There has long been a soundtrack to summer for kids growing up in North Kingstown. But before the speakers on his big blue bus started blaring, Al Southwick had work to do.
“Getting that radio going was one of the first priorities before summer began,” said Chelsey Dumas-Gibbs of the North Kingstown Recreation Department. “Test the radio and test the speakers.”
Behind-the-scenes work like that defined Southwick’s 44 years with the town’s recreation department. Organizing the camps and leagues that the bus rides led to would have been enough. Southwick drove the bus, too - and always made sure the radio was working so the bus rides would be loud.
“Selfless dedication,” said Councilman Kerry McKay, a longtime friend.
Southwick died June 4 at the age of 73 after having been diagnosed with cancer in March. He was approaching 45 years with the department, the last 23 years as the director. In that time, he coached, supported, organized and cheered for generations of North Kingstown residents.
“There isn’t a person in this town who was involved in athletics who doesn’t know Al Southwick,” McKay said. “And now their kids and their kids’ kids.”
Born in Minnesota, Southwick and his family bounced around before settling in North Kingstown. Southwick was a standout athlete whose baseball prowess earned him a tryout with the New York Yankees.
“He was very competitive,” McKay said. “He didn’t like to lose. I was on the other end of it many times - pickup basketball games, all kinds of stuff. Al was a winner and he instilled that in the kids.”
When his own career ended, Southwick began coaching Babe Ruth baseball in the 1960s. He also volunteered in the town’s youth basketball program, steadily becoming more involved until it became official and the recreation department hired him as a program coordinator.
His job description was long and ever-changing, based on what the programs and the children of North Kingstown needed. Dumas-Gibbs worked with Southwick for the last four years and watched him show up to work every day with his lunchbox and a can of Pepsi.
“He was full of life and spunk, always came in with his lunchbox ready to go wherever the day would take him,” she said. “He was always planning what was next on the field or what trip was next to take on the bus. He knew how to let things roll off his shoulder and urged you to always do the same. I have never heard one negative comment about this man. How could you ever have anything bad to say about Al Southwick? Watching someone enjoy their job as much as he did isn’t something you see too often. He had a way of making work his life but yet still enjoying every single moment of it.”
Southwick could be spotted coaching basketball, standing by the pommel horse making sure young gymnasts didn’t get hurt, organizing youth softball, even taking tickets at recreation-sponsored children’s theater productions. And of course, he drove the bus, North Kingstown Recreation emblazoned on the side and Queen blaring through the windows.
“The children would always look forward to Al driving the Blue Bus and blasting the radio,” Dumas-Gibbs said. “It’s all you would hear when they would pull back into the school grounds and all the children would come off smiling from ear to ear.”
All the time and all the work was driven by the same mentality.
“The kids were everything to him,” McKay said.
His work helped set the course for all-state careers and college scholarships - and a lot of fun before the stakes got high.
“I have been getting a lot of calls since he passed and some emails from children, parents, coaches even other recreation directors all saying how much impact Al had on them, their careers, their children or even grandchildren’s lives,” Dumas-Gibbs said. “It’s heartwarming to know how much impact he has had on this community and even in other communities.”
Southwick enjoyed watching former campers and youth leaguers in North Kingstown High School games. And as a competitor, they made him proud. The high school’s athletic success can be attributed in part to strong youth programs that have long had Southwick’s fingerprints.
“It's amazing how many people's lives he's touched,” said North Kingstown athletic director Dick Fossa. “At the high school, any time you have a great feeder system, when they're teaching the fundamentals and the proper values, it's going to show. The success of the North Kingstown High School athletic program certainly had a lot to do with the work Al did.”
Southwick’s support for the children of North Kingstown was unwavering, whatever sport they were playing, whatever activity they were joining.
“The town of NK lost a tremendous asset that can likely never be replaced,” said North Kingstown Jaguars football president Brian Bellucci. “Al was always a phone call or email away if our organization had a question or needed anything. He always made a point to stop by one of our Sunday home games each fall. Seeing the kids playing in the game and others running around McGinn Park just having fun seemed to put a smile on his face. We will all miss Al.”
“Al was a fixture in youth sports in NK,” said North Kingstown Wickford Little League president Arnie Sarazen. “His name was synonymous with youth recreation and more specifically girls softball. He was selfless - always working behind the scenes, preferring to be out of the spotlight and giving the kids the opportunity to shine. A true friend of NKWLL - he worked side by side with us to provide a safe, fun and fulfilling experience for the youth of NK. He will be truly missed.”
Tributes and memories have filled social media comment sections since Southwick’s death. The town is planning a celebration of his life on July 9 at the town beach. Anyone interested in sharing a story at the event can contact McKay at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, the games will go on.
“Coming into work every day sitting at his desk surrounded by the pictures of all the children and the lives he touched has been difficult,” Dumas-Gibbs said. “The most important thing to me in this hard time is remembering that the best way to keep his legacy alive is to keep his programs running for his community. Al wouldn’t want us to grieve. He would want us to get up and play ball!”