Friday, May 12, 2017

Celeste was the sweetest in our 'sweet spot'

      The day before Celeste Williams passed from this earth, I talked to my forever coach/philosopher/friend, and he wistfully remembered one of the "sweet spots" in our lives.
      "There are only a few times in life when we find that sweet spot," he said. "When you do, you need to cherish it."
      For me, the real sweet spot -- always -- is Bea and our kids, Jason and Rachel, and their families.
      Coach was referencing work situations, thinking back to the 1960s and Woodlawn High School, and all of us who were there will agree those were sweet days to cherish.
      That was a long time ago and, as I went into the work world -- mostly in the world of newspapers -- there were vestiges of sweet spots in several places.
      But the sweetest spot for me was the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, home for the last 10 years of a sportswriting career. It not only gave me a home, it gave me a work family. (The closest before that was the Shreveport Journal.)
      And, really, I mostly have Celeste Williams to thank for it. She was the sweetest part.
      In short, she -- and some others -- saved my career.
      By doing that, she also saved us from financial hardship. Who knows what would have happened late in 2002 if I had not been at the Star-Telegram?
       She was the head of our "family," our sports department, the managing editor for sports (and later features). She had the job for 19 years ... until this week.
      Cancer took her from us Monday night at age 56. Only a few people knew what she dealt with, health-wise, the past year and a half; she was a private person, until the end never one to call attention to herself.
         She was one of the kindest, unselfish, most charitable, well-rounded, interesting people I've known. All class.
         She was a fighter for her department, for her people. She told management -- and people complaining about a newspaper story or item -- how it was. She was honest, but she was fair and so darned compassionate.
         I am writing this for those who never had the privilege of knowing Celeste and, better yet, working with her.
         Because those of us who did, at the Star-Telegram and far beyond (she was well-traveled until this became her home), already know this.
          She was so beloved and respected. We were loyal because she was loyal. We had a department full of high achievers and standards, just as Celeste wanted.
         Facebook has been filled with tributes to her, beginning shortly after the news became public early Tuesday morning. Believe me, literally hundreds of people feel the same gratitude for her that Bea and I do.
         The obituary, by Jeff Caplan in the Star-Telegram, was as beautiful, as touching, as any obit I've read. The link is at the bottom of this piece. You should read it.
         In my decade at the paper, we might have had as many as 150 people working in sports in some role (I'm not kidding; when I arrived in December 2001, we were "fat" in personnel).
         The great majority of those people wrote posts, or notes, on Facebook to explain how Celeste impacted their careers and their lives. Many were very well-written; these were coming from talented journalists, after all.
         That talent, put together in large part by Celeste, produced a sports section that for at least seven years was among the best in the country. Damn right I'm bragging.
         It was a tough week. When I first saw the news on Facebook early Tuesday, we were getting ready to go to the downtown YMCA for a yoga class. And we went ... after I got through sobbing.
         Cannot tell you how many times I teared up reading Facebook, or choked up talking to friends on the phone.
         But with those tears came smiles, seeing the many beautiful photos of Celeste posted all week, always with her own dazzling smile.  
         The best moment -- more tears -- might have been Wednesday night when the Texas Rangers had a pregame moment of silence in Celeste's memory, and posted her photo -- with longtime partner David Martindale -- on the video boards.
          Gosh, that was wonderful.
