Thursday, June 28, 2012

'Granny Cahn' set the example

        Janice Cahn showed us how to be a great grandparent.
        Beatrice, my sister and I find being grandparents an absolute joy, for different reasons.
        Bea, who has fond memories of three grandparents and a great grandmother, went through two colon cancer scares and wasn't sure she would be a grandmother. Happily, she is -- three times.
       Elsa and I never knew our grandparents. We knew from the time we were young what had happened, and I occasionally think about them -- and my aunt and uncles -- being murdered in the gas chambers.
       Not looking for sympathy here, but it's an empty spot. I would hear kids at school talk about their grandparents, or visit with our neighbor kids' grandparents, and there was a bit of envy.
       We had aunts and uncles -- at least in name, if not by blood -- in Holland who looked after us, and my mother's cousin, Maurits, and his mother and stepfather who lived two houses over and treated us like family.
        Then we came to America, to Shreveport, and we had Mr. Abe Gilbert (my dad's boss) and his wife -- and we were almost like grandchildren. And we had Janice Cahn.
         We call her "Granny Cahn" in retrospect, although we didn't do that as kids. We began doing that after Bea and I had our two little ones, and she treated them as kindly as she had Elsa and me.
         She was as close to a grandmother as I would ever have. But she was more than that. She was the mother figure my mother needed so badly.
       She "adopted" our family soon after we came to Shreveport. But she did the same for several other families who came to town from foreign lands.
         She and her husband -- Abry S. Cahn Sr. -- for decades were among the most generous, involved people in Shreveport-Bossier, particularly in the Jewish community but not limited to that.  Mr. Cahn, who founded Cahn Electric Co. in his basement in 1907 when he was 19, was the more visible of the two; Mrs. Cahn was honored over the years, but preferred to stay out of the spotlight.
          She was wise, savvy, well-read -- and classy. She dressed neatly, her hair was always perfectly done, she drove a big Cadillac, which honestly looked out of place in our driveway in Sunset Acres. She and Mr. Cahn lived in a beautiful home at 241 Gladstone Boulevard.
          Janice Pfeifer grew up in Little Rock, and she married Mr. Cahn in 1921; they were married for 42 years until he died in 1963. Her younger sister, Marion -- just as polished and classy -- also married a prominent Shreveport man, Samuel G. Wiener, one of the city's top architects for decades (among his designs: Woodlawn High School).
           Kind as she was, Mrs. Cahn also could be outspoken. There were people she didn't like, the rabbi at the Temple for one; she didn't appreciate some of his views of the world, and she would say so. She could be quite funny, too; often told jokes that might be a bit off-color -- she'd get this twinkle in her eye -- and sometimes her language might include a non-ladylike word.
          She gave our family so much -- gifts, clothes, furniture, even a car after she stopped driving. She adored her own three grandchildren -- Jan Hirsch, Susan and Abry III ("Tab") -- but she treated the Van Thyn kids like her own, too.
         Mostly, though, she and my mother had a bond.
         Other than our family and Lou Gwin -- our longtime neighbor and Oma's best friend for 50 years -- there is no one who knew my mother better than Mrs. Cahn. There is no one my mother trusted more than Mrs. Cahn.
          She knew my mother's strengths and she knew her frailities. She helped guide her through the depressive stages, and she relished the attention my mother received from elsewhere.
           Soon before Bea and I were married, we planned to go to dinner with my parents and Mrs. Cahn. Just minutes after we arrived at her apartment to pick her up, she began having trouble breathing. We had to call her doctor, and an ambulance took her to the hospital.
Janice Cahn, with our Rachel and Jason, in 1980.
           It was congestive heart failure. She was 75, and too heavy, and had smoked for years and years. But she recovered, stopped smoking and eventually lost weight, made it to our wedding reception a few months later, and in the next few years got to know our Jason, and later Rachel.
           Before the rescheduled dinner outing, my mother had told Bea -- a longtime smoker, too -- that she couldn't smoke at the table. After dinner, Mrs. Cahn said to Bea, "Aren't you going to have a cigarette?" Bea sheepishly looked at my mother, and my mother told Mrs. Cahn, "I've asked her not to smoke."
           Mrs. Cahn laughed. "Not only do I want you to smoke," she told Bea, "I want you blow it this way."
            Through the years, Mrs. Cahn and Bea would talk a couple of times a week. "How's Rose treating you?" she'd ask Bea. "Fine," Bea would reply. "OK, but don't let Rose push you around," she'd answer. "She can be a powerhouse. If she ever gives you trouble, you let me know."
            Significantly, for the last few years of Mrs. Cahn's life -- she died in 1986 -- it was my mother who often did the chauffering and the caretaking. To the end, they were as close as could be.
             As a young woman, Mrs. Cahn had been a champion amateur golfer. She still played some after we met her in the mid-1950s, but soon gave up the game. However, she remained a fan of golf and other sports, so that was a talking point for us.
            For some reason, she told me before I was even a teenager that my voice reminded her of Hoagy Carmichael. Did I know who Hoagy Carmichael was? No clue. She told me he was a famous composer, singer, bandleader, the man who wrote Stardust and Georgia on My Mind.
            Of course, I love Stardust, especially the Willie Nelson version.
            Janice Cahn sprinkled stardust all over our lives. She was one of our greatest blessings. She was "Granny Cahn."

