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Vai's View: How Harmon Killebrew, Charlie Manuel blessed a small Virginia Mormon community

Published: Friday, May 20 2011 10:47 a.m. MDT

Richard Whitehead is an administrator at Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista, Va. In a previous life, he was a dentist, a mission president in England, and a trustee at two of his alma maters, Dixie State College in St. George, Utah, and Creighton University School of Dentistry in Omaha, Neb.

Last summer, Dick called me with a favor.

Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is from Buena Vista, a small town of less than 7,000 in the Shenandoah Valley, and as a World Series champion, Charlie is regarded as the town's favorite son.

Would I ask Charlie to come speak at SVU?

I generally loathe doing those kind of things. But Dick's timing couldn't be more perfect. Charlie was scheduled to come to my studio later that week for a one-on-one interview. And while I had never been to Buena Vista, my LDS stake has had a dozen kids graduate from SVU and half a dozen there now.

After appearing on my TV program, I walked Charlie to his car. On the way, I asked if he was familiar with SVU in his hometown.

"The Mormon school on the hill?"

SVU was an all-girls seminary from post-Civil War days, until a group of wealthy East Coast LDS businessmen bought it in the mid-90s and converted it into a liberal arts college, patterned after BYU in its values and environment.

The town was hit with two devastating floods in 1969 and 1985 that nearly wiped it out. But the seminary was mostly spared because it sits atop a hill. Hence, the townsfolk who lost everything regard the school as privileged, with an aura that it's "above the fray" — literally and figuratively. It's a view that was only heightened when rich Mormons bought it and started sending their kids there and others from faraway places like Sandy, Utah, and Rigby, Idaho.

"Yes," I replied. "The Mormon school. I have friends who teach and are administrators there. Some of my closest friends have kids there. If you happen to visit Buena Vista after the season, any chance you could speak at the school, Charlie?"

Charlie Manuel was a gifted hitter when he played for the Minnesota Twins in the late '60s and early '70s. He was an even better hitting instructor and manager, with the Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Phillies, tutoring Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. What he is NOT, is a gifted speaker.

"You know my hometown is divided 'bout that school, don'tcha?" Charlie said, as we stopped at his car. "Some think dem Mormons just out for themselves."

This wasn't going well.

Suddenly, a big grin crossed Charlie's face.

"You know what I told 'em? Dem Mormons are good people. You just watch what they do with that school. Know why I know? 'Cause I played with Harmon Killebrew. 'Killer' was the finest human being I've ever known. Never cussed, didn't womanize, didn't smoke, drink or snuff."

And with that, Charlie got in his car.

"Let 'em know I'll be happy to come speak," he said. "Right after the World Series."

The Phillies were eliminated in October by the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

A few weeks later, Charlie gave me a personal tour of his hometown as my TV photographer rolled. He took me to the lumber mill where he worked and the football and baseball fields where he played. He told me story after story of his close relationship with Killebrew, who was already an established superstar by the time Manuel was drafted by the Twins.

Charlie introduced me to Buena Vista Mayor Mike Clements, his younger brother Press, his sisters, his barber, nearly the whole town.

Dick Whitehead, the SVU administrator, rolled out the red carpet and had them all sit in "reserved seating" in the SVU fieldhouse for Charlie's devotional. Dick told me weeks later how effective Charlie's presence at the school had been in their relationship with residents, many of whom had never been to the campus. Townsfolk seemed less suspicious and friendships were forged.

As a baseball lifer, Charlie's language can be colorful and salty, but he only said "hell" and "damn" once during his remarks. It was, after all, a devotional and a Mormon audience. When he met the SVU women's soccer team afterwards and learned they had withdrawn from the championship game in a tournament the previous week because it was scheduled for Sunday, Charlie lamented the fact he didn't know of it beforehand. He said he would've incorporated their stance into his remarks, he was so impressed. He told me his deceased father was a preacher and he never played on the Sabbath until he got to the majors.

Harmon Killebrew died Tuesday. Charlie Manuel was among the many who paid tribute to the Hall of Fame slugger in various media reports.

Neither men really know how their friendship blessed a small Mormon community.

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