A sportswriter, a donkey and a March Madness tale for the ages

By Jim Muir

Merle Jones and Bill Darnell met only once in their lifetimes, but my-oh-my what a memorable meeting it was. In fact, it was a meeting that thousands of Southern Illinois basketball fans can still recall with exact detail.

Jones was the legendary sports editor of the Southern Illinoisan newspaper and Darnell was a civil defense worker who lived in West Frankfort. A series of events and a touch of March Madness brought the unlikely duo together on a cold, blustery and snowy day 48 years ago.

Jones, who served as sports editor at the Carbondale-based newspaper for nearly 30 years, was looked on as an icon and an institution in the region. It was often said that once an individual’s name appeared in one of Jones’ column it was a clear indication that person had arrived and was a fixture on the area sports’ scene.

(Merle Jones is pictured riding a donkey and leading a victory parade down West Frankfort main street in March 1960. Billy Darnell, who passed away this week, is pictured on the left in the dark coat.)

In his easy and folksy style of writing Jones often made predictions about certain games. One of those predictions came in March 1960 prior to a super sectional match between West Frankfort and Granite City.

The Redbirds entered post season play on somewhat of a down note, going just 2-6 during their last eight regular season games. In the regional finals the Redbirds had to come from behind to beat Johnston City by a score of 40-34.

West Frankfort then defeated Mounds 71-69 in double overtime in the first game of the sectional and then squared off with Metropolis in the sectional final played at Herrin. On the other side of the bracket Pinckneyville and Granite City played in the other sectional final in East St. Louis. The two winners would then meet, also in East St. Louis, in the super sectional and the right to advance to Champaign, where the state tournament was played.

Jones wrote that Pinckneyville or Granite City, regardless of which team won, would be the heavy favorite to advance to state tournament play. In what might have been an omen that Jones didn’t recognize at the time, West Frankfort defeated Metropolis 71-69 in double overtime – its second straight double overtime victory by the exact same score. Granite City knocked off Pinckneyville 73-66 to set up the East St. Louis super sectional match up.

Convinced that Granite City was the better team, Jones wrote the following sentence that started the now legendary chain of events.

“The Redbirds go to Champaign, win or lose, but they need not worry about taking their uniforms,” Jones wrote in a Sunday column on March 14, 1960 predicting Granite City was a cinch in the super.

The day after the column ran in the newspaper Jones received a note from Darnell, a young civil defense worker and avid West Frankfort Redbird fan.

“I would like to thank you for your preview of the West Frankfort-Granite City game,” Darnell wrote. “I’m inclined to go along with you on your prediction but I’m not quite as sure as you are.”

Then Darnell penned the paragraph that will forever be etched in the annals of Southern Illinois March Madness history.

“If West Frankfort beats Granite City and gets to take their suits to Champaign, you should ride a jackass down the main street of West Frankfort in front of the parade. Since you know the outcome it is no gamble on your part.”

The letter was signed by Darnell and also contained a post script.

“PS – I will furnish the jackass.”

Showing that he was up for the challenge and also displaying his flair as a writer Jones fired back a quick reply to Darnell via another column the following day.

“Brother Darnell, you’ve got yourself a deal. Nothing would please me more than to lead the victory parade.”

Proving the unpredictability of high school basketball West Frankfort pulled off a stunning upset defeating Granite City 66-64 in double overtime – their third successive double overtime win in succession. Years later Jones wrote about the night of the game, the parade and his ride down West Frankfort Main Street on Zephyr, the mule.

Jones wrote:

“That night produced one of the biggest snows of the winter – so much that the Redbird team stayed overnight in East St. Louis. I was not so fortunate. I had to come home that night to write my story for the next day’s paper. The next day was something else. The West Frankfort radio station kept blaring away about parade plans. I kept getting telephone invitations to appear.”

Jones continued:

“I arrived in West Frankfort before noon. Friend Darnell had two donkeys ready. I guess the spare was in case one donkey froze to death before the team arrived about 2 p.m. I know I almost froze waiting for the team. We had a fine parade with hundreds of fans and curious travelers lining both sides of the street. Redbird fans were good sports and hardly anybody threw snowballs at the man on the donkey. Those fabulous Redbirds of 1960 put me on a donkey for the first and last time. Imagine three straight double overtime victories and two by the same score!”

Jones retired from the newspaper in 1978 after nearly three decades of covering Southern Illinois sports. Jones died on Dec. 8, 1993 following a three year bout with cancer.

Darnell, now 74, lives in Florida but also maintains a residence in West Frankfort. Only 26 years old when he made the challenge, Darnell still has vivid and fond memories of that March Madness moment nearly five decades ago.

“I was really a little put out with Merle for writing that,” said Darnell. “High school basketball is so unpredictable, especially in the post season. I really thought he went a little out of bounds writing that, he didn’t give us any chance at all to win.”

Instead of getting mad about the column Darnell decided to extend a good-natured challenge to Jones and spent two hours composing a letter.

“I wrote the letter and challenged him and then he wrote about it in the paper,” said Darnell. “I was surprised because he accepted the challenge and was a good sport about it.”

Darnell laughed as he recalled Jones’ first meeting with Zephyr.

“He (Jones) took one look at the mule and said, ‘do you expect me to get on that thing’ and I said, ‘get on there, you said you’d do it if West Frankfort won … and we won,’” Darnell said. “In the end he was good natured about it and we laughed about it. There were a lot of people that wanted to see him on that jackass, so there was a big crowd at the parade.”

Darnell said the story has been recalled many times throughout the years but he never talked to Jones again after the parade.

“The reason I wrote the letter was because I took a lot of pride in local sports and he made it sound like we shouldn’t even show up,” said Darnell. “I don’t think either one of us thought that we would end up being a part of March Madness history in Southern Illinois, though.”

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