On the morning after I was born, on March 20, 1921, in the tiny western Oklahoma town of Oakwood, my dad wrote a letter to my mother’s two sisters in Oklahoma City, saying, “We will not be naming our latest offspring after his Aunt Elizabeth or his Aunt Mary, as we do not think those names, grand as they may be, are fitting and proper:
“IT’S A BOY!”
Years later, I reread the letter and decided that whatever talent I might have as a newspaper reporter must have been inherited from him. After all, he had a big story there, and he had a pretty good lead, he got the facts straight and he spelled the names correctly. And who knows? He may have coined the phrase that lives forever on greeting cards and cigar bands.
I was born on the kitchen table of the town’s only doctor, Edwin Sharpe, and I started life peacefully enough. I barely remember the booster trains that would come from big towns like Watonga and Custer City and throw candy to the crowd while inviting everyone to visit them and shop.
I also have vague memories of playing cowboys with my two brothers and Rollin Shaw, who lived next door. Usually, I was a bad guy and they would tie me to the windmill.
I have a stronger recall of the night the Klu Klux Klan burned a cross in our front yard. It was, and still is, the worst thing that ever happened to our family, and it was all because we were Catholics – the only Catholic family in town. I was too young to remember it all, but my two older brothers told me about it many times.
As the cross burned, my mother, crying, pleaded with my Dad not to go outside, but he went out on the porch and confronted the Klansmen. He told them they might as well take off their white sheets and hoods, because he knew who they were. He also offered to take any of them on
The Klan spokesman responded by warning my Dad he had better pack up his family and get out of town. He added that starting the next day, my Dad’s drug store, the only one in town, was boycotted.
In the days that followed, while my Dad and Mom were facing up to the fact we had to move, some of the town leaders came to my Dad and told him, almost tearfully, they were sorry they participated in the cross burning, or that they did nothing to try to stop it.
We were singled out because we were an undesirable minority, and over the years, in my newspaper career, I’ve had to laugh when editors have lectured me on the fine points of discrimination.
We had no choice. We had to get out of town, and to do that we had to sell almost everything we owned, including a Jersey milk cow, chickens with baby chicks, furniture and my mom’s few household treasures. We were sent on our own Trail of Tears – uprooted and told to get to our new home the best way we could.
We did it in a Model T Ford touring sedan, meaning it had a cloth top and button-down windows. It was crammed with what we could get in it, and I’ve heard many times all the stories about the nightmare of our slow and miserable trip from Oakwood to Wyoming, and a tiny speck of a town called Veteran, where my mother had relatives and a general store needed a proprietor.
The ironic thing is that my dad, Daniel William Snider, converted to Catholicism so he could marry my mom, Leona Frances Shively. I don’t think that he was ever sorry he did it, and they both had come a long way to the point where they met and were married in western Oklahoma, in a church that now is a farm storage building, in Anton, a town that no longer exists.
Our forced departure was the second upsetting event our family went through in a short span. A year earlier, my mother discovered a lump in her breast, and eventually had to go to Oklahoma City for the operation. Her entire breast was removed, even though the growth was benign. This was in 1925, when I was four.
My dad and mom met in Custer City, about 25 miles south of Oakwood. His family had moved to the area from Indiana, by way of Miltonvale, Kan., where he was born. Her family also came from Indiana, by way of Howe, Neb., where she was born. They both are buried in Oklahoma City.
We were on the road several days, including interruptions for flat tires and rain that made the “highways” impassable, covering the roughly 700 miles to Veteran. Fewer than 100 miles of that was paved. The rest was “improved” roads, meaning gravel; “graded” roads, meaning some of the ruts smoothed out; and the last dreaded category, “dirt or poor” roads, and they weren’t kidding.
It was a little before dark when we arrived and we spent the night sleeping on grain sacks in the store my dad was taking over. Next day we saw Veteran in all its splendor, dominated by the Great Western Sugar Beet Co. mill, sitting high on the prairie. The rest of the town included a few stores, a garage that sold gasoline, a lumber yard and a creamery run by a man named Izzy.
Standing alone on one end of the town was the building where my dad would be postmaster, and also sell feed, seed, coal, clothing, groceries, hardware and so on.
At the other end there was a large irrigation ditch, feeding smaller ditches that led to the land where sugar beets were grown. Some grew as big as footballs, and at harvest time Mexican “beet-toppers” would show up. They’d pull the beets, cut off both ends and throw them into wagons that would haul them to the Great western. What happened there I don’t know, but the Union Pacific tracks ran alongside the mill, and trains would stop and carry off whatever it was.
Grim reality quickly set in for the Sniders, and I still wonder how we survived. Our first home there was a one-room shack a mile from town. It had a stove, a table and some chairs, and a bed. Under the bed were springs and a mattress which were pulled out each night, and that’s where my two brothers and I slept each night.
My dad rode a horse to work, and my two brothers rode a wagon or sled to school. The sled used in the winter was pulled by two horses and was pretty neat, but the blizzards that made it necessary weren’t. Our shack was so small that one storm left it completely covered with snow. My dad had to claw his way out a window to get help. Neighbors fought their way through drifts to dig us out, and the path they dug to our front door was described by one of them as “deep enough to hide a horse.”
The winters were one thing, but the summers had their moments too, like when we’d find a rattlesnake and my mom would come and kill it. That’s why we considered it a gift from heaven when my dad found us a house in town, and we moved there before the second winter arrived.
* * *
Living in town, even in Veteran, was a whole new life. By the time the second summer came, my brothers and I had a horse. She was an old workhorse, but perfect for us. She’s stand in the center of the big irrigation ditch, her head and rump out of the water, and let us dive off of her, and then pull ourselves back on by using her mane or tail.
When I was alone with her I’d lead her to a fence where I could climb up and then slide on her back. Then, we’d plod all over town, and give neighbor kids a free ride. She got out of low gear only once. Something spooked her, and she bolted with a burst of speed I never realized she had. I went flying off, and when I got up out of the dirt I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to ride her again. But I did.
The horse was kept in a corral and barn behind my dad’s store, and one morning she had a swelling just above the hoof on the front leg, which dad said had to be a rattlesnake bite. He put some red crystals in a tub of water, put the horse’s leg in it, and it seems now that old mare stood there for hours each day until the swelling was gone
She was something. I wish I could remember her name.
* * *
Veteran apparently didn’t have a Ku Klux Klan, and maybe it was because it had a very active American Legion. While we were there the Legion built a large new building, big enough for any kind of social event the town could dream up. The Legion Hall became the center for a variety of activities.
It was a building that was half underground, so construction started with digging a huge rectangular hole about 10 feet deep. I spent a lot of time watching men handling metal scoops, pulled by two horses, taking dirt out of the hole. And, as the hole got deeper, there were more warning signs, and makeshift fences, to stop people from falling in.
The fences didn’t work for dogs. We had acquired a couple of great dogs after moving to town, and they spent most of their time roaming the town and the prairie around it, and, in summer, playing in the irrigation ditch. One night my mom called them to eat, and they were on the far side of the Legion hole. In the dark, they came streaking for home.
I was told they were both found next morning on the bottom, dead. I still don’t see how that could have happened to both of them, so maybe they were hurt so badly they had to be put away. Whatever happened, they deserved better.
* * *
My mother’s relatives in Veteran included her Aunt Maude Courtney, and Cousins Forrest and Joe Courtney. We never saw much of them, except for the holidays, when we would be invited to Aunt Maude’s house to eat. One of these occasions was a Christmas when the few Catholics in town, Aunt Maud among them, arranged for a priest to come from another town and say Mass – probably at the Legion Hall. Aunt Maude didn’t go, saying she was too busy cooking. My mother couldn’t believe it, and prayed a lot for Aunt Maude after that.
Forrest Courtney was a successful beet farmer, and got into politics. After we were gone from Veteran he was elected several times, but I don’t know to what office, or from which party. Joe owned a grocery store, and when I’d go there to get something for my mom, he was nice to me. He had a distinctive laugh; he’d laugh for a while, then suck in his breath and start over.
One memorable day, the two of them drove their old cars to Cheyenne, and came home in two new Overland sedans. It was most awesome display of wealth I’d ever seen, and I remember wondering if my brothers and I would ever have new cars.
* * *
The Sniders seemed to have settled into life in Veteran, and in later years often speculated on what would have happened to all of us if we’d never left. There wasn’t much promise in any of the guesses. My mother was happiest over our escape, because I was ready to start school and she desperately wanted her sons to attend Catholic schools.
My older brother, Dan, already was in Oklahoma City, living with our Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary Garthoffner, and going to school at St. Joseph’s.
Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary, along with my mom’s other sister, the one everybody called Buel, who also lived in Oklahoma City, began putting the pressure on mom and dad to move back there and start over. They finally agreed to do it, and that’s how it happened that I started kindergarten at St. Joseph’s.
We made the trip from Wyoming on the train, which was pretty exciting. We changed trains inDenver, which meant that in a few hours after we left Veteran, I had seen more people and more cars than I had seen in all my life before that.
And, I have been told many times, that soon after Uncle Bill picked us up in Oklahoma City I shouted, “Hot tamales, I see a streetcar!” Another country boy was becoming a city boy.
My dad got a job selling candy, and while making his rounds, discovered a drug store for sale in Britton, a town of about 1,000 that at the time was about five miles north of Oklahoma City. He took it over, and we bought the house where my brothers and I grew up. Britton had one other Catholic family, and no Klan.
The house had what was for us an incredible feature. It was the first place we had ever lived, other than the apartment, that had indoor plumbing. It actually had a bathroom with a stool, which meant no more trips to the outhouse in the dark or in the snow. The first time my brothers and I saw the bathroom, we were so elated we all used it at the same time, and I remember my brother Dan saying, “I’ve got dibs on flushing it.”
I really believe our lives as individuals began right there. We had stability and caring parents, and we could go in about any direction we chose. We chose a lot of them.
Dan became an executive in motion picture distribution, first with RKO and then Universal.
Al was a Navy pilot in World War II and, when the war ended, he flew for United Airlines and later with Pan American before returning to the Navy, staying until he retired. He also is retired from Texas Instruments.
It seems I never could find a steady job. I worked for seven newspapers, the FBI, NCAA Films and the CFA (College Football Association). I have been with two oil companies doing advertising, PR work and lobbying. And I put in seven years with the Lord and Legend of Oklahoma football, Bud Wilkinson, first as Bud’s administrator on President Kennedy’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, next in his campaign for the U.S. Senate and then in a venture we called the Lifetime Sports Foundation.
Britton changed almost everything in our lives, but we never forgot what we left behind in Oakwood and Veteran. My last visit to Veteran was in 1985, and the town had all but disappeared. The one store that remained was the one my dad ran, and it looked about the same as it did when we left some 60 years before. The man running it had been there a long time, and he said he remembered hearing of the Snider who once was in charge.
The sugar beet mill was still there, and he said it was still operating, but all that remained of the Legion Hall was the foundation. The rest of what I remembered about the town was just gone, and I wondered again where the Sniders would be if we hadn’t left when we did.
My middle brother Al, three years older than I am, and I visited Oakwood in 2000. It is still alive, but just barely. It has no stores, no schools, no bank and no church, and maybe 100 residents. About a quarter-mile up a dirt road from the town there’s a highway, and a Phillips 66 station with a restaurant.
I had called ahead to Rollin Shaw, the kid who lived next door to us, and he met us there. He was in his 80s, and he took us on a tour, telling us what us what had happened in the years since we left. We sat in his car for a long time, staring at the foundation of our old house, and the tiny front yard where the Klan burned the cross.
There was no healing, or so-called closure for me. It just made me think again that no family – white, black, brown, yellow or what have you – should ever be treated that way by anyone, and particularly not by a bunch of ignorant jerks.
Rollin never talked about the cross, and we didn’t ask him. What good would that do? He died a few months after our visit.
* * *
Britton was a typical small Oklahoma town, featuring a Main Street and a lot of churches, one of which stands out in my memory.
The Hadleys lived on a small farm north of town, and in the summer, Mrs. Hadley would come to our neighborhood often, selling eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables from a wagon she pulled. My mother became a friend and regular customer and the two of them always had a good visit.
One day Mrs. Hadley told my mother her daughter had a new baby girl named Halad, which she pronounced like salad. My mother said that was a pretty name and Mrs. Hadley nodded, saying it was from the Lord’s Prayer. “You know,” she said, “Our Father which art in heaven, Halad be they name. . . “
In return, undoubtedly, God soon caused oil to be discovered on the farm and the Hadleys, now wealthy, thanked Him by building a new church just offMain Street, and they bought a fleet of new Ford sedans to haul worshipers from near and far for services.
* * *
For religion, the Sniders had the best of both worlds. There was a Catholic church and school close by inOklahoma Cityand our house in Britton was across the street from the Nazarene Church. We could hear them chasing the Devil out of their lives in Sunday morning and evening services and at Wednesday night “prayer meeting.”
Every summer they would erect a large tent on a vacant lot that also was across the street from us and hold a two-week “revival meeting.” They packed ’em in.
* * *
My dad’s drug store was on Main Street between Harry Wilson’s barber shop and Art Hobbs’ grocery store. Unfortunately, it also was beneath the town’s meeting hall, where all the civic and social groups held their meetings. Some of them sang, but the worst activity, from our standpoint, came from the ladies of the Eastern Star, who marched a lot and caused dust to be jarred loose from the ceiling and descend in clouds to the merchandise below.
My dad could fight back. He had a big Philco radio near the front of the store, hooked to two outside speakers. However, the only time he’d turn it on was for a sporting event or a political happening, but after a time, the Eastern Star learned not to schedule a meeting on the same night as, for example, a Louis-Schmeling fight.
It wasn’t necessarily good for business, because real customers had a tough time getting through the crowd that gathered just to listen.
* * *
My dad liked sports and the people who played. Any time a Britton High team won a game, he gave all the players a double-dip ice cream cone. He was a soft touch, and often treated “players” who never played or who weren’t even at the game. He cracked down one night, asking, “How could there be 18 players on a basketball team?”
It was through these treats that I met all my Britton High idols, guys I still remember, like Royce Jones, who played without a helmet; the McGrew brothers, Pat and Mike, who were giants; the Checotah brothers, Ben and George, Indians from the Baptist Orphanage north of town; Leo Cain and many more.
The other Catholic family in Britton included Charlie Davis, who was a top athlete at Britton High before transferring to the Catholic school my brothers and I attended in Oklahoma City in eleventh grade, starring in both football and basketball.
Charlie and my older brother, Dan, who was five years ahead of me in school, were teammates. Some Britton boys and their parents thought the two of them felt they were too good for Britton High.
In Dan’s senior year, I was their biggest fan and was fully aware of the resentment and hostility some Brittonites held for them. So, imagine my reaction when Dan, out of the blue, said our Oklahoma City school and Britton High had scheduled a basketball game, to be played the following week, in Britton.