          Late in 2001, I was job-hunting (again), ready to leave Knoxville. I had a Star-Telegram connection, from the Shreveport Journal days, and maybe that helped. 
          Celeste was the latest in a long line to come to my rescue, and I had no history with her.
          We traded e-mails, and she didn't have any fulltime openings but she invited me to come for a visit -- and a tryout -- if I was in the area.
          I did have another job opportunity at the small paper in Marshall, Texas, and a chance for a golf-magazine job in Orlando. So I went to Shreveport to visit the folks and interviewed in Marshall, where I was offered a job (not in sports).
          Then I came to Fort Worth, met Celeste and the assistant sports editors, and on the night of Oct. 5, 2001, my "tryout" became memorable.
         It was the night before the Texas-Oklahoma football game -- the Red River Rivalry -- and the night that Barry Bonds hit his 71st home run of the 2001 baseball season, breaking Mark McGwire's single-season record. The Star-Telegram sports department had planned a special section if that happened ... and, in the first inning, the plan went into effect.
         Wow. What a massive effort that night. I'd never seen such an operation -- so many people in one department (copy editors, designers, writers), so many sports pages (with zoned high school pages and the Bonds special section, it must have been 35 pages), so many stories to work.
         Vince Langford, one of the very best copy editors I worked with in 45 years and eventually one of my best friends at the S-T, was assigning the stories. Because I work fairly fast, he kept piling them on. Think I worked 16 stories that shift.
         (Because it was so much work, people in the department thought it would scare me away. Michele Machado laughingly has told me they agreed "he won't be back." They did not know how badly I needed -- and wanted -- the job.)
         I must have made a good impression because Celeste soon offered me a chance to come to Fort Worth on a "contract" basis (40 hours a week, good pay, but no benefits).
         I told Bea "this is a great place, a helluva department" and this was my choice, not Marshall. She had trepidation about the pace of the Metroplex, but Jason was living and working in Dallas, and we would be close enough to drive over and help out my parents, who were getting older.
         When I started -- Dec. 21 -- Celeste promised me that "as soon as we get a fulltime opening, we'll give you the job." It took only two weeks.
         It turned out to be crucial, especially the benefits.  Because a few months later, Bea -- who had been having bouts of severe illness -- was found to have colon cancer. After an operation and chemo, she -- thank God -- made it through. There was a recurrence four years later, but pinpoint radiation worked perfectly, and here she is 15 years later.
         What if we had not had health insurance?
         So that was one Celeste favor, among many. That April, 2002, we had tickets to go to the Masters. Many bosses would have said, no you can't do that because you are new here. Not Celeste; she was fine with it. Just as she told me to take all the time I needed after my parents' deaths.
         And here is a typical Celeste story. She was an avid reader -- one of her many, many interests. She would give Bea and me books (she oversaw the paper's book page and reviews) and she always wanted to know about our book-club meetings. Once she came to the apartments to join in. This will surprise no one at the S-T: She brought food and treats to share with the group.
        I was fortunate to be part of some very good sports staff with supportive management at The Honolulu Advertiser in 1980-81, Shreveport Journal in 1982-87, and Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville) in 1988-93. Much fun and good people -- good friends -- in each place, and much to like, too, at the Knoxville News Sentinel (1995-2001).
        All sweet spots to an extent, but not like here in Fort Worth. This was a big-league operation -- more resources, more people -- and Celeste was a big-league sports editor and leader.

