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Lead man of Dartmouth athletics grounds crew prepares to retire

  • Gordon "Honda" Barnes, right, watches a Dartmouth College baseball game against visiting Brown on April 14, 2013, at Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park. Barnes, a South Royalton native, is retiring next month from his longtime job as lead man on the Big Green's athletic grounds crew. (Tris Wykes - Valley News) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. » Buy this Image

  • Gordon "Honda" Barnes, shown in an undated photo, will retire next month as lead man on the Dartmouth College athletics' grounds crew. The South Royalton native started on the job in 1980 and has had an inside look at almost every aspect of Big Green sports. (Tris Wykes - Valley News) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. » Buy this Image

  • Gordon "Honda" Barnes, longtime lead man on the Dartmouth College athletics grounds crew, watches an April 10, 2017, baseball game at Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park. Equipment manager Steve Ward is at left. Barnes, a South Royalton native, is retiring next month. (Tris Wykes - Valley News) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. » Buy this Image

  • Gordon "Honda" Barnes, the longtime lead man on the Dartmouth College athletics grounds crew, is shown in an undated photograph in Floren Varsity House. The South Royalton native is highly regarded by Big Green coaches and throughout the athletic department for his work ethic and dedication. (Tris Wykes - Valley News) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. » Buy this Image

  • Gordon "Honda" Barnes, second from right, looks over colleague Rick Hoisington's shoulder in an undated photo taken before a Dartmouth College baseball game at Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park. Barnes will retire next month as the longtime lead man on the Big Green athletics grounds crew.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/25/2019 9:42:20 PM
Modified: 12/25/2019 9:42:15 PM

HANOVER — They’ve gathered behind the waist-high, chain-link fence for years now. Mostly during April, although also sometimes in March or May, depending on the Dartmouth College baseball team’s home schedule.

Down the first base line, just past the visitors dugout, head groundskeeper Gordon “Honda” Barnes, former men’s basketball assistant Paul “Doc” Donahue and equipment manager Steve Ward lean on the barrier and kibbitz. A small, revolving cast of local extras sits in on occasion, but time is breaking up this modern-day Knothole Gang. Barnes is scheduled to retire next week.

“Most all of us can be replaced, but I’m not sure that’s the case with this one,” Donahue said. “Honda’s an institution unto himself.”

Barnes, 69, has been the Dartmouth athletics grounds crew’s “lead man” since 1998. The White River Junction resident joined the staff in 1980, when one of his many duties was tending to Davis Rink, Thompson Arena’s skating and hockey predecessor, which opened in 1929. A generation of youth hockey players knew they were prohibited from taking the ice until the shaggy-haired Zamboni driver had cleared the surface and slammed the eastern end’s double doors.

“He takes what he does very seriously,” said Richard Whitmore, Dartmouth’s senior associate director for facilities. “He and his crew are the back bone of our department, and they have to function at a high level for our teams to function at a high level.”

Barnes was born in Lebanon’s Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital and his family lived in Sharon before settling in South Royalton. His father, Harold, worked a railroad job and then in maintenance for Hanover’s Mary Hitchcock Hospital. His mother, Alice, worked at several local stores, including the former Rich’s Department Store in West Lebanon. Their other child, Ernest, is retired after working in Hitchcock’s mail room.

Barnes graduated from South Royalton High in 1968 after playing soccer and baseball for the Royals. A die-hard baseball fan and history buff, Barnes said he threw a no-hitter and came close on several others occasions, but sometimes had no idea where his heaves were going.

“I could throw it through a brick wall,” he said with a chuckle. “Other kids were afraid of me.”

Sensing that he was likely to be drafted by the Army, Barnes volunteered for the Air Force upon graduation and served four years active duty. He describes being “scared to death” when entering basic training in Texas, but he became a jet engine mechanic skilled enough to join the Strategic Air Command. He toiled mostly out of Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine.

“You could look out the window and see Canadian Customs,” Barnes said. “Every day, you worried about being sent to Taiwan, Vietnam or Guam.”

Upon exiting military service in 1973, Barnes spent seven years at Dulac’s Hardware Store on Mechanic Street in Lebanon, loading trucks, driving a forklift and waiting on customers. It was there that he was nicknamed, after the boss’s son showed up on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and Barnes responded by buying a Honda.

“Anyone who’s known me for the last 35 years calls me Honda,” he said. “It’s actually the name I prefer, but my family calls me Gordon. To answer to that again will be weird.”

