Heart of the Treasure Valley

Harmon's legacy: His dream has become her dream

Idaho StatesmanMarch 22, 2014 

  • A Miracle League Field story

    Nita recalls a story from a fundraising dinner in Minnesota: Organizers were having trouble finding enough buddies to hold a Miracle League game, so they commandeered some junior high school baseball players. One of the Miracle League players spoke.

    "He said, 'We're mainstreamed in. We have lockers on one side, the jocks are on the other and … we're invisible. Nobody looks at us, the teachers don't look at us, the students don't look at us, we're invisible.'"

    The day after the game, the player heard his named being called in the hallway. It was his buddy.

    "'He was a jock and he brought all of his friends and he introduced them to (me) and … from that time on, every time one of his friends sees me, they call me by name and talk to me.' He says, 'We're not invisible anymore.' Yeah.

    "That alone is worth building a field."

  • The Harmon Killebrew Miracle League Field

    The field will be at the Payette Sports Complex behind McCain Middle School in Payette, dovetailing with pre-existing plans for restrooms, concessions and stands by the school district and the city.

    Craig Jensen, with Miracle League of Payette said "We're going to make this Miracle League field in honor of Harmon as nice as any in the country."

    The big goal is $400,000, but organizers can start with less and are ready to break ground soon. Amenities will be added as funds arrive, and they hope to have kids playing ball by the summer of 2015.

    Jensen says there are 3,000 special-needs kids within a 15-minute drive of Payette, drawing from Weiser, Payette, Ontario and - as far as McCall and eastern Oregon.

    Nita Killebrew: "It just has to be done. It needs to be done. This was his wish and his dream. And he knew it would be tough to raise the funds in Payette. We'd need the whole valley's help. … "

    "(At first) I looked at (the field) from an economic point of view, because that's my field," Jensen said. "This could make Payette a destination point."

    "Then I saw the video. Yeah. And (now) I'm seeing there's so much more to this than the economic part of it. That's going to be a great by-product - but having seen those kids playing on that field," he said.

    • Want to contribute? Make a check out to Killebrew Miracle Field and mail it to P.O. Box 74, Payette, ID 83661. Email: miracleleagueofpayette@gmail.com; or call (208) 642-4654. Link to the website through IdahoStatesman.com.

    • See a video. Search for Caroline Travelers Miracle League or link to it from IdahoStatesman.com/heart.

  • Harmon Killebrew Days

    The third Saturday in April every year is Harmon Killebrew Day, although Friday and Saturday activities make it more Harmon Killebrew "days."

    • 9:30 a.m. Friday, April 18. Harmon Killebrew golf tournament, benefiting the Harmon Killebrew Scholarship Fund for the best all-around athlete, at Scotch Pines Golf Course. To register, call Ron Manser, 642-2402.

    • 6 p.m. Friday, April 18. Banquet benefiting the Payette High School baseball team. $20.

    • 11 a.m. Saturday, April 19. Harmon Killebrew baseball game. After the game: activities, music, food.

  • Harmon’s death: ‘I know there’s a presence all around me’

    "There's a beauty in dying. There's such a beautiful moment when they pass away. You're grieving so hard you almost miss it. ..."

    Harmon died early in the morning on May 17, 2011. A little before 7 a.m., a nurse shook Nita Killebrew awake.

    "She said, 'Nita, he's slipping away.' And so I just grabbed him and held him. … He was struggling so hard to breathe. He turned his head to me and kissed me and he died. That was it. That moment was so incredibly beautiful.

    " … That morning when he passed away, it felt like - I'll tell you what it felt like. … It felt like the wing of an angel accidentally graced my hand, like a touch. … I felt it inside me; I radiated it. …

    "(Someone) told me later, you know, you're not grieving like most widows. … Is there a guidebook? Because I know I glowed. I totally knew I did God's work and I was OK and I was OK with Harmon being out of pain.

    " … Someone said, Nita, how do you deal with this loss? I said it's like … trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a thimble - it wasn't going to work. … I had to turn it over to God, and … when I did that, God filled me with absolute love. I still miss that man and I'll always miss him and there will never be anyone like him. But I'm not lonely. From that moment on, I wasn't lonely. …

    "I feel his presence. I know there's a presence all around me all the time. I know God loves me."

  • Who was Harmon ‘Killer’ Killebrew?

    Harmon Killebrew was born in Payette in 1936 and played baseball, football and basketball at Payette High School. He was 17 years old when he was signed by the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins franchise in 1954.

    He was one of the most prolific power hitters in Major League Baseball history. By the time he retired, he had hit more home runs (573) than any right-handed hitter. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1984.

    Nita Killebrew calls this part of his life "the first time around."

    "He just always felt like a kid. You got to play a game and you get paid, too, to earn a living. He was delighted."

He was restless. He most likely needed to rest, but, sigh, that didn't sound like fun. His wife, Nita Killebrew, thinking she'd outsmart him into choosing a nap, offered a quick shower - or, you know, we could go watch the kids play baseball.

She says: "Harmon always got the last laugh."

Because he said: "Oh, there's no decision to be made. Let's go. Watch the kids play ball."