First, I was stunned. Then, when it had sunk in, I was afraid the local boys would embarrass the snobs who were too good for the town school. It got worse when the Oklahoma City paper played up the game, and even ran pictures of Dan and Charlie. I thought about not going, of hiding until it was all over.
But I went, and prayed: Lord, please don’t let them get routed. They didn’t; they won. They beat the locals, and since there wasn’t anyone there to root for them, I enjoyed it in silence, in the middle of the local fans, and didn’t let out a peep.
No kid could have been more proud of his big brother and Charlie, than I was. I felt they had gone boldly into the camp of the enemy, risking ridicule and humiliation, but had instead gained stature and respect.
As far as I know, it was the only time the two schools ever played.
* * *
This is what I call a Brittonism: Charlie Davis was prematurely bald and it started in high school. One day in the drug store, I heard some men talking about him, and one said it was a shame that Charlie was losing his hair. Another agreed and wondered why it was happening.
A third man offered an explanation. He pointed out that Charlie participated in sports year round and probably took a shower every day, or close to it. “That water,” he said, “pounding down on his hair that often is causing it to fall out. I’ve heard of it happening to other men who took too many showers.”
For years after that I never let water from the shower hit me directly on top of my head. I protected my hair with my hands while shampooing, and I may still do it, without knowing it. Don’t laugh. I’ve still got a lot of hair.
Here’s another Brittonism: Britton didn’t have a public restroom, and for some reason – maybe because he was the friendliest merchant on Main Street– most of the men needing to answer the call of nature would come in the drug store and ask to use the facilities. My dad would frown and shake his head, but would tell them to go ahead to the back end of the store.
It always upset him, and one day he decided he’d had enough. He called Britton’s top handyman and the next day, construction started on a public outhouse on the vacant lot between Art Hobbs’ grocery store, which was one door west of the drug store, and Britton’s only movie house.
They dug the pit, built the structure over it, anchored it so it wouldn’t blow away and put on door latches, inside and out. It was a one-holer, all that was needed. It didn’t have a sign on it, but everyone knew what it was.
A couple of days later, a woman said to my dad, “Dan Snider, you’re a saint! You’re always doing something for this town.”
He smiled modestly, and didn’t tell her he did it to keep the town out of the back end of his store.
* * *
Our wide, four-laneMain Streetwas the domain of City Marshal Leland Corbett and what upset him most were drivers making U-turns. He was a John Wayne type of man, and he’d whistle down the violator, approach the car and open the conversation by yelling, “What the hell do you think this is – a cow pasture?”
If the violator was an out-of-towner, whoever happened to be onMain Streetwould gather. Some merchants would forget customers long enough to go out on the curb to watch. Very rarely did Marshal Corbett have to arrest and cuff anyone, but if it happened you’d want to see it, and later tell those who didn’t, “’Ol Leland got another one. Had him out of the car and the cuffs on him before he knew what was happening.”
When my dad closed the store at night, he’d put the cash in a cigar box and walk home, which was about six blocks. In bad weather, the Marshal would often give him a ride. I never heard of a holdup, or a serious crime of any kind happening in Britton.
When I became old enough to drive, and was working late in the store, my dad and I would cruise out to the two-mile-corner east of town. He’s smoke a cigar and drink a beer, and we’d talk. Those were great nights. My dad, incidentally, didn’t know how to drive a stick shift and didn’t learn until he was about 60 years old.
* * *
I started working at the drug store as soon as I was old enough to hop cars and carry ice cream cones and fountain drinks out to our curb. I learned a lot about life, seeing and listening to the people in those cars as I served them; in fact, if my mother knew what I was exposed to nightly, my car-hopping days would have ended.
It was particularly educational when a carload of Britton teenagers would drive up and order cones or cokes or whatever. I was a perceptive lad, and I figured what those Britton girls and boys were doing was necking (a word I’d picked up on the school playground). Looking back on it, I deeply regret that I moved away before I was old enough to take a Britton girl for a ride in a car.
My pay was 10 cents an hour, but over the years, I advanced in the organization to the point I worked for nothing. This was after my brothers left home, and I would hold down the fort alone while my dad took times off to go to church or maybe to the barber.
Some customers were nervous when they saw I was there alone. I remember the first time I sold condoms. The man asked for a package of Peacocks, which was a brand name, and when I told him I didn’t know where they were, he said he’d show me and tell me the price. He pulled them out of a drawer in the back room and gave me the money, but he never told me what they were for. I learned most of that kind of stuff at school, on the playground.
* * *
I also learned a lot delivering the daily Oklahoma City Oklahoman and Times to one-third of Britton. For one thing, I learned the world has plenty of liars and phonies. The price for delivery of the morning paper and the Sunday paper or the afternoon and Sunday paper, to the door was 18 cents per week. The morning-afternoon-Sunday combination was 25 cents. I made six cents on the 18-cent deal and seven cents on the two bits. I had to collect it personally every week, and I’d always have a dozen or so lying deadbeats tell me I’d have to come back later to get the money, for one fake reason or another.
After a year of this, I adopted a “no money-no paper” policy, and when the circulation manager said I couldn’t cut off customers so abruptly, I quit. I missed it, because when you walk the neighborhoods at four in the morning and in the late afternoon, you make a lot of friends – all kinds of friends.
* * *
I made friends with most of the boys my age in Britton. Across the street from our house was a vacant lot where we played football and baseball (or softball), and there was a backboard and hoop attached to the top of our garage for basketball. Almost every day, weather permitting, there was a game going on.
We also took hikes in the country, where we’d smoke “Wings” or “Twenty Grand” cigarettes that were 10 cents a package, or three packages for a quarter. The Twenty Grands had a picture of the famous racehorse on the package, and we used to say it was a picture of the factory where the cigarettes came from.
One of my friends was Ben Hawk, whose family was very active in the Baptist Church. Ben wanted me to come to a meeting of the BYPU, which was the Baptist Young People’s Union, except that the cool cats among us said the letters stood for “Button Your Pants Up.” Still I asked my mother if I could go, and I thought she was going to faint. In the end, though, she let me go, and all that happened was that they sang a special welcome song to me, and served me punch and cake.
Another good friend was Alva Rollins. We wound up going to school and playing basketball together atOklahoma CityUniversity. Other names I remember include Ora Hickman, Jenks Presley and Delphin Motter. How could I forget them?
* * *
One of the nicest men in Britton was Captain Melvin Sellmeyer of Braniff Airways. The deal was that Braniff had its maintenance facility at Wiley Post airport, two miles from Britton, and some Braniff pilots lived there because they often would pick up their plane at the Wiley Post and fly it down to Oklahoma City Municipal to board their passengers.
Sellmeyer is one of my all-time favorite heroes. He lived on my paper route and was a regular customer at the drug store. He always smiled and spoke to me as I started with awe at his Braniff uniform, and his image of courage and daring.
Then it happened. One day he took off fromDallas, bound forOklahoma City, and a wheel from the fixed landing gear of the single-engine Vega airliner fell off. It meant he’d have to land on one wheel, and with a crowd gathered to watch, he did it perfectly. He touched down on one wheel and didn’t let the other side hit until the last minute. Nobody was hurt, and the plane wasn’t severely damaged.
Next morning, his feat was all over the front page of the paper, and at school, I talked about it all day, always adding, “I know him. He’s a friend of mine.” I was about 10 years old.
* * *
Another of my heroes I got to know in Britton was my Uncle Bill Garthoeffner. He was a traveling salesman, peddling Hickock “Belts, Braces (suspenders) and Garters.” The brand was the Cadillac of the industry, and they later added men’s jewelry and leather coats. Uncle Bill made so much money that during the Great Depression, he and Aunt Mary built a three-bedroom, two-bath (unheard of) brick home inOklahoma Cityfor $5,000 cash (unheard of).
Before that, Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary, and Cousin Bill Jr. lived in Britton, just two doors from us. Uncle Bill liked to visit Wiley Post airport and frequently took “the kid” with him. One day, I couldn’t believe it when he walked out of the hangar office in a flying suit, with helmet, goggles and a parachute, and climbed into a biplane with an instructor pilot and took his first lesson.
He hadn’t told anyone – not even Aunt Mary – but he went on to become known as the county’s first flying traveling salesman, and owned, one at a time, nine airplanes with “Hickock” painted on the fuselage.
Uncle Bill was handy with engines and always took care of his planes and autos. He also was especially good with woodworking tools, and I remember one of the best days of my life, when we first arrived inOklahomafromWyomingand lived for a short time in the Garthoeffner apartment inOklahoma City.
He asked me to help him build a couple of bookcases, and I happily agreed. We did it on the fire escape of the apartment house, and I helped by holding something, handing him something, or fetching something he needed. It took all day, but when it was over, he had two great-looking bookcases, about four feet high and 18 inches wide.
He stained them a dark color, and I’d never seen anything prettier. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but today, we have one in our living room and our daughter Amy has the other in her home inTexas. When “we” built them, I was getting ready to enter first grade.
Uncle Bill’s territory for Hickock was Oklahoma and parts of Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas. In the summertime, after I got older, he took me on a few of his selling trips. I’d help with his sample cases and try not to listen when the buyers told him dirty jokes. On the highway, he’d tell stories, often about being in World War I and, believe it or not, we’d sing duets. We weren’t bad.
* * *
Uncle Bill was generous. When the Hickock line would change, he would give his outdated sample belts to me and my brothers, and as a result, the Snider boys had the fanciest belts in town, or in school. It was too bad we didn’t have the trousers to go with them. My wardrobe always was about 90 percent hand-me-downs.
As I neared high school, I dreamed of having my own car, and Uncle Bill made the dream come true. What happened was that there were several farm yards around the airport, and one day as he was making a landing, he spotted an old Model-T Ford parked in one of them.
He landed, drove to the farm, bought what was left of the car for $10 and had it hauled to the Britton Salvage Yard. It so happened that the owner of the Yard owed my dad’s drug store a considerable amount of money, so we made a deal that he could work off the debt by working on the car in his spare time.
A few weeks later, I had a Model T with Chevrolet disc wheels; a self-starter, very rare in old cars; four seats; a cargo box in back and – no roof. It was topless.
I was the proudest kid inOklahoma, and the envy of all who saw the vehicle. Girls couldn’t wait to take a ride in it, and I had it made as long as it didn’t rain or get too cold.
In the summer of 1936, before starting the 10th grade, Joe Trosper, Leonard Link and I took a trip in it toDallas andFort Worth for the Texas Centennial Fairs, and to Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma for camping and swimming at state parks. We had a little money, but we overspent on the girlie shows at the Fairs. We were saved by the large assortment of canned food in the cargo box we had taken from home. We were long on peaches and tomatoes.
Link would become the center on our championship basketball team at St. Gregory’s, which you’ll hear about later. He also was the first of our group to die in World War II, when his destroyer was hit by Japanese shells from a Pacific island.
* * *
The years in Britton were mostly pleasant, but unfortunately, they ended on a sour note. From the beginning, the post office had been in my dad’s drug store, in the back end, and there was no home delivery. It meant that most Brittonites would make at least one trip through the store per day to look for mail. Good for business.
Then, in the late 1930s, Democrat Josh Lee was elected to the U.S. Senate, and his promise in Britton if he won was that he’d move the post office out of its Republican roost and into the drug store of our competitor, Democrat Dave McLemore.
He kept his promise, and business at Snider’s started to slip. On top of that, our store always was famous for low prices, ice cream cones so big that we lost money on every one of them and for easy credit. My dad would let you charge a candy bar, a package of cigarettes or a magazine as fast as we would an expensive prescription. We had a lot of money on the books and those kinds of people aren’t known as fast pay or any kind of pay unless it was forced.
Dad stubbornly refused to turn the delinquents over to a bill collector and finally it caught up with him. He had no money to pay the wholesale houses, so they shut and locked our door. We were out.
I was sad, for a while. My dad swallowed his pride and went to work for McLemore, and that had to have been tough. I was proud of him, and made it a point to go into McLemore’s store every chance I had, and say howdy to him. His old store never reopened, and McLemore had a monopoly, even after Britton got a free-standing post office. Fortunately, dad’s suffering didn’t last too long.
Dr. Grady Matthews, State Health Commissioner, lived in Britton and was a friend of my dad. In short order, he added him to the field staff and he and my mom moved to Durant, in southeasternOklahoma. My mom liked it immediately, because she would walk to mass every morning. The only hitch was, dad had to learn how to drive.
* * *
It turned out that Aunt Mary, who was Uncle Bill’s wife and my mother’s sister, and who lived just two doors from us in Britton, was the unanimous choice to teach my dad to drive. They weren’t perfectly paired for this assignment, because Aunt Mary thought dad was a bad influence on Uncle Bill when it came to hitting the one brew. It was plentiful, because dad usually had a batch bottled and ready and another batch working. And, they both liked it. With a name like Garthoeffner, how could you not like beer?
So, Aunt Mary and dad took our family stick-shift Chevy out on some country road and started the lessons. After the first one, they returned and it looked like they weren’t speaking. When asked how it went, he just grumbled. It was obvious he wasn’t comfortable with the arrangement.
But, mom convinced him that the quicker he learned, the sooner it would be over, so he stuck with it. He learned to drive, in the country and in town, even inOklahoma City, which was big-time driving.
I eventually rode with him, and noticed he developed one habit. When a car would pass him, or slow down in front of him, or a driver would signal a turn, dad would mutter, “now, I wonder what this damn fool is gonna do?”
He always drove slowly, and I don’t know that he ever had a mishap of any kind. It was good that he didn’t. I was visiting mom and dad one time, long after he started driving, and mentioned insurance. They looked at each other, and I knew they didn’t have any. Thirty minutes later, they did.
* * *
One other note about my dad. Although he spent much of his life in the drug store business, he never had a pharmacist’s license. He learned to fill prescriptions in stores owned by his brothers in westernOklahoma, and the store he bought in Britton was owned by an elderly man named Robinson.
He was an interesting package. In addition to owning the drug store, he was a physician, a pharmacist and the postmaster. In the sale, which, incidentally, took place when he was 84, the deal was that he would remain the store’s pharmacist – if someone asked. If someone wanted to see him, he was always out to lunch.
If some fancy new drug came on the market, and a prescription for it came into the store, totally baffling my dad, he would call the doctor who wrote it and demand, “Now what the hell is this you wrote up for Mrs. Turner?” They would straighten it out.
* * *
Our school in Oklahoma City originally was known as Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral School, which was a mouthful and then some, but it finally was changed to John Carroll school. I went there through the ninth grade, and then transferred to St. Gregory’s, a boarding school for boys in Shawnee, Okla.
John Carroll was run by the Sisters of Mercy and the priests of Our Lady’s parish. When I started there, the principal was Sister Margaret Mary, the only nun I ever knew who didn’t have the “Mary” part of her name in the middle. She also was the toughest nun I ever met.
The school taught the first grade through the 12th, and Sister Margaret Mary dished out discipline wherever she found the need for it. In the halls, classrooms or playground, she was not above slapping a senior boy around if he got out of line, and no student escaped a paddling or a ruler applied to the palm of a hand if the offense merited it.
