A Union County author dedicated her latest novel to someone who has served as a mentor to local youth for decades.
Mary Gregory Dillard said her new young adult novel, “The Days of My Youth,” is about organizing a relay team, growing up and giving until you drop. Dillard wrote the following about the novel:
At the age of fourteen there is no blueprint for growing up a teenager, but in one short summer, six boys learn that a man is a man, not by birth, but by life. Determined not to spend a summer bored, they organize a relay team. Discouraged after two defeats, they realize they need a coach. The men they ask are too busy and they almost give up, but a homeless woman shows up at practice and becomes their coach. However, before practice ends, a severe thunderstorm paralyzes the city. Soaking wet, they fight their way through downed power lines and fallen trees. And when Edmond McKay takes the coach home with him, their lives take a newfangled twist.
Dillard said the fact that the characters in the story talk their problems out among themselves and use sports — along with support from the community — to figure their lives out is important to the novel’s message.
“The crises endured and the knowledge gained involved the boys themselves,” she said. “Their actions and deeds reflect the way they deal with challenges that confront them. The novel is unique in that it deals with the importance of good character and values at an age when adolescents are striving to find their own place in society. And the turns of events in ‘The Days of My Youth’ exhibit a realistic scenario of how adolescents can enjoy their teenage years and grow up to become useful citizens.”
Dillard — a retired high school teacher — was a track and field athlete during her high school career and competed in relay, dash, high jump and long jump events. She then helped coach before becoming a teacher. Her inspiration to write “The Days of My Youth” came from her experience with track and field as well as her work with after-school programs.
“Our children are our future and it is our responsibility to make sure they have an opportunity to become successful men,” she said. “It can be difficult to correct and help in a classroom situation. Students have competition from their peers and they’re embarrassed to leave the group — to step out and do what is right. A teacher shouldn’t have to spend so much time on behavior problems before they can teach lessons.”
Dillard said she had written the novel 2-3 years before it ever went to the publisher. After it was sent, however, she decided to dedicate it to local youth mentor Mickey Gist, who shares his time and skills with students in need of guidance in school and in life.
Gist also has a history in track and field as he was instrumental in the reintroduction of the sport at Union High School in 1974 after it had been discontinued. He has also been heavily involved with the Junior Olympics, and he and his wife have both been involved with track and field since 1995.
Gist currently mentors four children ages 8-11 who had discipline problems at school.
“One thing I found out about being a mentor is you can’t do it in one year,” he said. “You have to stay with the kid from day one.”
Gist trains the children in track and field during the summer and takes them to participate in events in Clemson, Charleston and Mt. Pleasant.
“Track and field is not a three-month program,” Gist said. “Other sports practice year round; track and field athletes need someone to push them year round.
Gist mentioned that he wants to help develop young athletes and pass on the knowledge and fundamentals that were given to him as a student. He said he has noticed many young children lack coordination, and he believes the blame lies with an abundance of electronics and computer games.
“They don’t jump rope, or Hopscotch or skip like we used to,” he said. “They can go out and do 3-4 miles but you’ve got to teach them.”
As a student, Gist was told he was too small to play football, and he ran track, learning the fundamentals of running and better preparing for the next football season. Gist said he wants to pass on the same fundamentals and knowledge to young athletes that was given to him. He also hopes his mentoring will help change the children’s attitudes in school. He said he has already noticed changes in their behavior in church.
Dillard said examples like those are reasons why she dedicated the novel to Gist. They both said they hope the book will not only inspire youth, but adults as well.
“It takes a village; people from different parts of the community with different professions coming together,” Gist said. Getting people involved can make a lot of things happen.”
In addition to “The Days of My Youth,” Dillard’s published works include two children’s books and her first novel — “Broad River Gems” — which was released in 2010.
Her second novel — “Beneath the Mountains” — is scheduled for release in July.
“The Days of My Youth” may be purchased at the following local businesses in addition to publishamerica.com and amazon.com: Economy Office Supply, 122 West Main Street Inspiration Corners, 408 N. Duncan Bypass Oscar’s, 205 E. Main Street