York County loses well-known advocate, 'brightest all-star' Voni Grimes

Voni Grimes touched many lives in York County.

After moving to the area with his family as a child, Grimes became highly involved in his community — serving as longtime director of business services at Penn State York, as a founding member of several county organizations, including York County Parks and Recreation and Access-York, and as an advocate and activist.

"I think everyone in York knew of Voni Grimes and his great work over the years as an ambassador of peace," York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said.

He was "a father figure to so many people," he said. "York is very blessed by all the ripples in the pond that he created — all the people out there that were groomed by him to be strong but humble leaders in York City."

Voni Grimes, a York City resident and activist, sits on the Lillie Belle Allen memorial bench located at Farquhar Park. July 15, 2009. Grimes died Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. Randy Flaum photo

Grimes died Thursday, Jan. 25, at age 95, according to Boulding Mortuary Inc.

He received many honors during his lifetime — one key honor being the renaming of the College Avenue Gym at 125 E. College Ave. in York City as the Voni B. Grimes Gym.

Grimes was fortunate enough to be "given his flowers while he could still smell them," instead of after he was gone, according to a saying once spoken by a family friend.

Many remember him now for his impact in the community and in their own lives.

Looking back: State Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, knew Grimes her entire life, having grown up with him as her judo instructor and Sunday school teacher.

His mother's cousin was her grandfather, and she attended Grimes' church, Small Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church at 401 S. Queen St. in York City.

Hill-Evans joked about Grimes' martial arts teaching style.

"Week after week of learning judo, he would pretend to let me flip him over my back, but I found out later he was actually flipping himself," she said.

She remembered him as "always a gentleman, always well dressed and always smiling."

Hill-Evans' uncle, Richard Green, also remembered Grimes for his dapper attire. 

"I never (saw) him walk around in old clothes," he said.

Green, who was nine or 10 years younger than Grimes, knew him as a hard worker, even from a very young age.

Growing up: Grimes grew up during the Great Depression, and "he used to tell me many times about the hard times he had coming up as a kid and what he had to do," Green said.

In 1999, Grimes shared his stories of adversity with Hannah Penn Middle School students for a collaborative project with the Historical Society of York County to record stories of black history.

"He worked as a farmhand after school and all day on the weekends," The York Dispatch reported at the time. "He would walk 7 miles to the farm — a two-hour walk — where he would pick strawberries, beans or bale hay." 

Grimes also told students about his hardships as a black man living in a time of segregation.

According to the Dispatch article, he initially could not get a job as a draftsman or engineer at Penn State York because employers did not want blacks working in the front office, he was told at the time.

And when he and his wife tried to eat in an East York restaurant in the 1950s, a waitress told them, "We don't serve colored people here," to which he replied, "Well I'm glad you don't because we don't eat them either," the Dispatch reported.

Grimes married the late Irene Clay in 1944, and later married Lorrayne Gibson in 1969, accepting her five children as his own, according to his obituary.

Artist Ophelia Chambliss, of Manchester Township, talks about, "Community of Color," after it is unveiled at Voni Grimes Gym in York City, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. Just under 200 community members worked together in painting the project. Additional pieces will be added to the mural when funds have been raised for the adhesive. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Inspiration: Grimes was an advocate in his community, contributing to organizations such as the Crispus Attucks Association.

Hill-Evans added in a statement, “His life, from growing up in segregated schools to becoming one of York’s most influential leaders, offers an example for us all in overcoming adversity."

Grimes served in the Pacific during World War II as a "buffalo soldier," a historical name given to African-American units, Green said.

"He was an inspiration, he was a mentor, he just inspired me to continue doing what I’m doing," Hill-Evans said.

She said she would often tell him that she wanted to be just like him, and he had motivating words for her: "Don’t be like me, be better then me."

As a Sunday school teacher, Grimes tried to widen perspectives — taking the children from church to church so they had a better sense of other religions and partnering with other churches.

They would visit other A.M.E. churches as well as Baptist, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, and Grimes took them to A.M.E. conferences in Philadelphia and Delaware to help them learn more about the church structure.

Green said Grimes always was active in his church, which made him a lifetime trustee for his service.

"He was a man of great faith and a friend to everyone, and he gave back to his York community in too many ways to count," Hill-Evans said in the statement.

She continued, "We will miss hearing his stories and his harmonica, and I hope to help keep his memory alive in York for many years to come.”

Music: Green said one of the things Grimes was known for in the community was his harmonica.

"He played the mouth organ just about everywhere," he said, especially at York Revolution games.

A news release from the team states, "We at the York Revolution were fortunate and grateful to have our own unique connection to Voni, whose harmonica performances of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' during the seventh-inning stretch were a staple of Revs games for more than 10 years."

York Revolution named him "York's brightest all-star" at a 2011 all-star game, calling him "the city and team’s No. 1 fan" and honoring him with his own jersey, the release states.

Grimes wore his jersey whenever he would come back to the park for games, and in 2016 he was immortalized with his own musical bobblehead.

"I was personally honored to meet him and play some music with him," Helfrich said. Though Grimes played with thousands, Helfrich said there's always a special connection when two people can jam together.