More than 1,400 world-class competitors and their entourages—mostly spouses, kids, and grandkids— descended on Topeka, Kan., a year ago this month for a two-week test of skill and stamina. But it felt more like a great big family reunion.
The National Horseshoe Pitchers Association (NHPA) World Tournament is, after all, a friendly affair.
“Everybody there makes you feel like you were their neighbor,” says Melvin Jeardoe, who retired a couple of months ago as the Belleville district operations manager for Rolling Hills Electric Cooperative, headquartered about 30 miles to the west in Beloit, Kan. A lifelong horseshoe pitcher himself, Jeardoe played a leading role in bringing the global competition back to Kansas for the first time since 1909, when the state hosted the very first world horseshoe tournament.
It was big news when the tournament’s return to Kansas was announced, and for good reason. Visit Topeka, Inc., the group that markets the city as a conference and tourism destination, predicted a $2 million boost for the local economy, and it pulled out all the stops to highlight the event.
Jeardoe was on hand when Visit Topeka called a press conference in August 2013 announcing NHPA’s decision to hold the event in Kansas’s capital city.
“We are very excited to see the championship in Topeka,” Jeardoe said at the time. “This is an opportunity for pitchers in Kansas and the surrounding states that may not come again in their lifetime.”
It fell to the CEO of Kansas Electric Cooperatives, the Topeka-based statewide association, to make the clear connection between a co-op employee from Belleville and the $2 million bonanza.
“Topeka and Kansas don’t host too many world championships,” Bruce Graham wrote in his column for Kansas Country Living, the co-ops’ statewide consumer magazine, in September 2015. “So how did Topeka win the pitch? In part through the efforts of an electric cooperative employee named Melvin Jeardoe.
Tournament preparations added significantly to that workload. E-mail updates circulated weekly, with plenty of assignments handed out. Monthly meetings in Topeka kept everyone on track, and although Jeardoe had to miss a few of those, he was still one of the steering committee’s go-to guys.
“It’s a lot of work,” Jeardoe admits, and it only increased once the event was under way in Topeka’s Kansas Expo Center.
He and a crew of 25 determined helpers had to round up cement mixers to work a special clay into the right, low-bounce consistency for 60 courts. They arrived early each morning to ready the arena and then kept tabs on tournament activities throughout the day while competing themselves over the course of the two-week event. They toiled late into every night until things were ready for the next day’s round of pitching.
All the effort was worth it though, from both an NHPA and a Visit Topeka perspective. The pitchers association logged 1,404 tournament competitors, its best turnout since 1999. And Topeka’s motels and campgrounds filled up fast. Players came from all 50 states, Jeardoe says, and there was a “good crew” from Canada. One player came all the way from Norway.
Expo Center staff, meanwhile, marveled at the courteous, friendly nature of the tournament’s competitors and fans.
“They didn’t even need guards for this event,” Jeardoe says. “That’s what the people who run the events center told us. They just never had any problems at all. It was just like family.”
That was nothing new to Jeardoe, though. With a dozen or so tournaments under his belt, he’s seen how these things turn out. And that’s why he didn’t mind all the bustle and work.
“It’s because of the people you meet at these tournaments,” he says. “We’ve gotten to know people in several different states, and we sometimes stay at their homes when there are tournaments in their areas.”
The “we” he’s talking about includes his wife, Ora Lee, and their grandson Bryson Smith. Those two are also eager competitors, and in fact, Jeardoe himself has to concede that both are doing better in their divisional rankings than he is.
“I’ve got some trophies but not as many as my wife,” he says. “She does better than I do; she’s in the top class. I tell everyone I’m just along to be her horseshoe caddy.”
He’ll be “caddying” again when the NHPA World Tournament opens late this month in Montgomery, Ala. And he’ll be lobbying for the event’s return to Kansas, the state of its birth, as a longtime member of NHPA and its tournament steering committee.
“I’ll stay on it,” Jeardoe says. “And if we bring it back to Topeka, I’ll be working on it again.”
But he’ll be a little less rushed the next time around, having retired from the job at Rolling Hills Electric, where he started as a lineman in 1974.
“I thought 42 years was probably enough,” Jeardoe says. “Now I’ll have more time, so I can go to more horseshoe tournaments.”