Brent Kell remembers the time Larry Southern was running late for the Houston Tigers’ basketball game at Mountain Grove. Southern had been at a meeting in Jefferson City that day with the highway patrol.
“He came back part of the way with his police lights on to make that ballgame. That’s the truth,” Kell recalled of the game his senior season at HHS. “He wanted to be there.”
Southern was there. But not just for that one particular ballgame. For more than 30 years, Southern was at nearly every event affiliated with Houston High School.
Boys or girls.
Spring or fall.
Game day or practices.
A staple of Houston athletics for more than three decades, Southern died Sunday. His health had been steadily declining in recent years, but it didn’t keep him from supporting his Tigers. He continued attending every game he could make, including the Lady Tigers’ basketball game last Monday against Mountain Grove.
Kell said the Lady Tigers have dedicated the rest of their season to Southern.
“Lady Tiger sports just won’t be the same without Larry being around,” said Kell, HHS girls’ basketball coach. “When he was in good health, he never missed a game. He was there from the time I was in high school 24 years ago until the day he died.”
Southern was especially close to the baseball program and coach Brent Hall, who invited Southern about five years ago to join his team as a bench coach. Hall called him the “Red Schoendienst of the Houston Tigers.”
Hall, who lost his father when he was 15, said Southern was a father figure for him. They talked nearly every night during the baseball season, especially about the St. Louis Cardinals.
Hall drove back and forth to a Springfield hospital to be by Southern’s side before he died.
“The calls I received asking how he was doing – it’s unreal the people that were calling and concerned about Larry and his family,” Hall said. “He was one of the best people you could ever meet. He was loving and caring. He could walk up to a stranger, talk to them for five minutes and end up giving them a hug.”
Southern came to Houston from Carthage in 1969 with an assignment to Troop G of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. He showed an immediate fondness for local sports.
His good friend, Bob Holland, recalled the time Southern pulled him over for speeding. When told Holland was a member of the quarterback club, Southern sent him on his way.
Kell said Southern would often times stop by when he and his friends were playing basketball on a court beside a local gas station.
“Larry would pull over in his police car, get out in his uniform and scrimmage or play a game of horse with us,” Kell said.
When there was a ballgame, Southern was there. He volunteered to work Missouri Tigers football games with the patrol, attended multiple St. Louis Cardinals ballgames, including spring training with his wife, Debbie, and went to many area high school events. At Houston games, he was always close to the action.
Southern’s booming voice left little doubt whom he was rooting for. Referees and umpires were often targets of his loyalty. But win or lose, he was there to offer his support.
“His passion for kids was absolutely sincere,” said former coach Charlie Malam, whose 106 career victories are the most in HHS boys’ basketball history. “Whether it was good times or rough times, Larry was the same – supportive 100 percent of all the kids, players and coaches. He just wanted them to be successful.”
Southern developed close relationships with many students, offering them advice, support and always an embrace. Hall said Southern spent thousands of dollars over the years to pay for camps, equipment and food for players. He even bought Christmas presents one year for an entire family.
But just as important as his financial assistance, Southern was there for the emotional needs of the kids he was around.
“If he saw a kid having trouble, he’d take them aside and talk to them,” Hall said. “The kids knew he cared about them and loved them so much. He would get kids through problems during the game and even off the field.”
Hall said Southern’s approach on the roadways with the patrol was the same as his relationship with athletes.
“Instead of giving out tickets, he talked to the kids,” Hall said. “That probably did more than the ticket because they respected Larry so much. That’s kind of how he handled things.”
Southern wasn’t always as compassionate with officials. One of Malam’s fondest memories was the time he was booted from a game after receiving two technical fouls. Southern later apologized to Malam. He was afraid his comments had been heard by the referee, resulting in Malam’s ejection.
Malam’s favorite story, though, took place on the golf course, where Southern was a fierce competitor. The two were paired in a men’s league and finishing their round when a storm began rolling in from the north. Malam, who had a two-stroke lead with three holes remaining, suggested they retreat to the clubhouse with the rest of the golfers. Southern said no.
With the thunder rolling, Malam said he needed a 3-wood to reach the green on No. 8 from 130 yards out. His cap blew off his head while putting. And his lead vanished. Southern pulled even on the final hole.
“He wouldn’t quit,” Malam said. “It doesn’t matter how stormy things look, Larry taught me then to never give up. Hopefully, part of Larry has been imparted in us.”
He had an especially strong impact on Hall, who said he didn’t realize how many times he spoke with Southern until he looked through his cell phone this week. He just recently hung a framed photo in his living room of the final game played at the old Busch Stadium. It was a gift from the Southerns. It means even more now that Larry is gone.
“I’m really going to miss him,” Hall said. “Personally, he was like my Dad. I told him things I would have told my Dad if he was alive. Baseball season is going to be really tough this year.”