BY RUSSELL HUFFMAN
Even with the nickname “Bear” Stephenville’s Ronnie Isham was a gentle giant.
A man who led by more than example with huge helping hands and a heart to match. An avid sportsman away from work, Isham loved softball, camping, hunting and watching his grandchildren excel in sports.
Isham passed away Monday after having served Stephenville as Director of Parks and Recreation and later as Director of Community Services from 1964 until his retirement in 2001.
If you have ever enjoyed time at the Stephenville City Park, you’ve been introduced to the work of Isham whose vision brought about many of the facilities and services available today.
KTFW FM general sales manager Norma Savage remembered Isham fondly from her days as a twirling coach in Stephenville.
“Ronnie was a great person to work with, and he was always so supportive of young people,” Savage said. “He was ahead of his time when it came to making sure that young girls in our community had the same opportunities as the boys. Ronnie encouraged the girls to use the facilities and helped put together twirling contests. Ronnie Isham was a good man and I will miss him dearly.”
Isham was heavily involved with USA Softball and loved bringing the sport to his community and saw great value in what the tournaments held in Stephenville did for the city. More importantly, he saw the value of athletics for all children in the area and was always seeking to squeeze the maximum out of his staff while letting them manage on their own.
Drew Wells worked closely under Isham for years and later took over Isham’s job as Director of Community Services.
“In a person’s life there are a handful of people who have an influence and impact on you,” Wells said. “Ronnie Isham was on the top of that list for me. He was a man who always had a consistent message, and he let you manage on your own. He held you accountable when you didn’t make his standards.”
Isham’s ability to maintain a personal relationship with his employee while also molding them into the kind of employee the city needed was something highly valued.
“Ronnie invested time in you if you were his employee. He knew the names of your family, and he was always asking how they were,” Wells said. “He developed personal relationships with people and made them know they were doing something important every day.”
Isham was even a matchmaker when he found out Wells was interested in a young lady named Robin Bell who also working for the parks department.
“He told her I was a pretty good guy and that she should hang on to me,” Wells laughed before turning serious. “When I got ready to ask Robin to marry me Ronnie said I needed to go and ask her father first. I don’t think he was being traditional as much as making me understand the importance of what I was about to undertake. That’s just how Ronnie was as a friend and as a boss.”
Isham must have been a skilled matchmaker as Drew and Robin have been married for the last 26 years.
Isham was always able to look at the big picture and how the things that were currently going on could or could not change that. Isham’s staff knew how to produce a softball tournament, and their performances were some the biggest reasons coaches from USA Softball were always seeking his counsel.
It was from attending a softball conference in El Paso one year that Wells remembers one of his biggest laughs while working for Isham.
“We were at a hotel and there was another convention there with guys who were the funny little hats with tassels on them (Like the Moose Lodge guys from the TV series Happy Days), and we are in a crowd about to go have drinks and dinner,” Wells said. “One of those other guys and Ronnie are standing back to back and bumped into each other. The other guy turns around and looks up at Ronnie and with a straight face exclaimed ‘My Gosh! You are big enough to eat hay!”
The laughter from Wells was spontaneous.
“The other guy said it with the straightest face because he was truly astounded at how big Ronnie was, but the look on Ronnie’s face was priceless,” Well said.
After retiring in 2001, Isham began busying himself with his family and watching his grandkids play sports and he was along for the ride when Stephenville won its state football title in 2012.
Grandpa might have been enjoying his retirement but he was still serving as a consultant (unpaid) for Wells and his staff.
“Ronnie took my calls every time I had a question,” Wells said. “Because he worked for the city for so long he was a wealth of knowledge about infrastructure or on how to solve a problem that was encountered in the past. That’s just the kind of person that he was – a giving man.”
USA Softball upon Isham’s retirement immediately scooped him up and made him its Director of National Teams. Isham moved to Edmond, Oklahoma for the job but was in contact with his family in Stephenville and making sure the yearly hunting and fishing trips went off without a hitch.
On those family trips, it was Isham who would arise early and break the eggs to start the morning meal. Then it was either hunting or turning his attention to a construction task needed to make life a little more comfortable.
“Dad was always the one in charge and the rest of us were his workers,” Shay Isham said. “When he was working in Oklahoma our family outings were one thing he never missed. He was the breakfast cook and I took over as the supper cook.”
When his grandchildren got into high school that was the end of Isham’s full-time career with USA Softball and he moved back home to Stephenville. While Isham did continue to work on a contract and consultant basis for the organization Tyler, Grant, and Maren Isham just had to look over toward the stands during volleyball and football games and there was their grandfather cheering on their every move.
The City of Stephenville honored Isham upon his retirement and presented him with a sign referring to the Stephenville City park as “The park that Bear built.”
Ronnie Isham was a gentle giant and people loved him for it.