Farmer recalls barnburning youth

Published 8:04 am Sunday, February 11, 2007

Dick Tunnell has carried on a few traditions passed down to him from his father. He farms the same land his father once did, and in the early 1970s, the younger Tunnell twice won a male athlete award that was named in Dad’s honor.
As a junior and a senior, Tunnell received the Gilbert Tunnell memorial award for Male Athlete of the Year, presented to him by the Washington Daily News.
Tunnell graduated from Mattamuskeet High School in 1971.
Tall and a bit on the gangly side as a teen, he was starting center all four years of his high school basketball career. The game then was played at a different pace and style.
Most of the basketball courts were slick tile floors in those days, Tunnell said. “We would put vaseline on the bottom of our shoes to give us some grip,” he said.
The fan support, Tunnell said, was tremendous.
Tunnell played all three sports the lone Hyde County high school offered in his youth. The diamond was a second place he excelled at. He lettered in football as well, but not as exceptionally.
He was an offensive end — what transformed into a wide receiver position as the game evolved.
After his high school days, Tunnell went on to college, earning an agricultural education degree from North Carolina State University.
He walked on the college’s freshman team his first year there. He played for that team in 1971 and 1972, which ended up being the last season the college suited up a freshman ball club.
Tunnell’s freshman teammates would be the same group of guys to give State its unbelievable 1974 season that culminated with the Wolfpack winning the national championship.
David Thompson was on that Final Four winning team, and according to Tunnell, the college star’s 48-inch vertical jump was but a hint of Thompson’s talent.
After college, Tunnell came back to Hyde County to take over the family farm. Married with two children, Tunnell served on the Hyde County Board of Education for 16 years. Twelve of those years, he served as chairman.
Despite 10 hurricanes in the last 10 years threatening the Hyde County soil, Tunnell has managed to keep the produce he farms alive. Salt water on his land can take his crop away, he noted. “But I’ve been able to hang on and survive.”
The land has a special meaning to Tunnell. His father tilled the same soil. And when his father passed away — Tunnell was 16 — his mom kept up the farming operation, allowing Tunnell to finish school and go on to college.
When asked if he had a favorite sports moment, a wide grin appeared on Tunnell’s face.
His coach, Morgan Harris, was like a second father to him, Tunnell said.
In those days, area coaches kept rivalries just as much as ball teams did, according to Tunnell.
Tunnell remembers the friendly rivalry between his coach and Jack Wallace, coach at Bath High School who also coached Morgan in his ball-playing days.
One mournful bus ride back to Hyde County after Mattamuskeet High suffered a tough loss to Wallace’s baseball club was especially memorable, Tunnell recalled.
Mattamuskeet had lost 2-1. Losing meant no stopping for food. Those stops were reserved for celebrating — “an incentive to win,” Tunnell notes. But on this particular night, the bus would stop when the team happened upon some cows that had escaped.
Sports has given him fond memories, he acknowledged, but farming is his passion.
With all the advancements in the industry, Tunnell said it was an exciting time to farm.