Wednesday, October 31, 2012

That one last talk

    It happens often these days. I think of things I'd like to ask my dad, or say to him.
    Wish now, four years after his death, that I had told him more often how much difference he made in my life, how much I appreciated him. Maybe he knew from some of my writing.
     Wish, too, that I had asked him to tell us more about his growing-up years and his years just before, during and after his time in German concentration camps. We've got the long interview he did for the Shoah Foundation on tape, but even now it's difficult to watch. Maybe someday again.
      If had known that I was going to do this blog, I would have worked harder at putting his thoughts and stories on paper.
      He didn't speak English well, and he didn't put his thoughts in print like my mother did, but -- as I've said often and written previously on this blog -- he was the better storyteller of the two. To the end, he had recall of events and people in his life, and he had some fascinating travels.
        So I wish we'd had one last big talk. Can't go back and do it.
        I know there was a final goodbye, but it was a few weeks before he died. As his health declined -- and he lived to be 89 -- every time we'd visit the house in Shreveport, when it came time to leave, I knew it could be the last time I saw him alive.
        My sister was there on a visit the late evening he collapsed. She called early the next morning
  to say he was in the hospital, and we should come on. She called back 15 minutes later to say he was gone. That trip from Fort Worth to Shreveport was, it seems, longer than ever.
Coach James Farrar, with granddaughter MJ Trahan
         So I've thought a lot lately about last visits. Had one with Dr. James C. Farrar three months ago, knowing his time was short. When he passed away Tuesday morning, it brought this particular blog subject to the front.
           How many people did you have a last visit with, and how many do you wish you could go back and see one more time?
          We -- Bea and I -- got a lot of quality time with my mother in her last few weeks after she broke her hip in late May two years ago. But if I could go back and ask, I'd ask how she managed to hold her rage -- which my sister and I saw enough times to be leery -- when she was shoved around by the German SS guards at Auschwitz. I guess the threat of beatings and/or death was a deterrent.
            If I could go back and re-visit ...
           My in-laws. I'd take one more fried fish meal (bream and perch) cooked by sweet Granny Shaw in the little kitchen in the little house on Shaw Hill in Jamestown, one more fishing trip to Lake Bistineau with Paw-Paw Shaw, or one more session at that table listening to him spin stories about "little ol' Buster" or a variety of subjects.
           Little ol' Buster was Howard Jr., Bea's only brother (two years younger) who we lost earlier this year. And, luckily, Bea and I both got a nice, long last visit with him when he stayed with us for a few days a few months earlier. (Bea also got a last visit with her dad, traveling from Florida to see him a couple of weeks before his death in August 1995.)
          My fill-in grandparents, Abe Gilbert and Janice Cahn, who always brought gifts and/or unconditional love. I've written about them previously.
          My newspaper friends. Start with Bill McIntyre, my first boss. Gave me a parttime job at The Shreveport Times when I was in high school and a fulltime job right after I graduated from college. He explained ice hockey to me, knew as much about boxing as anyone, could type as fast as anyone in history with two fingers, and was my "go-to" guy for questions about keeping score in baseball ... and was as mild-mannered and pleasant a person as you'd ever find.
           Don Bowman, who I've written about (Don's Ashes Are Happy This Week, Oct. 9). Kent Heitholt, the big, friendly guy so brutally murdered; I'd ask him about Missouri going into the SEC. Larry Feese, my page-design mentor. Jess Rutkin, a kind man, and his son Bill Rutkin, the meek guy we called "Bull."
             My sports information director mentors, the first T.H. "Pete" Dosher. More than anyone, he was responsible for me attending Louisiana Tech, and for four years, he was always there for me. One more time to hear him say, "Let's go get a bite to eat," and we'd go to his house where Miss Mary fed us and we'd discuss the news of the day. They were like family. Even in my senior year, after Pete moved to Grambling as the head of journalism, he'd call at least once a week.
           Jack Fiser, the erudite, brilliant writer, once sports editor/columnist of The Shreveport Times and for much of one year the SID at Tech. Paul Manasseh, who knew so much about people, sports and journalism, also Tech SID for much of one year. He had lots of opinions, but didn't let them stand in the way of practicality. Bobby Henderson, from Ruston and later Southwestern Louisiana, the best record-keeping SID of his time.
             Coaching friends, beginning with Joe Aillet, "The Smooth Man" who was a legend at Louisiana Tech. The smartest man I've ever been around.  
             The coaching list would be extensive. W.B. Calvert, our football ends/basketball/golf coach at Woodlawn; visited with him in Greenville, Texas, one day in 1994; he introduced me around and said "this kid was my manager." This kid was 47 then.
