HOMETOWN HERO: Art Shoemaker “blessed” and “honored” for his 80th birthday

By Richard Walker

Since most who know Belmont’s Art Shoemaker have either witnessed one of his pranks, been a victim of them or both says a lot that about 200 of his closest friends were able to surprise him last Friday.

Art Shoemaker

Shoemaker, who turned 80 last weekend, was honored as a Gaston County Hometown Hero on Feb. 3 at the Gaston Country Club.

Only Shoemaker was told the ceremony was to honor someone else’s birthday.

“This means more than I could express in words,” Shoemaker said. “And it means more to me than you’ll ever know and it’s something I’ll never forget.”

Gastonia’s Hometown Hero program began in 2012 after for Leonard Hamilton after he coached Florida State to that year’s ACC basketball championship. Later, national championship-winning college basketball coaches Dave Robbins and Sylvia Hatchell, golf coaches Larry Penley, Bryan Craig and Nick Clinard, PGA golfer Harold Varner III and former Gastonia mayor and Groves Threads owner Earl Groves have been honored.

Last Friday, one speaker after another honored, poked fun at or laughed with Shoemaker throughout a two-hour program discussing Shoemaker’s devotion to his community, local sports and his fandom of the New York Yankees, North Carolina Tar Heels, South Point Red Raiders and Gaston Braves American Legion Baseball team.

Colleagues, neighbors, former athletes he coached, longtime friends and one of his two granddaughters spoke about Shoemaker’s influence on their lives and the Belmont, Cramerton and Gaston County communities.

“I have three words that I think best describe Art: Prankster, Encourager and Doer,” said Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame chairman Phil Cherry, who has known Shoemaker since the 1970s.

Shoemaker was being honored for having been an Eagle Scout in Cramerton, a longtime recreation director at Gastonia’s Groves Threads and Belmont State Farm insurance salesman in addition to organizing a multitude athletic and civic-minded events since the 1960s.

Phil Tate (left) unveils a framed Mickey Mantle photo that he presented to Art Shoemaker.

The honors he’s been given indicate the diverse life Shoemaker has lived – God & Country award-winner, founder and member of the Belmont Sports Hall of Fame, Belmont Citizen of the Year, N.C. American Legion Baseball Hall of Famer, Eastern Gaston Goodwill Ambassador award-winner, Harley B. Gaston Public Service award-winner, Order of the Long Leaf Pine honoree, Bennie Cunningham Fan of the Year award-winner, Cramerton Historical Society Spirit award-winner and American Legion Community Service award-winner.

Longtime Belmont Sports Hall of Fame emcee Joe Lawing presided over the ceremony.

“We’re here because we’ve all been on the ‘First Team,'” Lawing said in reference to a phrase Shoemaker has used to describe those with whom he’s worked with on his many community and athletic endeavors over the years. “And we’re all here to honor the person who led that ‘First Team.'”

After Shoemaker’s son-in-law Don Conrad sang the national anthem and former Gaston Braves player turned Naval officer and major league baseball player Mitch Harris led the group in the pledge of allegience, testimonials and stories about Shoemaker were offered by every speaker.

It started with current neighbor Stan Foster, who gave the banquet invocation. And they continued with former Groves Threads athletes Mike McWhirter and Mike Gibson, Kings Mountain mayor Scott Neisler, Belmont Abbey graduate Jay Briody, financial planner Mick McMahan, former South Point and Gaston Braves coach Phil Tate and granddaughter Kendall Conrad.

Many speakers presented Shoemaker with gifts, highlighted by Briody presenting Shoemaker with letters from five Al McGuire Belmont Abbey basketball players of the 1950s and 1960s, an honorary baseball scholarship from current North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Scott Forbes and a framed photograph of New York Yankees’ Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle (Shoemaker’s all-time favorite player) from Tate.

Because of Shoemaker’s many professional and community endeavors, perhaps his granddaughter may have summed up his impact on the community best.

“If I had a dollar for every time somebody told me, ‘You know, nobody has a grandfather like yours,” I’d be … well … Art Shomaker,” Kendall Conrad said. “My sister and I figured out early in our lives that there truly was nobody like our grandfather. I think that’s why we’re all here.”

Finally, Shoemaker took the podium.

“You’re looking at the most blessed guy in the world,” said Shoemaker, who thanked his wife Millie, daughter Shannon Conrad, son-in-law Don Conrad and twin granddaughters Colby Conrad and Kendall Conrad for allowing him to enjoy such a life of service to his community.

Art Shoemaker (center) with his wife Millie (left) and daughter (Shannon)

He also credited his Cramerton role models Jack Huss (a Cramerton High School coach and administrator) and Bennie Cunningham (a Cramerton athletic legend who hired him at Groves Threads).

“I’ve just been blessed around so many good people,” Shoemaker said. “And I’ve been lucky all my life. I’ve never had a job I didn’t like. And now that I’m retired, I’ve found things to keep me busy.”