PHOTOS BY ADAM BAKER

The Juneteenth celebration this past summer at Bones Hooks Park included the usual array of vendors, food and drink, with children mingling to play and adults stopping to talk.

New Hamlet Elementary Principal R.J. Soleyjacks was there as part of 101 Elite Men, a service group. While helping set up tents and handing out food, Soleyjacks had his antennae up to network with community leaders and businesses to bring some of their expertise and company footprint to Hamlet.

Justin Thompson of Canyon was there at the urging of his wife, Monica. She had a booth at Juneteenth with a marketing initiative. Monica thought it would be good if Justin could bring their two children to the event after daughter Ella’s time at Amarillo High’s Sandie Stepper camp.

“That’s how I got up there,” he says. “I wasn’t really planning on going. Our kids are at the right age to be a tremendous distraction if you happen to be in an adult conversation.”

Soon enough, Thompson got into one of those conversations with Soleyjacks, courtesy of middleman Adrian Jackson and his wife, Telita. Jackson and Thompson had worked at Boys Ranch. Jackson was also in 101 Elite Men with Soleyjacks.

Thompson is an avid collector of vintage golf clubs, and had an urge to grow the game in Amarillo. Soleyjacks aims to expose Hamlet students to other experiences, the kind they would not normally receive on their own.

Jackson believed the two could help each other when he made the introductions. In a way, time stood still for the 30 minutes or so as they talked.

“It really clicked on what he wanted to do,” Soleyjacks says. “He wanted to be more involved and hands-on. We’re both dreamers and we started dreaming together.”

Thompson says the conversation at Bones Hooks may have changed the course of his life. Three months later, he quit his job at Boys Ranch, where he held a number of roles for seven years, from fundraising to writing grant proposals to managing planned giving accounts.

“I always have a ton of ideas but I never really know how I’m going to get them done,” Thompson says. “I just know there are opportunities out there. It is rare when you have what you think is a good idea and you’re introduced to someone who can make it happen because they are thinking about the same thing separately.

“But that’s what happened. When R.J. mentioned starting a golf club at Hamlet, the light bulb just went off. How perfect would it be to give golf opportunities to kids by using one of my passions? It’s not often those things mesh.”

THE “A-HA” MOMENT

Soleyjacks doesn’t have to squint too hard at some of the 300 students at Hamlet to see a glimpse of himself more than 25 years ago. He, too, could have fallen through the cracks, especially as he got older.

“I was on the other side once,” he says. “I was getting into trouble as a young man and put on probation for a felony. I was close to losing everything.”

Getting into sports helped stop the slide. Soleyjacks was a standout running back at Highland Park, playing on the best Hornets team in school history—one that went three rounds deep into the 3A playoffs in 2003.

Soleyjacks then played two years at West Texas A&M University. He quit football, but also quit his initial major field of study—business. He was encouraged to be an after-school tutor in the Amarillo ISD. He worked at Will Rogers Elementary, a school just off Amarillo Boulevard with mostly students from low-income families.

“I ended up running into a group of kids who gave me a feeling of running for a touchdown back in high school and hearing everyone screaming,” he says. “It was helping kids and feeling that accomplishment.”

Soleyjacks changed his major, and graduated in 2011 from WT with a degree in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis on early childhood education. Not high school, not middle school, but young elementary-age children seemed to be his calling.

He taught second grade, third grade and fifth grade at Tradewinds Elementary, and then was a language arts and social studies teacher at Oakdale Elementary. All the while, he was working on his master’s in educational leadership from WT.

That led to three years as an assistant principal on the Bowie Sixth Grade campus, and then a year at Mesa Verde Elementary, also as an assistant principal. At Mesa Verde, he immersed himself in the Somali community. He joined some local boards and learned about different cultures.

“I also got to see how an administrator can influence kids,” Soleyjacks says. “I really got to see leadership skills beyond the Xs and Os of a classroom.”

That led to his first principal position in the fall of 2020 at Bivins Elementary. Prior to that, the school had been shut down because of the COVID pandemic. Soleyjacks did volunteer work during the break, and became connected with the community in different ways.

“That first year at Bivins was really an ‘ah-ha moment’ for me,” he says. “I saw what a school could do with a community partnership.”

Central Church of Christ partnered with Bivins, donating about $20,000 in each of his two years there. That left Soleyjacks almost dumbfounded as well as motivated.

“I began to learn more about school funding, and taking a deeper dive into budgets and seeing what was possible,”  he says. “I wanted to get out into the community. If a relationship like this was possible for Bivins, why not a relationship like this for other schools?”

