Donna Childers Suttle’s passion for all things Ashland Tomcat is well established.
She has been a mega-fundraiser for the razing and rebuild of Putnam Stadium, a place she holds dear to her heart, and she has done so much behind the scenes for Tomcat athletics that the team mascot should blush when he’s around her.
It was Donna who raised the money to rebuild the trophy cases inside Anderson gym. It was Donna who during the past Christmas season wrapped presents at Corbie’s three to four days a week – for any sized donation to Putnam Stadium. She works tirelessly if it’s connected with the Tomcat name on it. Cut her and maroon would come gushing out.
Donna also saved a scholarship that was going to Ashland Tomcat basketball players for more than 30 years around 2000 with a public plea. Without her efforts, there would be no Joe Franklin Memorial Scholarship and a part of Tomcat history would have gone with it. The scholarship was going bust and Donna would have none of it. She contacted me and we put together a story for the newspaper about the Franklin scholarship’s dire need for money and why it was important. The donations began rolling back in and it has been running strong ever since, with $500 donated just the other day. (Contributions to the scholarship are always appreciated).
Here’s something you might not have known: When the scholarship was fading in the late 1990s, with not enough funds to give the scholarship, it was Donna and husband Jeff and the late David Payne who supplied the funding to keep it going.
It has honored more than 50 Tomcat players over the years with scholarships between $500 and $1,000. The first one was issued to Greg Salyer in 1968. It is given to seniors who are of high character first and foremost. It’s not decided on statistics but on life superlatives. It’s the best honor any Tomcat senior basketball player can receive.
There were a lot of reasons for Donna to do what she could to save the scholarship. For one, the memorial scholarship is one of the longest running in the state, going on now for 52 years. For another, it’s a Tomcat scholarship, and we know what that means to her. But, most importantly, she was a friend of Joe Franklin, a Tomcat basketball player who tragically died in a car wreck the day the Ashland Tomcats won the 1967 state football championship. Donna, a 1970 Ashland grad, was a sophomore in the fall of ’67 and she knew the handsome 16-year-old well. A lot of the girls had crushes on him (not saying Donna did or didn’t).
Joe was a basketball player, and a good one, but he was much more. He was also the epitome of the All-American boy, squeaky clean, a member and active in youth activities at First Methodist (Chocolate) Church downtown, a great son and brother, and a one-of-a-kind athlete who put teammates first. He was on the football team as a sophomore but stepped away to concentrate on basketball, his best sport.
Franklin, three other players and a manager were traveling by car to a scrimmage game in Frankfort the day of the football championship. They were heading over to Louisville after the scrimmage to watch the Tomcats hopefully win a title.
But a tragic morning accident just past Morehead ended that and took the life of Franklin while severely injuring one other passenger. It was a tragedy of epic proportions for the Ashland community.
I was a 10-year-old Tomcat fan who traveled to Louisville that day with my brother and father to watch Ashland play Elizabethtown. The dark and dreary gray day always stuck with me, so much so that in 2012 I wrote a book about it, Tragedy and Triumph, that told the story of the 1967 season that will be forever linked to Joe Franklin’s death.
The football team, in its travel to the game that night, stopped in Mt. Sterling for a planned rest stop. When they parked, an Ashland man pecked on the window of the rented bus — Ashland Independent Schools didn’t have school buses at the time – and shared some startling news about the accident with Tomcat coach Jake Hallum.
Hallum gathered his assistants and collectively decided they wouldn’t tell the team until after the game. Typically, the state finals were played at University of Kentucky’s Stoll Field. This particular season, Kentucky and Tennessee scheduled a late game and thus the field was unavailable for the high school event.
It was payed at the Louisville Fairgrounds, which had bleachers on only one side of the field. Ashland’s bench was on the vacant side, so no fans could reach the field to inform the players of the tragic event that had transpired earlier.
Many of the band members, cheerleaders and fans in the stands heard the news in various ways before kickoff. The team still knew nothing about it.
Ashland rolled to a 19-0 halftime lead before hanging on to beat Elizabethtown 19-14 for the first official football state championship in school history. After some celebration in the locker room, Hallum informed the team about Franklin and another classmate who was injured badly in the accident.
On their way home the next day, Hallum called co-captains Paul Hill and John Radjunas to the front of the bus around Grayson. He told the guys he didn’t think they should experience their normal celebration, which included a fire truck ride, upon arriving home out of respect for the Franklin family. So they didn’t.
The ’67 Tomcats never got their fire truck ride. The bus zoomed past an awaiting crowd on U.S. 60, pulled in front of the school gym and everybody filed out. They never celebrated the championship, even days later, and that was the impetus behind the book – it would be their firetruck ride.
Donna had a book signing for me at her florist shop, complete with a firetruck from the Ashland Fire Department. As the players jumped up on the truck to pose for a photograph, they were transported back 40 years ago with the smiles of boys 16 to 18 years old celebrating a championship season.
It was a fitting way to complete the story.