John Blackwell: Ballfield complex commemorates former teacher, mayor

PROGRESS 2023: What’s In A Name

“John’s accomplishments are almost too numerous to mention, but regardless of the hats he wore with modesty throughout his life – coach, soldier, teacher and mayor – he took the most pride in being a husband, father, grandfather and friend.”

So reads the “Huntsville Times” obituary for John Blackwell – three-term mayor of Russellville from 1988-2000, teacher for more than 30 years and namesake of the John Blackwell Outdoor Recreation Complex adjacent to Sloss Lake on Highway 24.

Jackie Bradford, who was Parks & Rec director during Blackwell’s tenure as mayor, said he well remembers when the mayor first proposed the idea of building some ballfields on that plot of land. The land was being given to the city by the Lee Apparel Company, which was formerly housed in the building that now belongs to IHP.

“I had been talking to Mayor Blackwell about (needing to build some ballfields) for a year or two, and finally he called me one day and said ‘Come by here. I’ve got something I want to show you,’” Bradford said. Bewildered, he joined the mayor, who took him over to the site that is now the John Blackwell Sports Complex. “He said, ‘I talked to the Lee people, and we can get this land.’

“There was nothing there except the lake,” Bradford recalled. As he and the mayor walked the plot of land, Bradford said he wasn’t sure about it at first. “It was hard for me to tell, just looking – you’ve got to have so much room,” Bradford explained. But architects went to work and brought a dream to life for youth sports in Russellville.

“It’s been really used since it’s been built,” Bradford noted, and indeed it has. The complex is always bustling with youth softball and baseball games during the spring season. Current Parks and Rec director Donnie Flanagan said some 700 children play one or more youth sports in Russellville.

The ballfields were first called the Lee Complex, after the company that donated the land. In 2009, then-mayor Troy Oliver proposed a name change.

“Mayor Oliver stated the next matter of business was long overdue and concerned naming the Lee Complex after Mayor John Blackwell,” according to the July 13, 2009, city council minutes. Oliver noted, “Mayor Blackwell had been instrumental in the development of the Lee Complex as well as the land on the east side of Sloss Lake.”

A motion to rename the ballfields was unanimously approved by the council.

“I thought that was a great idea because he was the one who found the land and obtained it so we could build the complex,” Bradford said. “For a little town like Russellville, it’s very nice. It could have been bigger, but at the time that was all we needed – we thought.”

As Blackwell’s obituary records, his “dedication to his community, county and the many people he called friend can be seen through his service and accomplishments as a member of the Russellville University and National Community.

“John retired from military service after 39 years of active duty as an officer and served three overseas tours of duty in China, Japan, Korea and Panama.”

He earned his Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from the University of North Alabama and a master’s degree in secondary education at UNA before pursuing his doctorate in supervision/curriculum development from the University of Alabama.

He passed on what he had learned as an educator for more than 32 years at Northwest-Shoals Community College, Athens State College, Bessemer Technical College and in the Russellville City School System. He also served as a member of the President’s Cabinet at UNA and was a founding member of the UNA Sportman’s Club, according to his obituary.

This is all among many other accolades and achievements, including president of the Russellville Rotary Club, VP of the Franklin County Arts and Humanities Council and chairman of the Russellville Hospital Board, among others. The Franklin County Chamber of Commerce awarded him the Hall of Fame Award in 2001, and he was named Franklin County Citizen of the Year in 1992. He was a member of the Washington Avenue church of Christ.

He and wife Corinne Butler Blackwell, who is about to be 95 years old, had one daughter, Denisha.

“He was kind, generous, hilarious – yet strict,” Denisha said, reflecting on her father and his legacy. “He was a doting, loving father but also a football coach and the company commander of the local Guard unit. So he had to be a little bit of both.”

She said one regret is that her father didn’t get the chance to see the fields named in his honor, as he had passed away in 2005. She and her mother were both present at the council meeting when the resolution was approved.

“He would be very, very honored. He loved sports, and he loved Russellville. Russellville was his adopted hometown,” she explained. “He would be honored children are getting the opportunity to play in such a fine facility.”

Though she lives in Trussville now, Denisha said she makes time to drive by the complex whenever she is in town. It’s always a bittersweet moment.

“We’re very appreciative that the park has my daddy’s name on it. If anything was going to have his name on it, that is the perfect place,” she said, adding, “Daddy genuinely cared about people.”

Bradford said seeing Blackwell’s name on the complex is a welcome reminder of his friend, as with the other sports complexes in Russellville.

“They all meant something to me – Hal Kirby, Chucky Mullins, Mayor Bishop, Mayor Blackwell. They all did.”

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