Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Just call her Pat

   In midday Aug. 22 last year, son-in-law -- Russell Smith, who is a sports talk show director/co-host in Knoxville -- sent me a text message:
     Pat Summitt has Alzheimer's.
     Stunning news. Devastating.
     Later that day, Pat made the televised announcement explaining the diagnosis she had received after a visit to the Mayo Clinic -- early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
     Certainly you know the story, and you know that Pat is still coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols' basketball team, as she has been for 38 seasons. But you have to know -- and this is just a guess -- that things are much different around the Lady Vols' program.
     I would also guess -- and again I have no knowledge of the situation -- that she won't be coaching much longer, perhaps not even past this season. At age 59, she might not be ready to step away -- and surely no one wants her to.
     I don't know Pat Summitt, only met her a couple of times -- once at the 1995 Florida state high school girls basketball tournament that I covered (for Associated Press) in Lakeland (she was recruiting); once when Louisiana Tech came to play in Knoxville and she was visiting with Tech coach Leon Barmore, my friend from when he played at Tech in the mid-1960s.
     But I know this: Leon thinks the world of her. And Pat and her teams kept Leon and Louisiana Tech from at least doubling Tech's three national women's basketball championships.
      Leon thinks she's an outstanding coach; he doesn't think that of many of the people he faced in his time as a Hall of Fame coach (several Halls of Fame, in fact). He had as much success against her as any coach (other than maybe UConn's Geno Auriemma), but her relationship with Leon is a thousand times better than hers with Geno.
      Yes, she's known for her demanding ways and rock-hard discipline with her players, her steely will for her teams to succeed. But Leon also will tell you that she's warm and gracious and family-oriented. She's sat in Leon's home and had his twin granddaughters in her lap.
      Her son, Tyler, is the center of her world; every Lady Vols fan has seen Tyler helping Pat cut down the nets since he was a little boy. He's 22 now, and he's the one most bearing the weight of Pat's present-day existence.
      While her on-court presence is that stern, serious one, she's never -- as far as I know -- treated the media with anything but respect. And just think of how many great coaches you know that can be testy or short -- or flat-out demeaning -- with the media.     
     And I know from my six years living in Knoxville how strong Pat is in the community. Her influence carries far beyond basketball. She's been out front for all kinds of causes, a true ambassador for her state, city, school -- and nation.
      The basketball numbers are astounding: 1,092 victories -- most ever in major college basketball; only 207 losses (an 84.1 winning percentage); 31 combined SEC titles (regular season and tournaments); 22 Final Fours; 8 national titles.
      An all-time home record of 353-23 (.939); a 100 percent graduation rate for the players who completed their eligibility; since 1976, every Lady Vol has played in a Final Four.
      That last fact is in jeopardy. This team, which with a 21-8 record isn't anywhere near one of Pat's best teams, must make the Final Four to continue that tradition. Don't be surprised if it happens.
     And don't be surprised if this weekend the Lady Vols again win the SEC tournament. They are the No. 2 seed, but they lost by only one point on the floor of the No. 1 seed (Kentucky) and they won by 37 in a rematch in Knoxville.
       Honestly, I've never pulled for the Lady Vols. I was partial to the Lady Techsters or LSU and now it's Baylor, where ex-Lady Techsters star and assistant coach Kim Mulkey has built a powerhouse. But how can you not have anything but respect for Pat Summitt?
       Her players simply call her Pat.      
        I call her the greatest coach in the history of college athletics.
       To take a program from scratch -- she was paid $8,900 a year when she started in 1974 and now makes millions -- in a sport which had no following -- the Lady Vols now routinely draw 19,000 or so a game at home -- and to so consistently dominate nationally, to win so much ... she's the best ever. Only John McDonnell, in track and field and cross country at Arkansas (42 national titles), comes close in my mind.
      Not Bear Bryant, not Joe Paterno, not Eddie Robinson. Not even John Wooden.
     Some would say she is women's basketball's John Wooden. I say John Wooden was men's basketball's Pat Summitt.
      She is a national treasure, the gold standard of her sport, and it always will be that way.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Death hits close to home

