Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Irving Zeidman: sports broadcaster

      (Part 2 of 4)
      I first "met" Irv Zeidman -- play-by-play broadcaster of the 1950s-early 1960s Shreveport Sports -- on radio. 
      He was a fabric of the baseball teams of my youth, the  main connection through radio. Same with the basketball-playing Centenary Gents, for me from 1958 to 1965.
      He was, for those familiar with sports broadcasting in North Louisiana, the forerunner to two future legends: Jim Hawthorne (Centenary, then LSU) and Dave Nitz (Shreveport Captains and Louisiana Tech athletics).
       They were good. They were not IZ.
       My IZ experience began with -- I might have written about it previously --  our first radio in the United States.
       We did not have a television yet; we had never had one in The Netherlands. Radio was how I first connected with sports (Dutch soccer). So when Dad came home with a radio early in 1956, only a month or two after we arrived in Shreveport, it was unique.
       It was in the shape of a microphone with large letters on it: KENT.
       Bill McIntyre's Shreveport Times column on Irv in November 1975 reminded me: "... The station used to give away, or sell, small radio sets. The only station you could get on it was KENT."
       Yes, one station. 
       Hardly knew anything about baseball, but we went to a game early that season -- Texas League Park was within walking distance from where we lived -- and I learned that the games were broadcast on ... KENT.
       IZ taught me a lot that memorable season (it was the year Ken Guettler hit a Texas League-record 62 home runs for the not-so-hot, seventh-place Sports).
       Speaking of home runs, I recall Irv's call: "It's going ... going ... going ... and (drawing it out) theeeerrrreee she goes." (The reason I recall it is because in the early 1970s, I wrote a column in The Times mentioning that, only I messed it up -- as Irv pointed out to me a few days later.)
Irv Zeidman, second from right, taking part in a mid-1950s Shreveport
Sports baseball promotion; that is majority team owner/operator
Bonneau Peters (white hair, crew cut)
       Here is what else those Sports listeners remember: "IZ for 5D." Cities Service was the main sponsor for the broadcasts; 5D was its premium gasoline, and Irv was doing the commercials. 
       From 1959 to '61, when the Sports were in the Southern Association and one of the broadcast sponsors was Jett Drilling (George Jett was one of the team investors, with general managing partner Bonneau Peters), Irv's slogan became "IZ for JD."
       He was the "voice" from Texas League Park-turned-SPAR Stadium and from the road-game "re-creations" done from a radio studio via wire-ticker play-by-play.
       "He was masterful at that," his daughter Susan recalled. "He had all the sound effects, and he could tell a good story [to fill the time.]"
       To a young listener not exactly aware of that, he could have fooled me ... and did. I thought he was always on the scene ... in Birmingham or Atlanta, Chattanooga, Memphis, New Orleans, Fort Worth, Dallas, wherever. 
       I thought Irv as a baseball broadcaster was as good as any I'd heard. In Shreveport, we had St. Louis Cardinals' games -- as in much of North Louisiana -- and later the Houston Colt 45s/Astros and, for a time in the mid-1960s, the Chicago White Sox, and later the Texas Rangers. Irv Zeidman was as interesting, as professional, as any of the broadcasters.
       And maybe he was even better at college basketball. Any chance I had to listen to him do Centenary games, I tuned in (these were my junior high and high school days). Heard him do Gents' games from our Hirsch Youth Center to Philadelphia to Arizona and throughout the South.
       He was not impartial. OK, Irv was a "homer," no question he was taking the side of the Sports or the Gents. If he disagreed with umpire or officials' calls (and that was often), you knew. And Jerry Byrd wrote in a 1975 Shreveport Journal column, baseball official scorers' decision were not exempt. 
       McIntyre's column tells several stories of how the Centenary delegation, on road trips, made life an adventure for Irv -- and vice versa. 
       One story: "He was such a good sport," said then-Centenary athletic director/head basketball coach Orvis Sigler. "He loved those boys and we had a lot of good times. Irv never met a stranger. He used to like being recognized wherever he went and once, in Richmond, Don Ensley paid a little shoeshine boy to go up to him and say, 'Hey, aren't you Irv Zeidman.' "
       Here is what else Coach Sigler said then, and what I remember:
       "I always thought he was a great broadcaster because he got so excited and involved. He lived and died with those boys. And I used to say he inhaled and didn't chew his food so he wouldn't miss a word."
