|Unlike the recent photo taken of him, Jerry Byrd did not|
want to smile for this photo last Wednesday. Maybe it
was the company he was keeping.
It was also difficult.
Some of my friends, and Jerry's friends, know -- and I am writing this with the consent of and input from his wife Barbara and his son, the big man known as "Little Jerry" -- that Shreveport's best-known and arguably its most gifted sports writer/editor ever is in a mental-care facility.
His short-term memory is lacking. But the old Jerry -- the mind for details and stories, sports events, people from the 1940s, '50s and early '60s, and the sharp wit, some of it (well, a lot of it) irreverent -- is still there. The ego -- as I always joked, as large as his very big head -- is too.
The many people who worked around Byrd at the Shreveport Journal for the 34 years he was there know that's all true.
Yes, he looks a little older (he's 80) and he has difficulty walking (a cane is necessary, a wheelchair is better), but he remains fairly robust. His handshake is very firm, he's still really loud, he still sings ... and he can make me laugh, even if he doesn't mean to.
A few weeks ago, Little Jerry suggested I go by and see him; Barbara early last week agreed. It would be good for him; visitors stimulate his mind, maybe motivate him, keep him busy.
But here is the tipoff. He did not recognize me when he first saw me (there is a possible reason); he's known me for 50-plus years. And when Barbara asked him the next day if I had been by, Jerry's reply was that he didn't remember.
Little Jerry's take: "He probably didn't remember 30 minutes after you left."
Gosh, it's hard. People with family members or friends with memory loss -- be it dementia or Alzheimer's, and I'm not qualified to define Jerry's situation -- know how hard it is. It starts with lost trips to the nearby store, or to work -- that was the case with Jerry beginning four years ago -- and soon the daily details become foggy or forgotten.
Such an insidious disease.
Here is this individual with such a compelling story -- born with a cleft palate and cleft lip, the cause of a severe stutter, and so he was a painfully shy boy and young man hesitant to speak much. But he found in high school that he could write and he loved sports, and as he grew more confident, he became one of the best sports writers, most knowledgeable ones, in Louisiana history. I'm far from the only one with that opinion.
He talked more freely, met a young woman (Patricia) in his church and married, he was a father twice, a grandfather, and the Journal sports editor. And he grew to be a pretty darned good public speaker (still with a stutter, but the pauses only made his punch lines more timely) and a raucous, uninhibited public singer without stuttering (now that was a laugh).
He was never afraid to express his opinion; he could handle the criticism; and OK, he could -- pardon the language -- piss off his co-workers because he was high maintenance and did have an anger button.
But, look, almost everyone admired him. They knew how good he was, how talented, how dedicated, how devoutly Christian. He did so many favors for me personally -- beginning when I was in high school -- and we had so many good times together, so many shared stories, so many laughs.
And it hasn't been an easy life -- Patricia's long illness and death, Jerry's battle with cancer, a gall bladder removed, other tough situations.
I hear people, sports writers, described as "a walking sports encyclopedia." In my world, Byrd was the encyclopedia, especially on high school sports in Louisiana but in other areas, too.
In July 2012, I wrote a blog piece on Jerry (link below) in which I referred to him -- as I have for years -- as "The Man, The Legend." He always made light of that.
Not long after that, I began to sense that his e-mail or Facebook replies to me weren't totally coherent. Very unlike-Byrd. Few people were as sharp with facts and his typing -- his "copy," in newspaper terms -- was almost always immaculate (not a word used often for Mr. Byrd in other ways).
A few months later, Little Jerry told me that his Dad was having memory issues. So I wasn't surprised when he told me a couple of months ago about his being in this facility. Barbara had been caring for him at their home, but it got to be too much of a chore for her. Like Jerry, she was in the Fair Park High Class of '53.
And here is what dementia has done. He is not clear on where his wife and daughter are. He says he is still writing his column. He thinks this mental-care facility is only a temporary stop. There's more; I'll spare the details ...
At this facility, Jerry is in a room at the end of the hallway at the far southwest corner of the second building. They probably want to reduce the noise level (I'm not being serious). It's a long walk there, and with an activities director, we went through a large dining room/activities area where maybe 25-30 people were sitting, most in wheelchairs. And not a word from anyone.
One facility worker described Jerry as a "sweetheart" (that will be news to some people). When I asked the activities director how Jerry was doing, she said, "He can be grouchy some days, but he's doing better. When he first came, he would not take part in any activities, but he's beginning to get into it."
(This is a man who would scream, "Twenty, twenty, twenty," as our Journal softball team neared that run total in games, who stripped off his shirt in freezing weather to pose -- hilariously -- for a photo at new Fair Grounds Field, who joined in singing Happy Birthday to someone during lunch at a restaurant in Bossier City. Not exactly reluctant.)
As we neared a halfway, we passed a worker and the woman with me told her we were going to see Mr. Byrd. "You can have him," she said. As she explained later, when we passed her again, Jerry is not always the most cooperative of residents.