It was during the Dulac’s days that Barnes’ wife, Judy, babysat the children of Dave LaBombard, who then held the job that Barnes holds now. LaBombard got Barnes a job working the night shift at Davis Rink and then on the college golf course before the new guy settled into the day shift. He later worked under Etna resident Keith Pelton, whose own father, Nick, had previously been the grounds crew’s lead man for 30 years.

Barnes took to the job for several reasons. First, he was a hard worker to whom the small stuff mattered. Second, he hid that work ethic under a laid-back attitude and joking personality that endeared him to generations of Dartmouth coaches, players and support staff. And finally, he’s an enormous sports fan with an encyclopedic memory.

“He knows everything about teams and kids and memorable events and plays,” Donahue said. “He takes his job real serious but he does it in a way like he’s going through the motions, which is the furthest thing from the truth. He’s beloved.”

Coaches loved Barnes’ mellow vibe and get-it-done results. At the same time, they and the athletic administration respected his willingness to stick up for himself and his eight-man crew. The boys would work day and night to get the baseball or lacrosse field plowed of snow, but if producing a softer, safer surface wouldn’t occur until three hours past the scheduled game time, you’d best listen to Honda’s advice on a delayed start.

“It takes a lot of thoughtful planning and you have to have someone in the job who understands the big picture and all that has to get done by the end of the day,” said Whitmore, noting that Dartmouth fields 35 varsity teams and 36 club squads. “Honda knows how to line a rugby pitch and drive the Zamboni and how to deal with snow-covered fields. He’s been doing this so long that his expertise has filtered down to many other people.”

Nowhere was that knowledge deeper than when it came to Red Rolfe Field. Dartmouth’s baseball diamond was comprised of grass and clay until 2009, and for much of Barnes’ career its right side often sat in the shadow of the towering Memorial Field football bleachers. That meant that while left field and third base might be soft and greened up, the opposite side could be frozen on a given spring morning. The pitcher’s mound was about half-and-half.

“It was a huge challenge back in the day to get the frost out of parts of the field, but I enjoyed it,” Barnes said. “You’d drop 80 bags of (water-absorbent material) on the infield and rototill it in. We’d put a (heater) under five layers of tarps and heat blankets to try and get the frost out. The whole operation was really primitive.”

Somehow, the games almost always went on, which earned Barnes friendship and respect not only from Dartmouth baseball coach Bob Whalen, but from his peers around the Ivy League and beyond. Yale’s 27-year coach, John Stuper, is a former Major League pitcher and a big Honda fan, as was Keith Pelton when he ran the crew.

The former lead man, now a Norwich resident, recalled earlier this week how some other union workers once complained upon learning that Barnes had been paid for more than 80 hours’ work in an single paycheck. This came after staging the annual Dartmouth Relays, a three-day track meet in Leverone Field House and an enormous logistics challenge.

“These were the same guys who you went to with a request to work overtime during other times of the year and they’d turn you down flat,” Pelton said. “Honda never did. He’s a worker, not a slacker. It didn’t matter what job you sent him to, you were going to get his best effort.”

Barnes fondly remembers Dartmouth’s 1987 baseball team that reached regional play behind future Major League pitcher Mike Remlinger. Onetime men’s soccer coach Bobby Clark is another favorite, not only for his sunny personality, but for how he had his players walk the field after a game to replace divots. The Big Green’s last two football coaches, John Lyons and Buddy Teevens, also are held in high esteem.

Known for a sly sense of humor, a willingness to engage in trash talk and for wearing shorts virtually year-round, Barnes is also one of those rare creatures in New England: a details-obsessed Chicago White Sox fan. Want to know Carlton Fisk’s shoe size? What made Luis Aparicio so good in the middle infield? All about the various quirks of owner Bill Veeck? Honda is your man.

“He’ll always tell you that Nellie Fox was the greatest player ever,” Donahue said with a laugh. “Jacob Nelson Fox.”

Barnes is also an Elvis Presley enthusiast and keeps his vehicles in spotless condition, year-round. Now, after working 496 months at Dartmouth, he’ll have more time for those passions and his wife, two sons and grandchildren. Last but probably not least is his rescued hound dog, Molly, who was found in a Georgia Dumpster as part of an eight-pup litter.

“I’m looking forward to walking her through the woods in Norwich on a spring weekend,” said Barnes, who’s also excited about no longer having to set his alarm clock for 5:55 a.m. “And fishing might be something I’ll take up again. But I love Dartmouth sports too much to stay away.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.




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