Monday, June 25, 2012

Sports and Captains made our summers

     Your blogs bring back great memories of times (Times) past in Shreveport sports (Sports). I remembered some names, but then looked up more. Ken Guettler, Les Peden, Ev Joyner, Rac Slider, Ray Knoblach, Dave Newkirk, Baby Lou Klimchock, Bud Black, Al Grunwald, Ken Hunt, Jim McManus, Leo Posada, Jay Hankins, Jim Small, Dick Howser, Jay Ward, Mel McGaha, Dave Wickersham, Dan Pfister, & older names of legends such as Salty Parker, Homer Peel, Hub Northen. Underlined were my favorites.
-- Glenn Theis    

   This is going to be about professional baseball in Shreveport, so if you want to stop here, OK. For men of a certain age -- good name for a TV show -- this will mean something.
    For those of us who loved baseball and loved Shreveport, these were our boys of summer (young men, actually). These were our guys; these Sports and Captains (and for a couple of years, Swamp Dragons) were our teams.
     How many games did we see at Texas League Park/Braves Field/SPAR Stadium? That ballpark  was home to Shreveport's teams from 1938 to 1985 (except for two gaps -- 1943-45, 1962-67).
     Then, after more than a decade in a decaying ballpark and a tough neighborhood, it was on to a beautiful new stadium, Fair Grounds Field -- next to I-20 and just down the street from State Fair Stadium/Independence Stadium.
   And now, that stadium is in disrepair.
   Shreveport lost its Texas League franchise to Frisco after the 2002 season and since that time, the city hasn't been a part of Organized Baseball. Yes, some independent league teams played at the stadium, but it's not the same. Sorry.
Fair Grounds Field, as it looked in 2004

    Jason Pugh's article in The (Shreveport) Times a week ago (see link at the bottom) detailed how unlikely it is that Shreveport (and Bossier, by extension) will return to Organized Baseball. It's not a surprise, nor do I find it particularly sad. It is reality.
       Running a minor-league team requires more capital expenditure than Shreveport is willing to spend. Same for maintaining a minor-league ballpark or, heaven forbid, build a new one.
       A look at the latest Texas League attendance figures shows that the lowest daily average is 4,344 in San Antonio. Most of the eight teams are averaging nearly 5,000 fans a night and the runaway leader is Frisco (7,793).
        It is noteworthy that Frisco -- Double A farm team of the Texas Rangers -- has been one of the minor leagues' best success stories since longtime Captains president Taylor Moore and his partners sold the team to the Mandalay Entertainment Group. It's in a large, ever-growing area with a beautiful new ballpark, easily accessible.
       Shreveport has no such thing. I can't imagine regular crowds of 5,000 for professional baseball ever again there -- not at Fair Grounds Field, unless someone or some group wants to make a large investment in ballpark renovation and franchise purchase.
        It was, for those of us who remember, so difficult to get the City of Shreveport to put up the money to build Fair Grounds Field. It took so long, years after SPAR Stadium was really useful, years after the upper grandstand was declared structurally unsafe and the roof was rotten (and then finally ripped off), and many, many other problems.
       Shreveport was seldom a great baseball town, not in financial terms. Only in two periods was the average attendance among the Texas League's best: (1) In the years immediately following World War II (1946-49) -- before television and air conditioning and when people had money to spend -- and (2) in the decade following the opening of Fair Grounds Field.
        Nor was Shreveport a great success in the standings. In fact, in the years I lived there (1956-1988), there were this many championship teams: zero.
        I think I was a jinx. In the four years before I arrived, the Sports won two TL playoff championships (1952, 1955) and one regular-season championship (1954). Two years after I left for good, the Captains won the first of back-to-back championships (1990-91), and then they won again in '95.
        But finances and championships aside, here is the point of this blog: In some ways, Shreveport was a great baseball town. At least from a point of pride.
       So many people (and I speak for my age group, I think) took a lot of pride in Shreveport's teams, in the players (and managers) who came through town, took pride in seeing Shreveport in the Texas League standings (yes, it was in bold in the newspapers). It looked especially good at the top of those standings.
      And it was great to see the players (and managers) move on to the major leagues. Once they had been here, they could always be identified as former Shreveport players.
     In particular, we became very fond of the guys who made Shreveport their home for good -- Al Mazur, Bobby Wilkins, Ev Joyner, Mel McGaha, Francis "Salty" Parker, J.W. Jones, Homer Peel, Tom "T-Bone" Stedman, Romy Cucjen, Scott Garrelts (and there are others, I'm sure). Some have left us, but we haven't forgotten.
        Most of the names listed by Glenn Theis in the intro to this piece are from the Sports' era in the mid-1950s to the Kansas City Athletics' farm teams in 1959, '60 and '61. Except for Dick Howser, they are long forgotten by most baseball fans, but they were the heroes of our boyhood.
         Look even now and there are some major leaguers who were Shreveport players in the franchise's last three years in the Texas League (2000-02): pitcher Joe Nathan and catcher Yorvit  Torrealba of the Texas Rangers, pitchers Ryan Vogelsong (San Francisco Giants) and
Jerome Williams (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim), infielder Cody Ransom (Milwaukee Brewers).
         I could write volumes on pro baseball in Shreveport; in fact, I did in my newspaper life. Going back through some of the clippings this weekend brought some memories. Soon I intend to write about Ken Guettler, Lou Klimchock, Les Peden and Mel McGaha ... and others.
         Because, unfortunately, the past is all we have for Shreveport baseball. There doesn't appear to be a future.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A little sister. How cute.