Sister Mary Chrysostom, another stern-faced disciplinarian, dealt me a dose of physical rules enforcement in the eighth grade that I have never forgotten. In one of her classes, I sat on the back row and liked to lean my desk back against the wall. She told me countless times not to do it, and one day I did after she walked out of the room through a door behind me. She came back in, saw me, and crushed me on the top of the head with the two text books she was carrying.
Even today my ears ring when I think of it. I don’t recall being hit that hard before or since, and today I blame every mental lapse or shortcoming on that whack on the head. And, it also is a fact that I never lean a chair back without thinking about gentle Sister Chrysostom.
My two older brothers and I drove to John Carroll from Britton, but I also learned to hitchhike as I got older. It was safe then and that’s how I got around much of the time after I transferred to St. Gregory’s to start the 10th grade in 1936.
One reason I transferred was that Joe Trosper, whom I had met in kindergarten and who remains a close friend, transferred there a year before I did. The other reason was that Father Blase Schumacher, basketball coach there, came to Britton one day, found me working alone in the drug store and offered me what amounted to a basketball scholarship to St. Gregory’s.
He said the special price would be $20 per month for tuition, room, board and books. It was an offer my parents couldn’t refuse, so I rejoined Joe and other friends who had migrated to St. Gregory’s.
Joe was one of the best athletes I ever saw, and mainly because of him, we had outstanding teams. On Sept. 26, 1998, our entire 1939 squad was inducted into the St. Gregory’s Sports Hall of Fame. I don’t know why it took so long. Maybe it was because we were great long before the school’s hall of fame was created.
St. Gregory’s is a four-year college now, but in my time there, it was a four-year high school, plus junior college classes for boys who had decided to study for the priesthood. There were fewer than 100 high school students; there were 19 in my graduating class.
* * *
A really ancient priest, Father Blaise, not to be confused with Father Blase, our football and basketball coach, was chaplain of the high school. He heard the confessions of all the Catholic high school boys on a regular basis and it was hilarious at times in that the secrecy of the confessional was forgotten.
To begin with, Father Blaise would hold open the door to his part of the confessional, so he could see who the next victim was. Then, he would talk so loud he could be heard throughout the chapel. It was fun, but only if you were not the poor soul being shouted at: “YOU DID WHAT?” “HOW MANY TIMES?” And so on.
Our basketball teams had outstanding won-lost records, playing mostly other Catholic schools in the state and smaller public schools aroundShawnee. In my senior year, we played Classen, the top high school inOklahoma City. Scared and intimidated, we lost, 19-18. No, that’s not the first-quarter score; that’s the final.
That same year, we earned a spot in the National Catholic High School tournament at Loyola University in Chicago. We won two games, but lost in the quarter finals. Off the court, the seniors on the team managed to slip away from our hotel to see our first burlesque show. None of us told Father Blaise about that. He would have blown the roof off the chapel.
* * *
My favorite priest at St. Gregory’s was the rector (principal), Father Sylvester Harter. He taught English, and all that goes with it, and was an outstanding teacher. There never was a dull moment in his class, and he was the first to tell me I should consider writing for a living. He also told me that although I had the knack, I was lazy. I often thought about that when I was working 80-hour weeks for publishers who didn’t appreciate it.
I made good grades, good enough that my mom said they were good, but that she knew I could do better. So what else is new?
My only real so-so grades came in Physics, taught by elderly Father Hilary. But he knew what was going on among the laggards in the class. Once, during an important exam, he said, menacingly, “Someone is communicating in the back of the room.”
One of the slowest in the class, Louis Collett, said to Frank Rodesney, the smartest among us, “You heard him Rodesney. Be quiet.” It was a feeble attempt to lead Father Hilary’s suspicions in the wrong direction, and even he laughed.
* * *
The class of 1939 held a reunion of sorts on our 40th anniversary, and it was like going back to another world. In our days, there was one building, and it contained the whole operation – dormitories, classrooms, gym, chapel, the priests and novitiates’ quarters, offices, candy store, cafeteria, kitchens, bakery, laundry and whatever.
Now there are separate buildings for most of that, and, as you might suspect, the first new building was the chapel.
We missed getting together in 1989, but in 1998, the school inducted our entire 1939 basketball team into its Sports Hall of Fame.
After graduating in the spring of 1939, Bob Meyers, a teammate, and I were offered basketball scholarships atOklahoma CityUniversity. Joe Trosper was given a scholarship by Oklahoma A&M and coaching legend Henry Iba, but it wasn’t long before we were reunited. Meyers and I were playing as freshmen, while Joe was sitting where freshmen weren’t eligible. He quit and joined us.
* * *
A basketball scholarship at OCU meant tuition books and fees. There was no room and board. It was a private school, associated with theMethodistChurch, and the tuition was $5 per semester hour, which means we weren’t getting all that much from our scholarship. No laundry money, no walk-around money, no money under the table or on the table.
It wasn’t always that way. Bob Meyer’s dad, Tony Meyers, before our time had been Chief of the Oklahoma City Fire Department. He loved sports, and came up with his own plan to make sureOklahoma City University athletes lived well and had money to spend.
He made them part-time firemen. They slept and ate at the firehouses, and were paid to do it. In 1931 the Goldbugs, as OCU teams were called, were undefeated in football, and included was a 6-0 victory over the Oklahoma Sooners.
It probably is the greatest victory in school history. It was the talk of the state, and the Bugs were hailed as giant-killers.
The firefighter plan worked for a few years before some dirty rat-fink blew the whistle and ended it.
There was one thing about our OCU scholarships. Coach Faye Ferguson promised us a job if we wanted to work. I wanted to, and Ferguson kept his promise. My job was running an elevator in the Ramsey Tower, a downtown 30-plus story skyscraper.
In those days there were no automatic elevators, so the operator had to make the car stop and go, and make the doors open and close. We didn’t just run up and down willy-nilly. We had an elevator chief on the main floor who told us when to take off, and could signal us to reverse course anytime he wished. He ran things from a display board that showed him where all six elevators were at any time.
He was called the “starter,” and ours was Woody Renfro, one of the all-time greats of OCU basketball. That was the connection, and I ran my cage four or five afternoons and evenings per week in the off-season.
Once, I asked for a second job, and they sent me to a Piggly-Wiggly grocery store (and I’m not making up that name) to work on the fresh vegetable tables. They weren’t refrigerated. Instead, a fine mist of water sprayed over them constantly, so after about an hour, your hands were scraped raw. I worked there only once, on a Saturday, and never went back.
I learned there that when you add more turnips to the table, you take out all the turnips and put the freshest ones on the bottom, and the old ones on top. It’s the same with all the vegetables, and an hour of that can convince you never to leave the elevators again, even though you risk being chewed out by a bigshot whose floor you missed and forgot to stop.
All the tenants were pleased if you stopped at their correct floor without having to be reminded. I was pretty good at that game, and also pretty good at overhearing conversations. One day, an oil filed drilling company owner named Fain told a colleague the price for drilling a well would be $3 per foot, or $18,000 flat – take your choice. I figured out it would take me maybe two lifetimes to drill a whole well.
The St. Gregory’s combination of Trosper, Meyers and snider at OCU didn’t last into a second season. With one dumb decision, I put my college education in jeopardy, ended my college athletic career, and lost my turning-turning job.
* * *
In the late summer of 1940, I broke a bone in my ankle playing baseball and lost my scholarship to OCU because basketball scholarship players weren’t allowed to play baseball for fear of injury. I did it, I was caught, and I was dead at OCU.
That ended my basketball career, but I had a couple of highlights worth mentioning.
In my freshman year at John Carroll, before I switched to St. Gregory’s, we played a five-overtime game against arch-rival St. Joseph’s of Oklahoma City, and yours truly made the winning basket. A teammate and I took the box score to the Daily Oklahoman, where I told the story to an editor, winding up by saying, “and Snider made the winning basket.”
He looked at me and said, “Why do I think your name’s Snider?”
I was embarrassed, but he said forget it, because it was a good story. It looked even better in the paper the next morning. I carried the clipping for maybe 20 years.
Then, as freshmen at OCU, we played another five-overtime game against Northeastern State at Tahlequah, but I didn’t make the winning basket; the other team did. However, we ended the season beating conference champ Central State on the road.
The thing about that last game was that Charlie Davis, one of my idols at John Carroll and Britton High, was playing for Central. Little did I know that in a few months I’d be going to the Edmond school with him, but not to play basketball.
* * *
Prominent among my memories of OCU is 12-man football, which was born and buried there, all in a matter of a couple of years. Ozzie Doenges was the Goldbug football coach, and he came up with the idea of having a coach huddle with the team on offense during a game.
The coach would call the plays, or comment on the play the quarterback called, then move a few yards behind the team while it executed the play. Ozzie got a few opponents to go along with it, but the idea never caught on. Critics said it was taking part of the game away from the players.
That’s a laugh. Coaches forever have called offensive plays and defensive alignments, but rather than being out on the field doing it, they, or some player, go through all sorts of gyrations to get the instructions to the huddle. Some coaches used to send in a substitute on every play. Some short-waved the strategy.
So, why not do away with the sham, and put a coach on the field? Ozzie still may someday get proper recognition for his idea.
* * *
My mom came close to passing out several times over the years as she followed my early career. It happened at OCU, too, when she learned I was taking a philosophy course at a Methodist school. The reason was, I needed a two-hour course in the early afternoon, before basketball practice, and it was the only one available.
It was more than she could take. She knew OCU by its old name, Epworth College, and she was sure the course meant the devil was after my soul. She insisted I check with our pastor, Monsignor John Mason Connor, before I attended the class. He laughed about it, and said it might not look good if I got too high a grade in the course.
The man teaching the course was a nice guy, and he soon found out I was from what he called “the Roman church.” He needled me on a few occasions, and often taught me Catholic philosophy when he would explain to the class differences in beliefs and practices. I enjoyed the course, and got a passing grade.
I kidded my mom about it, asking her why she didn’t give me the usual business by saying I could have done better. I left OCU with a reluctance not shared by my mother, and on crutches, enrolled inCentralState.
The reason I was on crutches is that the broken bone in my ankle wasn’t discovered until basketball practice started. OCU paid the medical bills, and allowed me to complete the semester. So, it was in January I learned my new school required me to take a basic course in agriculture, plus Oklahoma history.
But about that time, an FBI recruiting team came to Oklahoma City, and I interviewed on crutches for a job in Washington paying $1,260 per year. That’s $105 per month, and all the ice water you could drink. When I heard the FBI was running a background check on me, talking to former teachers, employers and neighbors, I knew I was in, and that I must be someone important.
It turned out I wasn’t. I was hired, and inWashingtonjoined about 50 other newcomers for indoctrination. I managed to hook up with four good guys to rent a big apartment that had a cook-housekeeper left over from the other tenants. We were all assigned to the middle shift in the Bureau’s 24-hour operation, working from11:30 p.m.to7:30 a.m.
It was the ambition of most rookies to become Special Agents, who were paid the incredible sum of $6,000 per year. The hitch was that you had to have a degree in law or accounting to qualify for the training program. So, we all went to law school at night, before going to work. We did our partying in the morning, after work, and slept in the afternoon.
It isn’t easy, but if you work at it, you can learn to drink in the morning.
We also slept on the job, hiding behind piles of fingerprint cards stacked high on top of the filing cabinets. Getting someone to cover for you, you could climb up there and spend the night.
I went to the Bureau in 1941, but in late 1942, received a notice from my Oklahoma draft board to report for an induction physical exam in Oklahoma City. Following the rules, I gave it to my supervisor and an FBI letter went to the board, asking that I be spared, since I was doing work critical to the security of the country.
The board wrote back, telling the FBI it was catching draft dodgers on one hand and breeding them on the other. It was pure Okie, but by the end of 1942, I was back in Oklahoma, sworn into the Navy and on my way to boot camp in Farragut, Idaho. Consoling me, the FBI said I was one of the very few whose draft board rejected its request.
* * *
In my two years at the bureau, I received two raises, first to $1,620 per year, and then to $1,800. I learned to file, helped along, I’m sure, by my years in college, and to classify fingerprints and read them, pursuits in which my college hours didn’t help at all. This was new ground, and fascinating, until the new wore off.
I learned to appreciate big-time entertainment after seeing the likes of the Glenn Miller Band, and Frank Sinatra, in person at D.C. theaters.
I also learned to love the Redskins and the old Washington Senators – “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American league.” They may have been less than spectacular, but on any afternoon, except maybe when the Yankees were in town, you could go to old Griffith Stadium and sit in the bleachers for next to nothing.
And on football Sundays, you could always get a good seat to watch Slingin’ Sammy Baugh and the Redskins. Baugh is one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the pro game, and he also played defense and did the punting, and the punt returning. He came to play.
In 1940, a year before I moved there, the Skins lost the title showdown to the Chicago Bears in an incredible 73-0 game, but came back in the 1942 title game to beat the Bears, 14-9. The Redskins have been my team, in a loose sort of way, ever since.
* * *
The induction physical inOklahoma City featured about 200 men without a stitch of clothing. In line behind me was John McGraw, brother of a close friend of mine, with feet so flat he looked like he had no ankles. Still, they made him go all the way through the process.
It was a good thing for me, I thought, because at the urine sample stop I couldn’t respond. So I gave my little bottle to McGraw and asked him to fill it. He was happy to oblige.
That was that – until I got to boot camp and was told to report to the medical facility. There, I gave a urine sample, and doctors were amazed to see that the blood, sugar, protein and miscellaneous other crap that had shown up in my sample inOklahoma Cityhad all but disappeared.
I couldn’t tell the truth, so I had to do several repeat visits to watch the doctors scratch their heads.
At boot camp, I was named the company mailman, and suddenly everyone looked up to me. The job allowed me to skip a few marching and running drills, and I kept telling our CO, a high school football coach fromTexas, that I had to see to it that the mail got through, on time, rain or shine.
And when the eight-week boot camp was over, the Navy was nice enough to send me home toOklahoma. Comedian George Gobel, stationed atAltus,Okla., Army Air Base, later bragged that not a single Jap plane got pastAmarillo. He had nothing on me. In my years at the Naval Air Technical Training Command base inNorman, no Japanese vessel ever was sighted on the southCanadian River.
* * *
In the spring of 1946, while waiting to be discharged atNorman, a friend and I would requisition, or temporarily steal, a Jeep and drive the short distance to theUniversityofOklahomafootball complex and watch the Sooners in spring practice. In this first season after the war, they had football players like they’d never had before, both in numbers and in quality.
On a couple of these trips we met and talked to a young assistant coach named Bud Wilkinson, and we were impressed. I would meet him again four years later when I was sports editor of theOdessa,Texas, American, and he was head coach at OU, on the recruiting trail. Neither of us knew it, but we were headed toward a friendship that would take us places we never dreamed we’d be.