As sick as he was, in no time at all, he'd changed into freshly pressed blue shorts with - she laughs at the memory - white shoes and white socks pulled way up high. He put on a matching blue-striped shirt and a little straw hat and his sunglasses. He was ready to go.

She says: "He looked so cute. Just vibrant and alive."

More than 21 years before, Nita's husband, Hall of Fame baseball player Harmon Killebrew, had survived three death-defying illnesses. Who knows whether he knew, this time, that he wasn't going to beat the odds, that esophageal cancer had the upper hand.

On this particular day, though, it didn't matter. He had kids and baseball on his mind.

"When you've got a mission - a heart, you know - it'll move mountains. … "

This wasn't any old baseball game, either. This was on a Miracle League Field, dedicated to and designed for kids with disabilities. Harmon and Nita had committed themselves in the last several years to building them as fast as they could raise money. This one was in Arizona - but Harmon had one more dream: to build one in his hometown of Payette.

"We (once asked him), what about a legacy for you? He said, 'Let's finish building the Miracle Leagues where I lived and played.' In his honor, basically, although he didn't say that. I said, do you want us to name them after you? He said, 'The one in Payette.'"

A Miracle League baseball field has a rubberized surface suitable for wheelchairs and walkers and fragile bodies; the game is played so that each kid has a buddy to help them around the bases. All kids bat, all kids are safe on base, all kids score and both teams win the game.

"It is my goal to finish that legacy (for him)."

This particular day in 2011 was hot like Arizona can be. It didn't stop the kids, but it was not, truthfully, a good day for a sick man to be watching baseball. Maybe it's time to go home?

"He just looked at me and said, 'I'm not leaving till every kid crosses that home plate.'

" … I just kept watching him and when I did, it was like, oh, Nita. That's not his game face. That's Harmon connecting with his peers. He wasn't wearing that Hall of Fame hat that day, he wasn't the big cheese. He didn't want to be. That day was different. …

"We stayed. We finished the game, he shook every hand and the coaches' hand and said thank you for what you are doing."

Harmon would die just 11 days later. The day at the ballpark still resonates in Nita's memory, watching him watch the kids play.

"(I saw that for him) it was more than just another ball game, it was a game of life. A equalized opportunity for these beautiful, specially gifted kids to play a game of pure love and joy. … "

Nita met Harmon in 1979, when she was an office manager and Harmon was selling insurance and estate planning. He had retired from baseball after the 1975 season. She had never heard of him and his fame, but her father had - and mentioned that he had even refereed some of Harmon's high school basketball games.

"So when I walked into his office to meet him, I stuck out my hand and looked him right in the eye like you're supposed to do. I shook his hand and said, 'My dad told me what a great basketball player you were.' Yeah.

"He hung on to my hand, looked over my shoulder to his partner and said, 'Did we already hire her?'

"It's a great story but absolutely true."

They married 10 years later, on Jan. 4, 1991, a year after the one in which Harmon defied doctors' prognoses - and gave Harmon what he called his second chance in life.

" … He said, 'God has something he wants me to do and I don't know what it is. But I'm supposed to do something.'

"And I said, 'Harmon, you've done a lot of charity work through baseball. And you've always done a lot through the church - you've done a lot of stuff. He said, 'No, this is so much bigger than baseball. This is more important.'"

He found two different callings. First, he became a spokesman for hospice, at a time when such care was viewed as a death sentence instead of compassionate work. Then he was introduced to Miracle League. He and Nita partnered with Harmon's old team, the Minnesota Twins, to build fields - eventually 11 of them in Minnesota (two of them named after him) and two in Arizona.

"After he almost died in 1990, he was on a mission. He was a man with a mission, he was focused, he was clear. He did way more charity work than he did before. It was his full-time thing.

" … He always said, 'My mom told us we were put here to help each other, so let's get with it.'"

Nita's role in all of this was behind the scenes. Everything just went better when she was the one negotiating contracts for her famous husband; when she was the one making phone calls, lining up logistics, paying bills. Everything went smoother when she was on hand, and Harmon depended on her.

"I liked standing back, helping him do all those great things and being his backup person. I got a little glow with the light, with the warmth. I liked that supportive role."

With her husband's death, though - and his dreams yet unfulfilled - Nita has had to leave that role behind.

Reluctant or not, now it's her seeking the limelight, her making the personal appearances, speaking to media, speaking in public and rallying support - for the Harmon Killebrew Miracle League Field in Payette. And not just an ordinary Miracle League field. It's one that she and the newly formed board of directors dream of being the flagship of all Miracle League fields nationwide.

"That was the one he asked for, so for me, that is the most important one … But I would like to see even more … I want them all throughout Idaho."

She does not relish being front and center, but she, too, is compelled.

"This is my heart; I love this. This is not working.

"But I have to tell you - being out in front doing media isn't easy for me. Doing sales is not easy for me; Harmon always did that. He always tried to drag me along and get me out in front.

" … I was shy as a kid. … It's not easy for me to do this stuff, but this Payette (field) is really important to me. …

"I am fulfilling Harmon's legacy."

At his memorial service, Nita read a note from a fan:

"'Harmon is an extraordinary, beautiful, loving, compassionate human being. Who also happens to be a legendary baseball player.'

"I just want to make sure people remember that…"

Know someone living "from the heart"? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service