     It's a good thing I wasn't an only child. It would have been so boring.
     No one to pick on. No one to torment. No one to beat up on, physically and emotionally. No one to cheat in Monopoly, or any other game we played. No one to remind that I was the favored child.
     Elsa, who is four years and four days younger, turns 61 today. Guess I didn't ruin her life after all.
     She has gone from darling daughter and spoiled little sister -- spoiled by all but me -- to would-be baton twirler, Woodlawn pep squad member, LSU graduate, social worker, bride to Jim Wellen, transplanted Southern girl to Yankee, mother of three, Hospice sales person and now -- most significantly -- grandmother.
Oma Elsa and her first grandchild, Mr. Max Wellen.
     In late February, she became Oma Elsa. Max Wellen, I'm guessing, will be the first of several grandchildren for Jim and Elsa. Mazel tov.
     They got the edge on us in children -- three to two -- and in a few years, we expect they'll have the edge in grandchildren (we have three). And that will be fine. We're very proud of Elsa's kids; obviously, she and Jim have done a lot of things right.
      So she wasn't as mentally deranged as I thought. It's tough when your older brother has more brains, more talent, more personality, more good looks.
     I'm kidding. I'm kidding. OK, Elsa?
     No, actually Elsa looks a lot like me, except her hair is much darker now (insert laugh here). She is -- if you can believe this -- an even zanier, even louder version of me.
      She and Jim met in New Orleans and lived there a while, then moved to Newport News, Va., then Scotch Plains, N.J. -- closer to Jim's roots -- and they have been in Voorhees, N.J. -- near Philadelphia -- for two decades. They have built a solid base of friends there, but I expect one day they'll return to New Orleans, a place they love.
       The kids are spread out -- Adam, with Tania and the baby, in Portland, Ore.; Josh and his new bride, Emily, in Houston; Abby, with her boyfriend, in her new job with AT&T in Hartford, Conn.
       I know Elsa would like to have them all right close by because family -- as with us -- is so important to her.
      She has been much more involved in the Jewish faith than I have, and she speaks -- and understands -- Dutch much better, even though I went to school in Holland, and she didn't.
      Only Elsa knows what it was like for us as kids, making the long trip from Holland, eventually winding up in a neighborhood (Sunset Acres) that we each cherished, and living with our parents, who loved us dearly but sometimes didn't know what to do with two lively, squabbling kids. And while I really was treated royally, Elsa did have to play second fiddle a lot -- especially with my dad's interest in all things sports-related.
       She found her own way, making a name for herself in school, even though lots of teachers already knew the name "Van Thyn" from the brilliant star who had passed through four years earlier.
       Elsa did what I couldn't ... she went to the big university a good way from home. I was very proud when she chose LSU and, admittedly, a bit jealous (although I loved Louisiana Tech).
        I did see one of my kids -- Jason -- go to LSU before one of Elsa's -- Josh -- went there. And because of her sons' interest, Elsa has become a bigger LSU football fan than she ever was, although she certainly knew what a winning program was like from the golden days at Woodlawn.
        She was in the senior class -- the Joe Ferguson/Melvin Russell/Larry Davis class --  that gave Woodlawn two state championships in one school year (football, basketball) and almost two more in baseball and track and field. When we won the basketball title in Alexandria, Elsa was among those in the pep squad who started the chant, "We've got two!"
         She worked in the Alumni House at LSU for the same man, Jack Fiser, who I worked for at La. Tech when he was the sports information director there for one year. That was a fortuitous connection; Mr. Fiser was among the very best writers -- and people -- I've ever been around. Elsa earned her degree in Social Work, and has stayed true to her field.
        She was the cute little dark-haired girl who somehow turned up in so many of the same pictures I was in when we were kids. We went to the beach together in Holland and in Galveston, rode thousands of miles in the backseat of the car on vacation trips and trips to Minden, Arkadelphia and many points in the Ark-La-Tex. We played Monopoly and other games -- she never won -- and "underground car" under the blankets at home. I made her compete in track on the streets in Sunset Acres and convinced her of all sorts of stuff she didn't really believe. We did hula-hoops together, and she loved the Beatles as much as I did.
        She liked Casey and Ken and Ben and most of my friends who came around a lot. She was bright and talkative, and cute, and a brat, and a pest -- and I gave her unmitigated grief.
        I'm proud of the woman she's become, and of her family, and I hope she'll someday forgive me for the trouble I gave her.
        It wasn't so bad having a little sister after all.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Crates, roaches, a sewing machine ... and a stoop