In the Norman Navy, I went through the 21-week aviation machinist (meaning mechanic) school, and after graduation was given a single stripe, making me a third class petty officer. I also was sent to the officer in charge of personnel at the school. He said he had bad news for me, but that’s just what he thought.
He said he knew how much I’d like to go to the fleet and see action, but it had been determined I was needed more as an instructor in the school than I was aboard an aircraft carrier. He said he was sorry, but it was his duty to order me to report to Building 13 to teach in the basic phase of the school.
I managed to shake off my disappointment over being told to stay inNorman, and I checked into Building 13 and started teaching math. The Navy didn’t know it, and probably wouldn’t have cared, but at every level of my schooling, math had been my worst subject.
Fortunately, inNormanwe dealt only with basic stuff, like fractions, as they applied to tools and nuts and bolts, and other numerical things a mechanic ought to know. In every class I’d have men who never heard of any of this, and others who were math whizzes. I did my best, and we won the war, and that’s all that counts.
At first, I had only Navy men, fresh from boot camp. Then, I had sailors from the Pacific fleet who had earned the right to attend the school. Next were Marines who had fought onGuadalcanaland other hot spots, and finally there were WAVES, the Navy women, and the Marine women who didn’t want to be called anything other than Marines.
On the first day of class with my first group of Marines, I made a mistake. All of them had their hair cut as short as possible, and I was trying to loosen them up a little, and called one of them “Curly.”
He didn’t smile as he fairly shouted back, “My goddamned name ain’t Curly!” Right.
When we had all Navy boots in a class, we thought nothing about flunking those among them who didn’t get it and obviously never would. It was a bad deal for them, because their next stop was an amphibious training base. That meant piloting a flat-bottom boat onto a hostile beach.
But when it came to classes of men who already had been in combat, and who might be sent back to that kind of duty if they flunked, there was no way I’d fail any of them unless they were a total disaster.
The women were treated like the men who hadn’t been in combat. They either made it or they didn’t, and fortunately for them, flunking out wasn’t as big a deal as it was for the men. It wasn’t good, but it didn’t mean invasion training. They also were just like the men when it came to asking where to go on the weekends to find the action.
At Norman, I advanced to first class petty officer but I tried not to let it be known to sailors and Marines who came back from combat in Pacific to attend the school, many of whom hadn’t gotten anywhere near that rank. It didn’t seem right to me that I should outrank any of them, and I was thankful I taught in dungarees with no stripes on the shirt.
My last assignment in the Navy came in 1946. The school was closed, and I was asked to write a history of it. I did it, and I don’t know what became of it. I thought it was pretty good, but I received no “well done” from any admiral.
Prior to that, I helped move the portable part of the base to NATTC Memphis, andNormanwas just a shell. When I visited there in 1999, Building 49, my barracks, was still there, but Building 13 was gone.
* * *
The last thing I want to do is leave you with the impression that I never was exposed to any danger in my Naval career. On the contrary, on several occasions I found myself too close to the edge, and partying to get out of harm’s way. But the thing is, the people I feared might do me in were on our side.
There was, for example, our boot camp leave. When boot training is over, everyone gets a shore leave, and I traveled with Jack Shelton from Farragut, Idaho, over to Chicago, where he lived, and went on to Oklahoma to see my parents. I made arrangements to meetSheltonback inChicagofor the return trip toIdaho.
Everything worked out, and we were headed west, back to the Navy, when the train stopped inFargo,N.D. Shelton, who had an adventurous spirit, was convinced we’d soon be going to sea, and needed extended liberty. He talked to the conductor, who told him there was a late-night train that would get us back to camp about six hours late, but he said he’d write us a note saying we were late because our train was delayed.
That sounded good to us. It was early evening, and when we asked a cab driver where to go, and how to get there, he took us over the state line toMoorhead,Minn. It was the right place. It was like the people there hadn’t seen a serviceman in years.
In the bars, they bought us drinks. The girls asked us – begged us – to dance. We were surrounded. After only 30 minutes, I looked around andSheltonhad disappeared. I never saw him again until about five minutes before the late-night train pulled out. A car full of girls delivered him, and took turns kissing him goodbye.
As we rolled out of town he said, “Tell me the name of this place again.”
* * *
The highway fromNorman,Okla., toDallasis an Interstate now, but in the time of World War II it was a two-laner, US 77. It was a long haul, to Dallas and back, for a couple of bootleggers who were in the Navy and were performing what was considered to be a dangerous but valuable service for our shipmates at the Naval Air Technical Command Center in Norman. Dangerous, but valuable – and modestly profitable.
Oklahomawas a dry state, and sailors always are notoriously thirsty. Thus it was that we were always looking for someone going to Dallas who might bring back a bottle to fight the drought.
One the day my friend Red, fromKansas City, who had a late=-model two-door Chevy, came to me and suggested we make a quick round-trip run toDallasfor booze. He pointed out Thanksgiving was near, Christmas was next, and the sailors were in a buying mood. They could, of course, buy from local bootleggers, but they were looking for a better deal.
How could we turn our backs on ours shipmates? We calledDallasand made contact with a liquor store on the north side. We got prices, marked them up moderately, then took orders from sailors.
We made our first trip on the day after Thanksgiving in 1944, so 2004 is the 60th anniversary of the launching of our enterprise, dedicated to the idea that no Navy man should be denied a ration of rum, or whatever – and neither should a civilian, if we had any left over.
We made the first run, and subsequent trips, without incident. We knew we might get shot down at any time, but we kept the supply line open, always spurred on by the idea that nothing was too good for the boys in blue bell-bottom pants with the 13-button fly.
But the time came when Red and I agreed our luck was going to run out one day, so we gave thanks that it hadn’t, and closed up shop. We had only one more brush with this service. It came when we needed some booze, and gave our money to a sailor named Green. So did a lot of other sailors, but we never saw him again. Neither did the navy, I heard later. He took the money and disappeared.
All I said to Red was, “Why didn’t we think of that?”
* * *
Nobody wins ‘em all, and I had some bad days in the Norman Navy. I recall one incident that never gave me anything to feel thankful for. It was a bummer all the way, and it started one Sunday afternoon in a machine shop where I was watching some men make fancy letter openers and ash trays out of airplane spare parts.
A piece of metal flew from a machine and hit me in the eye, and it wasn’t anything I could just shrug off. I went to the nearest dispensary, where the doctor on duty patched up the eye, and then ordered me to take a series of penicillin shots.
Those were given at Dispensary 21, where all the venereal disease patients were treated, and thus was known as the “clap shack.” Worse, a list of the names of the men being treated there was published and posted every day, as a deterrent. My name went on the list, and stayed there for a while.
Nothing I could do could get my name off the list. The people I talked to said it was tough luck on my part, but orders were orders. Around the base, some people laughed at me, some gave me strange looks, and those who knew me did everything they could do to publicize my plight, including nicknaming me “shack.”
* * *
And speaking of action: Every eighth weekend, I had to do Shore Patrol (Navy cop) duty in downtown Oklahoma City, supporting the full-time SP men, most of whom had been cops in civilian life. I hated the duty, and hated it even more when I was in on one arrest too many one night.
There had been a fight involving sailors in a second-floor pool hall, and I was with the regular SP men sent to clear it up. They arrested a sailor who looked like a born brawler – a huge man with muscles in his hair and a mean look on his face. The SP men asked him if he’d go along with us peacefully, and he said he would.
They told me to take him down the stairs and put him in the Jeep. Down we went, me one stair above him as we walked. Halfway down, without warning, he turned and swung his powerful right fist into my stomach and, I was sure, out my back.
It was two weeks before I could laugh or take a deep breath without big-time pain. It didn’t help that I learned an SP had broken his night stick over the head of the guy who hit me. He couldn’t hurt as much as I did.
After that, I restricted my law enforcement activity to telling sailors to square their hats and threatening to arrest them for urinating in alleys.
The way I looked at it, I done the Navy wrong with my rum running, but the Navy more than got even with me.
* * *
With the war over, I became one of the hundreds of thousands of young men going to college on the GI Bill of Rights, and I was one of the luckier ones. Housing was the big problem on almost every campus, and it was my good fortune to have met Gene Smelser, who also was fresh out of the Navy and was joining the Oklahoma A&M basketball coaching staff under Henry Iba.
Smelser managed to get me a room in the athletic dormitory, Hanner Hall, which was the last place I belonged. With Iba’s OK, he managed to slip me in as the roommate of first a basketball player and later a wrestler.
Smelser’s kindness saved me from having to join a fraternity as a 25-year-old pledge, the only housing alternative I had found. It also freed me to work weekends at the Daily Oklahoman and Times inOklahoma City, where I learned far more about journalism then I did in classes.
I also learned a few things going back and forth toOklahoma City. If I couldn’t bum a ride from another student, I’d hitchhike, and I learned hitchhikers had more to fear from drivers than drivers had to fear from us.
I was riding along one Friday afternoon with a driver who was a fat man who smiled and whose breath was so foul it could kill weeds. We talked, and I guess when he learned enough about me he thought I was a prospect. He turned and gave me a yellow-tooth, poison-gas smile and said:
“Have you been saved?”
I did a quick calculation and figured I needed to ride another 15 minutes to reach an intersection where I’d have the best chance to thumb another ride intoOklahoma City. So I told him I wasn’t sure what he meant.
He said he was asking me if I had accepted Christ into my life and denounced Satan, and if I was ready to dedicate the rest of my life to Christ. If I was ready to do all that, he said, I could be saved, on the spot. I asked him how he’d do that, and he told me.
He said he’d stop the car rioght6 where we were, and I’d get out and kneel on the ground, and he would lay hands on me and save me. He kept talking about it, and he put his hands on my shoulder – while I thanked God I could see the highway intersection ahead.
There was a stop sign there, and when he stopped I was out of the car in a flash, telling him, maybe next time, because I was in a hurry. As I hustled to the other highway, with my thumb out, he was still shouting that it wouldn’t take long.
I still haven’t been saved. I’ve never had anyone in authority tell me my troubles were over. I’ve heard just the opposite.
One cold, snowy day I was catching a flight out ofOklahoma Cityand my mom was there to see me off. She mentioned that the weather was awful, a bad day for flying.
“Well,” I said, “if we crash, at least my troubles will be over.”
She looked me in the eye and said, “Or, in your case, your troubles could just be starting.”
* * *
There is one other point about Oklahoma A&M that needs clearing up. While there, I joined the national professional journalism fraternity, Sigma Delta Chi. There was a certificate, which I framed and have had hanging on my wall all the years since. As my children grew up, they’d see it and ask about it, and I’d tell them I was indeed a member of Sigma Chi, and I’d sing the “Sweetheart” song to them.
It was innocent fun, like telling them the scar on my chest, where I’d had a cyst removed, was a bullet wound I’d suffered in the war. Soon, it was all forgotten.
But then, there was our last child, daughter Mary. She enrolled atDrakeUniversity, and became a member of a sorority. One day, I was watching a touch football game in which she was playing, when a young man introduced himself as a Sigma Chi, and invited me to drop by the house and visit with the members.
He added, “Mary told us you were a Sigma Chi atOklahomaState.” I almost fainted. Mary had remembered all that stuff from years before, and still thought it was true. I certainly never had told her it wasn’t. I still haven’t, and if she reads this, she may never speak to me again.
We had a pool, and Mary and some sorority sisters invited some Sigma Chi over. I had to hide all day. And on two more occasions, this same young man spotted me on the campus and insisted I visit the house. I made excuses and finally, considered escaping the Sigma Chi hoax one more reason to be happy about getting out ofDes MoinesandIowa.
Can Mary sue me for misleading her? If she can, she will.
* * *
After three semesters, A&M gave me a few credit hours for what I had done in the Navy, enabling me to graduate in January 1948. I wanted to stay inOklahoma Cityand work at the Oklahoman and Times, but its best offer was $35 a week as a news reporter. That, I figured, was demeaning to a man who had a degree and a record of having worked for the paper’s sports department on weekends for a year and a half, so I turned it down.
As we Okies say, I managed to find steady work, first with a small office that supplied advertising posters to theaters. I’m talking about the big sheets in theater windows, the work of artists, that showed Johnny Weissmuller in his jock strap, Richard Barthelmess in the cockpit of his World War I biplane or Jean Harlow with cleavage to her belly button. They were what now are expensive works of art, and if I’d have any vision, I’d have stolen the place blind when I had the chance.
I found a night job working in theOklahoma Citysoftball parks, doing the public address announcements and turning the scores. This doesn’t sound like much, but it led to a bonanza. One night, a young man came to the main park, where I worked and asked if he could hook up his popcorn machine and sell popcorn. He said he’d supply everything and give us 20 percent of the gross.
I talked to the boss, C.B. Speegle, a high school coach, about the deal, and he said do it. The first night our take was more than $30. The next night it was more, so C.B. and I got rid of the young man and went out and bought our own popcorn machine. We learned $10 in supplies would pop out to more than $100, and it wasn’t long before we had four machines popping away in other parks.
When the softball season ended, we managed to get the machines into the Oklahoma State Fair, and then into nightclubs. There, the club owners not only shafted us, they let the machines get filthy, so we sold them – took our money and ran. The next summer, the city bought its own machines and C.B. and I were out of the popcorn business. It’s still the best deal I ever was into.
* * *
On the subject of softball, it was important to me and many of my friends in the summers before the war and before the summers I worked at the parks. Softball was coming on strong in Oklahoma City. There were lighted parks and stands, and one of the leagues that was formed was a church league. We thought our church should have a team.
Our church was Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral. You couldn’t get all that on a uniform, so we shorted it to Cathedral, and we told one of the young priests that if the parish would pay our entry fee into the league and buy us uniforms and equipment, we would go into the softball competition and bring home a title.
He said, “Not a chance.”
That was a disappointment, but it didn’t stop us. Pat Horan, a first baseman built like Babe Ruth, and I decided to do it without the parish. Our plan was to solicit Catholic merchants and have them put up all the money. In exchange, we’d put their name on the back of a uniform.
We started with Smith & Kernke Funeral Home, and it was like shooting fish in a barrel. They kicked in and so did other merchants, and before long we were in uniform, with money to buy equipment and pay our way.
A uniform note: The only color available was white, and when I was complaining to the seamstress who was preparing to put the lettering on, she suggested we dye them. What color? Any color, she said. I had an inspiration.
Oklahoma Citywas in the Texas League, and one of the teams that came there to play wasBeaumont, known for its distinctive red uniforms. It was aDetroitfarm club, and I remember Rudy York, a big Indian who played first base and hit a lot of homeruns.
So, we went into the league in red, and everyone remembered us because we had a good team. But alas, we also went into the beer joints in red, and everyone remembered us, because we drank a lot of beer and made a lot of noise. Word got back to the church and we came close to being excommunicated, or so it seemed. We had to promise we’d never again darken the door of a saloon with our uniforms on. Actually, what we did was take off the top and put on a T-shirt.
