Gold Rush Feature: The Legacy of David "Sarge" Tinga
May 16, 2012
This article was originally published in the May 2012 issue of Gold Rush.
By Emily Giffin ('94)
When I reflect on my years at Wake Forest University, the first thing I think of is not my stellar education or many wonderful professors. Nor is it the men's basketball team I managed for four winning seasons or all the fraternity parties and formals with friends. What I think of first and hold the nearest to my heart is the musty, faded, but immaculate equipment room in the basement of Reynolds Gymnasium. And more important, I think of the man who ruled it for more than 30 years and a span of four decades: David "Sarge" Tinga.
Like all freshmen managers, I feared Sarge when I first reported to him. He was a legend within the Wake Forest athletic department, and we had all heard the whispered stories from upperclassmen of his 21 years in the military, his three combat tours in Korea and his two tours in Vietnam, including one that cost him his leg. We knew that he applied his experience in the Army to his position as equipment supervisor, demanding excellence and accepting no excuses. And like any good drill sergeant, he was an equal-opportunity intimidator. Whether you were the star quarterback, a walk-on tennis player or one of his many managers, Sarge would break you down, bark at you for being only a minute late and flat out make you earn his trust and respect, day in and day out. I distinctly remember watching Tim Duncan, a freshman but already a star everywhere but in the equipment room, grovel for a fresh pair of socks. Sarge demanded that Timmy produce the allegedly worn-out pair and then spent several seconds assessing the holes before reluctantly doling out a new pair. Timmy shook his head with frustration, but I could tell he respected Sarge for showing him no preferential treatment. (Upon graduation, Timmy gave Sarge his game jersey, signing it: "You'll always be the biggest tree in this forest.") Sarge's sense of fairness was one of the things we all loved about him -- just as we also loved knowing that if we worked hard and long enough, we could find ourselves in his good graces. There was no greater reward or honor.
Although Sarge passed away in 2007, his "house" or "the cage," as he sometimes called the equipment room now dedicated in his honor and bearing his name, will forever be my first stop on visits back to campus, as it is for most former student-managers and many athletes. It has remained unchanged since his longtime assistant, Roxann Moody, took over the reigns a decade ago, a testament to their loyalty to one another -- one of the many qualities he embodied and cultivated in all of us. Once dubbing Sarge a "teddy bear in gorilla's clothing," Roxann has retained Sarge's systems, along with his organization and order, down to the last gleaming football helmet and neatly folded towel. She has also kept all of his clippings and photos taped over his desk and vows never to paint over the worn spot on the wall where his chair used to hit when he leaned back, told stories, bellowed fond insults and most of all, laughed. And laughed. And laughed.
It is in that sacred corner of Wake Forest University where I learned about what matters most in life -- hard work and honor, respect and trust, friendship and family. Nothing in the world mattered more to Sarge than his family. Sarge loved his children and grandchildren and adored his wife Mary, known affectionately by the Wake Forest family as Mrs. T (who is like Demon Deacon royalty in her own right). But according to Mrs. T, Sarge considered his managers his second family, and many of us viewed him as a father figure. When my parents divorced during college, Sarge and I had a long talk while riding in the equipment van back to campus after a game and then afterward as we sorted laundry. It was the unlikeliest of therapy sessions, but I will forever cherish the wisdom he imparted that night, just as I will always be grateful for his sense of humor and grace the day he broke every traffic rule in the book to get our jerseys to Chapel Hill after I forgot to pack them. (He arrived on time, of course, just minutes before tip-off of the televised game -- a small miracle and one that only Sarge could deliver).
My stories and memories of Sarge are dear to me but are not unique. I am simply one of hundreds, even thousands of athletes, managers, coaches, and colleagues who loved and revered him. Says Stephen C. Laws, basketball manager, class of `79: "My father died when I was 2, and Sarge became a guiding force for me. I've carried his lessons throughout my adult life." Louis Moore, '78, echoes these sentiments: "Sarge was an important part of my education. He taught me many things that still benefit me today. I will never forget the dressing down I got the first day I reported to work and was a few minutes late. I had never heard some of those words. Today, I still hate being late. He pushed me and made me a better person." Lynne MacGregor Flood, football manager `82, recalls that he always gave you what you needed. For most college students, this meant instilling a sense of responsibility, but for Lynne, a manager who never made time for fun, Sarge once threatened to "take his leg off and hit me over the head with it if I didn't stop pouting about failing to make an A in an English class." Lou Case, baseball manager '78, agrees: "Sarge was so down to earth and honest with us. We talked about things in our lives, not so much school, but relationships. He was a respected adult who would listen. One we could trust. And when we proved that he could trust us, he would do for us whatever he could."
But it is perhaps Jacqueline Harris's (ROTC and manager '05) recollection of Sarge (who first came to Wake in 1968 when he was assigned as the sergeant major over the ROTC detachment at the university) that captures his essence more than any other, as she describes her first salute as a commissioned officer in the United States Army. Which, of course, came from Sarge. "That salute represented not only an Army tradition but also the Wake Forest family I strive every day to make proud," Jacqueline said. "The core values I have held throughout my military career were learned in an equipment room: integrity, humility, honesty, compassion. Through [my time with Sarge], I learned the effect of these values, which is trust. Not a day goes by that I don't remember that first salute, the man who gave it to me and the person he challenged me to be."
Over the years, many people touch our lives in one way or another, but few actually shape us in the way that Sarge did. The David "Sarge" Tinga Equipment Fund is our way of showing gratitude to him and celebrating his legacy at the university to which he gave so much. "He truly did love Wake Forest and all that it represented," Mrs. T said. "He would be so honored and surprised at what you all are doing for him."
But it really is the least we can do for our beloved Sarge, the biggest tree in the forest. Through the fund, we will keep his memory alive and strong at Wake Forest -- just as we will never forget the lessons he taught us. I know I think of him often, during big moments in my life, but also in small, quiet ones. Like when I'm folding laundry, and find myself refolding a shirt "Sarge's way." Which is to say I stop, go back and make it just a little bit better than it was before.
Emily Giffin, WFU men's basketball manager under Sarge, graduated summa cumma laude in 1994. She then attended the University of Virginia School of Law and was a practicing attorney at a large New York City firm for several years before writing full time. She has since authored five New York Times bestsellers, which have been translated to 35 languages with more than 10 million copies in print worldwide. Her first novel. "Something Borrowed," was turned into a major motion picture starring Kate Hudson, and her sixth novel, "Where We Belong," will be released this July. Emily currently lives in Atlanta with her husband and three young children. You can visit her at EmilyGiffin.com or facebook.com/emilygiffinfans.
David "Sarge" Tinga Equipment Fund:
If you are interested in making a pledge to the "Sarge" Tinga Equipment Fund, please call the Deacon Club at (336) 758-5626 or visit DeaconClub.com for more information.