     Back to Shreveport, 1956 and '57. The memories of our family's first year and a half in the United States are many; the details are sketchy.     Wish my folks were still here to answer the questions; I should have asked more, knowing this blog might one day materialize. Neither my mother or dad forgot the details, not ever.
      Elsa, who was only 4 when we came over from Holland, remembers some of this, maybe more than I might realize. After she reads this, I might be making corrections.
       Here then are some of the things I remember:
Sketch of Amsterdam done by
 my mother's uncle, Philip Kopuit.
 It now hangs in our living room.
       -- The crates. We traveled to the U.S. on the boat and then to Shreveport by train only with the possessions we could carry -- a few suitcases of clothes and necessities. The rest of what my parents decided to bring was crated up, two crates' worth -- and the crates didn't seem all that big.
      But what a happy day it was when those crates arrived at our first little apartment on Jordan Street. It was almost a month after we had arrived.
      I remember them being placed in the driveway and my dad getting help to pry them open. And there was the familiar stuff -- clothes, blankets, a couple of chairs, several charcoal drawings done by my mother's uncle, photo albums, books, some of my toys and my beloved marbles.
       It wasn't all that much. But it was ours.
       Perhaps the most important item that was shipped: A Singer sewing machine. Read on.
      -- The roaches. Beatrice will tell you my mother was obsessive about keeping her house clean, and Bea (and Rachel) feel as strongly about how a house should look as she did. But my mother was a neat freak. It was always that way in Holland, so you can imagine her reaction to the roaches that made themselves at home in our new place in the U.S.
       And it was a platoon of roaches; they just kept coming. They went up and down the walls, and everywhere else; my mother, figuratively, went up the wall.
        -- The move. We spent about six months in that first (unfurnished) apartment. We got help from the Shreveport Jewish Federation with some furniture and bedding, and our stuff helped fill it. While I adjusted to school (third grade) and my dad adjusted to working in a completely new field (second-hand oilfield pipe) -- and we all learned a new language -- life in the U.S. became more routine. And my mother fought those roaches, until ... we moved.
         Our second apartment was several blocks away -- on Mildred Street, a corner apartment right at Southern Avenue. It is now where I-49 runs north-south in Shreveport. It was a little bigger place -- again unfurnished -- and much cleaner, which my mother liked. And the roaches stayed on Jordan Street.
        -- My "room." This was a two-bedroom place (my parents' room and the kids' room), but it had a screened-in porch. So Elsa got the kids' room; the porch became my room. And that was fine, even in winter because it had a space heater. To get into the house, all I had to do was climb in through a window; it was quicker than going out the screen door and through the front door. So it was fun to have my own room.
        -- Three-cornered ruler. Can't tell you much about my fourth-grade year at Line Avenue Elementary. The walk to school was several blocks longer than it had been, but no problem. My teacher was Mrs. Anding (or Miss Anding, can't remember for sure), and she was stern.  I was still just learning to read English, still ahead of the other kids in math. I didn't give Mrs. Anding too much trouble because she had a three-cornered ruler and she didn't hesitate to rap kids' knuckles with it ... often. She wouldn't get away with that now.
         -- The sewing machine. My mother was a seamstress, and a darned good one. She could sew anything, alter anything; she loved to knit -- she made wonderful afghans for just about everyone in the family; she made a lot of clothes for Elsa and Bea. So that Singer was a very important item for years and years.
       Mom never worked outside the home. But in those early years, she made a business of sewing; she sewed for customers in Shreveport-Bossier. Word got around, and some prominent people -- particularly in the Jewish community -- came to her for custom sewing and alterations.
       -- The sewing signs. With help from the pipeyard, my dad brought home about a half dozen signs advertising my mother's sewing business. They were handpainted on plywood, maybe no bigger than my laptop computer screen -- and my dad placed them around the neighborhood, including one in the front yard.
        It wasn't much, but whatever my mother brought in helped us live more comfortably, and we were proud of those signs.
        -- The uniform. The greatest thing my mother ever sewed was my first baseball uniform. I was just learning about the game, not ready to join a team, but I liked the uniforms the kids wore. So my mother made me a flannel uniform -- white, with blue trim -- and I remember wearing it to school a few times. Maybe the kids made fun of me; I didn't care.
        -- The radio. While we lived on Mildred Street, my dad brought home a radio -- a unique radio. It looked like a microphone, and it was a one-station radio -- KENT. Just happened that KENT was the station that carried Shreveport Sports' games. Perfect. How many times did I listed to Irv Zeidman announce those games?               
       -- The stoop. The house on Mildred was on a small hill, with a three-step stoop in front. That stoop was perfect for my first baseball "games," throwing a tennis ball at it, and creating ground balls and fly balls. All the while "announcing" the game as I heard IZ do the Sports' games.
       -- The bright lights. A couple of months into the 1956 baseball season, my dad and I walked from Jordan Street into the Allendale neighborhood, to Texas League Park, home of the Sports. We had never seen a baseball game -- we were soccer fans -- but the people at dad's work had given him tickets to a Sports' game. I remember walking up street toward the right-field fence and seeing those bright lights of the stadium.
       We sat in the upper grandstand that first night, trying to figure out what was going on. But I was fascinated by the white and gray uniforms, by how fast the pitchers were throwing and how fast the men could run.
       Soon, I would fall in love with the game and with the Shreveport team. Those lights are a beautiful memory.
      -- The second move. By early summer in 1957, my parents had enough money -- and backing from a few people in Shreveport -- to buy a house. On July 4, we made the move, all the way out to southwest Shreveport ... to the Sunset Acres neighborhood, to 2921 Amhurst Street.
       Again, it would be one of the most significant moves of our lives.      

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Welcome to Medicare ... age 65

