#TGW: Tech's Salute to Service
Georgia Tech basketball players and coaches have a long history of service in the U.S. military
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
- It’s been a while since Tommy Taylor played basketball for Georgia Tech, yet the Old Gold & White still runs through his blood. So when he noticed months ago that the Nov. 11 season opener against Tennessee Tech fell on Veteran’s Day, the retired Army colonel got busy.
After extensive research, Taylor determined that 28 men associated with Tech basketball over more than a century served in the military. Upon contacting Athletic Association officials, the idea of honoring them – and all veterans – became real.
So when Tech offers a “Salute to Service,” at Friday evening’s game, Taylor, 66, will join several members of this select group, including retired Navy lieutenant Bobby Gaston, 93, and retired Army lieutenant general Ben Register, 86, in McCamish Pavilion.
They are eager to support new head coach Josh Pastner and his team along with former players and servicemen John Partin (1966-68) and Tom Bowling (1967). J.R. Wright, the nephew of former Jacket Gene Wright, also will attend.
Gene Wright played on the 1943-44 team and was called into the Navy between the regular season and the SEC tournament, and died months later on Utah Beach in the D-Day Invasion of June 6, 1944. He was awarded a letter in 1945, posthumously.
“I started adding this all up, and being that the game was going to be the 11th, I sent a note to coach Pastner’s office, talked it over with coach and he liked the idea right away,” said Taylor, who lettered at Tech from 1970-72.
“It’s coach’s first game, and we all wanted him to have a nice crowd. We wanted to help him get a good start, and you can’t get any more apple pie than the service. We’ll have everybody sitting together.”
Taylor splits time between his home in Augusta and a family pecan farm in Whigham, Ga., near Cairo, and attends a few football games and several basketball games each season.
That wasn’t easy during his 28 years in the service, which included time in the Vietnam and Gulf Wars before his second and final retirement in 2013.
Register spent even more time in the Army, and in 36 years moved all the way up to “deputy chief of staff of logistics for the whole Army,” before he retired in 1987. He spent most of his career, which included service in the Korean Conflict and two tours in Vietnam, in ordinance.
Before being commissioned in 1951, Register was among Tech’s first scholarship basketball student-athletes in 1948, lettering for coach Roy McArthur from 1949-51 and earning a degree in industrial management.
He lives in Bleeker, Ala., just across the Chattahoochee River from his hometown of Columbus. One of his sons, Richard, frequently drives him to Tech games. Richard attended Tech, and his older brother, Jeff graduated from the Institute.
“My father was a high school coach, and I used to go up to Tech with him to watch ball games,” Register said. “I didn’t think about any other place. It worked out just perfectly. I used everything I ever learned at Tech as far as managing industry.”
As far as Taylor’s research shows, the most recent Tech basketball player to enter the military was Robert Brooks. After playing for coach Paul Hewitt and going all the way to the NCAA Championship game in 2004, he graduated and joined the Marines.
Rising to the rank of captain, Brooks served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Bill Coleman of Americus was the oldest player Taylor found with basketball and military connection. He lettered in 1909, on Tech’s second team (a 1906 version went 2-1) under coach John Heisman.
Coleman was drafted into the Army, and died in a plane crash in France in 1918 during World War I.
Former head coach Whack Hyder (1951-73), who also played for Tech (1935-37), was in the Navy in World War II, while McArthur served in the Army. McArthur also played on The Flats (1930-32) before he was head coach (1947-51). Roy Mundorf, head coach from 1926-43, spent time in the Navy in WWII.
“There’s a very fascinating story about him that none of us knew,” Taylor said of Hyder, who was his head coach. “He went to Georgia Tech on a football scholarship, survived the sinking of ships in the Pacific and comes back and coaches Georgia Tech.”
Former athletic director Homer Rice (1980-97) served in the Navy in WWII and is expected Friday night at McCamish Pavilion, where he and Gaston figure to be the senior veterans.
Gaston, who was born in Atlanta, lettered in 1943 in football (after scoring a touchdown against Georgia), and in 1944 in basketball before serving in the Navy in WWII as a landing craft boat commander in the Amphibious Force. He graduated from Tech in 1948.
In addition to working in the insurance business and eventually starting an agency (Advanced) with wife Gail, Gaston became a legendary football official, first at the high school level in Georgia, and then in the college game.
He retired as the head of coordinator of SEC football officiating in 2007, and is in the College Football and Georgia Halls of Fame.
When he’s not playing four days a week at Settindown Creek Golf Club in Roswell, where he and Gail have a home off the ninth tee, Gaston’s keeping tabs on the Yellow Jackets.
“I go to all the Tech games,” he said. “We have had season tickets for both football and basketball, and have had for something like 54 years. My wife represented us all those years when I couldn’t go unless it was Thursday night or occasionally I’d take a week off.
“She didn’t go to Tech, but she’s a strong Tech booster.”
Gaston’s looking forward to Friday, as he, Register, Taylor and other veterans will embrace cherished parts of their lives: Tech, basketball and the military.
“Georgia Tech impacted me through what it stood for,” he said. “It put education ahead of athletics, and that’s ok with me because not that many athletes are going to go forward. Get a good education and get a good livelihood beyond that.
“I left Tech in February of 1944, came back in September of 1946 and graduated in December of 1947 but . . . I’m listed as June of ‘48. When I see players not putting their hands over their heart it irritates me because I’m part of the reason they’re there and not speaking German or something. I certainly plan to be there and I am pleased that they plan to recognize the services.”