Howard and Nance on their wedding day.
      Yesterday, the news came in the form of a text message. The day before, it was an e-mail.
      But the call this morning was an especially tough one. Bea's brother, Howard -- my brother-in-law -- had passed away.
     Death has become a daily part of life. It looks strange writing it that way, honestly.
      The older we get, the more presence it has. Every day, it seems, someone dies that we know or love, or someone who is related to a person from our past. One of my friends kiddingly calls me an "obit hound," and I guess it's true. First thing I check each morning online is The Shreveport Times' obit page.
      On Tuesday, it had been Sheryl Lawrence Basinger, 64, a sweet and beautiful Woodlawn girl who lived in Fort Worth and had been married 8 1/2 years to David Basinger, who was our shortstop at Woodlawn.
      It was one of those wonderful stories ... they were sweethearts in high school, broke up and married other people and after some 35-40 years and divorces found each other again.
      Yesterday it was Yvonne "Giffy" Marshall, 88, mother of one of my best friends, John W. Marshall III, and a fellow journalist and friend, Tommy Marshall. She was a calm, lovely, somewhat wondrous woman whose four kids were a tribute to the kind of person she was.
      There's a hurt for the families, but also the knowledge that these were good people who lived good lives, and left good feelings.
      But today ... today is really difficult.
      Howard Clinton Shaw Jr., 64, a week short of 65. My age, two years younger than Bea, older brother of two other sisters.
      Married to Nance, the girl from Baton Rouge he met at Louisiana Tech (they married before he graduated). Father of seven, grandfather of 12, great-grandfather of one. Believe me, it was one lively family.
      It was a massive stroke this morning. It came a year after he had a slight stroke and had congestive heart failure. So it was not unexpected.
      He had done a great job losing weight -- he had plenty to lose -- and he was trying to eat healtier food (he did love to eat). But he was pale and weaker when we saw him last, and he had slowed down.
      "We knew and he knew; we talked about it," Bea said this morning. "It was just a matter of when. He was ready for it. He had done what he needed to do. He raised his family. He built his house. He had done his job and he had retired. He enjoyed his kids, and having his grandkids in his lap."
The Shaw kids, from left: Brenda, Howard, Bea, Alice.
       Still, the shock is there. It's a numb, empty, surreal feeling.
       He came from that little house in rural Jamestown, La., that house on Shaw Hill, as we called it, and like his dad, he could do most anything. For instance, he built his own house, literally, deep, deep, deep in the woods just south of Navasota, Texas.
     "He's been building for 35 years, and he's never finished it," Nance often said. And now his work is done.
    Like Bea, he went to Ringgold High School. Like me, he went to Louisiana Tech in the same years (1965-69). He was a civil engineer and he went to work for Texas Eastern in Shreveport, then was transferred to Houston and stayed with that company in its various forms for three decades.
      He traveled the world, a problem solver in oil transportation, a "troubleshooter." He made  enough money to retire at about age 52, to live a nice life in central Texas (except for worrying about the wildfires), travel with Nance so many places practically coast to coast -- Howard always insisted on driving the van. He drove his older sister, Bea, to Massachusetts so she could sell in the big antiques show she'd always wanted to do.
       He converted to Catholicism, and was a devout follower. He was well-read and, well, opinionated. He shared those opinions, and if you didn't agree, he didn't change his opinion.
       He was not a sports fan at all, yet we got along very well. We found things to talk about; there was never a cross word between us (imagine that, people). He was a generous guy; if we went to dinner, he was buying, unless we just insisted. Anything we needed, anything anyone needed, he would provide if he could.
      In the end, he did all he could to take care of Nance and the kids, to leave them -- and the house -- in the best shape possible.
      Here's the kind of thing he did for us. He enjoyed photography, so he spent most of Rachel and Russell's wedding weekend taking photos. We have a great collection. But you won't find Howard in those photos; he took them all.
      Photos is a good segue to end this. I am including two photos we treasure: The one of Nance and Howard on their wedding day, and the one taken a year ago of the Shaw kids at Bek E.'s wedding party on the piece of land in Navasota that Howard treasured so greatly.
      And we treasured him.
  

