Pete and Beverly Dail are Florida transplants who moved to Vienna a few years ago. They have painstakingly restored a home on Union Street that was in severe disrepair. It’s now a charming bed and breakfast known as The Jewell of Vienna, named after a daughter of the original owners.
James Pleasant Powell married Frances Caroline Lane Powell in 1866. They had 12 children, including a daughter named Jewel. One of the Powell descendants gave Pete and Beverly an antique photo that now hangs on their wall. The picture is on a tin plate that’s mounted on a wooden plaque. The inscription reads: “PRIDE OF VIENNA – Vienna’s Famous Invincible Basket Ball Quintet – 1927 Middle Georgia, Peach Belt, Georgia State and Southern State Champions.” Beneath the picture is an ad for “SNELL’S TIRE SERVICE STATION.”
The photo shows ten unidentified boys in basketball jerseys standing with their coach. Pete had heard about Vienna’s small-town team that made big-time news many years ago. He figured this picture had to be those boys, a team that was appropriately dubbed “The Wonder Five.”
I was born in 1952, long after the heyday of their exceptional accomplishments. But I grew up hearing about The Wonder Five because of Mr. Thomas Witcher. Mr. Witcher was an affable fellow who worked at a family owned dry cleaners in Vienna. He made regular trips to our home in his delivery van and would usually visit for a few minutes. My parents often mentioned, with obvious admiration, that Mr. Witcher was one of The Wonder Five.
When our triplets were in the eighth grade, their teacher, Mary Jo Jeter, assigned them a Georgia History Scrapbook project. Our son, Seth, decided to include a story about The Wonder Five. He asked our friend and fellow church member Mr. John Bonner for some information. Mr. John was born in 1915. He was a child of the Wonder Five era, a teenager during the team’s most notable years. His hand-written six-page account is where this overview and excerpts are from.
Mr. John said, “Basketball Mania came to Vienna in 1925 and lasted until 1930. It was brought about largely by the efforts of one very talented man, Joseph H. Jenkins, who was superintendent of the city schools and coach of the boys basketball team.” Mr. Jenkins, an ordained Baptist minister, was, “a man of the highest morals and ethics.” He also credits Mr. Jenkins as being an exceptional athlete who was blessed with charisma.
In 1925 Mr. Jenkins aroused enough interest around Vienna to build a gymnasium. The emerging game of basketball was enthusiastically embraced by the students and townspeople. The next year Coach Jenkins put together a team that would become known as The Wonder Five. Mr. John described their center, Ted Raines, as having the jumping ability of a kangaroo. He said that Coach Jenkins built his team around Raines’ jumping and tipping ability.
Coach Jenkin’s teams were heavily solicited to play in tournaments, and they seldom lost. They were the topic of many columns by a variety of sports writers. A reporter for The Macon Telegraph dubbed them The Wonder Five, a name which was readily and widely embraced.
They competed successfully against teams from much larger schools like Macon, Savannah, and Athens. In 1928 and 1929 the team was invited to the National High School Championship in Chicago. They didn’t bring home the first-place trophy either year, but they garnered national attention and respect. The folks in Chicago would long remember the boys from a little town in South Georgia.
Mr. John noted there were some outstanding athletes on those teams. It’s amazing how much talent came from such a small body of students. What I find most inspiring, however, is the example of their mentor, Mr. J. H. Jenkins. It reminds me that one man can make a difference.
Mr. Jenkins didn’t choose the easy path. He built a gym from the ground up. Then he harnessed the raw talents of young boys and molded them into a team whose accomplishments might best be described as miraculous.
The easy path is always inviting. It lures us to choose that which is comfortable and requires little effort. It is, however, in the challenges along the road less travelled where we find true wonders. J. H. Jenkins found at least five of them. There’s no doubt he would tell us to keep looking for more.
(I plan to post Mr. John Bonner’s more detailed account. The title will be the one that he gave it, Vienna’s “Wonder Five” Basketball Team.)