       For a couple of years, KSLA-TV (Channel 12) in Shreveport showed Centenary home games on a delayed basis late at night, following the 10 o'clock news, with Irv doing the play-by-play. I watched those, often rushing home if the team I was keeping stats for also played that night.
       Centenary dropped its broadcasts in the mid-1960s (not enough sponsors), but Irv didn't drop the Gents. He was an avid fan. 
       At a game in Ruston, maybe 1968, IZ was upset at a string of officials' calls that went against Centenary (we, Louisiana Tech, won the game) and he came out of the stands and headed for the floor toward those officials. He was, thankfully, stopped short.
       Both McIntyre and Byrd's columns mention that, but I didn't need the reminder; I distinctly remember it. By now I was a Tech student and sports information assistant/statistician reluctantly rooting against Centenary. So I had to laugh. Tough luck, IZ.
       By then, he had become a chartered life underwriter for Prudential Insurance, but he never lost his love for the games and his teams.
       In the early 1970s, during the Robert Parish era, Irv had a couple of heart attacks and was warned not to get too excited. So he would go to Centenary games, but when they got close near the end, he would head to the Gold Dome foyer and wait it out. 
       His broadcasting career in Shreveport began in 1954 when he was hired by KENT, primarily to do Sports games. 
He was a good-luck charm.
       That season, 1954, was the only time from Shreveport's recorded pro baseball history through 1986 -- so, roughly 65 seasons -- that Shreveport finished first in its league in the regular season.
       McIntyre's column: " 'We came in the same year together,' remembers [team manager] Mel McGaha, going back to 1954. 'Every tie he introduced me from then on -- we won the Texas League pennant that first year -- he always took credit for it and passed it on down the line ... IZ as 5D, and he brought us in No. 1.' "
        The next year the Sports won the Texas League playoffs and played in the Dixie Series (vs. the Southern Association champions). The following year was the Guettler season. 
        And Irving darned near brought in the 1960 Sports as Southern Association regular-season champs. Missed by a half-game.
        Couple of other memories: 
        One I remembered, and used in that Times column -- Irv said he was in Yankee Stadium on October 8, 1956, when Don Larsen pitched his World Series perfect game (Game 5 vs. the Brooklyn Dodgers. (Irv, having lived in Brooklyn as a kid, was rooting for the Dodgers.)
        The other: Susan's clippings showed that, in 1961-62, Irv did a weeknight sportscast on KTBS, Channel 3 ... as far as I know, the first TV sportscast in Shreveport. (Bob Griffin on KSLA-12 came along a couple of years later.)
        IZ's broadcast career, and his baseball broadcasts,  actually began in Monroe, La. In fact, his life in Louisiana began there. It was a long road. That's a story in itself.
        Next: Hitting the road         

Sunday, October 15, 2017

IZ: broadcaster, actor, singer ... legendary character

     (Part I of 4)    

      There was a young man named Irving
      Who to sing was always right willing
       He burst into song
       At the sound of the gong
       And to hear him was always right thrilling.
                            -- Alice Thomsen
Irving Zeidman ("IZ") at home
in Shreveport's old ballpark.

      Irving Zeidman -- the memorable and legendary IZ in Shreveport -- was a magnetic personality, a center-stage character.
      Center stage, figuratively and literally.
      He was, to those of us who knew him first as a sports broadcaster, our introduction and early education to baseball (Shreveport Sports, 1954-61) and college basketball (Centenary College, late 1950s through mid-1960s).
      After that, through the end of his too-short life, he was most remembered as "Tevye," the milkman/narrator of Fiddler on the Roof, and he starred in the summers of 1971 and '72 in one of the Shreveport Little Theater's most popular productions ever (to this day, I would guess).
      Irv was Tevye -- his Jewish roots showing, his beautiful baritone voice (he really could sing) booming, his large sense of humor ever-present.
      He was a big man (6-foot-4, 200-plus pounds), an athlete once and forever (in his mind), a funny, loud story-telling, room-dominating presence. If the situation presented itself, he would sing ... anywhere, any time.
      He was not -- obviously -- bashful. He was not, at times, humble, and not often soft-spoken. But he was genuine. 