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Miserable? No way

    My wife says I'm miserable when my team loses, and miserable when my team wins.
    Which makes me ... pretty happy. Which makes me a fan.
     After further review, I will say that I would rather be a helluva lot more miserable winning than losing. Give me another World Series title for the Yankees or a national football championship for LSU, and I will be perfectly content ... for a few months anyway.
     But I admit that I'm not much fun to be around when games are on and I'm absorbed in them. My family knows this, many of my friends do, and I know my co-workers do.
     Watching LSU football this fall with one of my son Jason's friends for the first time, he told Jay afterward that I was the "worst" fan he'd ever seen, or words to that effect.
      I respectfully disagree. Aw, heck, I don't do it respectfully. That's just wrong.
      Substitute "intense" for "worst." Or "most caring." Or "critical."
      I'm demanding of my team's players, and of my team's performance. I expect perfection (and somehow it rarely happens). I'm grateful when my team wins, but not satisfied with a subpar showing.
     I'm a nervous fan, and I can be terribly emotional. Furniture, garbage cans, objects on a desk are not safe in my presence. I'll scream. Language is often out of bounds.
     I'm quick to pick up on things happening on and off the field, love trying to guess what coaches and managers are thinking, and trying to anticipate what strategy comes next. What comes with that is a running conversation, mostly with myself. I don't really need the TV announcers (and there are not that many I like anyway).
      But the running conversation does irritate people watching with me.
      So if I'm watching, say, a Dallas Mavericks' game with my wife -- who is a huge Mavs' fan (and I am not particularly an NBA fan) -- she will just tell me to "shut up" or "go somewhere else." And Jason, during LSU games, will say, "Dad, don't start with that negativity."
      I don't see it as "negative," but ...
     OK, I apologize to those who have been through the experience. A one-time apology, that's it.
      Bottom line: If it's a team I really care about -- the Yankees, LSU football, the Dutch soccer team -- I'd rather watch by myself. (The Dallas Cowboys used to be in that category, but Tom Landry doesn't coach them anymore.)
      I am, however, a much more subdued fan if I'm watching a game in person. And there have been times in the past decade when I've had 93,000 or so people in the stands with me. There's nothing quite like LSU football.
I can watch games in this place with 93,000 of my best friends.

   Sometimes in the heat of a great game, I can be totally absorbed. Such was the case in the greatest college football game I've witnessed -- No. 1 undefeated LSU 28, No. 9 defending national champion Florida 24, at Tiger Stadium in 2007.
       That was the night LSU three times was behind by 10 points (10-0, 17-7, 24-14), when Tim Tebow ran off to the dressing room at halftime doing the Gator chop, when Les Miles went 5-for-5 on fourth-down gambles -- a couple on LSU's game-winning, 60-yard drive to Jacob Hester's dive into the end zone (on the end where we were sitting) with 1:09 remaining.
      Through that whole final drive, the crowd was in an uproar, as it was when Florida's last-second pass to the end zone fell incomplete.
     When it was over, Jay turned to me and said, "Dad, you didn't say a word the whole time."
      "I couldn't talk," I answered, "because I wasn't breathing."
      That night I was a miserably happy fan.    
     
      
     
          
   