        So here I am at 65. Today I'm officially in the Medicare generation, although I've been covered for a couple of weeks now.
       It's my birthday and Bea -- who is in charge here -- "suggested" I write about it because I've already written about Jason's, Rachel's and her birthdays.  And I thank you for the birthday wishes; they began arriving on Facebook last weekend.
         I used to think that, being born in 1947, I would be 53 in the year 2000, and I would be ready to retire when I turned 65 ... in 2012. And, gee, where have the years gone?
         So let me share some thoughts with you about reaching 65. Using a format I've never used before, I decided I would ... interview myself. Here goes ...
         How's it going? (Note: This is how I begin 95 percent of my conversations on the phone). Great. I'm grateful to be here. It's a great time of life; I try to enjoy every day.
          What keeps you busy these days? We read a lot, we try to exercise every day -- I love my walks through the neighborhood near TCU, and my occasional trip on the treadmill in the exercise room at our apartment complex  -- and Bea and I try to do things around the city. We've gone to the Botanical Gardens, to the Concert in the Park, to Bass Hall, to the museums, we spent much of late April and May on the road to Shreveport, Sulphur, Baton Rouge, Memphis, Knoxville. We eat well but also more carefully. We think about our lives and where we want to go in the near future.
Opa Nico, Granny Bea and the
grandkids -- Kaden, Josie and Jacob.
           What's the best part of life? No question -- the grandkids. We're so proud of our kids; they went through a lot when they were young, through many more tests than they should have, and they've become wonderful young adults. We love their spouses, but we are especially blessed to spend time with our Josie, Jacob and Kaden. They are the reward for a lot of difficult years.
           Why so difficult? Whatever problems I ran into, I usually caused them. Too many distractions, too many lapses in judgment, too demanding, too impatient, too hard on myself, too hard on others.
          What's changed? Bea says I've mellowed, thank you. I don't feel very mellow any time the Yankees, Cowboys, LSU, Louisiana Tech or the Dutch soccer team lose games, but ... they are games. Bea and I can still push each other's "mad" buttons, but we are time-tested and we are battle-tested.
          What about your career? What career?
           Seriously ... Well, I'm semi-retired. I worked in newspaper sports departments or in sports information for 40-plus years and I was laid off in May 2011. Since last fall, I have worked parttime in Dallas or Fort Worth a couple of times a week -- sometimes a day or two more -- but I work shorter shifts and mostly get to choose my spots. I want to cover high school football one more season this fall, and at the end of the year, I don't intend to work any more. Period.
          Satisfied with the career? Yes. I was never going to be a great everyday writer or reporter; it just didn't come that easily. I did try to be a great employee. Didn't always satisfy the people in charge, didn't meet their standards, but again, most of that was my fault. I was never all that compliant and I didn't always behave. But I say this with all sincerity -- I always gave it 100 percent. I didn't try to take shortcuts or the easy way. Tried my best on everything; tried to stay ahead. There were subjects I didn't know much about, but I learned to ask for help.
       The biggest lesson? There is so much in life you cannot control. I learned the hard way you cannot control how people think, you cannot control certain circumstances. I think, I hope, I've gotten a lot better at handling the things I could control, and accepting the rest of it. The Serenity Prayer is important to remember.
        The legacy? What does it matter? Well, I did leave a legacy of fun, I hope. I had fun, and I think the people around me did, if they got past the outbursts and the kicked trash cans and thrown objects. There's a legacy of perverse silliness ... the kind you get in every sports department. It was usually a pretty interesting mix of people, and I'd like to think I learned something from all of them.
       What about the friends? I've got so many, so many people I'm fond of. I was almost always able to make friends, and I've kept them. I never suffered fools easily, so you learn to weed. Often, though, I was the fool. But I value my friends -- so many of those people from Shreveport-Bossier, those kids from Sunset Acres and Oak Terrace and Woodlawn and La. Tech, those newspaper people, the coaches and the administrators from all over.
       Beatrice tops the list; she's been my best friend for 36 years now; she's my rock, my conscience, my advisor, my nemesis ... we are a team. She's the gutsiest person I know. And Casey Baker and John W. Marshall III know me better than anyone but Bea; we're close, and they've been there longer than Bea. So many others, though, that I consider close friends, too many to name.
        Who do you miss most? Oh, man. My parents, Bea's parents and her brother, my mentors (Pete Dosher, Bill McIntyre, Jack Fiser, Paul Manasseh), my great friend Ken Liberto ... Just to know I can't pick up the phone and talk to them, or see them in person again, it's tough.
         Regrets? It's not like My Way ... "regrets, I had a few, but then again too few to mention." No, I've got too many to mention. But the object is to not add any more.
          How lucky were you? Oh, I'm one of the luckiest people I know. Sure, things happened that weren't lucky. But I got so many breaks, none bigger than coming to the United States from Holland at age 8 1/2. When I failed -- and I did so many times -- people were always there to pick me up.  First my parents. Then mostly, Beatrice. She stayed with me when she had a lot of reasons not to. My kids stayed with me. When I needed jobs, along came McIntyre and Stanley Tiner, Mike Richey, John Adams, Celeste Williams.
        What about the blog? It's fun; it gets things on paper that I wanted to say. I know it's egocentric, but it gives me a chance to write. Hopefully, it entertains some people. Not trying to be too critical of anything or anyone. Trying to share some of my experiences, and some of my wisdom (there's a laugh there, as Dan Fleser would say).
       Where to from here? Many more good days with Miss Bea, Rachel and Jay, and their families. Hopefully, many more days with Josie, Jacob and Kaden. It is so fulfilling to watch them grow, watch them learn so rapidly, laugh with them, enjoy what they can do (revel in it, in fact). Many more good meals, and good times, and mostly, good health.
        OK, wrap it up -- this is getting too long. Not unusual for me to write long. The bottom line is that I feel very blessed. Life has been a great experience, and I hope there is a lot more to it. And I thank all of you.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The legendary man, Mr. Byrd