      Long before Fiddler, as a younger man, he participated -- and sang, naturally -- in other plays and even an opera. In the first half of the 1970s, he became a Little Theater regular; among his roles, Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha.
      His dream "trilogy" of roles: Tevye, Don Quixote and Zorba The Greek. But Zorba was his impossible dream. He never got the chance.
      We lost Irv on November 6, 1975, heart disease (arteries). He was only 57. It was, apparently, hereditary; each of his parents also died of heart troubles at about the same age.
      Born too soon. A few years later, and maybe the medical developments that soon came to be -- bypasses, stents, etc. -- might have given IZ more time. 
Young Irving, left, with his father Abraham, mother
Sena, younger brother Morris, in Boonton, N.J.
      Only 57. As we grow older, as society grows older, we realize now his was a relatively short life. But he packed so much into it, and he had so much fun, gave pleasure to so many.
      In his lifetime, he was a good son, brother, football player and discus thrower, a husband, father and grandfather ("Zeda"), a soldier, a radio personality (morning show), a baseball-basketball-football announcer, insurance salesman, community theater actor who might have gone big-time. 
      If you knew Irv -- and that became my privilege as a young sportswriter -- he was (obviously as I write this) unforgettable. 
      He knew my parents, knew their story and, because he'd grown up Jewish -- his parents were immigrants from Europe --  and he'd been in the U.S. Army in World War II, he could relate.
      We would see him around town, and he always spoke. His visits to The Shreveport Times sports department (early 1970s), mostly to see sports editor/columnist (and friend) Bill McIntyre -- who wrote about the Sports and Centenary -- were always interesting. Irv, as noted, took over the room, always with stories and opinions.
      He had grown up in Boonton, N.J., close to New York City (where he was born) and his boast for years was he was "the greatest athlete to ever come out of Boonton." The reply would be: Was there any competition?
      This year, as I again researched professional baseball in Shreveport and touched on the first "golden age" of the Shreveport Sports (in the early 1950s), I thought of Irv often.
      Knew he was a native New Yorker, transplanted Southerner. But when and how had he come to Shreveport?
       Remembered his youngest son, Danny, from athletics in the early 1960s and at Byrd High School. Remember Irv's wife (Hazel) with a strawberry-blonde complexion; Danny favored her. Knew of Irv's sports and stage connections.
       But what else? Wanted to write about him.
       So through Internet and then Facebook searches, I found a grandson, who led me to the two Zeidman daughters -- Barbara and Susan -- who survive. The two sons, David (Susan's twin) and Danny, died too soon.
        Susan, as it turns out, has resided in this area (Fort Worth-Dallas) for years. She now lives in Frisco; we corresponded by Facebook, and then met recently, where we perused a large stack of newspaper clippings/stories about IZ, and photos, too.
        Some of what I am writing is taken from those clippings, especially the columns done by McIntyre (The Times) and Jerry Byrd (Shreveport Journal) a day or two after Irving's death, recounting his life and contributions. Some are Susan's recollections.
         Some are mine. Because he was a significant part of my early days in this country and Shreveport.
         Next: IZ, the sports broadcaster

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Vinny and KG: the best in our business

     In my 45 years of newspapering, Vince Langford and Ken Gladstone were the absolute best at what they did.
     Sports copy editors -- an unsung, behind-the-scenes job.
     Without them working to make stories accurate and sharp, to write -- or as often was the case, rewrite -- headlines, journalism loses.
     As of this week, both are retired.
Vince Langford (Star-Telegram photo)
     Before I go any further, you should know this: These two guys are among the best friends I ever worked alongside. (Ken is a year or two older than me; Vince a few years younger). So, yes, I am extremely partial.
     We shared many stories and laughs, and we battled -- grinded -- toward many late-night deadlines. I greatly admired their work ethic and their dedication. 
     But anyone who worked with them -- Vinny at the Houston Post (which folded in 1995) and for the last 21 years at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (I was there for almost 10), KG at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville for 24 years (five when I was there) and then 11 more at the Orlando Sentinel -- likely will tell you what I'm telling you.
     They were excellent sports copy editors. They were the heart of the sports-desk operation.
     I worked with many talented sports columnists and writers, layout people (designers, in more modern terms) and sports editors. Some were as good as Vinny and KG in what they did; none was better.