Friday, February 10, 2012

Fallen Warrior ... Trey

    On my daily walk more than a decade ago in Knoxville, I saw a sign at a small shopping center near our house that read: "Vietnam Wall replica," with an arrow pointing the way.
    I wanted to see it, or so I thought. It was down the road a bit in an open area, and I walked that way. The closer I got, the more choked up I was.
    I couldn't do it. By the time, I got close, I couldn't hold back the tears.
    I knew I couldn't look at the name on Panel 34E, Row 24: Henry Lee Prather III.
    Trey Prather.
    People who were Woodlawn High School fans in the '60s, my schoolmates, know him. So do LSU and North Louisiana fans from that time.
     Those who were close to him will never forget him.
     Let me capsule this: Grandson of the longtime Northwestern State College basketball coach and then school president. All-State quarterback 1964, Class 3A (biggest class in Louisiana then). Strong arm in a pass-oriented offense, not fleet but fast enough and a tough runner when he did run. Star basketball player (forward or guard). Star baseball player (catcher or center field). Track and field athlete (good discus thrower). Smart, strong build, ruggedly handsome, popular with everyone especially the girls). Went to LSU on a football scholarship, starting QB on the freshman team (1965), backup QB for the Tigers in 1966, played sparingly. Dropped out of school, joined the Marines, sent to Vietnam. Dead a year later.
     Died in Vietnam.
     For five years -- two in junior high, three in high school -- Ken Liberto and Trey Prather were teammates in just about every sport. I was the manager/statistician, saw almost every game they played. We were tight.
      Ken was one of my best friends in high school; I didn't run in Trey's group, but we were buddies. Ken and I spent many hours at Trey's house between our junior and senior years, watching Woodlawn football films.
      They were planning for a big senior year together as the quarterback and wide receiver combo, and that's what they had. Both made first team All-State.
       We wanted Trey to join us at Louisiana Tech, but LSU's pull was too powerful for him. Who knows all the reasons LSU didn't work for him.
      What we do know is that the news in January 1968 was devastating. Marine PFC Prather, two months after going to Vietnam, stepped on a land mine while on patrol in the Quang Nam area. One leg was amputated below the knee at a Da Nang hospital. Two days later, he was gone.
       I was a student assistant in sports information at La. Tech. Calling in a story on a Sunday night, I got the news in a phone call to The Shreveport Times. Walked across the street to a dorm and broke the news to Liberto and Jon Pat Stephenson, our other four-sport teammate at Woodlawn who was two years older.
      A memorial service at Woodlawn and the funeral services, in the church and at graveside, were a week later. We were there together -- Ken, Jon Pat and I. It's the saddest funeral I've ever attended.
       Trey Prather's story is one that has fascinated me. I always thought of doing a book or series of stories, have mentioned it to many people. I have done a number of interviews, and considered the process of how to write a book.
        But I'm going to do it through this blog. This is one of the reasons I began this blog -- to write about Trey Prather. If it were a book, it would be called Fallen Warrior (suggested by my friends Cindy and Ron Marrus).
      Had another friend, another Woodlawn teammate, Warren Gould, ask me how Trey's story would be pertinent to today's world. Thought about that a lot. Here's my answer:
     Trey was the most dynamic, fiercest competitor I have ever been around. And when you consider how competitive and skilled all-around athletes such as Billy Laird, Jon Pat and Tommy Spinks were at Woodlawn (and Tech), that's a real compliment.
    Trey gave it his all at every moment, and he, unlike the others, literally  would fight. I saw it often.
      I love competitors. So he was an inspiration for me, and I'm sure he was for others. Not kidding, I think about him every day. And I have lots more to say about him. Hope you'll indulge me.
      Still haven't seen the Vietnam Wall, either a replica or the real Wall in Washington, D.C. Some day ... http://thewall-usa.com/info.asp?recid=41527

Monday, February 6, 2012

She loves being 'Granny Bea'

Granny Bea with Kaden and Jacob
    We've reached 35 years today, Bea and I have. We were married on Feb. 6, 1977, in the living room of my parents' house.
     Some people said it wouldn't last. But it has. It's been rocky at times ... I like to say that most of the 35 years have been happy ones.
     I could write volumes on how wonderful she is, how conscientious and caring, how she's supported me -- no, how she's carried me -- and how aware of the world around her she is. Our kids are as solid as they are mostly because of her.
      She's one of the best people persons I know; she can find the best in people, and she seemingly knows when someone isn't genuine.
      The volumes will have to wait. I'm going to focus on one aspect today: Granny Bea.
      She always wanted to be a grandmother. But in 2002, the prospects didn't look good. Our kids weren't set to become parents, but the bigger problem was she didn't feel good. There were recurring episodes in which her food wouldn't stay down.
       Because we're stubborn, she didn't go to the doctor for a long time, and I didn't insist. We kept thinking it was food poisoning, a bad salad, a spoiled piece of meat, etc. She was anemic and gaunt, and hurting.
        Finally, she went to a doctor, and he did a blood test. It didn't look good; he sent her on to have a colonscopy.
        Dr. Balu Chandra -- who would play an important role later -- gave me the news: Colon cancer. He had the pictures and my response was, "How do you know it's colon cancer?"
    "I do this every day," he answered, somewhat offended. What I'd meant to say was, can you show me on the pictures how you know that it's cancer?
     The large black spot is how. That was the tumor.
     Bea had been drowsy; now she was awake enough for him to tell her. She stopped breathing, and Dr. Chandra had to tell her, "Just relax and breathe. It'll be OK."
       Surgery in October 2002 was a tough day. The surgeon came out to tell us it was Stage III, some lymph nodes were affected, her colon was shortened and restructured, and chemo was a must. He sounded alarmed, at least that was our impression.