BIG OPPORTUNITIES

Soleyjacks sees challenges as opportunities, and the bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity. He couldn’t help but look at Hamlet, located at 703 N. Sycamore St. with Wonderland Park at Thompson Park not far away.

Hamlet is all the challenge any principal could possibly want.

More than 92 percent of students from grades K through fifth are “economically disadvantaged.” The average family income, Soleyjacks says, is $17,000 annually, which is far below the poverty line for a household of four. The 79107 zip code of the Hamlet attendance zone has the highest crime rate percentage in Amarillo.

Hamlet’s demographics are 55.4 percent African-American, 21.8 percent Hispanic, 11.9 percent White, 7.7 percent Asian, and 3.2 percent of two or more races. Hamlet also had the lowest STAAR tests scores in the district.

“I know from experience that mentorship and different experiences can change a person’s trajectory,” Soleyjacks says. “When I saw Hamlet’s numbers and how they performed [in testing], I wanted to be there. I talked to my boss last spring and said that if there is an opening ever at Hamlet, I’d like to be that person.”

The opening came in May. Soleyjacks became that person.

MANY OLD CLUBS, ONE NEW IDEA

Justin Thompson lives in the Belmar subdivision. It’s 10 miles from Hamlet and, in one sense, a whole world away. He grew up in Canyon, graduating in 2006. He graduated from Abilene Christian and earned a master’s from WT. After working as an environmental consultant in the Permian Basin oil fields, Thompson moved to Amarillo about 10 years ago.

In addition to daughter Ella, 6, Thompson and Monica have a son, Weston, 3. No life is without challenges, but his is relatively comfortable.

When Thompson was in elementary school in Canyon, his father Brad would often take him to play a round of golf. He’d let his young son putt a few every now and then. 

“I had an interest but it was always on the side,” Thompson says. “Football and basketball were my focus. Golf wasn’t cool enough for me. But one thing stood out about golf. When Dad and I were on the course, it was our time. He turned his cell phone off.”

Three years ago during the pandemic, Thompson began collecting golf clubs. He was especially interested in old vintage clubs with hickory and persimmon shafts, and often played with them. One club predated 1900. Mostly purchased online, his collection soon began overtaking his garage. At one point, he counted 500 clubs.

“It was truly kind of a sickness,” he says. “It just kind of exploded, and some may have considered it hoarding.”

Through a garage sale and by hook or crook, Thompson winnowed his 500 golf clubs to a little more than 100 that spanned four decades. Ever the idea man, Thompson tried to figure out what to do with the remaining clubs.

“How can I best use these?” he says. “I’ll never have enough time to play with every set I have. What can I do that is beneficial to other people?”

Thompson considered a summer golf camp. Being a self-described “non-realist,” he envisioned every child at the end of camp getting fitted for modern clubs. “I didn’t know how we would do that,” he says. “I’d just figure it out.”

A month later, Soleyjacks and Thompson met for the first time at Juneteenth. The conversation moved at a rapid pace. Two months later, the Hamlet Tiger Flight Golf Club was born.

COMING HOME ON CLOUD 9

By August 2022, Thompson was attending Hamlet’s back-to-school event. At Hamlet, this event brings a potpourri of activities—school supply teams, city services for vaccinations, community businesses recruited by Soleyjacks. There was the smell of brisket in the air. A DJ played music.

Thompson had a table of his own, promoting what he and Soleyjacks were calling the Hamlet Tiger Flight Golf Club. He wore Plus 4 golf attire with loud plaid knickers and high socks. He put on the brightest blue shirt in his closet.

“I made sure people noticed me,” Thompson says. “I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was pretty epic.”

Actually, before Thompson set up, adults came up to him, saying they’d heard from Soleyjacks what he wanted to do and offered help. What he wanted to do this night was excite a few students into signing up. He hoped to get five or six interested. That would be a realistic number.

Thirty-five signed up.

“I came home on Cloud 9,” Thompson says. “I could not even explain to Monica the feeling I had. I get a lot of grief because I’m not a real emotional person, but this was just amazing. I was this stranger, but all of a sudden, people just loved me.”

Soleyjacks’ plan was to use Hamlet’s RTI hour (Response to Intervention) for golf students. Those who had signed up within each class—and who met grade and good citizenship requirements—could participate.

The first meeting of the golf club came on Sept. 20, and Thompson has been at Hamlet from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every Tuesday since. Third-graders meet first, and then fourth-graders, followed by fifth. Then, as Thompson says, the fun really begins with kindergarten and first grade.

Of the 35 participants, 10 are girls. Five of the 35 are left-handed, including fourth-grader Bella Hser. She was sold on the golf concept during the back-to-school night.