     Yet while you easily would recognize columnists and writers from their photos and bylines, few outside our building knew just how valuable these guys were. 
     But those of us on the sports desks sure as heck knew.
Valerie and Ken Gladstone
     Vinny and KG knew the English language -- yes, grammar and punctuation and sentence structure; they knew sports, and sports history, and when they weren't sure, they were diligent fact-checkers. 
     They could polish well-done columns and stories; they could make the so-so efforts reasonable reads. They often improved headlines, or came up with clever ones themselves. 
     And they did it with a soft touch, not tearing up what the writers had done ... and doing it quietly. Rarely if ever did they admonish or criticize anyone publicly -- a great trait.
     Never heard either of them talk much about themselves, certainly not brag -- no ego involved -- and they deflected praise the best they could. No bull or craziness from them.
     Going to say right here that neither -- especially Vinny -- will relish this blog piece being done. But it's my blog, so ... 
     (And if they want to make corrections, as they have done often on things I wrote or missed while copy editing, they are free to do so.)
     Most appreciated, though, by me -- not exactly Mr. Cool -- was their ability to work through the chaos of a newsroom, specifically the sports desk.
     It could be a noisy place, full of mischief and "jocularity" -- thank you, Father Mulcahy of M*A*S*H -- and people watching (not quietly) games on television. 
     Vinny and KG just kept working. Not much time to waste, no desire to let stories pile up in their queues. (There were editors -- assigning editors -- and copy editors who took forever to work stories, and of course, writers filing copy who pushed us to the limit -- and beyond -- on deadline.)
     They were most often responsible for "the last read" on stories and columns, so it was a key role.
     Neither had final say of story play and photo selection; that was left to the sports editors/assistant sports editor, "night editors" and main design people. But Vinny and Ken made many big decisions on how well stories read.
      (Two others, Steve Schroats and Roger Pinckney, filled the night editor/copy chief roles most nights at the Star-Telegram, both with the same selfless traits as Vinny.)
     Ken's title at the Times-Union was sports copy "chief" (hail to our chief), although at one point before I arrived he had been a co-sports editor.
     Vinny did not have a "chief" title, but most nights that in effect is what he was. He most often made out the "duty roster" -- assigning stories to the copy editors -- and no question that he directed traffic in our department.
     (The night of my "tryout" at the Star-Telegram, my tall and talented friend Vince assigned me 14-15-16 stories -- I lost count; it was a terribly busy night -- and it was so many that the department workers thought I'd never return. I did, to haunt them for a decade.)
     My guys were intense workers. If the noise or fun got to be too much (I was never guilty of that, right), Vinny sometimes pointedly put a stop to it. But when there was time, he had as great a sense of humor as anyone.
      KG was more laid-back. He did not often instigate the fun, but took part in the laughter. But I do know of one instance he did not appreciate.
      A new sports editor -- words were not his strong suit -- was talking with Ken about his role on the sports desk and observed "you make a lot of money for what you do."
      That did not go over well with KG, and even less with me when he related that tale to me.     
      In the massive reduction in the newsroom at the Star-Telegram over the past nine years, Vince survived. Having reached Medicare age and needing to take care of family matters, he leaves this week -- thankfully, on his own accord.
      He is going home to Tulsa to care for his elderly mother, and I am sure, root for the Oklahoma Sooners -- he is an OU graduate (1973) -- and the Houston Astros. He will commiserate with me on what he always calls "the Yankee boys."
      I suspect that Vinny would have stayed longer at the Star-Telegram had the job not changed. But the McClatchy Corp. powers have broken apart the sports desk for a "universal" desk, and the job title "audience growth editor" -- where online clicks are more important than the old-style print newspaper -- is not what we desired. (Cannot imagine myself in that role.)
      KG has been a Florida resident since high school, a transplanted Long Islander who came to Ocala with his retiring parents and did a couple of stints at the University of Florida (so he's a Gators fan; he's not perfect).
      He got his layoff note from the Orlando paper in 2011, worked a couple of short-lived sports copy editing jobs since then, and through some health issues, had fun working at Disney World and now as an Uber driver.
      If he had his choice, I'm guessing, he still would be editing sports copy at a large daily newspaper.
