Jim Vernon was in his element Saturday at the 38th annual Tazewell County Chess Tournament, a competition for students in grades 3 through 8.
He counseled two girls after a game, pointing out what they could have done better. He helped settle a protest lodged by a parent of a competitor. He played a practice game against a boy.
“If you touch a piece, you have to move it,” he instructed his youthful opponent on a couple of occasions while tournament matches were being played on tables set up in the gym at Georgetowne Middle School.
Vernon, 76, is the tournament’s chief director (referee), a job he’s held since the competition began. One of his duties is to recruit other volunteer directors. Most are members of the Greater Peoria Chess Federation, like Vernon.
Chess and Vernon suddenly became big news across the country Oct. 13.
That’s the day Vernon first tried to calm, then fought with, a knife-wielding man who entered the Hauter Conference Room at Morton Public Library where Vernon was coaching his chess club for home-schooled students.
Sixteen students and several of their mothers were in the room. They escaped while Vernon scuffled with the intruder, remembering knife-fighting training he’d gotten in the Army five decades earlier.
Vernon suffered cuts to two arteries and a tendon in his left hand during the altercation and underwent surgery.
Dustin Brown, 19, of Morton is jailed on charges of attempted murder, armed violence, aggravated battery, aggravated assault and burglary, in addition to 22 child pornography charges in a different case.
Vernon said Brown yelled, “I’m going to kill some people!” as he entered the conference room holding hunting knives.
The sling and bandages Vernon wore for months were gone Saturday. But some damage from the attack is permanent.
“My left hand will always have a crooked ring finger, but I fully intend to play golf in the spring,” Vernon said. “Fortunately, I’m right handed.”
Vernon was interviewed by local and national media in the days and weeks following the incident in the library. He was honored by Gov. Bruce Rauner, the Illinois House of Representatives, the village of Morton and Morton District 709, among others.
And the hits keep on coming for the Morton resident and 2002 Caterpillar Inc. retiree.
Vernon will receive a civilian award March 25 at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. The society is made up of Medal of Honor winners.
He’ll be the subject of an April story in Reader’s Digest.
While the interviews and honors are nice, Vernon said, they don’t mean the most to him.
“I’ve been deeply touched by the more than 200 thank-you notes and letters I’ve received from my countrymen,” he said. “They’ve ranged from notes from special forces on assignment in Afghanistan to a three-page letter from a 91-year-old resident of an assisted living facility in Virginia.”
Seventeen of Vernon’s chess club members participated in the tournament Saturday. He coaches students in the chess clubs at Grundy and Lincoln elementary schools in Morton, and they also competed.
Tournament coordinator Jolly Webb, a longtime friend and former high school classmate, got Vernon involved in the competition, and he’s loved every minute of it.
“I have a passion for chess and I get satisfaction from seeing children play and enjoy the ‘mind sport’ I teach,” he said. “It’s also been great to see some children who played in the tournament come back as adults and be directors.”
Eighteen Tazewell schools and Vernon’s club were represented at the tournament Saturday. About 175 youngsters competed in five age groups, with the top 10 finishers in each division receiving trophies and medallions.