    Lunch at one of our favorite spots in Shreveport, Strawn's Eat Shop, with Bea, daughter Rachel-- and Jerry Byrd. Rachel is a freshman at University of Tennessee. All of a sudden, unprompted, Byrd says, "Hey, Rachel, do you know the words to Rocky Top?" 
      Rachel has been around Byrd all her life, but she's shy and doesn't sense what is about to happen.
      Before she can reply, Byrd begins singing, "Rocky Top, you'll always be ... home sweet home to me ... Good ol' Rocky Top, Rocky Top Tennessee."
      It is a small lunch place -- 10 tables maybe, three booths, six round chairs at the counter. Byrd has a loud, booming voice anyway. He rocks the place.
      I refer to him as The Man, The Legend.
      This will draw a disdainful laugh from Byrd, or maybe a sneer, or a roll of the eyes. But he knows he's a legend. Anyone familiar with sports writing in Shreveport-Bossier, in North Louisiana, in the state, knows it. We've all grown up with Jerry Byrd.
      He's a big man, figuratively and literally. He's been baldheaded for years, but I actually remember him with some hair in the late 1950s. He is an imposing figure.
Jerry Byrd (from Barbara Byrd's Facebook page)
       Gene Freese, manager of the Shreveport Captains in the early 1970s, referred to Byrd as "The Head That Ate Shreveport." Yes, Byrd has a big head ... the better to store the mountains of information on sports he possesses.
      Any way you measure -- longetivity, quantity of work, quality of work -- there has never been a better sportswriter in Shreveport-Bossier (and arguably not in the state) -- than Byrd. He is the man.
      He's been a role model for me, and he's done so many personal favors, one of which early on was a column on me in my senior year of high school, 1965 (a blog on that column soon).
      Byrd has written, fearlessly and endlessly, on thousands of subjects and people. Sure, he was outspoken and opinionated. But he did it without suggesting that coaches be fired or programs be overhauled or crusading against the NCAA (well, not often). He was as honest as he could be.
      He started at the Shreveport Journal the day after he graduated from Northwestern State College in May 1957, and stayed for 34 years ... until the paper folded. But he's still writing at age 76.
     We're at a fairly large restaurant in Ruston for lunch, I'm with A.L. Williams and Byrd, and we're waiting on the Louisiana Tech women's basketball coach to join us. We're sitting in the very back of the restaurant.
      Front door opens and, boom, Byrd loudly (what else?) announces, "Ladies and gentlemen ... Leon Barmore!" Leon has to walk through the entire restaurant after this. He was wearing a red shirt, and his face was as red as that shirt.  
      Jerry Byrd has had to face tremendous challenges, making him even more of a person to be admired. Anyone who has talked to Byrd knows he has a speech impediment. He was born without a cleft palate (roof of the mouth) and with a cleft lip. Talking was always going to be difficult for him. When he began to talk, he stuttered badly; he was difficult to understand.
     He was painfully shy as a young boy, rarely spoke in public. But he was bright and he loved sports. He was a willing athlete, but the talent he discovered was that he could write. With the encouragement of a journalism teacher at Fair Park High (Antoinette Tuminello), he started on his life's work. He became sports editor of NSC's Current Sauce -- it was at NSC where his friends began calling him "Tweety" Byrd after the cartoon character -- and then went to the Journal.
     You realize how much verbal communication, interviewing for quotes and information, is a part of our business, and you know how much Jerry had to overcome. But he's done it beautifully.
     Byrd will tell you that he was only a so-so sportswriter for the first several years of his career. Then he began digging for deeper stories, for more background, for more insight.
      He became an award-winning writer. Few sportswriters in Louisiana -- if any -- have won more awards, been more honored. Byrd can probably give you the number of awards and honors he's received; modesty was never a strong suit.
     He definitely can tell you that he had a streak of 2,131 days (except for vacations) over a seven-year period when his column appeared in the Journal. He wanted to surpass Lou Gehrig's baseball record consecutive-games streak, and he did ... until a hospital stay for gall stones stopped him.
     I've met few people more determined, more strong-willed, more capable. Byrd is a perfectionist, and his copy -- with very few typos or dropped words or fact errors -- reflected that.
    No one worked harder for those honors and awards, or deserved them more.
    The kid who wouldn't talk has become an entertaining speaker when called upon. And he's become an entertaining singer. Oh, yes.
       Byrd loved to sing. Every day, he would serenade the Journal newsroom, booming out a tune. And like Mel Tillis, the great country music singer who had a speech impediment and stuttered but sang beautifully, Byrd never stuttered when he sang.
      Invariably, we'd all be laughing. He had a collection of favorites. So did we.
      Ed Cassiere chose This Is Dedicated to the One I Love. John James Marshall liked the Southwood (High School) fight song ... actually, the Bonanza theme, which Byrd interpreted as, "Southwood, Southwood, Southwood, Southwood, South-woooood."
     Gary West and I liked "... I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill." But "Duke ... Duke ... Duke ... Duke of Earl" was a classic, too.
     Teddy Allen: "When Mr. Byrd was really 'in voice,' his rendition of What's It all About Alfie? was hard to touch. I wonder if Alfie ever told him what it was about. He didn't tell us."
     And here's  how Teddy remembers Byrd's daily office entrance: "Shoes untied. Whistling. McDonald's coffee. ... Might say good morning and might not talk for an hour. And that would be, 'JJ, how many yards did that boy have?' "
     As Teddy said, "I never had it so good. So beautiful."
     I think Byrd's favorite might've been Carly Simon's Nobody Does It Better. That became a slogan for the Journal sports section at one time, I believe, because Byrd believed it applied.
     In addition to sportswriting, Byrd was a coach, most notable of the City of Shreveport Swim Team for a couple of decades. And he was a good one; the club was always one of the state's best. Then Byrd turned to organizing junior track and field athletes and taking them to meets in the area and around the country.
     He was -- and is -- a devout Christian, a religious man. And he is one of the most regular movie-watchers you'd find anywhere. How often did he write about his favorite scene from Shane?
     As a sports editor in the 1970s, Byrd was demanding -- of himself and his staff in a drive-you-mad way. But the Journal sports section, through the Byrd-Rick Woodson-Wally Rugg days of the early '70s to the long string of college grads in their first jobs -- a very talented group of people -- kept producing great stories.
     He's produced several books about Louisiana athletics, primarily high school sports. He is the reigning authority in that area, most notably track and field.
    Working with him meant great laughs almost every day. It also meant desk drawers or books being slammed, or a stream of profanities, or a petulant outburst. (Told you he was a role model.)
    But mostly, it was fun, and it was rewarding, and I'm sure that most of those guys who worked with Byrd will tell you how much they respect him.
    Lunch at PoFolks in Bossier City with coach Jimmy Russell. You've seen how the restaurant crews will gather and sing Happy Birthday to people. On this day, they do so close to Byrd and Russell's table. Byrd gets up and joins them in singing Happy Birthday.
    Can you imagine that scene?
     A few minutes later, an older woman comes to the table and says to Jerry, "You look just like someone I saw last week." To which Byrd replies, "You mean there's someone else out there that looks like me?"
       No one was ever going to outwork Byrd, at least not through the first couple of decades he was in sportswriting. But after he met Patricia Hood and married her in the mid-1960s, his life changed from all work to family man.
      Then Tricia and little Jerry came along, and maybe with them, a softer side of Byrd. Maybe.
      He became the involved dad, and the often-exasperated one. I can hear him now: "Tricia ... Tricia ... Tricia." Or "Jerry ... Jerry ... Jerry." Both often followed by, "Clueless ... Clueless ... Clueless."
      And now, of course, he is the much-involved granddad. Patricia, sadly, passed away in 2001. Two years later, Mr. Byrd found a second love, a long-ago admirer from Fair Park days, Barbara Crouch Copeland, and married her.
      When the Journal folded on March 30, 1991, Byrd was out of a job for the first time since 1957. The Shreveport Times should have hired him to be a regular columnist; instead, it hired him to do community news-type sports stories. Please ...
       Jerry went on to the Minden paper for a while, then to the Bossier Press-Tribune for years. He has gone through bypass surgery and a bout with cancer, but he  continues to write columns for the Bossier paper -- still informative, still on top of things, still recalling people and times and events from decades past, and the athletes and coaches of today.
      Big basketball game at Captain Shreve High one night in 1986; Airline, undefeated and the best team in Shreveport-Bossier, is the visiting team. We -- the Journal sports staff -- are all there. Airline ends up winning the game, but near the end, a fight breaks out in the stands. In the middle of the fight  is the Airline principal, Phillip Haley.
       Haley had been a great player at little Belmont High School and then at Northwestern State in the 1950s, then a coach at Parkway (Bossier). He was a big, burly guy, and a good guy, and he had a big temper -- he blew a fuse every five minutes or so.
       In the Journal account of the Shreve-Airline game the next day, we had a game story and we had Byrd's column in which he basically ripped Haley for being involved in the fight.
        The paper's first edition came off the press at about 11 a.m. At about 11:20 -- I am not kidding -- the sports phone rang and I answered. It was Haley, and he was hot.
       "Let me talk to that baldheaded (bleep) (bleep) (bleep)," he yelled. I tried to calm him down and he yelled, "Byrd has never liked me since I played at Belmont." He went on for another 30 seconds. Finally, I said, "Hang on, Phillip."
        I put the phone on hold, and turned to Byrd. "Hey, Jerry," I said, "Phillip Haley is on the phone and he's not happy."
        Byrd picked up the phone and said, "Hey, Phillip ... What took you so long?"
        Postscript to the Rachel story at the top. Same site three years later, Strawn's, lunch with Rachel, Bea and Mr. Byrd. Again, Jerry says to Rachel, "How about Rocky Top?" and he started singing. Our girl, now a college graduate and no longer shy, this time joined right in with Byrd.
      And they probably heard it in Knoxville.
       Life with Byrd. Quite an adventure. Nobody did it better.
       So I end with this, as John James Marshall suggested Byrd would sing ... "This is dedicated to the one ... I ... Looooooove!!!!"