      We share a lot of "inside" jokes, and one is the rumor that Val and Ken have been married for 21 years (gee, we missed the wedding). KG also knows that we had "morons on our team" and "we have got no money going down the mountain." (These are lines I adopted/adapted from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He's heard them often.)
      As I said, newspapers are a poorer lot without Vinny and KG. 
      I have used my blog to say thank you to many people who played important roles in my life and my career, and here are two more. 
      They edited to daylight, and nearly every day made very good sports sections even better.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Family matters: about the name Van Thyn

    Leo Van Thyn, a native Dutchman who lives in Canada, is our family historian -- genealogy is one of his interests -- and it is through him that we found much of the Van Thyn origin.
    When he first contacted us in the mid-1990s, as I recall through my parents and my sister Elsa, we found another cousin. 
     Not quite sure of the connection, but it is only a few generations back. For sure, Leo and I have much in common, such as:
     -- Born in Amsterdam, to parents who had survived the Holocaust.
     -- His father's name was Abraham; my mother's father's name was Abraham.
     -- Came to North America with our parents and one younger sister in the mid-1950s, he to the Toronto area, us to Shreveport; he was almost 11; I was 8 1/2.
     -- Within a half year of each other in 1976-77, we each married a woman with a child from a previous marriage (their Lisa, our Jason were born in 1974). Then we happily added to our families.
     -- Remarkably, we each have a daughter originally named Rachel Van Thyn. Ours is two years older.
     -- We had long careers in jobs we loved -- Leo in teaching, me in a less-important endeavor (sportswriting).
     -- We are sports fans. Leo roots mostly for Toronto teams (Blue Jays, the long-suffering Maple Leafs, and the  Argonauts of the Canadian Football League). He first was a New York Yankees fan, in the days of Mantle (his favorite all-time player), Maris, Yogi, Whitey, Richardson, Kubek "and the boys," and then 20 years later when the Blue Jays began playing, "I changed allegiance."
     That was a mistake, of course, although he is forgiven a bit when he writes, "I still have a soft spot for the Yankees, which, by the way, is not a popular stance around here." 
     -- We like writing, and are prolific at it. 
     Eventually I am going to turn this blog piece over to Leo, to write about his family's story and about our last name.
     When I asked him for a brief summary of his life for this blog, he answered with a l-o-n-g, eight-paragraph "summary." Like I said prolific.
     He started with this: "I seriously doubt most of your readers care about some guy with the same name as you who lives in that vast country north of the U.S. [and] who cheers for foreign teams."
     Hey, we care. Now, here is where we are a bit different:
Carol and Leo Van Thyn
     -- He is much older (eight months-plus older) and that's easy to see. He might have less hair, but more above his upper lip. 
     -- He and Carol have three children, to our two. They have three grandchildren, to our four (theirs are the same age range as our oldest three). Our family likely won't grow; theirs might.       
     -- Their grandchildren live within 15 minutes, so they see a lot of them. One set of ours is an hour-and-a-half away; the other set is two good days' driving away.
     -- They are much more religious than we are.
     Leo is "actively involved in the ritual aspects of our synagogue" (a half-mile from their house), "one of two coordinators of all things High Holy Days, which takes 5-6 months." 
     Carol has worked at the synagogue as administrative secretary since the early 1990s, so their responsibilities often overlap. Their Rachel, now married, is a rabbi in Brooklyn.
     Leo was a school teacher for 30 years in west Toronto (they live in Mississauga, a sizable suburb). He taught all grades, from kindergarten to grade 9, specifically mathematics, English, and history in the older grades. In 1998, he retired as a teacher and then worked at a GM dealership until 2009. 
     He enjoys going with his children to see Toronto's sports teams play occasionally, says that rooting for the Maple Leafs (no Stanley Cup champions since 1967, rarely a contender) qualifies "for psychological evaluation."
     His life these days: "I go to the gym three times a week, do synagogue stuff, a little genealogy, and spend as much time as possible with my grandchildren. The highlight of my week is when they visit for Shabbat on Friday afternoon. The religious holidays often become an excuse to be with them."
     Leo, on his family's history:
     "My parents, may they rest in peace, were Abraham van Thijn and Clara Vos. They were married in September 1941 and were almost immediately deported to concentration camps, ending up in Auschwitz. They spent 3 1/2 years in captivity. 