              Lowell Morrison, another Woodlawn coach with a tough exterior but really a soft heart. Scotty Robertson, the best basketball coach I've known. Bobby Ray McHalffey, the Haughton football coach (from Bossier) who you could quote in the paper ... if you took out the bleeps. Bobby Hudson, the only coach other than Steve Spurrier I've heard refer to his team as a "ball squad." The polished John Bilberry and John Crockett, a wonderful coaching team. Clifford Pennywell, the basketball coach/athletic director I wrote about not too long ago.
             One more steak at Bettye Bruning's house in Natchitoches (with Coach Jim always buying). One more bowl of ice cream at Jimmy and Jeannine Harrison's house in Shreveport, with all those lively Harrison kids. One more bowl of hopskotch ice cream at Jack and Giffy Marshall's house, with Jack showing us his superb photos he took all over Shreveport and talking newspaper business.
           My great friends, the Tuckers, Jimmy and Ruth, at my second home in Sunset Acres in the mid-1960s.
          My school friends, so many of them. Fabe Moseley and Larry Alexander, junior high/high school basketball buddies both taken too soon -- Fabe with Hodgkin's disease, Larry with Lou Gehrig's Disease. I did have good visits with both a few years before they went.
             Murray Pompei, the big kid from Paterson, N.J., who became a good friend at Louisiana Tech and took me to my first Yankee Stadium game in August 1967. He was dead a year later, of cancer.
             Tommy Spinks, one of the best athletes and personalities in the Woodlawn/Louisiana Tech days of the 1960s. Roger Hicks and James Rushworth, two Fair Park basketball/baseball stars who in the '70s and '80s loved to talk sports anytime I saw them or they phoned.
             Old school friends going all the time these days, it seems.
             But I wish I could go back and visit Henry Lee "Trey" Prather, and ask him why join the Marines after dropping out of LSU in late 1966? Why not transfer to another school; it would've been so easy?
          And I did get that last great visit with Ken Liberto several years before he died -- a visit I wrote about in my Bradshaw to Liberto, 82 yards, TD blog last week. As I noted, he was in good shape then -- colon cancer in remission -- and I'm glad I didn't have to see him two years ago in his final days. Ken didn't want that; when Kathy asked if she should contact some of his close friends, he asked her not to.
         I've had some profound last-visit experiences.
         Pete Dosher, mentioned above, was declining in his cancer battle in February 2003 when I went from Fort Worth to Ruston to visit his home. Sat with Mary and saw his two daughters, who I hadn't seen in 30 years, and finally after a long time, Mary took me back to Pete's bedroom.
         The man who was my foremost journalism teacher/booster was curled in a fetal position, a shell of himself. Mary leaned over and whispered to him to say I was there. For 15-20 seconds, no response. Suddenly, he rolled over and said, "Oh, Nico ..."
        Then he rolled back to where he'd been.
        Two days later, he died.
         In 2008, a tough year, a month before my dad died, Bea and I went to Dallas to see James "Spanky" Baker, younger brother (by one year) of my closest longtime friend, Casey Baker. Spanky was in hospice care, a not-long period after pancreatic cancer was found.
        He went in and out from being lucid that day, but he knew we were there. He seemed to be out of it when, all of a sudden, he said, "Hey, Nico, come here." I went over and he said, "WFAA is moving its offices out of Victory Park." Surprised, I replied, "What?" He didn't reply.
        I went back across the room, and Casey asked, "What'd he say?" I told him. Then Spanky began laughing, and said, "Fooled you." A moment later, he was asleep.
        He died two weeks later.
         The news about Dr. Farrar -- Coach Farrar -- that came Tuesday was no surprise. His health problems had been on-going for a decade, and his decline in the past couple of years was obvious. We had two wonderful visits, one-on-one, this year, and he was prepared.
          "I know my time is short," he said, "but I want to have things in order for my kids."
          On our last visit, he could barely get out of bed. But he did and we sat and visited for 20 minutes or so before I could see he was getting tired.
          One of the last things we talked about was a photo of him as the catcher/manager of the semipro Minden Red Birds in the late 1950s Big Eight League in North Louisiana. He's trotting home after a grand slam, smiling and about to shake hands with waiting teammates.
           "I didn't hit many home runs, or grand slams," he said, "so that was special."
           James Farrar was special -- as real a person as I've met, a coach with a big personality and a big heart, the best of storytellers, a man who knew baseball through and through as a player, coach, scout, a man devoted to his Miss Kate and his kids and grandkids -- and his many, many friends.
        When I got up to leave, he said, "Give me a hug" (which he always did). He knew, and I knew, that this was it. But over the years, we were a mutual-admiration pair; we'd said it all. He always, always, thanked me for the friendship and the writeups, and I thanked him because you don't find friends like him very often.
            That he died, as Teddy Allen pointed out, two days after the end of a World Series was poetic.     