Josie and Granny Bea
       Chemo was tough, recovery was tough. It took a long time and what seemed like a hundred doctor visits before Bea began to feel like she was going to make it. Dr. Chandra was a cheerleader; he took special interest in her case.
       Four years later, with Rachel's wedding approaching, more bad news. One day the cancer doctor -- almost always upbeat -- sounded panicked. A scan showed cancerous cells in lymph nodes by Bea's spine.
       After a series of doctor consultations -- from Fort Worth to M.D. Anderson in Houston -- two cancer doctors and a surgeon decided that surgery would be too risky. Chemo and pinpointed radiation were her only hope.
      But first the wedding. Then the treatment began. Again the worry; again the chemo/radiation was an excruciating process.
      It worked like a charm. The cancer around the spine disappeared.
      One more problem since.The scar tissue from the original cancer surgery built up, blocked the colon wall to the point that a couple of years ago, Bea had another colon resection surgery. Recovery then, too, was a process, but the good news was that cancer wasn't a part of it.
      Since then, she's been relatively well, and the grandkids have come -- Josie first 4 1/2 years ago (Bea was in the delivery room). Then Jacob (he turns 3 Wednesday) and Kaden (last March 1).
      She relishes the role. They call her "Granny," just as our kids called her mother "Granny." Those three grandchildren cherish her; she cherishes them -- and she spoils them. Just like she's spoiled her kids ... and she's spoiled me.
     She's one of the toughest people I know, and you're going to say that being married to me for 35 years is the toughest assignment one could face. And you'd be right.  
       I've made a lot of mistakes, and made some good decisions, too. Marrying Miss Bea -- the girl from Jamestown, La. -- is the best decision I ever made. Happy anniversary, my love.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Recruiting (I haven't changed my mind)