     "After being freed in 1945, they had to begin again. Ninety percent of our family had been murdered. I know all of their names. [His parents] were afraid, as were many others, that the Soviets would gobble up all of Europe and that the same nightmare would begin again. 
     "In the early 1950s they applied to emigrate to the U.S. However, to go to the U.S., you had to be sponsored by someone. My mom's first cousin, living in the Cleveland area, working as an appliance salesman, was deemed to have insufficient income to sponsor two adults and two children.
     "They had friends in Toronto, Canada. Personal sponsorship was not required. The Jewish Immigration and Aid Services supported us and we arrived in Toronto on September 25, 1957. At the time I was almost 11 and my sister Frances (Frouke) was 6. In 1958 my sister Kay was born."
     A little more than a week ago, Leo sent this note -- about our name -- to members of the Van Thyn family:
     "On September 25 sister Frances and I marked 60 years living in the Toronto area.  It made me think of lots of things but especially our last name.  As most of you have experienced and are experiencing, the name causes much confusion. 
     "Even in this day of computerized everything there will be times when at an office or store, someone can’t find me in their system.  We might be under V but it may be entered as VAN THYN or VANTHYN.  Sometimes I am under T because they think VAN is another first name of mine rather than part of my last name.  It is amazing how often I receive things addressed to Mr. THYN.
     "My passport is VAN THYN. My driver's license is VANTHN. My health card used to be VAN-THYN and it took a while to get through the bureaucracy to change it. There are other examples.
     "My parents realized this more than 50 years ago and simply changed their last name to Vanthyn. As such sister Kay [and her family] don't have to deal with this. I wanted the name to remain as close to the original as possible and didn't go along with the change. 
     "If we were living in The Netherlands our name would be "van Thijn" rather than what we use in North America. In Dutch VAN is neither a first name nor a last name. In the Dutch white pages, we would be listed under T: eg. Thijn, Leo van. VAN is simply a connector like VON in German, DE in French, DI in Italian, FON in Yiddish, etc. The letter Y is written as "ij" in Dutch.
     "In 1811 our name was created because Napoleon declared that all citizens in the empire should have civic last names. Jewish folk simply had no last names. There were a lot of Abraham Josephs, Jacob Isaacs, Solomon Nathans, etc., walking around and he simply couldn’t keep track of the taxes he demanded."  
       The name can be traced to what is now the Czech Republic. There's more, but we'll leave it here.
       Leo wrapped up that letter with: "Aren't you glad you asked? [On Oct. 4] I turned 71. It's my excuse for a lot of things.
       "Peace and love."
       OK, well, Leo, we didn't ask. But thank you. And, yes, we are familiar with seeing the name in different forms.
       We first met Leo and Carol at a Thanksgiving family gathering in Knoxville in the late 1990s. The connection then included Ron and Sonja Dubois of Knoxville. Sonja is part of the family (her birth name was Clara Van Thyn).
       She was a "hidden Dutch child" -- subject of a blog piece more than five years ago.
       Leo reminded me of our parents' connection.
       "I should point out that my parents knew of your parents," he wrote. "They met your father a number of times when he was a streetcar conductor [in Amsterdam].
      "The name "van Thijn" was not all that uncommon as we come from a very large family, so they didn't assume that our fathers were related. To you and me the name seems quite uncommon.
       "In the early 1970s I started genealogical research and with my mother's help I wrote a letter to your parents about our possible connection. It took quite a while to get answered and your parents wrote that they didn't believe we were related. 
      "It wasn't until the late 1990s that my studies uncovered that all van Thijns were related, as were van Tijns, and van Teijns, and many Fontijns, Fonteijns, and Fonteins.
      "You might remember that when Carol and I visited Sonja and Ron ... we suddenly showed up at your house, and your parents and children were there. I already had been corresponding with Elsa, but she didn't know what I looked like and she told me later that when we arrived at your house her initial thoughts were, 'How dare Sonja invite strangers?' "
      But we are connected, and that's a good thing.
      "So often, when you write about your parents," Leo wrote, "I find myself thinking how alike your parents and mine were.
      "I really enjoyed corresponding with your mother for some years. It was like talking to my mother. Our parents had much in common and said so much of the same things." 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Giovanni-Johnny Piazza: a story, a story-teller

      We knew him as Johnny Piazza, but that's only part of the story. At home growing up he was Giovanni Piazza, and that is Chapter 1.
