Remembering Donnie Roberts - (1943-2005)
By Ottie Reno
At the request of NHPA President Paul Stewart, I put together this brief look at the life and contribution of former NHPA Secretary/Treasurer Donnie Roberts, whose mother, Marjorie Reno, was my sister.
Donald Eugene "Donnie" Roberts died February 23rd, 2005 at his home in Lucasville, Ohio. Born July 8, 1943, he was 62. The last few years of his life were plagued with illness, including two heart bypass operations and at least two heart attacks.
With Donnie's passing, the horseshoe world lost one of its greatest promoters and friends, as well as a great pitcher. The game and the people who played it were part of his life from the cradle to the grave, and he loved them both. He was a good athlete, excelling at Softball, Basketball and Jukskei, but his favorite game was pitching Horseshoes.
Donnie's accomplishments would fill a book, so I mention only a few highlights in the hope that his life will be appreciated and remembered. In 1959, at Murray City, Utah, he won the junior boys' world championship. In 1972, he won the Ohio men's state championship averaging 81.5% ringers and clinching the title with a 50-47 144-shoe marathon victory over Wilbur Cabel. In 1973, he averaged 78.3% for the entire season, including 15 consecutive tournaments over 80%. He pitched a perfect game, 38 out of 38, against Ernie Danielson of Iowa in an NHPA-sanctioned tournament at Dayton, Kentucky. At Rushville, Indiana, in a 50-shoe cancellation tournament, he defeated Curt Day 12-9, a game in which he hit 94% and Day 92%. In Statesville, North Carolina's dogwood festival, he set two records which stand to this day, 92% in qualifying and a complete tournament of 15-0, 85.8%. At the 1972 Bob Evans farm festival, as a part of the Reno-Roberts family's annual exhibition, he hit 42 consecutive ringers. In 1971, he pitched his way into the world tournament finals. Had he devoted his entire energies to practice and pitching only, I think it is safe to say that Donnie had a genuine chance to win the world championship.
Instead, he chose to serve the game in the added capacities of promoter and administrator. That took its toll on his pitching, as it does on all promoters of the game. In that area, he also excelled. Donnie was one of the organizers and officers in the powerful pike county horseshoe club, which produced many state and world champions in all divisions and brought about the inclusion of women's and junior divisions in the Ohio State Tournament. He built and operated four indoor courts, which for years attracted top pitchers from neighboring states. He had league play running seven days a week, bringing dozens of new faces into the game. He was recognized for his work by being inducted into the Ohio HPA hall of fame.
On the National level, Donnie's greatest contribution was his 20-year term as NHPA Secretary/Treasurer (1976-1995), longest in NHPA history. His work won him the 1977 NHPA achievement award and the 1978 Stokes Memorial trophy. He ran 20 consecutive world tournaments smoothly and efficiently, as well as the Las Vegas open, Ohio state fair, and many others. He worked tirelessly with all other national officers on many improvements to our game: eliminating qualifying and substituting Nat Stats; devising a move-up system, and fine tuning round-robin play in the world tournament; putting in place judges, scorekeepers, pacers and directors; moving from the old chalk-and-blackboard days to the use of computers, email, fax, cell phones and all the rest; preparing guidelines for regional directors; moving world tournament sites to all sections of the united states and Canada; bringing the world tournament from a format limited to only a few of the top players to its present practice of playing all pitchers who enter; helping build and dedicate courts at the Whitehouse and Camp David; operating his horseshoe pro shop as a part of the NHPA's distribution of game-related items to pitchers all over the world; going to Japan representing the NHPA as well as to South Africa as part of an international sports exchange; serving as a member of the NHPA speakers bureau, rules committee, hall of fame committee and first director of the nationwide sanctioned league program.
In 1986, Donnie was inducted into the NHPA Hall of Fame.
On the personal level, Donnie was an elementary school teacher and guidance counselor with a degree in elementary education from Ohio University and a Master's degree in counseling from Indiana State University in Terra Haute. All members of his immediate family pitched NHPA horseshoes: his wife, Helen Roberts, was an Ohio Women's State Champion and runner-up to Vicki Winston for the World Championship; all three of his children, Sheila, Donnie B. And Susan, won junior state titles in Ohio. His brother, Gary Roberts, was a four-time junior boys World Champion and Ohio men's State Champion. All family members have participated in exhibitions.
A little known but important fact is that Donnie and his brother Gary were pioneers in junior division play, and most of the rules that govern junior play were put in place because of situations they had to confront: can a junior compete in both junior and adult classes in the same tournament, does competing in an adult class terminate a junior's eligibility to continue in the junior division, can a junior accept prize money without destroying his junior status, what is the exact age range during which a junior can remain a junior, and can a junior pitch from 30 feet in junior play and 40 in adult play? Other questions arose and were resolved.
This sketch only scratches the surface of Donnie Roberts' part in our sport. If you are one of the people who never knew him or if you want to know more about him, you can still get acquainted. Just ask the officers who serve on state, local or national levels who worked and pitched with him what he was like. They will give you a smile and tell you about his even temperament and confident approach to every phase of the game, as well as how they and you are in Donnie's debt. Every day in Donnie's presence was a good day.