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A "new" Star-Telegram. Get used to it.

   The Fort Worth Star-Telegram is the best newspaper of the seven I worked for in 40-plus years. And that's saying something because some of the places I worked were very, very good.
    Had a great time at most of them, and the sports departments were so much fun everywhere. Made lots of great friends, saw lots of great work, took pride in all of it.
      Two of the papers I worked for (two of the best) are gone -- the Shreveport Journal folded in 1991, The Honolulu Advertiser was bought out two years ago by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- a rare instance where the afternoon paper survived and the morning paper didn't -- and merged into the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
       Many friends lost their jobs in those closures. These days that's part of the business, a hurtful part.
      But I never worked with as much talent as at the Star-Telegram. With Celeste Williams in charge, leadership in sports was outstanding and, I believe, so was the product.  Our sports section from 2001 through much of the decade was as good as any paper in the country; yes, even The Dallas Morning News.  Consistent top-10 honors in the annual Associated Press Sports Editor contest proved that.
      When I went to work there in December 2001, we had 85 fulltime sports people -- yes, 85 -- plus a bunch of parttimers. (A comparison: When I started at The Shreveport Times in May 1969, I became the sixth fulltime sports person.)
      At Star-Telegram sports, we put out a big section almost daily, including three "zoned" pages for high schools most days during the school year.
      We covered everything, most of it in detail. We had resources and, in my estimation, brilliant talent, both writing and inside the office. Our sections looked spectacular most days, and read well.
      It all changed on Thursday, April 17, 2008. That day the layoffs began.
      It started with eight "middle managers" being told they were gone, immediately. Our loss in sports that day was John Henry, who the night before -- as "night editor" -- had stayed extra late to get in the NBA playoffs pairings (it was the final night of the regular season).
      John had been at the Star-Telegram 15 years. Obviously, there were many people in the department with less experience, less tenure and considerably less talent. We would come to find out that none of these factors mattered in subsequent layoffs/buyouts.
      The people in charge told us that layoffs would be done by seniority. But, but, but ... that was only within your particular realm (assigning editors, writers, copy editors, designers, etc.)
       Yet in the second round of layoffs, we lost an outdoors writer (Bob Hood) who had been at the paper 40-plus years; we lost an auto racing writer (John Sturbin) -- one of the best in the country, in my opinion -- who had been there 25 years. Hello, seniority.
      It didn't make much sense.
      We kept losing good people. Some left on their own, having located better jobs. Some took the buyouts, with no set plans. Some just got caught in the layoffs. Many of my favorite writers at the paper (David Casstevens, Pete Alfano, Mary Rogers, Gary West, Lori Dann, the best college sports writer/columnist in the country, Wendell Barnhouse) eventually moved on. So did a couple of good friends on the sports desk, the inside crew.
      We lost promising young talent, and seasoned veterans. Each time it was very difficult.
      By my count, the Star-Telegram has gone through seven layoff/buyout phases. But I might have lost count; in his Fort Worth Magazine article about the state of the paper and the newspaper business last month, ex-S-T editorial page editor Paul K. Harral says there have been 14 phases.
      I survived five layoffs. By the time my layoff notice came -- in early May a year ago -- I was ready to go. I found night work increasingly tiring (after mostly 40-plus years of it), and my wife had been trying to get me to let go. We looked at the buyout offers, but they really were no better than the layoff package.
       It was easier for me to go than for a lot of people because I am near the end of my career.
      The mental strain of working knowing that layoffs could be coming ... again ... was tough. I'm sure it's still that way. I am working parttime, a couple of nights a week at the S-T, because I want to, not because I need to, but the remaining fulltime people there know their time might be coming.
      Each time there were layoffs/buyouts, the publisher and editor had staff meetings thanking us for our hard work, urging us to continue to put out the best papers we could, and spinning the thought (the hope) that economic circumstances/revenue stream could improve.
     Hasn't happened. One-week furloughs (time off without pay; in other words, a pay cut) have been a reality for a few years and continue.
     I counted the other day and the sports department is down to 35 fulltimers, plus a double-digit number of "contract workers" like myself.
     The talk is that the McClatchy Company, which owns 30 daily papers in the U.S. and which surely overpaid to purchase the Knight Ridder chain -- including the Star-Telegram -- six years ago, and other chains might soon have most of its employees be "contract workers."
      That is, workers paid by the hour at a lower rate (and for fewer hours), with no health/vacation benefits, and no longtime ties. Think the three-day workweek for the paper isn't possible?
     And McClatchy reportedly has a huge debt payment due next year. With its stock price having plummeted, who knows what will happen.
      One thing about the Star-Telegram, though -- executive editor Jim Witt has been pushing the staff for several years toward improving the digital/online presentation. Thus the increased emphasis on putting more news, more quickly, on the S-T web site and making increased use of Twitter and Facebook.
       It's been a wonderful place to work, and it still is. But it's not the Star-Telegram I came into.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Newspapers: Love 'em, leave 'em

