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Kiwanis Club honors coaches known for instilling character

Amber McCleerey, Brenda Sparks McCleerey and John Whitmire congratulate Sue Moon, the 2019 Ricky Sparks Spirit Award winner. Amber McCleerey, Brenda Sparks McCleerey and John Whitmire congratulate Sue Moon, the 2019 Ricky Sparks Spirit Award winner.

The Hendersonville Kiwanis Club on Thursday honored two veteran coaches known as much for instilling character in young people off the playing field as they are for their win-loss record in the arena.

 

Henderson County schools Superintendent Bo Caldwell told young people honored as Kiwanis All-Stars that their achievements were about "more than athletics. It's about life lessons that you learn."

Nowhere was that truer than in the two longtime coaches the club honored.

The honorees are known for mentoring young people, spotting those who need a confidence boost and contributing to their community beyond the football field or volleyball court. James J. "Jim" Laughter Sr., known by his players as "Pop," was honored as the Lou Ann Morgan Leadership Award winner, and Sue Moon was honored as the Ricky Sparks Spirit Award winner. 

Instrumental in breaking racial barriers in Hendersonville and the county, Laughter coached the first integrated football, basketball and track teams at Hendersonville Junior High School in 1964-65. For his entire 51-year career he made sure those around him treated everyone equally, said Hendersonville High School principal Bobby Wilkins.

Laughter "made a name for himself in the schools by being someone who the students could turn to in times they needed someone," Wilkins said.

One of those was Eric Gash.

"As a young man, I was overweight, lacked self-confidence and struggled with a whole host of other insecurities," Gash said. "Pop recognized this and began to shape by perception of myself. He acted as a father figure to me and to so many other young men in need of guidance and direction." Gash went on to star in football at HHS and win a scholarship to UNC at Chapel Hill, where he played linebacker.

Laughter could not attend because of health reasons. His son, B.J. Laughter, a former HHS football coach and athletic director and now principal of Bruce Drysdale Elementary School, accepted on his behalf.

"I know he is the reason I became an educator," he said. Although B.J. Laughter was undersized, he played high school and college football. His dad's coaching and attitude would make kids "feel like they were 10 feet tall and could run through walls."

Sue Moon, the longtime volleyball coach at North Henderson High School, was honored as the Ricky Sparks Spirit Award winner. Soon after Ricky Sparks and his mothered were murdered in their home in 2007, the Sparks family created the award in their brother's name.

"He was one of the best teachers I ever had," said Ricky's younger sister, Brenda Sparks McCleerey. "He taught me to enjoy the moment."

A "forever special child," Ricky remained about the age mentally of a 6-year-old. Ricky sat on his family's porch on Ninth Avenue and cheered for the Bearcat players who walked to and from practice at the middle school. He never missed a home game, rain or shine.

"I'm honored to receive this award named for Ricky Sparks because I watched Ricky Sparks cheer for his beloved Bearcats," Moon said. "I remember him." Ricky's spirit and the family's response to his death stand as an example for everyone, Moon said. "They took a tragedy and turned it into a triumph," she said. "They're always looking for a solution. They look for ways to help people every day in life. May we live that spirit every day."

Moon, who lost a sister to leukemia at age 31, also turned sadness into commitment. She has led her teams' efforts to raise money to fight cancer, raising $60,000. Her volleyball teams have won the N.C. High School Athletics Association Commissioner's Cup award for five straight years for service to community. The 2019 NHHS teacher of the year, she also guides the Student Government Association and teaches the Leadership Class. The 60th Kiwanis All-Stars program also honored the top athletes countywide in spring sports.