Charlie Davis, the Britton hero, was on those teams, and so were Francis, Buck and Billy Morgan, Harold McGraw, Phil Braun, Pat Horan, George Hanges, Joe Trosper, Howard Webber and yours truly. Because the manager had to make all the phone calls to keep players informed and I figured if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done, I was the first manager.
Later, Elmo Hunt, older and better behaved than the rest of us, married Joe Trosper’s sister and became manager for as long as the team lasted.
Note: I was playing left field one night and was back-pedaling fast under a high fly, and was at full speed when my head hit a steel pipe running down a utility pole. I never had been back that far, and really didn’t know it was there, and since there was no fence, there was nothing to stop me.
It’s the only time I’ve ever been knocked out cold, and when I woke up I had a hard time figuring out what was going on. Most of my teammates, of course, were laughing. I didn’t see anything funny about it, and I want to make clear I would have caught the ball if it hadn’t been for the pole.
* * *
I continued to look for a job and interviewed with Merrill, Lynch, etc., about a training program. This led to an interview with Federated Department Stores, which was launching a nationwide training program. I wound up at Halliburton’s inOklahoma City, learning the business, from the stock rooms to the sales departments. The pay was good, and that’s about all I care to say about this turn of events.
I prayed for deliverance, and it came one afternoon, when I looked up from putting a shoe (heel in, toe out) on a plump housewife, and there stood Spec Gammon, a college classmate of mine. He was about to die laughing. He was in town with theBorger,Texas, high school football team, which was playing Oklahoma City Capital Hill High that night. Spec was sports editor of the Borger News Herald.
Much later, over a few beers, he offered me a job paying $55 per week, covering both news and sports, and I accepted. The year was 1948. I was back on the journalistic path, and since then, I never have strayed very far from it, if I can count public relations work as journalism.
* * *
Our managing editor inBorgerwas Tony Hillerman – yes, THAT Tony Hillerman – and he was a good man to work with. I hadn’t been there very long when he proved it after I got into a serious situation with the publisher.
He was J.C. Phillips, and most of his employees thought he was in the wrong line of work. He may have thought so, too, because he owned rental properties, and Spec and I made the mistake of renting one of his new duplexes. The occupant of the other half of the residence, incidentally, was a guy who owned a dance studio and spent a lot of time entertaining female dance instructors. He was a good neighbor, but we didn’t enjoy the setup very long.
Spec and I played a lot of golf, and one afternoon we returned home to find it surrounded by fire trucks, firefighters – and J.C. Phillips. Firemen said they found the remains of a cigar in an overstuffed chair. The chair was destroyed and there was considerable smoke damage throughout the duplex. Since I was the only one on that side of town who smoked cigars, I had to be the culprit.
Phillips told us to get our stuff out and not to plan on returning after the place was cleaned up. So, for weeks, Spec and I smelled like smoke and wore some clothes that had smoke discoloration. Of course, we had no insurance.
Phillips didn’t talk to me until Hillerman loosened him up. Tony suggested I write a story about burning down the boss’s house, so I did, and it was fairly humorous, and Tony played it big in the paper. Phillips still didn’t speak to me until after the Associated Press picked up the story and ran it on the state wire. The AP also called Phillips and told him it was good work, and the next time I saw him, he said hello.
* * *
I covered high school football teams from Borger and Phillips, an oil company town, and on road trips the sheriff sent a patrol car and two deputies along with the school buses to make sure there were no problems. I always rode with the deputies, and on two occasions, there were problems.
Returning home one night, the deputies stopped a weaving car, arrested the driver for drunk driving, cuffed him and put him in the back seat with me. He asked me what they had me for and I said, “Sodomy,” and he laughed. Then, before I could say another word, he said, “Watch this,” and slid down in the seat, lifted his legs and kicked the driver in the head with his cowboy boots.
All I remember saying is, “Oh, shit.” The deputies stopped the car, pulled on gloves, and beat the guy to a bloody pulp. He survived and I bet he never kicked another cop.
Coming home from another game, we ran into a blizzard and the football team, cheerleaders, the girls on the pep squad, a few fans and yours truly were forced to spend the night in the showroom of a John Deere dealer in White Deer,Texas. The deputies left to check out the roads and never returned. There was no heat or lights in the showroom, but there was a lot of action. I was too old, of course, to participate, but a lot of highschoolers got better acquainted that night.
I also covered the city police and county sheriff’s office, and the courts in the county seat, Stinnett, 13 miles north. I actually sat through a couple of murder trials, and in both, the accused was found not guilty. As far as I could tell, the juries decided the victims had it coming to them, and those who fired the shots did the state ofTexasa favor.
It was bitter cold in the Texaspanhandle, and I was hoping for deliverance again. It came when another Oklahoma Aggie classmate, Jim Scott, editor of the Odessa, Texas, American, called and offered me the job of sports editor. Good deal. Bigger paper, higher salary, no more cops and robbers to cover, and it was 300 miles closer to the equator thenBorger – but still inWest Texas, almost 300 more miles fromMexico.
* * *
In moving from Borgerto Odessa, I said farewell to publisher Phillips, but the owner of the OdessaAmerican turned out to be a character who made Phillips look like William Allen White. He lived inCalifornia, which was good, but every day he shipped toOdessa the full editorial page in matted form, meaning not a word, or anything else on the page, could be changed.
His editorials were incredible. Among other things, he opposed public schools and any kind of welfare or help to the needy. His thinking was that the public should not be burdened with taxes to support education, and that if you lived your life properly, you wouldn’t need any kind of public assistance along the way.
Covering high school sports, the most important program inOdessa, I constantly ran into educators and parents who wanted to talk to me about the editorial page. I developed a short explanation of the situation, and it seems now that I delivered it about 10 times a day, on the phone or up close and personal.
* * *
Baseball season was near when I arrived inOdessa, and before long I was on my way to the luxurious life of spring training.Odessawas in the Class C Longhorn League, so I knew our training site wouldn’t be greenery, white sand and blue water, but I never dreamed it would be nearly as bad as it was.
The ball club trained at an abandoned Army base inHondo,Texas, and it was pretty grim. The city ofHondohad cleaned up a barracks and a baseball diamond, and manager Al Monchak, who 25 years later would be a coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates, made do. Fittingly, our camp was not far from Junction, Texas, where five years later Paul “Bear” Bryant would take his first Texas Aggie football squad to a desolated camp to find out who among them really wanted to play. It was the start of a dynasty, and the story has been told in a book by Jim Dent and on ESPN.
It also was Monchak’s first managerial job, and he had to make a team out of what he had, and what he had was the usual minor league mixture – some young prospects, some still-young veterans hoping to climb to higher leagues and some old-timers playing out the string, knowing they weren’t going anywhere except to that long line where they carry lunch pails.
The exception in the Longhorn League was Big Spring,Texas, which fielded an all-Cuban team with a red-haired Irish manager, Pat Stacy, and with at least one player who could speak English and be Stacy’s interpreter.
Back inOdessa, I had moved into a house with three other former Oklahoma Aggies, two of them on the newspaper and the third working in an Odessa bank. The best way to sum up our home life is to point out that the Jax beer truck stopped at the house every Monday to leave a few cases and pick up empties. The cleaning lady came on Tuesday.
One of the news reporters in our house was Brad Carlisle, who went on to become a top reporter with the Nashville Banner, one of the country’s better newspapers. He was such a good friend that one night in Odessa, he had a couple of his buddies “arrest” me for drunk driving, cuff me and take me to jail. When things went so far that I was so scared I could barely talk,Carlisleappeared and enjoyed a great laugh.
I vowed to kill him, and one of the cops agreed I had the right to do it, considering. But he wouldn’t loan me his gun, saying he couldn’t go that far.
The other Aggie in the house was Joe Hodges, who went through grade school, high school and college withCarlisle. He came toOdessamainly because the rest of us were there, and proof he was smarter than the rest of us by choosing banking over journalism is the fact that none of us wound up owning a newspaper, but Joe wound up owning a bank.
His wife died in the early 1990s, and when Joe later was invited to a Super Bowl party inLubbockhe declined, saying he didn’t have anyone to take with him. TheLubbockhost then arranged for Joe to take his (the host’s) neighbor, a widow.
Joe did, and decided to stay inLubbock. He’s still there, retired, with his blind date.
* * *
Football, of course, was the No. 1 social and athletic program inOdessa, just as it is now and ever will be, all overTexas. I wasn’t sure I could do justice to such an enormous establishment, but I soon got swept up in it, and hung on for the ride. It was tough, keeping the reporter side of me ahead of the fan side. I had to be very careful of what I wrote, because being too critical could lead to a lynching, with yours truly the guest of honor.
We opened the season againstPort Arthur, which came in on a chartered airliner. I never had heard of a high school doing that. But it went on all season, and whenLubbockplayed atOdessain the post-season playoffs, they hauled extra bleachers from as far away asEl Pasoto handle more than 30,000 fans.
After games, fans would drive by coach Joe Coleman’s house and stuff envelopes containing cash into his mail box. No telling how much he made.
Life was good inOdessa. Alex Monchak opened a bar and restaurant, and the gentlemen of the press had charge accounts there. It was great during the week, but hell on Friday when Monchak made everyone pay up. Odessa Country Club made me an honorary member, andCarlisleand I bought a car, a big used Mercury.
As I mentioned earlier, it was inOdessathat I met Bud Wilkinson for the second time, when he was on a recruiting trip. Considering what happened in the 20 years that followed, I should have taken the meeting more seriously, like it was the most important contact I made in my life, which maybe it really was.
* * *
I was thinking I might never leave Odessa when I received a call form Bill Bellamy, sports editor of the San Antonio Express and Evening News, with a job offer. It was a much larger paper with more pay, and I took it.
I became the sports editor of the Rio Grande Valley edition of the Express and Evening News. I was authorized to hire another man, so I called and lured Spec Gammon away fromBorger.
We covered high school sports and professional baseball, which we could handle with plenty of time for golf. But, we quickly learned the deadlines were impossible. We were supposed to get night games on the teletype toSan Antonioby10 p.m., so they could be in the edition flown back to the Valley on company planes in time for early morning delivery.
It couldn’t be done, but the publisher didn’t understand that, once yelling at me that “You could get those games over in time if you really tried.”
Wanting out in a hurry, I called Odessaand asked for my job back – plus a job for Spec. It all worked out.
* * *
I hadn’t been back in Odessalong enough to unpack when Gene Gregston of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram called. He’s just been named sports editor of the Topeka, Kan., Daily Capital, and he offered me a job.
I took it, mainly because it meant I’d be covering college sports and a Class C baseball team in the Western Association, a league where most of the teams were farm clubs of major league organizations. But, I still have fond memories of manager Al Monchak and the Odessa Oilers.
Fans were appreciative, and if an Oiler hit a homerun they’d stick money into the wire screen behind home plate, and if it was a really important homer, like a game-winner, they streamed down from all over the stands to stick bills in the screen.
There were some memorable moments off the field, too, supplied by A.D. Ensey, owner of the Oilers. In spring training, the two of us spent a lot of time in Old Mexico, spreading international good will. In the off-season, we went to a lot of baseball meetings, but seldom found time to attend any of the official stuff. Ensey did a lot for my career, but nothing to improve, or even maintain, my health.
Without doubt, my most memorable moment on the job came one night when the Oilers were playing All-Cuban Big Spring. I was the official scorer, and one of the visiting Cubans hit a sharp shot that caromed off the third baseman’s glove. I thought the ball should have been handled, so I turned on the “E” for error on the scoreboard.
The Cuban at that time was crossing first base when he saw the “error” light so he never slowed down as he ran into the stands, up to the front of the press box where I was seated, and screamed, “Bay heet, you sonna beech, bay heet.” It was his way of suggesting to me I was wrong and should have scored the ball a base hit.
It was embarrassing, and even more so when fans started yelling that the Cuban was right. I know when I’m licked. I turned off the “E” light and turned on the “H.”
On to Topeka.
* * *
The managing editor of the Capital was Jim Reed, and he was assembling a staff to do a major renovation on a paper that was without question in need of just about everything required of a modern daily. To everyone’s surprise, Reed persuaded management to make changes and pay the price to improve both appearance and content.
Gregston, however, thought the changes were too slow in coming and grew weary of having to fight for every inch of space and every dollar needed to improve coverage. He went back to the Star-Telegram after only a few months, and Reed named me the new sports editor. Gregston later became a managing editor with the San Diego Union and Tribune.
I don’t know if it was prime time, but if it wasn’t, it was close, and I didn’t know if I was ready to run the sports department and write the regular column, but with the help of a lot of good men I got by. During the eight years I was sports editor, our staff included, at one time or another, these talented writers:
Bob Hurt, who succeeded me as sports editor, and later was the sports columnist at the Oklahoma CityDaily Oklahoman and the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. He wrote a Saturday Evening Post story onKansas miler Wes Santee while he was on our staff.
Frank Boggs, who later worked for the Oklahoman and the San Diego Union before becoming a news executive with the Oklahoma Publishing Company.
Nick Nicholson, who became a magazine editor inChicagobefore moving to a long career as a government public relations man inWashington.
Curt Mosher, who went from Topeka to the University of Nebraska as sports information director, and from there to the Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the National Football League office in New York.
Ken Bronson, who leftTopekato own a weekly paper before becoming a publisher in the Stauffer chain, and then the vice president in charge of all the Stauffer newspapers.
Bob Hentzen, who succeeded Hurt as sports editor and stayed on the job more than 30 years before he died after having a heart attack on the golf course.
Thanks to all of them, and others, and to Reed, the paper shaped up and gained considerable respect across Kansasand in the Big Seven area. We surprised readers with our coverage of state teams and the conference, which included prize-winning photos from Rich Clarkson, who joined us fresh out of KU, and who eventually left us to serve such publications as Sports Illustrated and National Geographic.
* * *
Concerning events inTopeka, first things first: Soon after arriving there I met Barbara Linville, who worked in the newspaper building for United Press International, spending much of her time in the darkroom, sending and receiving telephotos.
We were married inTopekain 1951, and in the 11 years that followed we had five children, four born inTopekaand the last inWashington,D.C. All have fared well, and we now have nine grandchildren.
On the occasion of my 80th birthday, the Topeka paper ran a rather spectacular two-page spread on me and my career, including our seven interstate moves, on four of which I moved first, while Barbara and the children stayed behind until the school term ended.
I had some justifiable concerns about the story. First off, the man who wrote it asked if Bud Wilkinson was still alive (he had been dead seven years) and then the photographer and his boss decided to get artistic. On the first page of the story, almost all the space went to pictures – of the back of my head as I sat at my desk, typing; of my hands, poised above the keys; and of my hand on my chin, apparently wondering what to type next.
On the second page there were two pictures, neither of which was of Bud Wilkinson, with whom I had spent much of my career. But there was a picture of me with Joe Louis, whom I saw once in my life, for about 20 minutes, and of me and Phog Allen, which was fine.