“Mr. Justin asked me if I wanted to join and I said yes,” Hser says. “I wanted to experience what golf felt like because I never played golf in my life—only soccer and volleyball.”

There’s an expanse of grassy playground at the bottom of the hill adjacent to Hamlet. That transitions to city-owned Hamlet Park. Every Tuesday, that becomes Thompson’s classroom.

First, Thompson established space requirements, because there’s nothing like getting knocked in the head with a club on a backswing. 

Then, using clubs from the 1950s through the 1980s, Thompson and his students worked on grip, stance and basic swing. Spinning and falling down after a swing may seem natural, but that’s something to avoid. Putting requires a more delicate approach.

As for balls, Thompson settled on the little golf Wiffle balls. The thought of 10 neophyte golfers whacking at real golf balls felt a little like playing catch with a loaded grenade—what could go wrong?

“He’s a good teacher,” says Logan Vian, a fourth-grader. “He’s good at explaining things to us.”

Vian thought golf just might be for him when he tried miniature golf at Wonderland Park last summer. At the tricky hole with the Chinese tower, Vian’s brother lost his ball. But Logan got a hole-in-one.

“Mr. Justin, if you miss the ball or barely hit it, he says, ‘Try it again, you can do it,’” Hser says. “The first day, I could not even swing it.”

Four months later?

“I’m really good,” she says. “I really am.”

A BIGGER WORLD

On cold days, the students hit foam balls in a classroom, discuss which clubs can hit what distance, and learn to keep score on a scorecard.

At some point, Thompson wants to take the students to nearby Ross Rogers to get comfortable with the surroundings, the clubhouse, basic golf etiquette, and let them play a hole or two with real golf balls. Beyond that, he dreams of expanding the Hamlet golf club into other schools. Waving his magic wand, Thompson would one day have an indoor golf facility anchored in north Amarillo for students and the community.

But for now, he’s simply planting seeds and changing trajectories, trying to bring exposure to a game that, unfairly or not, is still seen as an expensive country club pursuit. Golf is just one area of a bigger world out there that Soleyjacks wants Hamlet students to begin to experience.

“Kids can be exposed to the world and changed in different ways by things they would not normally run into,” says Soleyjacks, who first tried golf at WT and now looks to play when he can. “This helps them begin to see that they can be part of many things the world has to offer. When these students get to be young adults, they can look across the street and see Ross Rogers Golf Course and know that it’s not foreign to them.

“There are golf scholarships all over the country, and many schools can’t fill them. What an opportunity this could be. This is about kids getting exposed to the world.”

Soleyjacks and Thompson last June had a meeting of two idea men. It’s obvious nine months later that each one benefited from the enthusiasm and understanding of the other. One in particular stepped outside his comfort zone.

“Without Justin showing up every week, this program would have no feet to stand on,” Soleyjacks says. “It would still be just a dream, an idea, something to hold on to.”

Each Tuesday has caused Thompson to pivot in his career. He made a difficult decision to quit his job at Boys Ranch to focus on the golf club and to look for ways to help his special needs sister, Hali, and others like her.

“It’s really changed the way I look at people,” he says. “Having a sister with special needs, I had to learn early in life that it’s not about me, but how can I help and serve others? Even then, you can get focused on what you’re doing and stop paying attention to others and I had fallen into that spot. These kids have reenergized my desire to be out there and pour into them what they need to be successful.”.

He’s taken back by how trusting these students are to a stranger, their thirst for learning an unfamiliar sport, their knack for learning basic skills.

“They’ve never been on a golf course before. Some may have played putt-putt, but that’s it,” Thompson says. “Their ability to just listen, watch and recreate is pretty incredible to the point now they are upset when they don’t put a good swing on it.”

Golf could be a symbol, a time together, to teach young students more than a sport, and that breaking out of boxes is a good thing.

“I was super blessed to grow up like I did. One of the biggest things my parents did was never look at what was, but what could be and challenged us to do the same,” Thompson says. “I always look at how can we make our community better and see things in a different way. I want this generation of kids to grow up thinking they can take risks and it can work out. Even if it doesn’t, they can be resilient enough to try something different or go back to the drawing board. Golf teaches you that on every shot.” 

Author

  • Jon Mark Beilue

    Jon Mark worked at the Amarillo Globe-News from 1981 until his retirement in 2018. He spent 17 of those years as sports editor, and the last 12 as the newspaper’s general columnist. Beilue received 16 statewide and national awards for his work. He has written five books—two are collections of his columns, and the other three are on Amarillo lawyers Wales Madden and Robert Templeton, and Canyon girls basketball coach Joe Lombard. Beilue is a native of Groom and graduate of Texas Tech University. He and wife Sandy have two adult sons.

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