    Our high school friend, our star fullback/linebacker in 1963, and "Mr. Woodlawn" in the 1964 yearbook, had 70 years of stories stored up.
    So he put together his story -- and his many stories -- in a book, From Giovanni to Johnny, and I think that it is "a good read."
    It is a good read especially if you were a Woodlawn Knight in the 1960s. But it is a good read for anyone because it is about life in general.
    It is, as one of our mutual friends said, "an honest book. His recall of high school was spot-on; I was surprised he had kept all that within himself all this time. ... He kept this spark alive for 50 years. 
    "He captured the feeling of a period; it is a good period piece."
    This self-published, 222-page book is about Shreveport and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, and then about Johnny's nearly four-decade career as a high school teacher and football coach.
    You will find that, in the end, he has great fulfillment from his career and from his marriage to Rosario, his wife of 28 years, and his children. 
    It is a plain-written story -- with lots of funny tales -- of a second-generation Italian kid growing and trying to find his place in his world. This is a book without harm, without malice.
     Makes one realize (again) that among your high school friends most are just casual friends -- or maybe acquaintances -- and you don't know what really is going on in their lives.
     To me, Johnny Piazza was quiet and polite, a team leader good enough to earn a college football scholarship, and one of the most popular kids in the WHS Class of '64.
      But read the book and you find that despite the outward camaraderie, there was much insecurity that he kept well-hidden. 
      His home life often was a tough one with his World War II Army veteran, policeman father. Johnny calls him his "oddfather" and says his mom was the soft touch. Johnny  came up in "Little Italy" of Shreveport, his Catholic roots showing, and he was teased endlessly about his Italian (more specifically, Sicilian) heritage.
     The "nice guy" we knew actually was a prankster and a bit of a troublemaker early in school; his junior high and high school dating life was a mess; his football playing days were challenging but satisfying; and his adjustment to being an ex-player took a while, as did his finding his career.
      Don't think we ever had a conversation of any detail or substance until Sunday night when we talked for 40 minutes about the book, about Woodlawn, and about our lives.
       "I was retired and I thought I had some good stories," Johnny said, "and I wanted to share some of the fun I had in high school and then as a teacher and coach."
       The book captured me in the first sentence of the introduction with a reference to The Beatles' song In My Life, one of my favorites. Johnny goes on to say that the book is "a shout out" to "the people who made my life so wonderful."
      He makes it fun by interjecting trivia-quiz questions (provides answers pages later) and short poems. There are many pop-culture references -- chapters on '50s/'60s music,   television, sports and automobiles. 
       There are lines from popular songs throughout the book.
       There are what I consider courageous chapters on the civil rights movement, the role of minorities in our society, abortion, the hippies, the Catholic church, women's rights and wrongs, and "Barbie." And one less serious one, a farce, on -- yes -- McDonald's.
        Much of the early portion deals with growing up in the neighborhood -- first in the Italian section a block from Texas League Park (later SPAR Stadium), later from deep in Cedar Grove, and all the trouble kids can find. Playing football in the street and on the playgrounds was foreshadowing.
       To be honest, the book includes some ethnic names, locker-room language and jokes, bawdy sexual references (body parts, bathroom humor) and a really smelly chapter on his summer work as a sanitation worker (garbage man).
        And there is an eye-rolling chapter on his U.S. Air Force Reserves' basic training and duty.    
        There are some corny plays on words ("eargasm," "eleckissity," "I don't know jack about Jill," great sets of "ears," "two silhouettes on the shade," "Rigor Mortis dance"). 
        I'm just saying, be warned.
       For our Woodlawn friends, Chapter 11 is titled "Finding Camelot." 
       As an eighth-grader, he declined an invitation to attend the all-boys Catholic school in town (Jesuit), a decision he later regretted. In 1961, he originally was zoned into the well-known, highly regarded old-line high school -- yes, that school on Line Avenue -- and started there in the 10th grade.
       He stayed one long day, asked about football and was refused, realized it wasn't for him, and began skipping school. Found out, he confessed to his parents, and they went to the school board -- and arranged a transfer into the district where most of his junior high school friends were, the new school near Cedar Grove.
