By Ben Schwartz
The Baseball/Softball Cloverleaf Complex in Fairbury City Park will soon be renamed in honor of Ed Durfee. With that in mind, we at FJN thought now would be an opportune moment to revisit this story about Ed Durfee, first published June 28, 2017.
Ed Durfee doesn’t quite play as active a role at the Fairbury Cloverleaf Softball/ Baseball Complex as he used to. He’s not doing as much hands-on maintenance. He’s not working the concession stand these days. He’s not doing as much of the scheduling, which up until this year he did almost all of. But rest assured, more often than not, you can find Ed out at the diamonds.
“I’m usually here,” he said Monday morning in the concession stand breezeway, “drinking my coffee and reading my paper.”
Ed can take a more relaxed approach because others were willing to fill the void.
“We have a good active board,” he said. “I told them I was get-ting out, and they’ve stepped up.”
“Getting out” is a relative term. As he sat for this interview with The Fairbury Journal-News, a coach walked up and informed Ed of a late-breaking change: the 12-and-under team was able to secure an umpire and would need a field ready the following day for a game.
Ed still plays a role in handling these last-minute changes, including rainouts. In times gone by, a late cancellation or addition might necessitate a lot of legwork and phone calls to the radio station and coaches. These days, it’s simpler.
“We have some younger, technologically-inclined people who get the word out. I might text the coaches personally. That’s one thing I can do, I can text,” he said with a laugh.
Ed will tell you there are a lot of people who played as big, or bigger, a role than he in Fairbury’s softball and baseball history. Ron Starr, for example, whose involvement in fundraising for the Cloverleaf complex in the early 1980s was critical.
“If there is one person responsible for this,” Ed said of the four diamonds surrounding the concession stand, “it’s him.”
Sue Hynek was one of the earliest girls softball organizers in Fairbury, he continued. “She had some girls who wanted to play, so she put some teams together.”
Maxine Haddan ran the softball association in its early years, supplying the foundation for the successes softball has had in the community and across the state.
It was actually men’s slow pitch softball that was the driving force behind the construction of the complex, Ed recalled. Slow pitch was exploding in popularity and Fairbury’s facilities were lacking.
“There were two fields, and only one of them was adequate. The other, you only played there because you had to,” he explained.
Efforts to raise the money to build a new complex began in earnest in 1981, and the facility was opened in 1983. What began as a place to host adult men’s leagues is now home to the girls softball association, Fairbury Little League, Optimist T-ball, and Fairbury High School softball. The complex hosts numerous tournaments and games each year, including the Memorial Day weekend tournament, which in May celebrated its 31st anniversary.
While many people contributed to making softball what it is today in Fairbury, one thing is certain: as long as there has been a softball association in the community, it’s had a friend in Ed Durfee.
It goes without saying he’s seen a lot of changes over the years.
“When we started, we’d shoot to play in three tournaments a year. Now, they’ll play in three tournaments in April,” he said.
The way the tournaments work has changed as well. Years ago, the tournaments were all double-elimination, which led to uncertain scheduling and potentially long layoffs between games.
“You always had fun during those layoffs, though,” Ed recalled with a grin. “You’d complain about it, but you always had fun.”
Tournaments these days are usually based on pool-play so teams know up front when they will be playing and who their opponent will be.
As the game of softball grew across the state, Fairbury’s program grew right along with it. Ed remembered the early days of trying to market the Memorial Weekend tournament in the days before electronic communication.
“You’d put an ad in the Lincoln Journal-Star, and you’d advertise at every tournament you went to,” he explained. “You’d stay in contact with the other coaches. It was tougher then. Once you’d done a few, though, they remembered you, for good or bad.”
Ed said it is very difficult to quantify the amount of volunteer effort that goes into hosting the Memorial Weekend tournament.
“The concessions, those are all volunteers, so think of the hours just from them,” he said. “When you add in all the cleaning and getting everything ready, it’s hard to put a number on it.”
Ed’s also a walking institutional memory of all the improvements that have been made to the complex itself. He said changing the surface of the infields is one of the more recent under takings.
“We just finished the last one this year, it was about a five year process overall,” Ed noted.
The new surface is agrilime, which is easier to maintain and dries faster than previous playing surfaces. Another change was bringing in fences on the two north fields. Ed again pointed out the fields were designed with slow pitch in mind, so the fences were deep.
“They were all approximately 270 feet. We brought them in to 200 on two of the fields, to give younger softball and baseball kids a fence to shoot for,” he said.
Though initially only two of the fields had lighting, now all four do. Ed said the process of getting the fields ready typically begins in March.
“Once the season is over, you tend to breathe a big sigh of relief and just walk away. You say you’ll come back and take care of some things, but you don’t come back,” he said.
That’s going to change this year. The goal is that by taking care of some maintenance issues throughout the year, even in the offseason, there will be less work to do once Spring rolls around.
Ed considers himself a Fairbury native, though he was born in the community of Dawson. His family came to town when he was in fifth grade. After graduating from Fairbury High School in 1965, Ed attended a few years of junior college.
“I knew I wanted to be a coach, but I didn’t necessarily want to be a teacher,” he said. “I didn’t care much for school. I wasn’t a good student, and I figured I could make as much money digging ditches as I could teaching.”
The allure of living in a larger community drew Ed to Lincoln for five years, but it ultimately wasn’t a good fit.
“I hated every minute of it,” he said.
Ed and his wife Gayle returned to Fairbury with their first daughter, Gina.
“We wanted to bring our kids up in a smaller community, so we came back to Fairbury and I bought a bar,” Ed said.
The couple later had two other daughters: Marni and Katie. He owned and operated the bar for over a decade, and later he worked for 20 years at Roode Packing Company.
One thing Ed picked up in Lincoln that he didn’t leave behind was playing softball. “I played all five years I was in Lincoln, then played another 10 years in Fairbury,” Ed recounted.
As much as he enjoyed playing, however, he ended up enjoying coaching more. “When I skipped a slow pitch tournament to coach my daughter Marni in a fast pitch tournament, I knew I was done playing,” he said.
Ed started coaching Marni’s 15-and-under team, and stuck with her when she moved up to 18-and-under. That’s the age group he stuck with even after Marni was done playing.
“It used to be the age groups were in three-year increments, and only went down to 12-and-under. Now it’s two years and you’ve got eight-and-under, 10-and-under, just more age brackets,” he said.
Ed maintained a simple philosophy throughout his years as a coach: learn the game, and have fun.
“I never set foot on a field where I didn’t try to win the game, but winning was never so important that everybody didn’t play,” he said. “If you played on my team, you got in the games.”
There’s obviously a lot of memories from Ed’s long association with softball and baseball in Fairbury. One that stands out is co-coaching his daughter’s team to the Class B state tournament title. Jim Boyer was the other coach, and had been one of the community’s earliest team sponsors.
“When Marni was 15, they finished fifth at state. When she was 16, they finished third. When she was 17, they won it,” Ed recalled.
Other than that, it’s been the little things that have been the most gratifying.
“It sounds like a cliché but just watching the kids grow and improve. What they couldn’t do last year, comes naturally to them this year, that’s what I liked. Seeing them grow.”