However, I particularly like the last two paragraphs of the story, which are a quote from me, expressing my feelings pretty well:
“In the 31 years between the time our first child was born and our last child graduated from college, when we moved a lot and I was traveling almost every week, Barbara raised the five of them virtually alone, and they all turned out pretty well.
“She did such a good job that we are a close family and enjoy being together. I take great pride and pleasure in the fact that our children genuinely like each other, love their mother and tolerate me.
* * *
I was lucky, landing inTopekaat the right time. It was the baseball season of 1950, and the Topeka Owls of the Class C Western Association were pennant contenders. The visiting teams includedJoplin, which had a shortstop named Mickey Mantle, who twice hit homeruns from both sides of the plate inOwlsPark.
Interviewing him was like trying to get conversation out of a fence post, even though theJoplinmanager and other players would urge him to talk, saying, “Mick, tell ’em what happened the other night inJoplin.” No dice. Years later, it was the same when the Yankees played inKansas City.
Finally, after Mantle retired, and at a time in my life when I wasn’t writing a column, I was in a small gathering in theDallashotel suite of Yankee Bobby Murcer, and Mantle was there. He talked a blue streak, all of it stuff he wouldn’t talk about if he’d known I was the newspaper guy who used to hassle him inTopekaandKansas City. Listening to him, I gathered that his life started when he met Billy Martin and Whitey Ford.
* * *
When Ira Hutchinson, former relief pitcher for the White Sox, was manager of the Owls, we played a lot of golf, and one day at a course inMuskogee,Okla., a thunderstorm blew in, and the lightning forced us to take refuge in a school across the road bordering the course. When we returned, we saw an ambulance, and learned two men playing three holes ahead of us had been struck by lightning and killed. I look back on that day as the only time I ever made a wise decision on a golf course.
Topekawas hit by a disastrous flood in 1951, and the ball park was under about 15 feet of water. The owner was Link Norris, who couldn’t get the OK from authorities to take a boat to the park. I told him to drop by the newsroom and talk to reporters who had been there, and he did. Link had an organ player, Ole Livgren, who played at all games from a perch up behind home plate. So, after being told the field was inundated, Link asked:
“Is the water up to Ole’s organ?”
The reporter replied, “I don’t know. How tall is Ole?”
* * *
The Owls were a farm team of the Chicago Cubs when integration came. The Cubs sent two black players, outfielder Solly Drake and catcher Milt Bohannon toTopeka. I wrote a column welcoming them, and immediately received mail calling me all those names usually employed by the ignorant. This went on for weeks, while the two players couldn’t eat or sleep with the team on the road, and at home were barred from manyTopekarestaurants.
Drake, a college graduate fromArkansas, twice made it to the majors with the Cubs for short stints. He’s a minister now at a big church inLos Angeles.
* * *
At one time when I was covering the Topeka Owls, the radio voice of the club was Merle Harmon, who went on to major league and network fame as a play-by-play man for all sports. He was a pleasant and capable guy, easy to get along with, so I was agreeable when Owls owner Norris asked us to drive the team bus, empty, to spring training inMadisonville,Ky.
It was an old school bus that had seen better days, and it quit on us twice, once in the middle ofSt. Louisat rush hour. The fact the thing looked like a school bus is all that saved us from harm from drivers behind us.
We picked up every hitchhiker we saw, male and female, knowing none of them would want to steal the bus, or do in the two dudes driving it. We got toKentucky, vowing we’d never get on it again, and we didn’t.
* * *
The first Owls manager I worked with was Elmer “Butch” Nieman, a Topekan who made it all the way to the big league with the Boston Braves as an outfielder. He wasn’t just another rookie when he arrived; he was hailed as the Braves answer to Ted Williams of the Red Sox.
Nieman was tall and thin, good left-handed hitter with power, a swift and sure fielder, a good arm and speed on the bases. He had only one problem, and that’s why he was back inTopeka, managing the Class C team. When he left baseball, he worked at the Topeka Goodyear plant and retired there.
The owls were a Chicago Cubs farm team, and one season the Cubs sent a manager toTopekawho had a real problem – he couldn’t manage his wife. She was a big woman, and was with him almost every minute. She did everything but sit in the dugout.
She rode on the team bus on road trips, and appeared to dominate him in every way. The Owls’ brain trust, which consisted of me and Topeka Journal sports editor, Stu Dunbar, decided the manager and his associate manager had to go.
One night at Shawnee Country Club, Link was into the spirit of the party going on, and also into the spirits that went with it. Stu and I cornered him in the locker room and told him he had to make a managerial change, and he agreed. Stu and I even relieved him of the burden of choosing a new manager, telling him the perfect choice was Jack Dean, a veteran pitcher and a high-school coach in the off-season.
That’s how it all came to pass, and Link was praised in both papers for handling a difficult situation with executive skill.
* * *
There were a couple of other situations that Link created and handled without even a trace of common sense. One time he invited me to drive with him to minor league baseball’s winter meetings inTampa,Fla., and I accepted. Then, in the morning we left, he showed up at my house with his wife and another couple in the car. I couldn’t back out then, but after the most miserable ride I’ve ever suffered through, I flew home
Checking into theTampahotel, I was in line when I heard a familiar voice shout, “Snider! Hey Snider! Hey, Duke Snider.” He was shouting at me. He was the man who put on the fireworks display every year at theTopekaballpark. He always called me Duke, and now he was drawing a crowd that wanted to see the Dodgers slugger.
I tried to ignore him, but he walked up to me and shook my hand, and said, Duke, how ya doing.” The people in line with me shook their heads, and one said, “You’re not Duke Snider.”
“I know I’m not,” I said. “Tell him.”
When I got to the desk clerk, he smiled and said, “Hi, Duke.”
He was kidding, but maybe it got me a better room.
That same year, by the time of the winter meeting of the Western Association team owners rolled around, Link had decided I should be the new president of the league. The incumbent was resigning , and the choice of almost all the other owners was George Barr, recently retire National League umpire. Still, Link wanted me.
I told him Barr was an excellent choice, a man who had spent his life in baseball, while I didn’t know all the rules of the game, much less how to run a league. I finally got Link to agree to drop the idea.
But on the day of the election, he had a relapse and put my name in nomination. It was insane. I had to go to the meeting room, take the floor, thank Link for putting my name in the hat, and then withdraw from consideration. It took me less than 30 seconds, and Link must have been satisfied. He never mentioned it again. Looking back on it, I wonder how many sportswriters have been nominated to be president of a league – any league.
* * *
I spent most of my time in the fall and winter months covering KU andKansasStatefootball and basketball, and again, I was there at the right time. In 1951, I saw K-State lose the championship game toKentuckyin the NCAA Final Four basketball playoff inMinneapolis, and the following year, sawKansasbeatSt. John’sto win the title inSeattle.
Both teams remained among the nation’s best during my stay, but it was a different story in football. KU was mostly so-so, and K-State was mostly less than so-so. K-State did improve dramatically in the mid-1950s when Bill Meek, fromTennessee, took over and had two winning seasons.
He cut some corners. The first time coach Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma Sooners played a Meek-coached team, Wilkinson had high praise for KSU’s defensive ends, calling them the best two freshmen he’d seen in a long time.
Before the season was over, it was learned that neither was a freshman. One had played atOhioState, and the other atTennessee. Everyone at K-State tried to act surprised when the news came out.
Kansasin 1953 fired football coach Jules Verne Sikes, despite a winning record, and hired a high school coach, Chuck Mather ofMassillon,Ohio, to replace him. Mather won 11 games in four seasons before he was fired to make way for Jack Mitchell, former All-American quarterback atOklahoma. Mitchell leftArkansasto take over at KU, and hopes were high, but his teams had only four winning seasons in nine years. Gale Sayers, Mitchell’s top recruiting coup, played two of the winning years.
The hiring of Mitchell away fromArkansascaused me to spend a lot of money I otherwise wouldn’t have spent. When I first heard that KU was courting Mitchell, I drove fromTopekatoFayetteville,Ark., to see him. I made the mistake of stopping over inMiami,Okla., where Jimmie Smith, the brother of my brother Dan’s wife, was the Oldsmobile dealer.
Jimmie was the kind of guy who would have a drink with you if the occasion called for it, and my unexpected visit certainly did. He kept the bottle in the loft of his body shop, among the spare fenders, grills and so on. I arrived about2 p.m.and by4 p.m., I had bought an Oldsmobile, which was about the last thing I intended to do.
About a year later, when the hiring of Mitchell was verified, I made the trip again, knowing this time I wouldn’t be tempted to buy a car because I had bought one just a year ago. But, after another couple of hours in the loft, I had traded my six-cylinder coupe in on an eight-cylinder, four-door sedan.
A little more than three years later, I had the sedan paid for, and Jimmie must have been counting the months with me. He called and proved to both of us I could be just as easy on the phone, sober, as in the loft, loaded. He said he had an incredible deal on an Olds with the new Rocket V-8 engine, and that Barbara and I should drive down, have a steak and see it. We drove home with a new schedule of car payments. Jimmie nailed me three times in about five years.
* * *
I really never have forgiven KU for firing Sikes in 1953. He had a 35-25 record for six seasons, and that may not sound like much, but consider this: In 1920, legendary basketball coach Phog Allen coached football one season and had a5-2-1record for a .688 winning percentage.
Six coaches followed Phog over the next 23 years and none topped the .500 mark. Then, George Sauer posted a15-3-3in 1946-47, for a .786 record, and he was followed by Sikes’ .583. Since Sikes, none of the nine coaches in the next 50 years equaled his record. Among major schools, that’s a record of futility that probably onlyKansasStateteams of the pre-Snyder era could envy.
Sikes was a good man and a good friend. After the final game of the 1953 season, he announced his “resignation” in the locker room. He was overcome with emotion while reading his letter and gave it to me to read the rest of it. I resigned for him.
In a ceremony that followed, fans gave him a new car. Six years earlier, they had given Sauer a new car and new luggage in gratitude, but he and his wife packed the new luggage, got in the new car and left town for a new job at Navy.
In January of 1954, Sikes and I went together to the national coaches convention inCincinnati, he to look for a job and I to look for the scoop on the hiring of the new KU coach. Sikes scored, becoming the new head coach atEastTexasStatein Commerce, near where he grew up. At lunch that day, Sikes and I had a martini to celebrate his new job, so I did. I was 32 years old, and it was my first martini. It wasn’t my last.
* * *
I didn’t get my scoop inCincinnati. The Jayhawks hired a high school coach, Chuck Mather ofMassillon,Ohio, and I never had heard of him until KU announced its selection. It surprised everyone and dumbfounded most of us. The shock deepened when Mather brought his high school staff with him, plus one junior highMassilloncoach. One coach from Sikes’ staff was retained, and he probably was the only coach Mather had who ever had even seen a Big Seven game.
He was doomed from the start, and his teams only won 11 games in four seasons. Still, Mather was an interesting man, and we became good friends. He was a free spirit, and went his own way.
In those days the Big Seven had an annual Spring “field day” that rotated around the conference. It included a disorganized gathering the first night, for those who showed up, a golf day and dinner the second day, and breakfast the next day. Invited were all the football coaches, conference officials, and the media.
In 1955, as I recall, it was inLincoln,Neb., and Mather and I decided to go together. We were in the same foursome in the golf event, and when it came time to tee off Mather didn’t seem to have any clubs. He had a pint of booze in his hip pocket, which I stuck in my golf bag to save him embarrassment, but no golf clubs.
I figured he was renting clubs from the local pro, but when he got to the tee, he was carrying only a single iron. I asked him about clubs, and he said the one club was all he needed. Then he showed it to me. It was an adjustable club, with a wingnut on the back that changed the loft.
So, in front of his Big Seven colleagues, Mather teed up a ball, turned the nut on the club to the proper setting, and proceeded to hit a decent tee shot. I also hit an acceptable tee shot, and as we rolled down the first fairway, I asked him where he got the club. He said he saw an ad for it in an airplane magazine, and added, “It won’t be long before everyone has one of them.”
Our playing partners were a couple of faculty representatives, and because we figured them for a couple of gentlemen who would frown on nipping on the course, we kept the bottle out of sight. But finally, on about the fifth hole, Mather pulled it out. One of the faculty me saw it and said, “Are you going to share that?”
We had a very pleasant round of golf.
* * *
Four years later, I learned from a member of the KU Board of Regents they had decided to fire Mather, and to keep it under my hat. I didn’t have a hat, so I called Mather and told him the bad news, and next morning he was in Chancellor Franklin Murphy’s office.
“Chancellor,” he said, “we have four games remaining, and if we do well in those four, could I consider my job safe?” Mather said the Chancellor told him not to worry and that everything would work out. Mather said he then leaned across the desk and said, “Chancellor, let’s not bullshit each other.”
He stayed fired.
Things worked out pretty well for him after he left KU. He moved to theChicagoarea and became the first full-time assistant to George “papa Bear” Halas of the Chicago Bears. Before that, I’m told, the assistants were part-timers paid only during the season.
Mather also got into the insurance business, and bought himself a full set of golf clubs. Reports are that he lives in the high-rent district, and is leading the good life.
* * *
One of the bonuses in covering KU sports was getting to know Dr. Forrest C. “Phog” Allen, who would reluctantly admit he didn’t create basketball, but that he created basketball coaching. This, despite the fact Dr. James Naismith, who did create it, once told him, “Forrest, you don’t coach basketball, you just play it.”
Allen, known to all as Doc or Phog, did both, coaching at KU until he reached what he called the “age of statutory senility.” He was rewarded with national recognition, a national championship and a trip to the Olympic games, after being the key figure in getting basketball into the international competition.
He wasn’t an establishment man. He called AAU and Olympic officials “quadrennial international hitchhikers,” but he regarded his trip to the Games as one of theU.S.coaches thehigh pointof his career. At his request, he was buried in his Olympic uniform.
He recruited Clyde Lovellette, whom he once accused of “standing around out there like a Christmas tree, and out of season at that,” and Wilt Chamberlain, of whom he said, when informed Wilt was definitely headed for KU, “I hope he comes out for basketball.”
His team played atMadisonSquareGardeninNew York City, and Allen proclaimed, “Easterners are taller, and fairer, than the Chinese, but not nearly as progressive.” He said of bitter rival Henry Iba ofOklahomaState, “Henry is a man of his word, but it’s awfully hard to get his word.”
My favorite Allen story came at the end of KU’s national championship game againstSt. John’sinSeattle. It was late, and I was way past deadline, so I was standing beside him on the court when the game ended. I shouted, “Doc, give me a quick quote for the folks back home.”
“Tell ’em,” he shouted back, “that we were just like Casey at the bat.”
I thought about that for a second or two, then yelled, “But Doc, Casey struck out.”
“Yeah,” he fairly screamed, “but we didn’t.”
It went into the paper, just like that. I wasn’t going to waste it after going to all that trouble to get it.
KU’s Allen Field House is named for him, for earning the Jayhawks a place among basketball’s elite, and coaches like Dick Harp, Larry Brown and Roy Williams have kept them there.
