Larry Happel, Sports Information Director
PELLA — The sledge hammers and concrete saws that assaulted the P.H. Kuyper Gymnasium equipment room during the building’s spring renovation project crumbled walls, pummeled counter tops and collapsed cabinets, but couldn’t erase the memories of a 50-year love affair with Central College athletes that was spawned there for Thom Summitt ’74.
He was a student worker for the late equipment room manager Eldon Schulte ’58 in the early 1970s and was quickly enveloped in the Dutch athletics world he grew to embrace, even more so following graduation. Since 1990, he’s best known as the public address announcer for hundreds of Central athletics events. But after relinquishing those duties for volleyball and softball contests the last couple of years, in February Summitt quietly also ended his 30-year run as the voice of Central basketball.
He was more than a $20-per-night bench official.
If there are personal highlight videos that stream in the memory banks of Central College’s basketball, volleyball and softball players from the past 30 years, they are narrated by Summitt, whose voice was a constant background presence for them during their games, along with his ready laugh, encouraging fist bumps and 1970s P.A. music. He was at the mike for NCAA Division III Championship finals in all three sports and other milestone moments in Dutch athletics history but brought the same enthusiasm to announcing half-court shootouts, co-ed dance performances and Parents’ Night introductions.
“I definitely think he brought the brought some energy to the gym,” said Andy Waugh ‘13, who initially got to know Summitt when he officiated Waugh’s junior varsity games. “Anyone who’s been around Central basketball recognizes Thom Summit’s voice. The passion he showed for all those years was very much appreciated.”
Never a varsity athlete, as a student Summitt was nonetheless immersed in the Central athletics world while in the equipment room, establishing friendships that are reignited at summer golf outings and frequent informal reunions. Those friendships now extend to countless Dutch athletes and coaches he’s met since graduating. But he also credits athletics leaders from his undergraduate years with providing a firm guiding hand when he needed it.
“If it weren’t for Eldon Schulte and (former football coach and athletics director) Ron Schipper, I never would have graduated,” Summitt said. “They kept me in school. I enjoyed the life of being away from home and they kept me on my toes.”
Summitt remained a regular at Central games following graduation while working at Vermeer Manufacturing as a regional sales manager and later as advertising manager. He filled in as announcer for the Dutch once in 1990.
“I think I did it because nobody else was doing it and then Coach Schipper asked me if I wanted to do it the rest of the season and I said, ‘Yeah,” Summitt said. There was no training program for what became a 30-year side gig.
“I just winged it,” he said.
He left Vermeer to work in Pella’s parks and recreation department in 1993, but his commitment to Central remained firm.
At the microphone, Summitt is respectful, quick to congratulate opposing teams and players. Yet with every “And one!” and “Point, Dutch!” the energy in his voice betrays his Central fervor. Few are more forever Dutch.
“You get to know the kids and it’s tough not being biased,” he confessed, acknowledging an occasional wince at an official’s call as well.
But while most announcers play to the crowd, it’s the athletes who are always top of mind to Summitt.
“The game is for the players,” he said. “There’s the entertainment part of it but I tried to make every player feel that they were just as important as the next player whether it was a reserve who was in there when we were 20 points ahead or whether it was a starter. If they did something well, I tried to use enthusiasm. Everybody likes to have their name mentioned and I always tried hard to make sure I pronounced it right.”
That feeling was evident to men’s basketball coach Craig Douma.
“On Senior Night he came up to me and says, ‘Coach, make sure you’re taking the seniors out of the game one at a time,’” Douma said with a smile. “He wanted to make sure they’re recognized. He cares about those players. That’s why he loves the program so much. It’s because he loves the kids and he loves people.”
Talk to the athletes and it’s clear Summitt is as special to them as they are to him. It’s telling, however, that they rarely even mention his announcing.
Justin Madsen ’10, a former guard on the Dutch men’s basketball team, recalled interacting with Summitt during pre-game warm-ups.
“You always got a lot of high fives before the game,” Madsen said. “He’s a pretty outgoing guy and he likes to know everyone. He was always around, which I think is great and is a positive influence on the team.”
The pep talks continued at the scorer’s table when players checked into the game.
“It seemed like no matter how well we were doing, it was always just really positive,” Madsen said.
It’s a little thing that matters to players.
“Basketball is such a game of runs and so much of it has to do with confidence and shooting the ball and things like that,” he said. “I think that last voice before you go in the game makes a big difference.”
Summitt cherishes that interaction.
