CONWAY — Although Sut Marshall had been checking on the new Conway Parks and Recreation Department at Kennett Middle School almost daily for the past few weeks, he had no idea when he dropped in Monday morning that a major surprise was waiting.
With more than 160 summer campers waiting on the basketball floor, he discovered a white sheet covering center court. When it was pulled up, it revealed the words “Marshall Gymnasium.”
The facility has been named for Sut and his wife, Margaret, since the couple's philanthropy helped make the rec center’s forever home a reality.
Monday was the first day campers were allowed into the gym while the floor dried. To celebrate, Conway Parks and Rec Director John Eastman invited the Marshalls to stop by.
“It almost seemed like an afterthought when we talked on the phone,” Sut said later. “John said, 'If you get a chance, we’d like you to drop by.' I had no idea this was happening. No idea.”
Margaret was out of town and unable to attend.
Last year at Conway Town Meeting, voters approved moving the rec center from the aging Conway Community Building and approved spending $700,000, with $350,000 pledged by the Marshalls to cover the renovations needed to turn the unused portion of the middle school into a fully functioning rec center, including restoring an old gym built in the 1930s.
Eastman said he met this spring with Conway Town Manager Tom Holmes, who agreed that the gym should be named after the Marshalls.
“We felt it was important that they are recognized,” Eastman said. “They are very, very humble people. I wanted to see the Marshall name stay relevant long after we’re gone. It’s not about giving credit, it’s about being an example to the community and giving back when you can.”
With Marshall — a big junior sports enthusiast — being a frequent visitor, Eastman feared he might see the name on the court, but he didn’t.
“I’m very happy that we were able to surprise him," he said. "Sut is the reason, I can’t even put into words, how many kids he’s impacted over the years, and I was one of them. He made a difference in my life.
"What can you do for the Marshalls? They’ve done so much for others.”
With Holmes, Town Engineer Paul DegliAngeli and selectmen John Colbath and Mary Seavey on hand, campers and counselors on Monday gathered around center court. Marshall arrived and took a seat on the row of bleachers.
Serving as master of ceremonies was Todd Gallagher, Conway Teen Center director. “It’s an exciting day here today, a historic day,” Gallagher said. “The gym went away for 40 years and now it’s back, and you guys are the first ones to use it.”
Gallagher called Eastman onto the court to say a few words.
“Welcome to the new old gym, I think it looks beautiful,” he said and then asked Marshall to come out to talk to the campers.
They invited Nora Goodman and Logan Ramsey to put the first balls through a basket there since 1978. Goodman made a basket at the stage end of the court, and Ramsey sank his first shot at the far end of the court.
“In fifth grade, 70 years ago, I played ball in here,” Marshall said. “I can say it was a great gym then, but it’s even better now.
"This shows what a community, the selectmen and the school can do when we get together. I will always remember this day, it’s one of the best of my life,” Marshall said.
But it was about to get better.
“Because Sut said that, we’re hoping it remains one of the best days of his life,” Eastman said, adding, “We have a surprise."
The sheet was removed, and a minute-long standing ovation followed.
Marshall looked stunned. When he could speak, he said, “I’m humbled, I’m honored, and I’m kind of teary-eyed. Thank you."
Later he said: “I’ve received much more from getting to know and working with these kids than they could ever give me. Also, Margaret has been so supportive — she knows my passion for the rec. She’d say, 'If it’s for the kids, let’s do it.' I’m so grateful to her.”
Marshall said he loved the old gym and even had a spot on the court where he “was deadly” located just to the right behind the three-point line.
“I never missed, but if a kid stood in my spot, I was done,” he joked. “I was a fifth-grader, but Gordon Mann let me stay and practice with the seventh- and eighth-graders because they needed another body. I played through high school here. We used to have two sets of bleachers, and we’d fill both sides every Friday night.
"I will say this, not being cocky, we didn’t get beat here very much,” Marshall said.
He added: “I know I’ve said it before, but really mean it, my hope is that this will be a true community center. It’s much more than just a rec center for the kids. This building is for the entire community.”
At a $1-per-year lease, the department takes over roughly 22,000 square feet, or 13 percent of the 173,722-square-foot school building, in a section that was mothballed after Kennett High School moved to its new building 12 years ago.
The rec department’s former home, the Conway Community Building, lacked potable water and had heating, electrical and ventilation issues for the past three years.
Eastman smiles when he talks about the department’s new home.
“I think it looks really nice,” he said. “It’s turned out better than I imagined. We still have some work to do. We want to finish the stage and put in a sound system.”
Eastman estimates it will take about $60,000 for those projects but said the Friends of Rec continue to seek out grants.
The Conway Parks and Recreation Department’s Facebook page had 166 likes along with a dozen comments by noon Tuesday.
Deborah Karmozyn — “Congratulations, Sut and Margaret! Thanks for all you have done for the community!”
Tiffany Roberts — “Fitting and beautiful.”
Susan Morgan — “Wow ... thank you Sut and Margaret for all you do for the kids! Beautiful.”
The rec department had a soft opening with the start of summer camp, with 160 campers ages 6-14 from Albany and Conway.
Officials are planning a special community celebration in September.
"We are going to have a grand opening Tuesday, Sept. 10, at 6 p.m.,” Eastman said. “We want to reach out to all the donors — whether it be financial or donated services — and contractors, and recognize them.”