Miss and Mr. Woodlawn, 1964:
Sheila Mondello, Johnny Piazza
        His introduction to Woodlawn (page 72) will please just about any ex-Knight. Believe me.
        His loves: He goes into some detail -- but nothing explicit -- about girls he dated (the names are changed). These are nostalgic tales, and Johnny is self-deprecating, almost to a fault, and you can feel his pain at the breakups.
         His friends: His closest friends -- in football and off the field -- are Jack and Mitch, with the woebegone Don as an accomplice in mischief. They had some crazy adventures.
        Also mentioned are the "very truthful" Thomas as their designated straight guy, and Warren as part of a double-date Natchitoches Christmas Festival trip.
         Some photos from that time are there; those of us involved then know the last names. 
         Football: In 1963, Piazza was our best running back and one of the best players on that 8-3-1 team (an indication of how strong Woodlawn's program -- from 1961 to '69, that was the worst record of any team).
         All three losses were by one touchdown to strong opponents -- Bastrop, Byrd and Class AA state champ Minden. The tie, 7-7, was in the state playoffs at East Jefferson (Metairie) on a memorable day: Nov. 22, 1963. (East Jeff won the first-down tiebreaker, 6-5, to advance.)
       Johnny had a tough act to follow; the fullback from 1960 to '62, Tommy Linder, was Woodlawn's first outstanding running back who received an All-American honor and a college scholarship.
        Johnny's football recollections are not exactly what I remember, but I won't nit-pick here. As our friend Warren said, "You are probably the only one who would know those things anyway."
        In a very short chapter, Johnny pays tribute to our quarterback, Trey Prather (with his photo), and his death as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam conflict. He mentions the other Woodlawn grads killed there, and follows with a chapter on the ugly Vietnam war. Very touching.
        Piazza earned a football scholarship to then-Northeast Louisiana University. He redshirted as a freshman, and paid the price for facing the varsity in scrimmages as new coach Dixie White, who had been an assistant at LSU, began to toughen the NLU program.
       But Jack and Don, who had gone to NLU with him for football, left after a semester, and Johnny -- heartsick for home and a girl he left behind -- decided he'd had enough, too. 
       Coach White told him he was the No. 3 running back on the depth chart for spring training 1965 when Johnny went in to tell him he was leaving. White was not happy.
       Eventually, after a wayward year or two, Piazza returned to NLU, his football desire gone but with new determination to earn a degree and become a teacher and coach.                
       And he did. As the book winds down, you sense the pride, pleasure and dedication he took in those jobs.
      There are plenty of stories about teaching American History, geography, civics and drivers' education (separate chapter) and his relationship with administration, fellow faculty and students.
      And on coaching. After nearly three decades as a freshman coach and then defensive coordinator at Southwood, he became head coach at -- as he writes it --  HHS.
      That's Huntington High, and the challenge he took on for five years there was as a white head coach at a predominately African-American school. 
       He three times had applied, and not received, head-coaching positions in Caddo Parish. But this turned out well. 
       After three sub-.500 seasons, the Raiders in 2002 had a 9-3 record and in 2003 went 8-5. No other Huntington teams in the school's 44-year history ever won that many games. 
       In 2002, Huntington won a playoff game for the first time since the school's lone playoff victory in 1980. In 2003, it won two playoff games. 
       In those years, Piazza points out, "We beat every Shreveport-Bossier public school we played." In the 9-3 season, two of the losses -- regular season and playoffs -- were to state superpower Evangel Christian, the private school which beat everyone else, too. 
       And in his personal life, Johnny also "hit it lucky."
Warren Gould, with Rosario and Johnny Piazza.
       He met Rosario, a native of The Philippines visiting the U.S. on a visa, through a date set up by a Filipino student of his. They clicked, and when she went home, he soon followed for a visit. "We got serious there," he recalled, and he asked her to marry him.
       Agreed. They filled out the necessary papers and in the summer of '89, she returned to the U.S. as Mrs. Piazza. 
       They have a daughter, Nicolette, 24. Johnny has two sons from a first marriage -- Chris, 45, and Benji, 43. And through a family connection, they have an "adopted" granddaughter, Sophia.   
      And now Johnny -- the little Italian kid grown up -- has a book.
     "I achieved a lot more than I ever thought I would," he  summed up Sunday night.
To order the book: