HERRIN -- Jim Vest has lived in Herrin the last 10 years, but will always call Kentucky home.
Now 86 years old, the former high school and college standout basketball player is a regular customer at the American Legion and Teddy's Sports Bar and Grill, both in Herrin, where he downs a couple of cold ones and enjoys the easy life in these -- his golden years.
Once known for his quickness and agility on the court, Vest moves at a much slower pace these days. Balky knees and a bad back reinforced with steel rods are the reason.
In his youth, however, Vest was quite the athlete. Listed as a 5-foot-10 point guard, he played seven years of basketball for Walton High School, which is in northern Kentucky, close to Cincinnati, Ohio. Junior high students were eligible to compete on the high school team. Although a reserve in the sixth grade, he started varsity from the seventh grade forward. He was a good enough player to land a scholarship from Western Kentucky University at Bowling Green in the spring of 1950, where he played four additional years.
Vest was later named Walton's best player in school history and is on the Hall of Fame there.
Each year at Western Kentucky, his Hilltoppers team qualified for the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), which was the big-school tournament of its day. In fact, Western Kentucky twice advanced to the semifinal round of the tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York, including his sophomore year of 1952 -- the same year that the Hilltoppers bested Louisville in the opening round of the tourney.
"I think I was pretty good. I was quick, could dribble the ball, and had a good two-handed set shot," Vest said. "That's the way I was taught. Nobody shot one-handed like they do today."
Vest, nicknamed "Dyke" by childhood friends, was first a member of Western Kentucky's freshman team.
"Back then, freshmen weren't allowed to play varsity ball, but we had a really good freshman team," Vest said. "We had three All-Americans and I was the leading scorer. My friends would kid me that I was the leading scorer because I had the ball all the time as the point guard, but the truth is we ran a lot of fast breaks and I got a lot of easy baskets."
Vest would eventually start for the Hilltoppers as a junior. During the E.A. Diddle coaching era (1948-56), Western Kentucky qualified for the NIT six times and captured the Ohio Valley Conference title several times, as well. The school now competes in Conference USA.
Not to be overlooked was the fact that Vest was quite an accomplished baseball player. A catcher, he was a part of two OVC championship teams.
"I would liked to have played professional baseball," he said. "I had a chance. I used to catch batting practice for the Cincinnati Reds, but then I got married and had a kid. I had to make a living to support my family, so I went to work and gave us baseball."
One of Vest's baseball highlights was catching a semi-pro game.
"I was asked one summer to go to Covington, Kentucky to catch a game," he said. "They held the game up until I got there. The pitcher throwing to me was Jim Bunning (Major League Baseball Hall of Famer). And I also played in a basketball league one year with Jim in Cincinnati. He was pretty good at basketball, too."
Vest majored in Geology at WKU, but taught history at his high school alma mater upon graduation. He also taught and coached at nearby Newport High School.
In 1963, Vest gave up teaching and went to work as a systems analyst and programmer with a private firm. He then got a job as a data processing manager with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Cold Springs, Kentucky. He retired from the Kentucky Department of Transportation in 1998.
Through business dealings, Vest became acquainted with Herrin attorney John Brewster in the late 1970s. Years later, when he moved to the region, he lived with the Brewster family for a period of time. He met Teddy's Sports Bar owner Bill Sizemore shortly thereafter.
"When he first opened the bar, I got to know Bill, and then I started playing on his bocce team and we won the league title nine years in a row. I still play from time to time," Vest said. "But I mostly just hang out with him at the bar in the evenings."
Sizemore, himself a former athlete, said he has thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Vest over the years and considers him part of the family.
"I enjoy hearing his stories and having Jim as a friend," Sizemore said. "He's kind of like a second dad to me."