* * *
During my tenureKansasStatealso produced outstanding basketball teams. As noted earlier, in my first season KSU lost toKentuckyin the 1951 NCAA championship final. The Wildcat coach was Jack Gardner, but he wasn’t destined to be around long.
In those days the Harlem Globetrotters were at the height of their popularity, and it became a top annual attraction to match them against a team of college all stars in a series of off-season games. And, it became an honor to be selected to coach the collegians. It also was a good pay day.
Garner was selected as the coach, but K-State athletic director Larry “Moon” Mullins, a one-time Notre Dame fullback, saidGardnercouldn’t accept. He said that afterGardneraccepted without first asking for Mullins’ approval.
The fight flared up and became a hot public issue. Both sides had support from a lot of fans, and when KSU officials tried to calm them down it only got worse. Mullins issued daily bulletins, telling his side of the story, and he finally prevailed.
Gardnerbacked down, but it wasn’t long before he packed up and becameUtah’s head coach. He had the same degree of success there he had at K-State, and many fans never forgave Mullins, who eventually moved to become athletic director atMarquette. It was a nasty civil war.
But KSU kept on wining, under coaching standouts like Tex Winter, Jack Hartman, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Lon Kruger. The wildcats ran into a severe downturn in the 1980s whenKansasbecame one of the best programs in the nation, and KSU is still trying to dig its way out of the hole.
The good thing is that it knows it can be done, because Bill Snyder did it with a football program that was generally described as pitiful. Even its best fans took delight in saying “Interstate 70,KansasState0” while staying away from the games in the thousands.
Snyder came from the staff of theUniversityofIowain 1989, ignoring advice of coaching friends who warned him he was going to a coaching graveyard. Some graveyard.
In the Miracle inManhattan, the program came back to life and soon made wining 10 or 11 games per season, and receiving a bowl bid, routine. K-State loses just often enough to keep the fans on edge, but as yet has shown no sign of falling a[art and going back to the bad old days.
KSU fans now put concern for crops second to worrying about Snyder’s health.
* * *…..
Despite all that went on at K-State, I think my most memorable moment there was not a game I covered, but rather a game I played in – a basketball game featuring some really big names.
This was in the late 1950s, and Bob Hurt and I were going to cover the Iowa State-Kansas State game one night inManhattan. We decided to go there early, have lunch and then visit around until game time. It was after lunch, in the K-State field house that we ran into KSU coach Tex Winter andIowaStatecoach Bill Straining.
We joined them, and pretty soon two more bigshots showed up. One was Ernie Barrett, and all-time Wildcat basketball great, and the other was Bus Mertes, the K-State football coach. We were having a great conversation when I reminded Strannigan I once guarded him. I was a freshman atOklahoma CityUniversityand he was an all-American senior atWyomingwhen our teams met in the first round of the 1939 All-College tournament in Oklahoma City.
He didn’t remember, of course, so I told him I tied him in a knot and made him look bad. Everyone hooted at that, and then someone said, “let’s play a game of three-on-three.” Everyone agreed, and we retired to an equipment room where Winter and Barrett found shoes and the rest of what we needed. On to the court!
More about the players:Texand Strannigan were about the same size, maybe 5-11 or six feet, both well-built and in good shape. Barrett was 6-3 or 6-4, and built like a tight end. Mertes was maybe 6-1 or 6-2, and weighed probably 240. hurt was under six feet, and his nickname, well-deserved, was “Roundy.” Snider, whose big mouth had inspired the game, was about 5-11 and skinny in his pre beer belly days.
The game started, with Winter, Mertes and yours truly taking on Barrett, Strannigan and Hurt. Mertes played basketball the same way he had played football at Iowa Pre-Flight during the war, where three of his coaches were Don Faurot, Jim Tatum and Bud Wilkinson. He and Barrett, who played for the Boston Celtics, had some monumental collisions, and exchanged dirty looks, but nothing else.
Winter and Strannigan put their best moves on each other, and looked good doing it. Hurt and Snider mostly stayed out of the way, although I hit two baskets and Hurt made one.
We played what seemed like a long time, until Strannigan had to rejoin his team at its hotel. Our side must have lost, because the only injury was a big blood blister on Winter’s foot. K-State’s team doctor, who thought we were all crazy, had to drain it.
That was the last time I played basketball.
* * *
As sports editor, I concentrated on writing four or five columns per week, and covering KU and K-State, whatever the season, but I still found time to see a lot ofOklahomafootball games and a lot of Wilkinson.
Our friendship ripened, and before long I was visiting with him in his suite in the Oklahoma City hotel where he kept the team the night before a game, and going to his home in Norman after the game. There, I met some of the really big cigars ofOklahomapolitics, business and what have you. For them, and for a few members of the media, it always was open house after games.
It was after a visit to Bud’s house one Saturday that I came within a hair of getting the only major scoop of my journalistic life. It was 1953, and the last game of the regular season in the Big Seven Conference hadOklahomaStateplayingOklahoma. I invited J.V. Sikes, who had been fired a week earlier byKansas, to go with me.
After the game, we visited “the shrine,” as the media called it, and as we got in my car to leave, Bud asked us to hold up a minute. He went back in the house and came back with a 12-year-old bourbon. He said it would “cut the chill” of the night.
It did more than that. About halfway back toTopeka, Sikes was talking about KU dumping him, and he said he really was disappointed, because he had been a “team player” in the athletic department, helping other coaches, particularly with recruiting.
He said he’d done a lot of this, and then, out of the blue – maybe because he was angry with KU, or maybe because his tongue had been loosened – he said:
“I’m going to tell you how KU got Lovellette.” This was Clyde Lovellette, who was recruited out ofIndianaand who led the Jayhawks to the 1952 national basketball title.
I held my breath. It was a story any sports reporter would kill for. It was silent in the car for a while, and then Sikes said:
“No, I’m not. It wouldn’t be right for me to tell you, and it wouldn’t be right for you to know. Forget it.” Sure. It has been 50 years, and I haven’t forgotten it yet. But that was that.
* * *
I also haven’t forgotten a couple of events form this period that were rare, to say the least.
Bob Busby of the Kansas City Star and I traveled together often as we covered Big Seven sports, so it was not unusual that we flew together in 1954 to Miami to the Oklahoma-Maryland Orange Bowl game. Also as usual, Busby had made the reservations through the Star, and there never had been a problem. But on the other hand, we never had flown toMiamiand the Orange Bowl.
We were halfway toMiamiwhen I heard two other passengers talking about their tickets. One explained that if your ticket had and “OK” written (this was before computerized tickets) in one small box it meant that your seats were confirmed. But, he said, if there was an “R” in the box it meant your seat had been requested, but not confirmed.
I immediately yanked my ticket out of my coat and looked, and sure enough, it had an “R” in the key place. Busby looked, and his ticket was the same. We had no confirmed seats home, and I quickly recalled horror stories of people waiting until spring to get out ofFlorida.
For the next three days we forgot the game and tried to get on flights – going anywhere, as long as they wound up inKansas City. No luck, and no promise. We were down to looking at trains and rental cars.
Finally, on the day of the game, Busby remembered he had gotten tickets s for some Air Force reserve pilots who were flying an old Curtis C-46 down for the game, and were returning early on the morning after. Busby found them , and they said we could fly home with them.
So, at six o’clock the morning after the game were eat the Ft. Lauderdale airport, in the Air Force reserve hangar, where we met the five pilots taking us home. They owned the five worst hangovers I’ve ever seen, and I’m something of an expert on this near-death experience. But they were friendly, and along with the sergeant who came with three old World War II cargo plane they found us flying suits and parachutes
They told us we weren’t exactly legal, so once we left the hangar to walk straight to the plane, get on, and not talk to anyone along the way. Once on the plane, the pilots talked about who would do the flying. Wouldn’t you know the one I was hoping would keep his mouth shut and just pass out instead said that by God he’d fly it.
The engines were started and the “captain” cam e on the horn. He addressed Busby and me. He called our attention to the three lights above the cockpit door. He said if there was a problem and we had to jump, to watch the lights.
“When the first one goes on,” he said, “get ready to jump. When the second one goes on, jump. When the third one goes on, it means I have jumped. Good luck.”
I think that was for show, but whatever, we never had to jump. After hours of flying we landed inMemphisto refuel at a Naval Air Station. Busby and I were told to remain on the plane and keep quiet. Everyone else went for lunch and they didn’t bring anything back for us.
We leftMemphisand a shorter stint of defying gravity brought us to Richard Gebaur Air Force Base inKansas City. Busby lived downtown and I had no choice other than getting a hotel room for the rest of the night. We shared a cab, but on the way Busby had a bright idea.
He was recently divorced, and his ex-wife and the kids were living in the area. We stopped and he called her, and she invited him over. We dropped him off, smiling from ear to ear. Next morning, I got a guy from theTopekapaper to drive over and get me.
That should be the end of the story, but it isn’t. that night, Busby got his wife pregnant again, and it didn’t lead to a reconciliation. It led to more acrimony about matrimony, and that led to more alimony. Busby said later it was the dumbest thing he ever did, and I agreed. Going home again was so dumb it shoved riding that C-46 down to second place on his list of dumb things he had done.
* * *
In 1958, the Daily Capital’s managing editor, Jim Reed, the man who hired me originally and who promoted me to sports editor, left the paper to take a publishing job with the American Medical Association. Oscar Stauffer, who a couple of years earlier had added the morning Daily Capital to the Stauffer chain, offered me the job. I hated to leave sports, but we had four children and could use the added pay.
I asked about that, and he said he’d pay me nine thousand dollars. I said that was my present salary and he looked surprised, like he was wondering why anyone would pay a sports writer that much.
He said he’d pay me ten thousand dollars, and I thought, that’s more like it, but then I suddenly remembered that as the sports editor, I had an honorary membership at the Shawnee Country Club. I mentioned that, and Stauffer said he’d pay the initiation and dues to make me a full-fledged member atShawnee.
That’s how it happened that I started wearing a coat and tie to work.
I was responsible for the editorial side of the paper, which included news and sports. I had the freedom to buy features, and one I bought caused a small furor. I wanted Blondie, but the syndicate that owned the comic strip said the Kansas City Star already owned theTopekaarea rights to it.
I raised hell about that, and Stauffer backed me up, we got Blondie in the Capital. We had similar hassles on other features, but we prevailed. Our editorial page was fun to read, with columnists Jim Bishop, who could make you laugh or cry; Leonard Lyons, who wrote celebrity gossip; Drew Pearson, who wrote about the skullduggery and excesses in government, calling his column “The Washington Merry-go-round.”
When I became managing editor, one of the first things I did was move Nick Nicholson, a K-State grad we hired away from theNorman,Okla., Transcript, from sports to editorial page columnist. Nick probably was the best writer in the history of the paper.
* * *
It was during this period that I wrote the column that got more reader response than anything I wrote, before or since. It was a bout the toilet training of our fourth child, Amy; and people still mention it to me and write me about it, even 50 years after I wrote it.
Their memories are helped along by reruns I used to slip in the paper occasionally, until Amy made me stop because they were embarrassing.
The column also has suspense, because Amy trained on the adult toilet seat, hanging on for dear life. We had given away our training chair, confident we wouldn’t need it again.
* * *
The biggest local news story in my tenure came when Jeff Williams, cashier of the bank in Hoyt, just north ofTopeka, left town with all the money in the uninsured bank. It left many of the town’s individuals, companies, clubs, school groups, etc., either penniless or severely injured financially.
Williams never was spotted on the run, the reason being he never ran very far away. He drove his old Dodge toNorthfield,Minn., got a job on a farm and lived a quiet life. He never changed his name or appearance and continued to drive the old car.
He finally came home, still driving the Dodge, and turned himself in. There were stories of customers who made big deposits just before the bank closed, of senior trip money and college savings wiped out, and at least one story of a man who got mad over something and withdrew all his substantial balance, just in the nick of time. We played it all to the hilt.
Stauffer wrote me a nice note, saying it was a “corking good story.” That became my battle cry to the staff: Go forth and write some corking good stuff. As managing editor, I continued to write at least two columns per week, but probably none that were corking good.
* * *
There were two non-newspaper happenings in my term as managing editor that were definite highlights in my life. First, Tom Kiene, managing editor of the evening State Journal, and I went to a press convention in New York and saw the musical “The Music Man” on Broadway with Robert Preston and the original cast. You could say I sort of liked it.
Since then, I’ve seen it at least 10 times on the stage – inChicagowith Forrest Tucker starring in the road show cast, inLondonwith Van Johnson, and in other theaters, down to high school stages. I met Meredith Willson, who wrote both the music and the lyrics, I visited him in his home and worked with him when he wrote the physical fitness song, “Chicken Fat.”
I’ve seen the movie countless times, and if it’s on tonight, I’ll probably watch at least part of it.
Another highlight came in 1960 when I had the Capital-Journal join with Scandinavian Airlines and TWA to sponsor a 21-day “Best of Europe” tour. The papers promoted it and sold it out, and the airlines made all the arrangements.
My wife and I went along as the newspaper hosts, and on the flight fromNew YorktoCopenhagen, I rode in the cockpit as the guest of Capt. A.G.K. Jessen. That night, my wife and I and another tour couple were guests for dinner in the Jessen home, and a year later, the Jessens visited us inTopeka.
* * *
I have one particularly fond memory of the trip, other than seeing ancient castles with Coke machines at the front door. Our hotel rooms inParishad balconies, and overlooked a street that was a favorite promenade for prostitutes and those seeking their favors.
The girls, all carrying white purses, would stroll back and a forth on a two-block stretch, and the men would join the parade, make their choices, and the couple usually would disappear into a handy hotel facing the street. Some of the tour members would gather on the balconies and watch the operation.
Pretty soon, the balcony spectators started betting each other on which hooker would score first. The balconies started sounding like a bookie joint.
“I’ll bet a dollar on the one in the blue shirt.”
“I’ll cover that, and I’ll bet a dollar on the one in the checkered skirt.”
“You’re covered, and I want two dollars on the one in the yellow sweater who just came out of the hotel.”
As you would expect, the wives soon assumed the authority of a gaming commission and banned wagering on the balconies, and that killed the sport. Who wants to watch fillies run if there’s no betting.
The papers ran the same tour in 1961, but this time, in order for me to go, I had to delay reporting for work inWashingtonon President Kennedy’s Council on Fitness and Sports. The people inWashingtonunderstood, and when I returned fromEuropeand reported in, I learned they had put me on the payroll on the day I called. I had a month’s pay coming, and I took it. I figured it made up a little for all the months I worked for the FBI in 1941 for $105 per month.
