Richard Hyatt: New Comer Gym should honor Fred Hyder

rhyatt@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 4, 2013 

Photos by Joe PaulL/jpaull@ledger-enquirer.comThe Comer Center in Bibb City will reopen Thursday after heavy rains in 2011 caused part of the roof to collapse, soaking and ruining the hardwood basketball court floor and flooding basement rooms that housed offices and some of the building's mechanical systems.

Weeks before he died, in the skies over Comer Auditorium, the moon went behind a cloud to hide its face and cry while fans paid $1.25 for tickets to hear Hank Williams’ mournful yodel.

In that same cozy arena Gene Autry greeted little buckaroos, a $1.98 price tag dangled from Minnie Pearl’s hat and Abdullah the Butcher proved he was the Wild Man from the Sudan.

Encircled by a village of shotgun houses, it was where Bibb City children came to play and residents heard the stars of the Grand Ole Opry or stayed up all night to hear gospel quartets harmonize about a wonderful time up there.

But Comer was more than a recreation center for Bibb Mill. Before there was a Municipal Auditorium, it was the place blue-collar Columbus went to be entertained.

The 3,916-seat Municipal Auditorium opened in 1957 with a sparkling performance of Holiday on Ice. It gave way to the Columbus Civic Center in 1996.

To keep workers at home, Bibb Manufacturing Company built Comer Auditorium in 1941, finishing construction before the start of World War II.

Hubert Stubbs, later the city’s recreation director, headed the mill’s sports program with the arena and its hardwood floor as the focal point. Fred Hyder succeeded Stubbs in 1944 and he recognized the value of an event Stubbs started in 1942.

For nearly 60 years the Bibb Invitational Basketball Tournament provided a flurry of baskets and served unforgettable chili dogs cooked by the Bibb City Women’s Club.

The tournament was just a memory in 2011 when a 100-year storm blew away the roof and flooded the venerable gym. The city spent $2 million to restore it and the Comer Center reopens Thursday at 11 a.m.

Newcomers don’t understand why it was rebuilt. They don’t understand the impact Comer had on generations of entertainment-starved residents — and it began with The Bibb Invitational, a magnet for basketball talent and fans.

The list of players is impressive. There was Jerry Shipp, leading scorer in the 1964 Olympics, Roger Kaiser, Georgia Tech’s first All-American, Auburn’s John Mengelt, a future star in the NBA, and Joe C. Meriwether, on his way home from a pro basketball career.

It was enlightening to see college performers compete with home grown guys like Jimmy Jones, Hubert Barksdale, Charles Wright, Dan Kirkland, Jimmy Lee and Gordon Darrah.

Hyder was the ringmaster. The brother of Whack Hyder, who spent 21 years as head coach at Georgia Tech, he put players on the court and chili in the pot. And in the early years, he banged for rebounds and baskets himself.

He created a tradition that lives on. His spirit will be always be there, so it is time to honor him by calling it The Fred Hyder Court at Comer Center.

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Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him on Twitter @hyattrichard.

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