       For those of us who love reading newspapers, who have worked at newspapers, the shock waves keep coming.    
        You would think that after four-plus years of layoffs, buyouts, staff reductions, furloughs -- misery after misery -- we would have grown accustomed to it. Not so.
       When the announcement came a week ago that the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune -- and the papers in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, Ala. -- were going to three-days-a-week publications, it was stunning news.
       In a shrinking newspaper business, this -- to me -- is the next evolution. Short of papers simply folding or going online only, this is what is going to happen. How soon before weeklies-only? How soon before this happens in Shreveport ... or Houston ... or Dallas ... or New York City ... or Fort Worth?
       Journalism jobs are going to be lost in New Orleans (and the other places), perhaps as soon as next week. I've got friends who have been writing sports in the Times-Picayune for years, but how much longer? Bad news might be coming for them, but it has come for friends all over the country.
       Call it sad. Call it heartbreaking.
       Call it reality. This is our newspaper world today. We need to adjust our mind-set.
       I love the feel of the newspaper in my hands. A lot of people in our age range do, and have for years and years.
       I've been a regular newspaper reader since I was a little kid, reading my dad's sports newspaper in Amsterdam as soon as I could read a little. Loved to look at the Monday morning recaps of the soccer games in Holland, at the coverage of the Tour de France (especially the daily maps showing the route of the world's biggest bicycle race), the news of speed skating (my first sports hero was Kees Broekman, the Dutchman who was the second-best skater in the world in the early 1950s).
       In Shreveport, we started subscribing to the afternoon Journal in 1956. Couldn't read much English yet, but I would take the paper and spread it on the floor, on my hands and knees leaning over the paper, I'd see about the Shreveport Sports and superhero Ken Guettler (62 home runs that year, a Texas League record) and the New York Yankees and the great Mickey Mantle.
       To think that I would someday work for the newspaper, that I would paid for covering sports, for helping put together a sports section.
        Think I'm not sentimental about newspapers?
        But the reality is (1) the Internet has cut greatly into newspaper reading; (2) people 50 (maybe 55) and older read newspapers; people younger than that don't; they get their news from TV, the Internet or their phones; (3) the newspaper business isn't a good place to be these days.
        On the Internet, I will read about LSU, the Yankees and the Dutch soccer team because I'm not going to get much on them in the Fort Worth paper. But I don't want to sit at the computer or go to my phone and endlessly read stuff.  Not part of my routine.
        Anyone who knows me well knows I almost always have a stack of newspapers dating three years, three months, three weeks, three days ... whatever, and I intend to read them. I will read almost every word in sports; I like any political news/analysis, and I'll peruse every page, read the things I like.
        Admittedly, I underestimated the Internet. I thought the people who left the Star-Telegram (and other places) for jobs with the .com sites were foolish. I don't think that now.
         My son, who is 38, will read anything on LSU football -- all on computer or on his phone. Can't remember the last time I saw him hold a newspaper and read. My good friend Jim Pruett says his son Jed, a brilliant college student and recent University of Tennessee grad, gets all his news from computers/phone.
         Our son-in-law, Russell Smith, who is a radio sports talk show producer/host in Knoxville, is an exception, though. He still subscribes to the Knoxville News Sentinel, and actually reads it. Way to go, Russell.
       So the reality is that newspapers everywhere are losing staffers and losing circulation. That really hit home Thursday when I received the monthly (Shreveport) Times Oldtimers Society newsletter from Allan K. Lazarus, the retired longtime managing editor. He listed the circulation figures for the Gannett newspapers in Louisiana.
        They are miniscule, compared to the "old days."
        Part of Laz's note:  "The latest circulation figures for The Times (from the Audit Bureau of Circulations as seen on the Internet) are 34,800 daily and 49,299 Sunday. The numbers are for the six months ending March 31. ... The numbers are for print only.
      "Didn’t Times Sunday circulation hit 125,000 once?"
        The Times-Picayune  has always been Louisiana's biggest (and probably best) newspaper. Might not be now, though, because New Orleans lost much population base and advertising base after Hurricane Katrina, perhaps leaving the Baton Rouge Advocate as the state's premier paper.
        But it was Times-Picayune sports that I read in our school library almost every day in high school, and got to know the New Orleans schools -- the public-school district, the vaunted Catholic League schools.
       It was the Times-Picayune that I thought had the best sports writers in the state (other than the Shreveport Journal). Just as I loved when Shreveport schools beat New Orleans school in anything, I loved beating the T-P in the sports writers' contests -- and we did much of the time I was at the Journal (1982-87).   
        So last week's news on the T-P three-days-a-week reduction really stung. Makes me wonder if print newspapers will survive at all down the road.
        We have to adjust. It's a new world. I'm trying to wean myself from the daily newspaper habit, trying to be more selective in my reading choices.
         Look at it this way -- at least we'll be saving on lots of ink and paper.
         But it still doesn't feel very good for us old newspaper people.