  1. From Sandra McCalla, Shreveport: A person who could read this with a dry eye is someone I care not to know. Thank you.

  2. From O.K. "Buddy" Davis, Ruston: man, that was a great blog. pete, coach farrar, coach aillet, many. agree with you in that i've oftentimes wished for one last talk with so many people who were dear with me...and have done a column or two with that type of approach. "just one more time to visit with ..." dad, mom, smooth joe, pete, rob, tommy, scotty... pat yourself big time on the back. this blog and the tb-to-ken blog are "home runs," and coach farrar would approve.

  3. I knew or had met a good many of the people you have written about in this blog. Good to remember them. Enjoyed knowing and / or working with them. Coach Farrar was One-of-a-Kind. I was 15-years-old when I met him, when he recruited my older brother Bobby to play baseball at Centenary. It was in the parking lot at the Gold Dome. He and my dad had been friends for many years. Coach Farrar respected Baseball People. I've never met ANYONE who respected The Game of Baseball more than Coach Farrar. Win, lose or draw he expected our guys, his team, to play the game the right way. How many people do you know that would be pissed (for not beating an inferior opponent in a solid way)... like I said, he preached: PLAY THE GAME, THE RIGHT WAY. I am not saying it was all about Winning to Coach Farrar. But he, like most everyone, Loved to Win. When Bobby, my dad and I visited him about 3 weeks or so ago, it was a nice visit. Now, as a grown man, I can say, the things he taught us...or tried to teach us at the time, were essential for Life. I respect Coach Farrar as a Good Man. And, yes his teams beat some good people in College Baseball at the Division I Level. :-) . Coach Farrar was so much more than a Baseball Coach to many people. He taught people to compete fiercely, yet when you win, win with Dignity. A First-Class Man. Pat Booras (knew Coach Farrar 1977 to today ...some 35 years). MAY HIS MEMORY BE ETERNAL .

  4. From Tom Marshall, New York City: Hey Nico, I know that Giffy and Jack would love to have you over for one last bowl of ice cream. My dad loved that hopskotch! And he loved the newspaper business. After he died, I found a big newsprint scrapbook where he had cut out and pasted every article I ever wrote. Little bitty 2 paragraph American Legion wrap-ups for the Times, and big long stories that ran in The Columbia Daily Tribune. ... Thanks for another great article. It makes you want to be sure to have those Last Talks you know are coming, before it's too late. It's not something I've thought about a lot, but I need to pay more attention to these things. Your writing opened my eyes.

  5. Nico:

    Thanks for the memories of Tech, Shreveport, and most especially your blogs and e-mails concerning Coach Farrar. I was not able to visit with coach, but gave him a call and we talked for about 30 minutes over the phone. Once I told him that I was that skinny righthanded pitcher with the good curveball, he knew exactly who I was. One other memory that we shared on the phone call was when we both participated in a Tech "Old Timers" game sometime in the mid to late seventies. I was asked to pitch a few innings and coach volunteered to put on the "tools of ingnorance" as he referred to the cathcers mask, chest protector and shin guards, to catch for me.

    After we had fininished, I told coach what a thrill to me for him to be my battery mate. In his usual fashion, he said it was even more a thrill for him. Here was a legend in high school coaching channels, telling me that it was a thrill for him. Well that was why he was so outstanding in his field. You could always tell that he was excited about coaching and enabling his players to be the best they could with whatever talent they had.

    I was indeed blessed to have played three years under his guidance at Fair Park.

  6. From Dr. Leonard D. Ponder: I was so very sad to learn of Coach Farrar's passing. Thanks to your keeping me informed, it did not come as a surprise. He was bigger than life and will be remembered by all who knew him well. Your blog on last conversations with those we've lost was particularly penetrating for me. ...