TRIBUTES have been paid following the death of the town’s sporting legend Tommy Sale MBE.
News of Tommy’s death at the age of 97 on Sunday saw many of the town’s leading political and cultural figures in sharing their memories.
He was best known for his astonishing association with Leigh’s rugby league club which lasted almost 90 years, becoming the team’s first post-war captain on the field and taking on roles ranging from scoreboard operator to club secretary.
He also enjoyed a distinguished career in education, becoming a headteacher at St Peter’s secondary school on Firs Lane, and was well respected throughout the town and the entire rugby league community, receiving the MBE from Buckingham Palace for services to sport in 2011.
Flags on all Wigan Council’s public buildings, including Leigh and Wigan town halls, flew at half mast in his honour and Leigh MP Andy Burnham spoke of his desire to have his achievements permanently commemorated in the town.
His family led the tributes with his son Ronnie writing a statement on behalf of the entire Sale family.
He said: “We have been overwhelmed by the messages of support and tributes to dad in such a short period of time and we are truly grateful. This has been of great comfort to all his family in our time of loss.
“We are immensely proud of all of Tommy’s achievements but more importantly he was a caring and loving husband, father, father-in-law, grandfather and great grandfather who was an inspiration and example to us all.
“His legacy will sustain us all in the months and years ahead. God bless.”
Leigh MP Mr Burnham said: “It is sad, sad news. We saw on Sunday the outpouring of affection for somebody who you can only describe as a giant of Leigh.
“The story he always loved to tell me was about the building of Hilton Park and how he organised volunteers to work into the night. It’s a fantastic story and there isn’t a better symbol of somebody who helped build our town.
“He was also the kindest, gentlest person you could ever wish to meet. He would always give me the odd word about current affairs and he was a source of sound advice and common sense.
“I intend to open discussions about having a permanent memorial to him as I think his contribution is unprecedented.
“I was so pleased when he got the MBE, it was wonderful he got that recognition. I can’t think of any honour that better restored the faith in the honours system among a lot of Leythers than Tommy’s did.
“He was a true gentleman, that is the phrase that will ring most true about him.”
Tommy’s association with Leigh rugby league club began at the age of eight and he still attended games at the Leigh Sports Village (LSV) well into his 90s.
Lord Peter Smith, leader of Wigan Council, said: “Tommy Sale had a long and distinguished life in which he served his home town of Leigh and the game of rugby league so well. Even I am too young to have watched Tommy as a player but those who did talked of his class and teamwork as a player.
“He became involved as an official at Leigh rugby doing many different jobs, latterly as timekeeper. It was a privilege to get to know Tommy and to honour him in 2000 when he was made a Freeman of the borough.
“Like everything else he did, Tommy took his civic role seriously and played his part in the borough.
“Our thoughts go out to his family who have provided much love and support in recent years so Tommy could continue to enjoy life and still occasionally watch his rugby.”
Leigh Miners Rangers life president Trevor Barton MBE, who played a major role in the building of the Leigh Sports Village (LSV), said: “I have many fond memories of Tommy: he was a truly fine gentlemen and one of the best examples of what rugby league is all about.
“The fact Leigh does so well at rugby league, despite being a relatively small town, is in a great part down to the investments in the town Tommy made both through his work building Hilton Park and in education getting the game played in schools. In the early days of building the LSV he would often ask me if it would be built in his lifetime, and I used to tell him to hang on as long as he could. I am delighted he lived to see the Queen open the stadium and I know he was truly touched the LSV was a sequel to his own investment in the town.
“He was a lovely man with a lovely family who will be sorely missed. He was an inspiration to us all.”
Leigh Observer columnist and local historian Alf Ridyard added: “He was a gentleman and driving force to develop junior school rugby league in his early teaching days.
“Tommy was also a great story teller and his rugby memories and his war time service were fascinating and an attention holding experience that I shared with him on many an occasion.
“We tend to use the word legend a little to easy nowadays, Tommy fitted the criteria tenfold.”