for the southside citizens of Opelika. He served as a referee for many of the games and supervised other recreation activities with little or no help. Flournoy taught the children tennis and swimming.
Mr. Flournoy knew Thomas had a passion for swimming although he played multiple sports. One summer, he informed Thomas that he was going to speak with Mr. Calhoun about training Thomas as a water instructor. To train as a first aid instructor or water instructor, Mr. Flournoy and Thomas had to travel to North Carolina because segregation laws prohibited them from training at Auburn University. After training, Thomas became the first black water instructor in the Auburn-Opelika area and possibly in southeast Alabama.Thomas said “at that time, I did not know the man was providing me with a career. When I entered Alabama A&M College, I applied for a water safety instructor position, but was offered the position of Lifeguard and Pool Manager.”
Thomas added, “As a child, when I did something wrong at the center, he would send me home for a day; but before I reached home, he would have called my parents and told them what I had done and that I was to return the next day. To disappoint him was more of a punishment to me than to him.”
Donald M. Hodge was another of Flournoy’s protégés. Hodge spoke of the various athletic teams on which he participated while a youngster in Opelika and of the impact Flournoy had on his life. He spoke of the many teams Flournoy started for the young black youths of the city. Donald remembered the seeds of integrity planted by Flournoy that continue to follow him in his adult life.
When Donald began coaching 8 & Under youth football teams in Huntsville, the first football team he coached and continues to coach won only one game and lost 10. He asked himself what would Flournoy do in this situation? Donald remembered what Flournoy told Donald’s team: “Play as a team, be smart, and don’t give up.” That is when he started to teach Flournoy’s principles along with his team motto, “God help us to mind our parents, God help us to do good in school, and we will be winners.” With those two principles and Flournoy’s, his football team has lost only five games in the last twenty years.
During his coaching career, the Huntsville City Council honored Donald by naming the team’s home field “Donald M. Hodge Football Field”. When he received this honor, he told the City Council that this was a tribute to Robert Flournoy, a man who taught his team to “play as a team, be smart, and don’t give up.” Hodge, who has an M.S. Degree in Directed Energy-General Engineering, continues to give to the young people of Huntsville. He is a graduate of Opelika High School and Alabama A & M University.
James Stephens, a young man who works at the now-named Covington Recreation Center in Opelika, was an avid baseball player and all-around athlete. According to James, Flournoy took a very special interest in him and was his role model and guide throughout his young years.
These young men are just a few of the living symbols of what Flournoy gave to the City of Opelika.
Flournoy was born Aug. 11, 1916. He was one of nine children born to Arthur and Mary Bullock Flournoy. He attended East Street High School and Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). After graduation from high school, he worked in several restaurants as a waiter. He also worked at Saugahatchee Country Club in Opelika. After taking the position of recreation director at the Central Park Community Center, he attended American National Red Cross Aquatic School located in Hendersonville, North Carolina and became the co-founder of the East Alabama Baseball Association. All his life, he was an avid baseball fan and loved the Atlanta Braves. He enjoyed going to Atlanta to see the games.
Flournoy was married to Vivian Favors Flournoy, a school crossing guard at J. W. Darden High School. She later became a licensed practical nurse. Mrs. Flournoy also attended East Street High School. The Flournoys were the parents of five children-four girls, Agnes now deceased, Brenda who lives in Fultondale, Ala. and worked at AT&T, Elaine who lives in Powder Springs, Ga. and worked for IBM, and Joyce, a teacher, who lives in Birmingham. A son, Robert Eric Flournoy, was killed in a car accident at the age of five, a traumatic experience for the Flournoys.
They are the grandparents of nine grandchildren. His daughters describe Flournoy as a quiet, soft-spoken man who was an avid reader and history buff. This writer remembers that same soft-spoken, easy to smile, gentleman who was a great role model for the young men of this community. His philosophy has left a memorable imprint throughout the nation wherever his boys have trod.
Flournoy left Opelika to be recreation director in Johnson City, Tenn. where he remained for many years. After retiring from his position in Johnson City, the Flournoys moved to Birmingham where he and his wife were closer to their daughters. The Flournoys were members of Bethesda Baptist Church and worked diligently in the church to encourage and guide young people.