When I went into Jerry's room, he was sleeping. So I left. But the woman who had walked me there saw me coming down the hall, and said we should go wake him because it was almost time for lunch "and he will like seeing you."
He was groggy and a bit fussy when awakened, and the woman said, "I have someone here to see you." Jerry raised up a bit, peered at me and didn't say anything.
"Do you know who this is?" she asked him.
Me: "Put on your glasses, Byrd." Jerry, disdainfully: "I don't need my glasses to see you." And then he said, "He looks familiar, but I can't think of his name right now."
When I said, "Nico," he yelled my full name -- loud enough that they could hear him in the nearby South Broadmoor neighborhood. And then, considering he hasn't seen me in about six years, he quickly added, "What happened to you?"
He asked me what I was doing these days, and I told him I was retired ... "like you."
"I'm still writing for the Bossier Press-Tribune," he replied. (He hasn't been on a computer in a couple of years.)
About five minutes later, as we headed to the lunch room, he asked me again, "What are you doing now?"
As I entered the room, I saw some photos and a scrapbook. One of the photos was of Rogers Hampton, the great all-around Fair Park athlete of the early 1950s. When I mentioned the photo to Jerry, he said, "I have that photo at home." I told him it was here, and he said, "Well, if I'm going to have anyone's photo, it would be him."
Then, as the woman got Jerry ready to go in the wheelchair, he asked where we were going. "To lunch," she said. "Who's paying?" Jerry said. Told it was part of the facility cost, he said, "Good."
"He asks every day," she whispered to me. (And five minutes later, Jerry asked again.)
I noticed that among the three dozen books on the shelves in his room were three of the books he has written on Louisiana athletics. When I mentioned that, the woman said, "I didn't know you wrote books, Mr. Byrd."
"I've written eight," he said. She then said, "I didn't know you were famous."
Byrd: "Some people think so."
The woman said to Jerry, "I heard you singing in the lunchroom yesterday." To which Jerry replied, "I was singing? What was I singing?" The woman: "That song about sunshine that a Louisiana governor wrote." Jerry: "I don't know what song that is."
I chimed in with "You Are My Sunshine." "That's it," the woman said. "Governor Jimmie Davis," I added. Jerry: "A Louisiana governor wrote that?"
(Just think, the best of Byrd's tunes at the Journal: Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl. ... Elvira. ... This Is Dedicated to the One I Loooooove. ... I Found My Thrill on Blueberry Hill. Ba ba ba, ba, Barbara Ann, Ba ba ba ba, Barbara Ann ...
The one that made me laugh the hardest, though, was one night at old SPAR Stadium when a large group of barbershop quartet singers performed pregame. Just Byrd and me sitting in a box seat right behind home plate, no one else close, when he -- loudly, what else? -- joined them in Let Me Call You Sweetheart. I'm still laughing.)
When we got to the lunchroom, the woman placed Jerry at his usual table. I asked him if he remembered Billy Montgomery. "Of course," he said. "Billy Wayne Montgomery." How about "Honey" Russell? "That's Jimmy, they called him Jimmy," he answered. "Honey was his nickname."
And I asked about Tony Sardisco, whose widow died just a couple of days earlier. "Yeah," Jerry said, "we used to call him 'Nabisco." (Which we did.)
Little Jerry has told me several times that "Dad can remember most anything before 1965. ... In the scrapbook, there is a photo of him when he coached swimming; he must have been around 30, and there are four or five swimmers in the photo with him, and he knows them all, without even having to think about it."
A man was slumped nearby in his wheelchair, sleeping. A worker awakened him and rolled him to the table where Jerry was sitting. "He's pretty low-functioning," the woman whispered to me. He didn't speak for a minute, then suddenly he sat up and began describing what he was going to do to his meal. It was mostly gibberish, but I think I heard "cut it up into little pieces, mash it, pulverize it."
"That guy," Jerry said to me, "is not going to last much longer."
Oh, wow. I hope I'm forgiven for laughing.
When I asked Jerry how he likes the facility, he said, "It's OK. But I'm not going to be here long, another week maybe. Then I'm going home."
He's been there for two months already.
He rarely goes out in public now and Little Jerry said that his Dad prefers to stay in his room and that he has to coax him into the outside world by stretching the truth a little.
It is, as you can imagine, most difficult for his family. As a friend, I can wish for a lunch at Strawn's like hundreds of times before and I'd love to hear his opinion(s) on the LSU football season and the coaching situation. And to hear him tell so many of the funny stories once stored in that large head.
We could always try to imitate him -- that voice, those mannerisms, that singing, the memorable lines ("Hey, Phillip, what took you so long?" and "he can skate, but he can't hide.") Professionally, we all could learn from him, take something from his work.
We pray for him. We hope for a peaceful existence. And we can still love The Man, The Legend.