“In basketball it just seems like it’s easier to get to know the kids,” he said. “I can sneak in and watch practices once in a while and all the coaches, since I’ve been doing this, have always made me feel like I was part of the team.”
The connections continue after playing careers end.
“I got to know Thom a lot better over the last few years now that we’re in Pella,” Madsen said. “He’s a great guy and, even now, nothing’s changed. He’s still always positive and uplifting every time I see him.”
On the softball field Summitt perhaps flaunted NCAA compensation rules with his tradition of handing out lucky pennies to Central players before games.
“Basketball always has been my favorite sport,” he said. “But I truly enjoyed doing softball and met a lot of great ladies, most of whom now are married and have kids, some even out of college. The players and I hit it off rather quickly in the 90’s. It wasn’t unusual for some of them to come over to our house and sit and talk with my family and me. Some even babysat for us and on a couple of occasions a few of them would come over at Halloween and hand out candy while wearing masks. The players took my daughter in and she still says today that she grew up with Central softball. She still follows the team today.”
Rachael (Everingham) Vice ’11 earned all-America honors as a softball designated player for the Dutch. An Illinois native now serving as a physical therapist in Paris, Illinois, Vice made an early connection with Summitt as a freshman when she was assigned the task of facilitating playing the team’s warm-up music over the P.A.
“For me he was a friend but also in a sense, he and his wife were somewhat of a family,” Vice said. “When my family wasn’t able to be at games, he would always come up between games and tell us, ‘Good job.’ He kind of filled that void in making sure that we always had somebody there, whether it was me or other players.
“And then I got to know his family and his wife a little bit more and I would go over and occasionally have like dinner with their family and, got to know his daughter and eventually his daughter’s kids, too.”
The athletes’ reviews of his P.A. music were less favorable. The ‘70s lived on when Summitt made the parent-approved song selections, with Neal Diamond crooning “Sweet Caroline” as a regular part of the rotation.
““I didn’t have a problem with it but I know (teammate) Miguel Ley ‘13 did,” Madsen said with a laugh.
“Yeah, he’s got dust on those CDs and he’s gonna keep using them,” Waugh said.
“Fans like the old-time music,” Summitt insisted. “I had a guy from Luther walk by one time and said we played the best music in the conference.”
Never mind that the fan had aged even more than the music.
“Well, he was my age if not older,” Summitt conceded. “He had gray hair, I know that.”
Summitt also connected with opposing coaches and even game officials, who good-naturedly accepted his off-mike critiques. Remarkably, when the start of Central’s Feb. 12 men’s basketball game was delayed as Summitt was recognized, one of the normally stoic men in stripes, Tom Fettkether, grabbed him before he stuck his whistle in his mouth for a tribute of his own.
“He’s refereed a long time and I was kind of taken aback,” Summitt said. “He says, ‘Get out here, I want to have a picture. We’re both in this together.’”
One duty Summitt won’t surrender is his work with Douma, Waugh and Madsen in planning the annual early season Alumni Men’s Basketball Weekend Douma established in recent years.
“We kind of use it as an excuse to get together and play some golf and bring our heads together,” Waugh said. “Justin and I kind of work on the younger crew and Thom works on the older players to get a little better turnout.”
Friendships fuel the weekend for Summitt.
“Being around him a little more outside of basketball, he’s just a very genuine guy,” Waugh said. “He’s so excited to see everybody that comes back, he takes time to shake their hand and talk with them. It’s never really about Thom with him, it’s all about them coming back. You can tell he’s proud of where he’s from.”
Even though he retired from his job with the city at the start of 2017, giving up the Central microphone won’t come easily for Summitt, who loved the duties so much he would take vacation from his day job rather than miss a softball doubleheader on a weekday afternoon. It’s not the sound of his voice over the microphone he’ll miss, or grappling with the sound system while hoping the recording of the national anthem played on cue or at all, which was sometimes a 50-50 proposition. And he’ll always cherish his role in magical moments with raucous sell-out Kuyper Gym crowds for the 1993 women’s basketball and 2000 volleyball national championships. But what’s hardest to surrender is more fundamental.
“It’s the interaction with the players and officials and opposing coaches,” he said.
Yet the ties to Central will remain.
“Central, it’s so many people that you meet,” he said. “And whether you’re friends with them or not, when I was with Vermeer I’d be traveling through an airport and I’d see somebody that went to Central and you had that connection. It’s just the friendships and relationships that you develop and they’re there forever.”
But Summitt has had his official career mike drop.
Or, as he would say in his signature end-of-game sign-off that was almost as dated as the music he played, Elvis has left the building.