PEMBROKE — Sitting in a hospital room at Southeastern Regional Medical Center in 2012, Ronnie Chavis was nervous of the news he had received that he had three blockages in his heart and needed a triple bypass surgery .
Just months into his retirement after serving 18 years as a high school baseball coach and 22 years as both a high school an the county athletic director, Chavis was welcomed by a familiar face that put him at ease in a stressful situation when a former baseball player of his, Don Jacobs, came in as his nurse.
“It sort of made me feel comfortable,” he said. “I knew he cared a lot for me because I thought an awful lot for him when he played. That was special. One of the other nurses was a former student of mine so I was surrounded by love.”
Jacobs played for Chavis from 1974 to 1976 and saw a change in the roles between him and the man that coached him on the diamond.
“My first thought was how Coach was one of my patients, and then I wanted to go see him because of how bad it was,” Jacobs said. “I went in and talked with him and it turned a little bit because now I’m in charge, but I was so glad that I was able to be taking care of him.”
In his career path as a nurse, Jacobs found practical uses for the lessons that Chavis taught all of his 18 teams.
“Being prepared,” Jacobs said the lesson was. “I told him that, ‘We’ve got this and we will get this.’”
That story was one of many that Chavis and his former players and bat girls shared from on and off the field interactions that filled the Purnell Swett High School cafeteria with laughter Friday night for a crowd of more than 150 people, while also remembering former teammates who had passed away in a few somber moments.
The timing of the reunion, while being during Lumbee Homecoming to make sure that out-of-town alumni would be available to attend, carried extra weight for Chavis, who coached at Magnolia, Pembroke and Purnell Swett high schools, along with the first four season of American Legion Post 205’s existence.
“Tonight is a special occasion to me because I’m 68 years old today,” Chavis said. “I couldn’t think of a better birthday present.”
The former players in attendance that are now preachers, teachers and coaches among other professions, were ones that Chavis had a sense of family with during and after their times sharing the dugout with the longtime baseball coach.
“As you work with individuals on a day-to-day basis, they become your sons,” Chavis said. “If you played baseball with me, you are a part of my family.”
While former players and bat girls for Chavis made up most of the crowd, the event also brought a former coaching counterpart and lifelong friend of Chavis into enemy territory.
Randy Stevens coached baseball at Lumberton, but despite the heat of the rivalry between Chavis’ Pembroke and West Robeson teams with the Pirates, there was always mutual respect.
“I didn’t have a brother, but if I did, it would be Randy Stevens,” Chavis said.
Stevens echoed the sentiment.
“He and I go back to 1975 and I left in 1984 and went to Garner,” Stevens said. “This guy and I talk at least once every two weeks, and sometimes two or three times every week.
“The whole time I was at Lumberton, we talked baseball a remarkable number of hours, but when we were playing each other, that week we never said anything (baseball wise) to each other. It was special camaraderie that he and I had.”
The pair were the the driving force in starting the American Legion team that brought together players from across the county to play. Lumberton, Pembroke, Fairmont and other schools made up the team for something that Chavis said was “one of the most beautiful situations I had ever been involved in.”
What Chavis was referring to was the teamwork and the willingness to put different school affiliations aside to play together, a lesson he said could apply to the county today.
“It makes me mad when we get all this negative publicity,” he said. “I’ve never saw a group of boys come together like that. You can’t tell me that Robeson County can’t do that too.”
The group of former players, coaches and bat girls line up in the Purnell Swett cafeteria.
Sean Jones shows off his baseball cap at the Ronnie Chavis reunion.
Ronnie Chavis, middle, shares a story with Kendall Oxendine, left, and Paul Brooks, right.