        I had as many friends here at this paper as any place I've been, except maybe Woodlawn High. The work was challenging, but so much fun. And this was home, the right place to finish a career.
        My role for a decade was sports copy editor, plus on college football Saturdays and NFL Sundays, I was a writer, compiler of the national roundups. So I had a few bylines.
        Celeste at times asked my opinion about stories and writers. She had a mostly open door, so we'd visit briefly before and during many shifts. Had to go in for my candy fix -- one Celeste trademark was she kept a large stash of candy in her office, and many indulged. Too many miniature Mr. Goodbars and Tootsie Roll Pops for me.
        As she did with a lot of people, we had gentle conversations about the paper and life.
        She could be fierce, though, (profane even) about complaining callers, especially people from area college or pro teams. She and I talked politics a lot; again, she could be outspoken, but we Demos agreed on almost everything. She would be appalled these days.
        She must have known how intense a worker I could be, how loud and -- uh -- brash, that flying words and objects were a distinct possibility. She, and everyone, knew I also would keep things light and crazy. I don't miss working; I do miss the fun and the laughter.
        I was admonished a few times for my outlandishness. But the only time Celeste scolded me -- mildly -- concerned a college/NFL story. It was no big deal.
        I am so grateful to so many people in that department. But it started with Celeste.

        The good times at the S-T began ending, and the section suffered, when layoffs began in April 2008. Not sure how many sets of layoffs there have been since, but I know that each time Celeste was more upset than the people who were leaving.
        The department of about 125 at one time -- including parttimers -- is down to about 25.
        In recent years, when I made a few visits to the office, Celeste was resigned to the changing business, but still intent on having her staff produce the best it could. She never gave up or gave in.
        I was fortunate that, at age 63, when my layoff time came in May 2011, I didn't mind. I was nearly ready to step aside anyway.
        Still, I asked Celeste about maybe working parttime. She said she could not rehire me until the turn of the year, "but in January, if you want a parttime job, you've got one."
        Because I wanted to cover high school football that fall, I was fortunate that The Dallas Morning News would give me that chance. Then, The Morning News also wanted me to work parttime on the sports desk. Fine. Driving to Dallas 2-3 times a week was ... well, OK.
         Then the Rangers made the World Series and one week I worked six days. 
         The DMN sports section long has been one of the country's best, and the people there are real pros, could not have been nicer to me. But it wasn't "home." And that drive to Dallas ...
          In early January, I called Celeste and she -- again -- fulfilled her promise. I went back to the Star-Telegram for another year of parttime work and, in the fall, high school football coverage. Loved it, and in late December, I'd had enough. That was the end of my career. Sweet.

         Typical of Celeste, she did not want a funeral service. Instead David and her sister are planning a party in the next couple of weeks. Because Celeste loved being host for a party or being part of one.
          A significant number of Star-Telegram people had a gathering in honor of Celeste last Tuesday night at Bobby V's, a restaurant/sports bar in Arlington. I expect the formal party will require a bigger room. 
         Back to the sweets. That healthy -- well, unhealthy -- supply of candy in her office, and my chocolate fetish likely led to that extra five pounds I've had for years (but, hey, it was an extra 25 for a while). Let's blame Celeste.
         Plus, all that pizza and chicken -- and all those birthday cakes -- she had brought in for us on "big event" nights or special-section duty ... or whatever. I don't think those were in the S-T budget; I suspect they were from the personal Celeste budget.
         The deaths of so many friends, it seems, affects us more and more as we get older. This one really hurt.
         It has been so gratifying to see the tremendous response by Celeste's friends, especially the Star-Telegram family. She was our sweet spot.
         As so many have in the past week, I say "thank you" to my boss, but better yet, our dear friend. We were so blessed she was there for us, and we cherish what she gave us.


  1. From David Martindale: Celeste hates being the center of attention, but I'm sure she'll allow it. Just this once.

  2. From Jason Brown: Dammit, here I am all choked up again. When I first started at the S-T sports department, and for several years thereafter, it was the most lively, fun place I'd ever worked (and probably ever will). Our daily output was high-volume, high-quality and often high-pressure, but it was a blast. I was drawing a paycheck from that joint for several years before I ever worked a minute. It was a treat just to show up every day. No doubt that came from the top, in that office/candy shop.

  3. From Lori Dann: You nailed it. Great tribute, and I really enjoyed reading about your memories.

  4. From Dusty Schwab: Thanks, that's perfect. Best job I've ever had, best boss I've ever had.

  5. From Mary Palmer Strange: Beautifully and perfectly written in honor of your precious friend. So sorry for your loss.

  6. From Scott McCoy: Couldn't agree more. The run from about 2003-07 was definitely the sweet spot for me. The layoff years were a little more difficult for us all, but it says a lot about Celeste that she could lead during those years with all the layoffs and furloughs without leaving behind a trail of bitterness. She was a big, big reason that place and that job were so special. I mean she didn't even yell at us when we photoshopped Tom Hicks into The Jerk. She probably wanted to, but she didn't.

  7. From David Thomas: Nicely done. Those were great times with great people.

  8. From Jason Hoskins: Excellent. Truly a special lady, boss and friend.

  9. From Michael Currie: Awesome tribute. That was truly the sweet spot. For once, Nico, you are not a light man!

  10. From Danny Horne: Great stuff. You called it right ... definitely the sweet spot. Great group and a ton of great memories. Celeste gave me a place to start right out of college. She offered me a parttime gig, but promised me if I worked for it she'd give me a shot at a fulltime spot. She was true to her word, and you got Frick and Frack to bother you on a nightly basis. A great time. Great tribute, my friend.

    1. "Frick and Frack" were my nicknames for the two young men -- Danny Horne and Dusty Schwab -- who worked our agate when I started at the Star-Telegram. Both were popular and capable and became fulltimers, then went on to other endeavors.

  11. You really captured the Celeste we all knew and loved. Thanks.