   Old joke: The groundhog saw his shadow Thursday -- six more weeks of college football recruiting.
   Oh, no! Not more recruiting. Haven't we suffered enough?
   In the sports world, National Signing Day is one of the days I like least. Which makes me an exception among college football fans -- and I am a college football fan.
   But Signing Day -- aw, heck,  the whole recruiting process -- bothers me. It is the most overblown, overdone, overpublicized production other than Super Bowl Media Day or the televised first rounds of the NFL and NBA drafts.
   And I have felt that way for years. I despise the terms "offered," "lean," "verbal commitment," "commit" and the ubiquitous "ATH" designation ... what other ones have the "recruitniks" come up with?
   To see these kids -- with their hats to choose from, their gym-full of schoolmates and fans and the band and the cheerleaders and their glorified "news" conferences -- announce their decision is just part of much too much.
    We don't need to pamper these kids. Don't need to see their pictures in the paper. Let's pamper the academic scholarship kids instead.
    From a newspaper standpoint, I understand the business. I understand recruiting news -- or draft news -- sells newspapers. Speculation is great.
    When I was first at The Shreveport Times in the late 1960s/early 1970s, we didn't do a whole lot of recruiting news. We didn't deal in rumors, didn't chase down kids for their "verbal commitments." When they signed, we reported it.
    Almost always, area football/basketball signees for LSU, Louisiana Tech, Northwestern State, Northeast Louisiana, Centenary and other schools of interests were pictured in the paper signing the papers, with parents and/or coaches who had recruited the athlete in the picture.
   As the sports world expanded, there was not enough space in the paper to continue that (needless) tradition.
    Increasingly, recruiting coverage increased, both the buildup and Signing Day itself. Recruiting "experts" began their ratings, the dubious task of comparing a linebacker in southern California to one in North Louisiana or East Texas.
    Just as dubious? The "rankings" of how colleges fared on Signing Day. But I'm telling -- people take this stuff seriously.
    Here in Fort Worth and Dallas in the 2000s, we have had special sections covering National Signing Day, plus all the speculation leading up to it -- the Top 100 charts for area, state and national recruits.
      Unless I am editing the recruiting news, I am NOT reading it. I don't give a rip about "verbal commitments." That is my biggest gripe. It means absolutely nothing. Until that athlete signs on National Signing Day, he remains free to change his mind.
    If I'm the prep editor -- and I haven't been in a long time -- I'm telling my writers, you get one (1) mention of a commitment. No more than one. I'm wondering how many times The Shreveport Times referred to Toshiro Davis as an LSU commitment over the past year? What a waste of space.
     Right here you are saying, well, you are an LSU fan and you are bitter because two players -- Davis, a defensive end, and QB Gunner Kiel, from Indiana -- gave LSU verbal commitments, and didn't end up there.
     Kiel chose Notre Dame on the day he was to have reported to the LSU campus as an early enrolee.  Because Davis  went to my high school (Shreveport Woodlawn), which rarely has major prospects anymore, I went to the LSU signing board early Wednesday -- the only board I check -- to see if Davis had signed.
      Nope.
     Then the news came --  he had announced he was going to Texas.
     At first, it felt like a betrayal, it felt personal.
    How crazy. I haven't been to Woodlawn in years, don't know anyone there, sure don't know Davis. And I thought, he's an 18-year-old kid. He can change his mind. He's entitled to pick the place where he thinks he can be happy, where he thinks he can play. And I hope he is happy and does well.
     LSU's program shouldn't be so fragile that losing one or two -- or several -- kids to other schools hurts the program.
     It's a joke; it really is. What counts is what happens on the field in the fall, not the Signing Day rankings. And so many things factor into building a football program that wins. Good football players can be developed, they can be walk-ons, they can come out of nowhere. "Blue chip" recruits can never make an impact.
     There's no sure-fire formula on any of it.
      If they'd let me make the rules, I would do this:
  •  No signing "ceremonies.
  •  No paid "official visits" for recruits to campuses, no wining and dining.
  •  No coaches making scholarship offers during summer camps.
  •  A miminum of letters, calls, texts visits -- all the methods of "contacts" -- by one coaching staff to a recruit (say a minimum of one, so the colleges save tons of money and time.
  •  An early signing day (say, Aug. 15), so the process doesn't have to drag on all football season. Another signing day about Jan. 15 (again, let's get it over with).
  • Absolutely no calls by boosters or by kids on the campus.
  •  Kids must be qualified academically to enter college before they can even be contacted for recruiting (no exceptions).
  •  No news conference by the coach to talk about the recruits. (Question: Have you ever heard a coach say he had a bad or so-so recruiting year?
  • Strict penalties for recruiting abuses (loss of bowl bid, loss of scholarships, loss of revenue, restrictions on coaches, etc.)
        I'm sure college coaches, recruits, recruiting "experts," media can shoot holes through all my ideal world of recruiting.
      Yeah, they're ridiculous ideas. Ridiculous, just  as college football recruiting is now.
 
  

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Survivors' son (Part 2)


