History: William “Willie” Frank Darnell did what was right

History: William “Willie” Frank  Darnell did what was right
William “Willie” Frank Darnell was a man of morals and courage. He served in about every position possible in the Phenix City Schools System.

Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County. 

On a cold Thanksgiving Day in 1937, the Central High Red Devils prepared to play their final football game of the season on the road against Eufaula High. It was not a particularly important game for the red imps of Central or the Tigers of Eufaula. Neither team had a great season. Central entered the contest at 2-5 while Eufaula was 4-4.

The game was the third in the series between the two schools and Eufaula led the series 2-0 having won the initial contest between the two 32-18 and the second game 34-0. Today, the Red Devils are 13-16-3 against the Tigers – one of only a few teams that Central does not hold an edge.

But, in 1937, Central made the short, but rough, trip to Eufaula down a partially paved and mostly dirt rutted road. The bouncing and banging trip took its wear and tear on the team.

Central took the field and held a 13-6 lead at halftime. The few Central fans in attendance were excited to see their Red Devils on the upside of the scoreboard. Winning a third game was a possibility – a win to build on for the 1938 season. However, here is where things turned strange. Right before the half, Central was flagged by game officials for a personal foul which prevented a possible third touchdown and a bigger lead.

Central’s coach stepped on the field as the clock for the first half expired and asked game officials to explain the personal foul call. They told the coach it was for “talking.” Perhaps in today’s terminology, the player who drew the flag was “trash talking.” That is a penalty which usually draws a warning before a flag is thrown at a repeat offender. No warning was given to the Central coach or player the officials admitted unapologetically. 

So, the Central coach collected his players for a quick talk and sent them to the team bus for the trip back to Phenix City. Wait, back to Phenix City? There was another half of football to be played. Central would not be participating in the second half. Its coach could see in his mind the game was not going to be pleasant for either team the rest of the day. Either Central was about to be flagged to prevent further scoring as it had been at the end of the first half or play between the two teams would have gotten out of hand with possible fighting. So, Central High accepted the first – and only – forfeit in school history against a team it will once again play in the 2020 season for the first time in 13 years.

The coach of the Red Devils at the time was William “Willie” Frank Darnell, a man of morals and the courage to do the right thing. Darnell felt he was doing the right thing on that Thanksgiving Day in Eufaula and so did the fans who were in attendance. In fact, the entire Phenix City community felt Darnell did the right thing then and for many years to come as he advanced to the positions of Athletics Director, Principal and Superintendent. Darnell held the position of Superintendent from 1956 until his death in 1958.

The autobiography of Darnell appeared in the Keyhole Newspaper – Central High’s student newspaper at the time – on February 4, 1949. It is not a very exciting tale, but it is a tale of a man who was one of, if not the most, loved as a teacher, coach and administrator the Phenix City Schools System has ever had and, as stated above, a man of moral character who was unafraid to do the right things as an example to his students, their parents and to the community he grew to love.

Going into education was not Darnell’s first choice of a career. He worked a few weeks with a state highway engineer and his crew that boarded with his family during the summer after his Freshman year of college. The work made him think he wanted to return to college to become a civil engineer. That would change a year later.

Darnell began his career in education as the principal of a two-teacher school near Notasulga where he lived as a youngster. Darnell had two years of college at the time and needed to work for a year to get enough money to return to school to get his diploma. But, after less than a year as a teacher, he had discovered his true profession. He married his wife, Ethel Ellington during his first year as a teacher. After that first year, he and his wife moved on to a three-teacher school near Phenix City. He remained there until 1928 when the couple moved to Phenix City and began work in the city’s school system.

Darnell served as principal at an elementary school in Phenix City for two years before moving to Central High as a teacher and athletic coach. Darnell served as Central’s football coach and baseball coach. He was the second coach of the Red Devils behind Kenner Kimbrough and was 33-60-6 as their coach from 1931 to 1941 when he turned over the job to a former player of his, Jessie Thomas Garrett. Darnell also coached the Red Devils’ baseball team in those same years and also handing the job to Garrett in 1942.

Darnell left Central to take the job as principal of the new junior high and stayed in that position until 1946 when he became principal at Central High. He remained principal at Central until 1956. Then he became superintendent of the Phenix City system until his death on January 8, 1958. He is buried in the Masonic Section at Lakewood Memory Gardens.

Of his early life, Darnell said, “I was born May 11, 1904 on a farm near the city of Notasulga, Alabama. I had no brothers and sisters and, as a result, I was rather lonely during my childhood. I cannot recall anything worth recording in a short autobiography that happened to me in my childhood. My life was typical of any normal country boy.”

He had much more to say of his later life. In the autobiography he penned for the Keyhole, he wrote, “Phenix City is my home. The people of Phenix City are my people. I have tried to serve them to the best of my ability for twenty years. I have watched the town grow and change into a better place to live and rear a family. As I have watched this growth and change, I have had some small part in helping the youth and the town grow and improve. I have a son growing up in Phenix City and being educated in its schools. I am glad that I am a citizen of Phenix City, and that my son is living, growing and learning here.”

After Idle Hour Park was purchased from the family of Roy Martin in 1951, the baseball field which came in the purchase was named in Darnell’s honor. It remained Darnell Field until former Central High baseball coach Ron Nelson also received the honor of having his name associated with the facility after winning over 600 games with the Red Devils. It is today known as Darnell-Nelson Field.