Tuolumne resident Barbara Persson, 77, holds the 2012 Presidential Award plaque she received from the Northern California Horseshoe Pitchers Association on Nov. 3. Persson was recognized for her decades of volunteer service with the Tuolumne County Horseshoe Club. Alex MacLean/Union Democrat
Keeping the Tuolumne County Horseshoe Club afloat has been a labor of love that has spanned more than two decades for 77-year-old Barbara Persson.
But, as the lifelong Tuolumne resident admits, it's always nice to get a little recognition.
That happened two weeks ago when Persson was surprised with the 2012 Presidential Award from the Northern California Horseshoe Pitchers Association (NCHPA), which is given each year to a member that the organization's president personally selects.
"You work and do all this stuff and you don't realize that other people are watching, so it's really an honor to receive this," she said.
Persson's friend, Teddy Guillotte, 81, of Sonora, is the current president of the Tuolumne County Horseshoe Club and a longtime pitcher herself. She was told by the NCHPA in advance of the meeting that Persson would be receiving the award and to keep it "confidential."
The surprise presentation of the award at the meeting held in Sacramento on Nov. 3 brought Persson and many others in the room to tears, according to Guillotte, who attended the meeting.
"I think it was a wonderful choice," Guillotte said. "She's really put her heart and soul into this club and I'm proud of her."
The NCHPA is itself a charter organization of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association. More than 500 horseshoe pitchers in 33 clubs from Bakersfield to the Oregon border are members of the NCHPA, according to its current president, Harlen Rippetoe.
"I selected her on the basis of her past activities with the Tuolumne club and her organizational skills working with the community," said Rippetoe by telephone from his Madera home. "I know she works really hard with the parks department up there and with the casino to help develop specialized money tournaments for the association. She's just the absolute backbone of that Tuolumne club."
To his knowledge, no one with the Tuolumne club has ever received the annual award given as special recognition to members who put forth an extra effort behind the scenes.
"To be honest, I've had my eye on Barbara for a longtime to receive this award and I'm glad to finally get to recognize her this way," he said.
The Tuolumne County Horseshoe Club formed in 1991 following the construction of courts near the Tuolumne County Public Library branch in the township of Tuolumne.
The club became a charter of the NCHPA after gaining 50 members in 1992, according to Persson. Currently, the club has roughly 27 members, she said.
Persson started pitching horseshoes the same year the club formed when her late brother, John Pee Wee James, convinced her to join. The next year she volunteered to serve as the club's secretary and has since been shifting roles where needed within the organization, even serving as club president in 2000.
She used to pitch horseshoes at tournaments all over the Central Valley and claimed the crown at the Black Oak Casino Tournament in 2003. However, she's mostly left her playing days behind and taken a more administrative role within the club since the death of her husband.
"I was more dedicated to doing the hard work stuff, like being secretary, treasurer and sending reports to the NCHPA," she explained.
Persson continued the work she began with her brother, who originally helped spearhead the effort to construct the horseshoe courts, by regularly attending Tuolumne Parks and Recreation Department meetings and raising money to maintain the courts for the community.
Proceeds from a snack shop Persson used operate all went to construct six additional horseshoe pits and screens that hang from tall poles along the outer edges, which provide shade for pitchers during the summer.
Beyond the horseshoe club, Persson has also been an active community member in many other ways, including helping raise money for an electronic scoreboard at the ballpark in Tuolumne.
"She is the glue that has kept the Tuolumne County Horseshoe Club together," said Phil Harvey, 91, of East Sonora. "Her love of the game and her genuine caring about people are a great combination. She always calls club members when something urgent comes up and sends reminder notes."
Four national horseshoe tournaments are hosted in Tuolumne County each year and organized by the Tuolumne County Horseshoe Club. Members say Persson was instrumental in starting the annual tournament at Black Oak Casino, which is going on its 11th year now.
"Without her it would be a hard push," said Bob Nath, 79, of Sonora. "She had all the inside information and did a lot of the work outside. She just went out and did what she had to do to keep the competition going."
Nath continued, "She was a liaison between us, the parks and recreation department and the whole community, in fact."
She is preparing to hand off the reins to a new generation of horseshoe enthusiasts she hopes will maintain the club and horseshoe courts for years to come.
Persson has three grown children, Fred III, Julie and Donald, plus 10 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. She's had plenty to keep her busy between her family and volunteer work over the past 22 years and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
"I'm still here, honey!" she said with a laugh. "I'm not giving up, but I'm just going to sit back, relax and let some of the younger ones take over most of the work. I'll still volunteer, and whatever they ask of me - I'll do it."