Rose and Louis Van Thyn

    I often think about this: What must it have been like for my parents coming back to Amsterdam after more than two years in the Auschwitz concentration camp?
   Their lives had been shattered in young adulthood; their families (parents, siblings, first spouses) and many friends gone by way of the gas chambers.
   Rose and Louis had been in the midst of death, disease, starvation, filth -- the smell of the rotting bodies all around -- and they had survived.
   How?
   They always said luck had a lot to do with it -- one day the healthy ones were chosen to be exterminated, next day it might be the sick ones.
   But so did their strong will, their determination to live.
   That strong will helped them give up much of what they had -- friends, what few family that was left (my mother's first cousin, my dad's sister-in-law from his first marriage and her husband), possessions -- to make the move to the U.S.
   It carried them through health problems and to lives that lasted until they were both almost in their 90s.
   But -- understandably -- they were fractured, fragile people, too. They rebuilt their lives, but that never went away.
   My parents never thought they would have kids; my mother had been among the women used by the Nazis for medical experiments in the Auschwitz concentration camp; all but a handful of the women were sterile. But my mother was among the lucky ones, and she was stunned to find she was pregnant (with me) late in 1946.
   So with two kids -- two miracle kids, if you will -- there was a lot of love in our house. We were spoiled kids. Anything we wanted, within our means, we got..
   But with that love, there was something else: anger, sometimes rage.
   Our house was loud, lots of screaming. My best friend for years, Casey Baker, said a few years ago that it was the loudest house he'd ever been in -- and he was there a lot.
   My dad was mostly a sweetheart. He could -- and would -- talk to anyone, and it was easy to tell he was an upbeat, pleasant guy. But he had his frustrations, sometimes because of the language (he spoke a broken English, and I found out when we went back to Holland, a broken Dutch).
    I saw his temper more than a few times. But he never took it out on me in a physical sense.
My mother was the engaging person and great talker so many people saw when she spoke on the Holocaust in public. She had a zany, crazy sense of humor -- we got it honestly -- and she was opinionated. If an opinion didn't match hers, she didn't give in very often or very easily.
   She also was depressed at times. There were crying fits -- screams -- for long periods. You remember these things as a kid; it was scary, puzzling and frustrating. In those times, my dad was always gentle with her.
   (Once when Elsa and I went with her to the Louisiana State Fair, we went into a house of mirrors, a maze. It was like we were trapped, we were in there so long. When we finally got out, my mother was a wreck. She was crying and screaming, and my dad had to come pick us up. And you wonder why I never liked the fair?)
   She had a fierce temper, and at times she struck out at us. She raged. She was the disciplinarian in our house.
   My wife points out that parents are our first loves, who comfort and protect us in every way they know. And in the process, we are scarred for life by their best intentions.
    It was passed down. Anyone who has been around me for a period of time -- family, friends, co-workers -- has seen the temper ... and the rage. It's not pretty. It's harmful. It is, unfortunately, memorable. It's cost me some jobs, it's caused me more trouble than I could have imagined.
   My family has paid for it. I'm lucky -- extremely fortunate -- to have a wonderful, understanding spouse and two great kids who came through it all in pretty darned good fashion.
   This isn't an excuse or a copout. I'm a survivors' son, but I'm responsible for my actions. Still trying to do better every day.
   Rose and Louis carried me a long, long way -- and they still do today. I miss them more than I ever thought I would.

Survivors' son (Part 1)


Rose and Louis Van Thyn, with symbols of the Holocaust
   The name of the book that I'm not going to write is Survivors' Son.
   Many things define who I am, but none is more critical to shaping my personality than being the son of two Holocaust survivors.
    What is a little surprising is that many people from my past were not aware of that. A coaching friend of mine, dating to the days at Louisiana Tech in the mid-1960s, expressed his regret at not knowing until I sent out a notice recently about my parents being honored in a program at Centenary College.
   Classmates from a long time ago also have told me they had no idea.
    My mother and dad received a tremendous amount of recognition in Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana, primarily because my mom's "mission" was to speak to school, civic and church groups about the Holocaust experiences.
    The first publicity my parents received in Shreveport was in the fall of 1957 just before a stage version of "The Dairy of Anne Frank" came to town. A lengthy article in The Shreveport Times, written by Patsy Farmer, appeared in the Sunday magazine section with a large photo of Rose and Louis, and it told their story to that point. I remember the reporter and photographer coming to our house in Sunset Acres, just a couple of months after we moved there.
     My mother occasionally would speak to a class at my school or my sister Elsa's school, but the bulk of her speaking "career" came over a 25-year period long after Elsa and I had been out of the house for years.
     Actually, while my mother was the noted speaker, my dad was the more engaging story teller. My mother had her story, and she stuck to it. My dad's experiences were much broader -- he traveled much more; for instance, he wound up in Russia right after the war -- and he had fantastic recall of events and places, dating to his boyhood.
    But my mother was much more comfortable with the English language, and she deserved the honors for her dedication to educate people about the Holocaust. My dad almost always went along and he was supportive. He was much more than her chauffeur, as he was laughingly described.
     Some survivors didn't want to talk about the Holocaust at all. Some, it was all they could talk about. When my dad and I returned to Holland in 1991 -- my first trip back since we left in late December 1955 -- we were with a group of survivors, and the Holocaust was almost the only topic of discussion, to the point of almost everyone watching old newsreels and films.
     My parents weren't obsessed with it. They answered any questions we had -- or anybody had -- but it was not a topic they forced on people.
     The numbers on their arms were enough of a clue to people who noticed. The kids in the schools where my mother spoke noticed.
     My dad was 70726 -- in fairly large numbers. My mother was 62511, a smaller tattoo.
    When he was about 5, our son Jason asked his mother, "Why does Oma have her telephone number on her arm?"

    NEXT: Survivors' son, Part 2