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In the eyes of Henry Connell, the founder of the Grafton junior varsity baseball team, the rickety wooden press box that sat to the left of the baseball field backstop was long overdue for a makeover.
“We’ve got to get this thing fixed,” he would often say to his daughter and Grafton’s field hockey coach, Brooke Feiner.
Determined to get a new press box built, Connell met with Grafton varsity baseball coach Matt Lewellen in November to discuss construction.
Connell never got the chance to see his dream of a new press box become reality. On Dec. 6, 2014, Connell died unexpectedly on his 63rd birthday.
After Connell’s death, Feiner decided the proper way to celebrate her father’s life was not with a traditional tombstone and flowers, but rather to fulfill her father’s dream of building a new baseball press box for Grafton High’s baseball team.
The new, sturdy brick press box that will sit directly behind the backstop at Grafton’s baseball field, will serve as a memorial to Connell, who gave so much to Grafton’s baseball program.
After 15 years of volunteering for York County Little League, Connell was tasked with starting and coaching Grafton High School’s first junior varsity baseball program after the school opened in 1996.
Connell, who worked for 25 years at Anheuser-Busch, coached the Clippers junior varsity baseball team for 10 years in his spare time. After working “graveyard” shifts at Anheuser-Busch, Connell was moved to a daytime shift and was forced to step away from his coaching duties.
Even though he stopped coaching, Connell never fully left the Grafton baseball program. Connell worked the scoreboard with Feiner during Grafton home baseball games and remained good friends with Lewellen.
After retiring from Anheuser-Busch in January 2014, Connell jumped at the opportunity to get back on the baseball diamond when a varsity baseball assistant coaching position became available at Grafton a couple months later.
Connell coached for the last time alongside Lewellen during the 2014 baseball season, helping lead the Clippers to a semifinal appearance in the 4A state tournament.
Having been part of Grafton’s athletic department for so long, Connell became like a family member within the larger Grafton community. That’s why when Feiner approached Grafton Athletic Director Laura Sutton about her idea for a memorial press box two days after Connell’s death, the decision to go all-out on the project was a no-brainer.
The need for a new press box at the baseball field had been talked about for years. Originally built when the school opened, the wooden press box showed signs of aging in the warped, cracked wood with which it was constructed 19 years ago. Marred from years of wind, rain and regular use, the press box was on its last legs.
Connell’s plan for a new press box was nothing flashy. Limited by funding, the late baseball coach simply wanted to replace the old wooden press box with a new one. However, after the publication of Connell’s obituary, which included an address for people to send donations, the opportunity to make a lasting memorial became available.
With the help of Sutton and Michelle Rowland, a bookkeeper at Grafton High, funds raised from the obituary — almost $5,000 in total — were collected and managed.
The outpouring of support from the community was staggering to Feiner.
“What it means to me and my family goes beyond anything we ever imagined,” she said. “We knew we would get some money and that people loved him. We never expected the amount of support we received.”
An unexpected source of support came from a local Yorktown business: Total Home Improvements.
After learning of the memorial press box project, Total Home Improvements founder Randy Firth approached his project manager Frank Griffin and told him “This is your project.”
Griffin, whose daughter attends Grafton Middle School, designed plans for the press box from scratch and proposed Total Home Improvements cover whatever costs remained from Grafton’s fundraising efforts.
“Some things are more important than money,” Griffin said. “We always say, ‘It’s more than sticks and bricks for us.’ This was a way to put our money where our mouth is.”
Despite estimating the project would cost around $10,000 to complete, Griffin was adamant that Grafton pay no more than what they had already raised for the press box. Total Home Improvements agreed to cover the project’s remaining $5,000 price tag, providing labor and materials in the process.
“We’ve been in this community for 26 years and we’ve done well as a contractor here,” Griffin said of Total Home Improvements. “We’re excited to be a part of this project. Connell’s loss was sudden, so we’re just happy to make a phase of this easier.”
Lewellen said Grafton is planning to hold a special dedication ceremony for the new press box during Grafton’s varsity baseball Senior Day on May 8 when the Clippers take on Warhill.
For Feiner, who keeps the score book for every Grafton High baseball game, being able to bring her father’s dream to life has been therapeutic. With the help of the community, Connell’s press box — a far cry from the outdated wooden relic upon which he used to watch Grafton baseball — will go beyond what anyone ever imagined.
“It’s amazing how much of an impact this man had on people’s lives. Everyone came together and did this,” Feiner said. “We’re overwhelmed and full of gratitude. We were able to take this from a baby project to a full-bodied project. The outpouring of support has been nothing short of amazing. We’re happy to give back to that program that gave him so much happiness.”