New ballpark named for Country Atkins

Tuesday, July 8, 2008 | 6:07 p.m. CDT; updated 4:25 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Encouragement from coaches. The ping of an aluminum bat. Cheers from the crowd.

The sounds of baseball soon will fill 80 acres adjacent to the Boone County Fairgrounds. Two baseball fields have been constructed on the land that was donated by Tom Atkins in 2002. Plans are in the works for three more fields and a concession stand.

But before the park can officially open, it needs a name. That’s why Atkins called the family together. After talking about it, they decided to name it after his father, Thomas E. “Country” Atkins.

No one who knew Thomas Atkins called him by his first name ­— people knew him as Country. The name Thomas E. “Country” Atkins Memorial Park was first approved by the Boone County Commission and the city Parks and Recreation Commission and became official when the Columbia City Council formally approved it Monday night.

Country didn’t play baseball; he was a football player and, later in life, a golf enthusiast. His hand-eye coordination made him a crack shot with a shotgun and an excellent billiards player. His son Tom Atkins described him as a big guy who was “strong as an ox.”

Country was born in southern Boone County and moved from the family farm to Columbia in 1926 to attend Hickman High School. He lived by himself in a rooming house at first, until his family moved to Columbia. He took his education seriously but also kept a job digging ditches for a plumber.

He worked hard. He worked for three years without taking a day off during the Great Depression, Tom Atkins said.

“He was ambitious but a very smart deal maker,” Atkins said. “He taught me that a good deal is a deal that’s good for both parties.”

Country was a man of his word and handshake. “Even if it hurt him, he’d do his part,” Atkins said.

Atkins said his dad’s sense of humor came out best in spur-of-the-moment situations. He was a known practical joker.

A lifelong entrepreneur, Country owned several businesses and residential properties in the county. In 1948, he and a friend opened the Stein Club, a bar on South Eighth Street that was frequented by college kids who Atkins remembers would visit his dad when they were in town. Country sold the bar after 27 years but continued to invest in real estate and the stock market.

Country died in 1984 and had suffered from diabetes in his later years. The Atkins-Holman Student Commons at Columbia College was also named after Country. Atkins and his wife contributed the lead gift of $600,000 in the fundraising for the project.

This year’s heavy rains have slowed construction of the park next to the fairgrounds. Sod has been laid and fences are in, but the parking lot and final features can’t be added if it’s raining, senior parks planner Toney Lowery said. He hopes to have the fields playable by the end of July if the weather cooperates. Construction delays have been frustrating, but Lowery said he’ll be happy once everything is done.

“I can almost see what it looks like,” he said.

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