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Photo contributed by UTC Athletics / Grace Keith, who coached basketball at Hixson High School and UTC, died Wednesday at age 84.

It was the summer of 1974. Beverly Narrimore had just graduated from Hixson High School and was working in her parents' bait and tackle shop, selling worms, when she got a phone call from Grace Keith.

"Bev, I want you to come play for me," said Keith, who had just been hired by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to start a women's basketball program in compliance with the passage of Title IX. "You'll be able to go to college. Because of Title IX, you'll get a scholarship."

Forty-seven years later, having turned that college opportunity into a long career in Special Education, Narrimore was asked how her life might have turned out without that scholarship.

"If it hadn't been for Grace, I probably wouldn't have gone to college," she said. "I might still be selling worms."

Keith's remarkable 86 years improving the lives of almost everyone she came in contact with sadly came to an end last Wednesday when she lost her courageous battle with cancer. A good number of those people gathered at Williamson and Sons Funeral Home in Soddy-Daisy for a visitation on Sunday and funeral on Monday to celebrate "a life well-lived," as her nephew Brian Keith noted during his eulogy.

And it was an amazing life. As a high school basketball player at Sale Creek, she not only led the Chattanooga area in scoring during her senior season in 1952-53, she scored 53 points in a single game. The leading scorer for the boys in our area that year was now retired Hamilton County Sessions Court Judge Clarence Shattuck, who went to Sale Creek rival Soddy-Daisy High.

Asked Sunday at the visitation if he ever scored 53 points in a single game, Shattuck shook his head no.

"Maybe in two games," he said with a smile. "Grace was a tremendous high school player."

Of course, to prove that Baylor-McCallie, South Pittsburg-Marion County and Bradley Central-Cleveland aren't the only intense rivalries in our corner of the Volunteer State, Shattuck also said he often told her, "Grace, you did good. You married a boy from Soddy-Daisy."

That marriage to Paul Keith lasted 64 years, ending the day Grace passed away. And if they never officially had any children of their own, "She cared for all of us like we were her own kids," noted Narrimore.

Her kids. There were so many of them, including the late Tennessee Lady Vols coaching legend Pat Head Summitt, whose Lady Vols once beat Keith's second UTC team by a single point. That friendship between Summitt and Keith made Grace a Lady Vols fan for so life, so much so that even this past winter, sick as she was, she made it to several UT women's games with considerable help from Linda and Don Bennefield, who often drove her to Knoxville and back.

But during that 1974-75 UTC season, it was Keith who did the driving for the Mocettes, as the women's team was originally known.

"I remember we'd played at Middle Tennessee State," recalled Janet Tate, who would go on to become one of the greatest high school volleyball coaches our town has ever seen. "We start up Monteagle Mountain and it's so foggy you can barely see. Grace rolls down the driver's side window and sticks her head out.

"What are you doing?" Tate asked her. "'I'm trying to see the line,' she said. So I rolled down the passenger side window and stuck my head out to try to see the other line. We went all the way up Monteagle and back down doing that."

Tate also recalled a practice in which she wanted a fastbreak drill "Run faster than Moody's goose. We'd never heard that before, but we learned pretty quickly that Moody's goose must have been fast."

What made Keith so successful everywhere she coached, including a long stint at Hixson High before she took the UTC job?

"She had a nice way of being tough and demanding, but also funny," said Tate. "You don't often find that."

How funny?

Her niece Jessica Keith Huie recalled Aunt Grace attending a Tennessee Wesleyan women's game — Keith was the first woman inducted into Wesleyan's sports hall of fame — in which a particular referee that was upsetting her was wearing shiny black pants.

Shouted Grace to the official, "Come on, silky drawers, get with it!"

Another funny?

According to Huie, "Aunt Grace taught all her nieces and nephews how to clean catfish and use an outhouse."

So how demanding was she as a coach?

"We missed so many shots in a game one night that she wouldn't let us get something to eat on the drive home," said Teresa Brannon, who was Teresa Horton back then. "Sharon (Fanning) was eating some mints. We all pretended they were steaks."

Even with Title IX, none of it was equal to the men. Wrestling legend Turner Jackson and a couple of friends joined scrimmages because there were only eight scholarship players. Keith had to work a day job at Dallas Elementary, since UTC was only paying her $260 a month.

"We finished one game with four players," recalled Brannon, "because the others fouled out."

No wonder Keith passed the coaching torch to Fanning after just two seasons in Mocettesville.

Yet her coaching and playing legend will live forever. She's not only in Wesleyan's Hall of Fame, but also the UTC Sports Hall of Fame and the Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame, where she was a past president.

Years later, Huie attending Tennessee Wesleyan, noticed a women's dorm named Keith Hall. She called her aunt and asked, "Is that named for you?"

Replied Keith "It might be."

Huie soon added, "You always felt better after spending time with Aunt Grace."

Said Tate, "Amazing Grace was perfect."

That she was.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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