* * *
Though I was out of sports, I continued to visitNormanand see Wilkinson on a regular basis. Still, the call that came to our home one night in February 1961 was a complete surprise. It was Bud calling fromNew York, saying he’d just leftWashington, where President Kennedy had named him special consultant on physical fitness and sports. As such, he would be in charge of the office of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
Bud would continue coaching atOklahoma, and he asked me to go toWashingtonto take charge of the Council office. This small, low-budget operation eventually would include a staff of four men, including me, and three secretaries. I accepted Bud’s offer, and so, for the second time in 20 years, I headed forWashington,D.C., and a whole new ball game.
* * *
In Washington, this cigar-smoking, martini-sipping ink-stained wretch entered the world of physical fitness, ready to earn my “PT-109” tie pin as the president’s, and Wilkinson’s, man. To my dismay, and total surprise, I found there was someone there before me, already perched in the boss’s chair.
It was a typical snafu. Bobby Kennedy was playing a big role in building the staff of the Kennedy White House, and when he heard of Bud’s appointment, he picked one of his Harvard football teammates, Dean Markham, to be his No. 1 helper. He didn’t bother to tell Bud.
So, when I arrived, I became the public relations man, but when Bud showed up to spend the summer planning our course of action, he visited Bobby and the White House and, before long,Markhamhad transferred to the Justice Department.
Markhamwas a good guy who played touch football almost every weekend at Bobby’s house and had great stories to tell. And, thank the Lord, the other three men on our staff were professional physical educators who gave us credibility.
Bud and I spent almost three years on that assignment, and our efforts were concentrated on getting more physical activity in the schools for all students – not just the gifted athletes.
A clear example of the difference at that time was Ford Motor Company’s “Punt, Pass and Kick” nationwide competition for boys. It was a high-hoopla event with local and regional contests, leading to a nationally televised finals at halftime of a pro football game.
It was a great event for the country’s talented young athletes who knew how to punt, pass and kick a football, but it did absolutely nothing to improve the fitness of flabby boys and girls.
Bud had to make that point when Lee Iacocca, the marketing genius who was reviving Ford’s fortunes, came toWashingtonwith t a team of aides to seek the White House endorsement of its contest. Bud turned him down, pointing out one of the causes of the fitness problem among the nation’s young was all the attention focused on the few gifted athletes, at the expanse of the many who were sitting on the sidelines watching.
Iacocca and his troops were stunned. They figured we’d jump at the chance to get all the exposure Ford was offering, but Bid was adamant. He wanted national attention on the many who had little or no athletic ability, rather than on the tiny fraction of youngsters who did.
That message never took hold, and until it does, this country is going to have a fitness problem. When was the last time you heard a school getting excited over its two thousand non-athletes rather than its two hundred athletes who have coaches, facilities, uniforms, bands, pep squads and all kinds of support.
Bobby Kennedy explained the situation this way: “A few players badly in need of rest, a lot of spectators badly in need of exercise.”
The Fitness Council, along with a great campaign by the Advertising Council that included TV, radio and print ads, combined to increase awareness of the need for more physical activity by people of all ages. In short, I think we did some good. I hope we did, because we honestly worked hard at it, and our honest effort went so far as to return money from our budget that we didn’t spend.
The original Fitness Council was created by President Eisenhower in response to reports that American children lagged far behind European and Japanese children in basic physical fitness. As its leader, he named Shane McCarthy, primarily an accomplished orator, who went all over the country promoting fitness. He also went abroad to monitor foreign programs.
Bud’s approach was different. He gave a lot of speeches, and so did the staff, but our primary effort was the production of a plan of simple exercises and activities that could be carried on in any school, regardless of its size, the makeup of its teaching staff, its locals, or what have you. It could be done anywhere, by any teacher.
The public, and educators in general, mostly liked the plan, and the fitness tests that went with it. But, it didn’t sit well with professional physical educators, who thought our simple approach was demeaning to their profession. We had a running exchange with them and never won over many hardliners. However, many of the top physical educators in the country, whose primary goal was to get children to exercise regularly, got on our bandwagon.
As a new group in town, we also battled the bureaucrats. For example, when I set out to order some stationery, I learned I had to submit a sample to a committee, which said no to our use of the standard government symbol, the eagle. We finally got something fairly close to what we wanted.
Bud always used White House stationery, and I sometimes used it and signed his name, or mine, depending. And, if my letter was going to a friend or relative, I’d stick a note in with the letter rubbing it in, saying something like, “This will let you know you are not dealing with some government pissant.”
Bureaucrats were not impressed when I’d say whatever I wanted done was a request from President Kennedy’s Fitness Council. Their attitude was, “We were here long before Kennedy, and we’ll be here long after he’s gone.” And don’t you forget it.
I also received a chewing-out from Bobby Kennedy, which in those days was a sort of combat ribbon. The country’s bicycle manufacturers decided they wanted to have a contest to name “Miss Physical Fitness” ofAmerica. We told them to go ahead and they did, and they presented the winner at a press conference inNew York.
I was invited to the evening festivities and I went and was introduced, and afterwards joined the bicycle people and the contest winner for a drink at the Gaslight Club, famous for waitresses usually said to be “scantily clad.” This earned me, and President Kennedy’s Council, mention in aNew Yorknewspaper’s gossip column.
I flew back toWashingtonthat night and was in the office next morning when Bobby called. He was either mad as hell or acting like it, and acting like the Kennedy clan never had been exposed to showgirl barmaids – the kind that Okies say would make you “plow through a stump.” He demanded to know who had been there, and why I dragged the president’s name into this den of flesh. I told him it was a long story, so how about a memo on the whole affair? He said he wanted it bynoon. He had it by ten. I never heard anything more about it.
The other side of Bobby: One night, at our urging, he was speaking to the physical educators’ national convention inCincinnatiand flew there and back on an Air Force Lear jet. He invited Dean Markham and me, and two of his sons, to go along. It was a great night: The conversation out and back, the FBI guards at the airport, the limos, the royal treatment. It wasn’t bad, being a Kennedy, or being near one, in 1962.
* * *
Wilkinson and I often talked about the future, and he made it clear he wanted to move up to a new level of challenges and that his first choice was election to the U.S. Senate. Events that followed made him think his time had come.
Oklahoma’s powerful Senator Robert S. Kerr, a Democrat, died in office in January 1963. The election to determine who would fill the remaining two years of his term was set for November 1964. In the meantime, Governor Howard Edmonson arranged to have himself appointed to the interim seat, and Bud felt he could defeat Edmonson handily in 1964. Late in 1963, he decided to run.
* * *
Bud learned early who his friends were, and weren’t, in politics. This excerpt is from son Jay Wilkinson’s book about his dad:
Dad’s entry into politics was laden with controversy. Prior to the announcement of his candidacy, he resigned as football coach of Oklahoma, but maintained his position as athletic director and strongly recommended Gomer Jones be appointed head coach. Some of the regents felt Dad was using the A.D. position ,as a power base to get Jones selected, and he’d resign to make his Senate seat run as soon as Jones was installed. The majority of the regents were Democrats who wanted to delay a new coach’s appointment until they figured out if Dad was going to run. If they dallied long enough, he would be forced to signal his intentions because he would have to change his party affiliation.
In the meantime, a petition supporting Jones’ appointment was signed by the members of the Sooner team and presented to the regents. The Alumni Association checked in, also in favor of Jones, but the regents stonewalled, saying they were going to wait a few weeks to select a new coach.
Dad was extremely concerned about the effects the delay would have on recruiting and upset that Jones was being made a pawn in a political battle. To put an end to the internecine warfare, on Saturday, Jan. 18, 1964, he called a news conference and resigned his athletic directorship, saying:
It has become increasingly apparent that political maneuvering on the part of some regents has taken precedence over the early choice of a new coach. So that these considerations can longer play a part in the delay, I am resigning as athletic director. This action will free the regents from any further political involvement related to this situation…
Jones was selected and Dad opened his campaign for the United States Senate.
* * *
I was inNormanwhen Bud resigned as athletic director (he earlier had resigned as football coach), and my understanding of the situation was that Gomer Jones didn’t want to be named coach. He wanted to be named athletic director, with the authority to name some top assistant, who was ready for prime time, as the new head coach at OU.
As it turned out, when Bud stepped down, Gomer was named both athletic director and head coach, and he coached two years before he hired Jim McKenzie from theArkansasstaff to succeed him on the field. I believe that’s what he wanted to do in the first place.
UI happened to be with Bud inNew Yorkwhen, in our hotel suite, he briefed McKenzie on the totalOklahomafootball picture. Bud used old address books and notes to tell the young coach everything he knew (I think) about how to recruit and how to get along.
It was a fascinating education on the anatomy of a college football program. It was three hours that seemed to streak by, and my only regret is that I can’t repeat any of it. In the beginning, it was a matter of confidentiality, and now, fortunately, it’s a matter of fading memory.
Unfortunately, McKenzie never lived long enough to make full use of the information. After one season, he died of a heart attack.
* * *
the season of 1961 was the worst in one way, and the best in another, for Bud and Gomer. OU lost its first five games, and won its last five in what Bud called the best coaching job the two of them ever turned in.
one of the losses was toColoradoinNorman, and the Sooners looked particularly inept, at one point failing to cover aColoradokickoff. They circled the ball, rather than falling on it, apparently not knowing it was a free ball. Coloradocovered it, and went on to score. Bud called it inexcusable coaching.
I was at the game, and in the locker room after, and Bud said we’d walk to his house, but that we’d have to wait for a young girl to join us. I wondered, what’s this all about?
In a few minutes, the girl, about 12 I thought, showed up, and we all walked, dropping her off at her house, close to Bud’s. then he told me the story. A couple of years previously, Bud was walking home alone, as usual, when he passed the girl and she spoke to him. They walked the rest of the way together, and she asked him if she could do it again after the next home game. Thus it became a permanent thing. She’d wait outside the locker room, and they’d walk together. I wonder where she is now.
* * *
In his playing days, Gomer was an All-American linebacker at Ohio State, and has not-so-fond memories of one of the greatest college games every played, when Notre Dame scored 18 points in the fourth quarter to defeat Ohio State, 18-13.
First of all, OSU, with a 13-0 lead, took its first team out in the fourth quarter, and under substitution rules of the day, couldn’t put it back in, so Gomer was on the sidelines, helpless, when the tide turned.
Even worse, all during the game, the Notre Dame players would watch where Gomer lined up on defense, because where he was made a lot of difference to Buckeye strategy. The thing was if the thick-bodied Jones lined up on the line of scrimmage the Irish players would yell, “belly in” and if he didn’t, they’d yell, “belly out.”
* * *
Bud told me once, over a martini andTootsShore’s restaurant inNew York City, that he never had a lot of close friends, but that Gomer would top the list. They coached together 17 years atOklahoma, and set winning records that never will be broken. I saw enough of them before and after games to know that they were close – really close.
One night in the mid-1950s, after the season had started and the Sooners were well on their way to what would be a record 47 straight victories, Bud learned he very likely had cancer. It was decided he would leave immediately for the Mayo Clinic inMinnesotafor diagnosis and treatment.
It was determined he did have a malignancy, and it would be treated on an out-patient basis. Bud made the round trip to the Mayo Clinic every week until the treatments were completed, and few people outside the OU football family knew about it.
When it was over, Bud made no effort to hide it. He spoke freely about it, at least to me, and served as chairman of the local American Cancer Society fund drive inNorman. He came out of the whole thing healthy and very thankful.
Before boarding the private plane that night forMinnesota, Bud called Gomer and asked him to look after his two sons, Pat and Jay, if the situation became that serious.
* * *
But back to the campaign. Bud was running, and it must have seemed to him many times that he was all alone, because it was all up to him, and it was all uphill.
His timing couldn’t have been worse. There would be other mistakes in the campaign, but this would emerge as solid fact: The biggest mistake Bud made was deciding to run. Here’s why: Bud chose to run in a presidential year, when Lyndon Johnson was the overwhelming favorite to carryOklahoma. He had coattails plenty big enough to carry Democratic Senate candidate Fred Harris along with him, although Bud closed the margin Johnson posted substantially. Johnson won by more than 100,000 votes; Bud lost by about 20,000 – a great effort, but no cigar.
There are those who say Bud would have won, despite the strength of Johnson, if he hadn’t endorsed Republican Barry Goldwater for president. I don’t believe that. The endorsement came in Bud’s campaign kickoff speech, when he shouted his support for “THE NEXT PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES – BARRY GOLDWATER.” Polls taken prior to the speech showed Bud trailing Harris as much as by 20 points, and that didn’t change dramatically after the speech.
In publicly backing Goldwater, Bud went against the advice of everyone connected to the campaign, and even from other Republican Senate candidates. For example, Charles Percy, running inIllinois, said, “If Goldwater is inChicago, I’m inSpringfield; if he’s inSpringfield, I’m inChicago.”
The morning after the endorsement, I received calls from two auto dealers who had loaned us cars for the campaign, and who now wanted them back. So did a few people who had loaned us credit cards.
Throughout the campaign, Bud never expressed any concern about the polls. In private conversation, I’d say, “We’re getting our ass kicked.” He would reply, “Oh ye of little faith.” He often would say, seriously, “When people are in that voting booth, and see my name on the ballot, a lot of them who said in the polls they’re going to vote against me will vote for me.” Undoubtedly, a lot of them did, but not enough of them.
There were other mistakes in the campaign, none of them fatal, but worth mentioning:
1. We never hired a professional campaign manager. I took the title of Campaign Coordinator, because Bud often talked about hiring a pro to run things. But he never did, and I was forced to make decisions based on my political experience, of which I had absolutely none. When it was formally announced that I would be joining the campaign, a small newspaper ion the “littleDixie” section of the state handled the news in its own way. Igniting the fact I was a native son, it noted only that I was a graduate of St. Gregory’s high school inShawnee,Oklahoma, and that I was coming fromWashington,D.C. Its headline proclaimed , “Eastern Catholic to Help Bud.”
2. Proof that telling the truth can kill you in politics came when Bud, asked about rural electrification (REA), said it was a good idea but that it should have stuck to the purpose for which it was created, and should not have branched into commercial co-ops, selling all kinds of products to farmers. Democrats ran with that, saying Bud was against the REA and, if elected, would turn off the lights on farms.
3. Bud often talked about issues the average Oklahoman knew nothing about, and cared even less.
4. There was a debate, which Bud was sure he’d win hands down, but while Harris didn’t win, he did so surprisingly well people thought he won.
5. Oklahoma’s Republican Governor Henry Bellmon said of Bud as a campaigner: “He never seemed to have the warmth most candidates showed. He tended to be a little stiff and proper. I spoke to him about it once or twice, but it never seemed like he came across as if he was enjoying himself or was glad to meet these folks.”
6. His opponent, Fred Harris, said: “Early in the campaign the black vote was going about 5-4 for me. After the debate, it was going about 7-3. When Strom Thurmond came toOklahomato campaign for Bud, it went to 9-1. I think the Goldwater thing was harmful to Bud and so was Thurmond.”
7. We made no attempt to get Henry Bellmon,Oklahoma’s popular Republican governor, and his staff more deeply involved in the campaign. They were seasoned campaigners, but as far as I knew, we didn’t lean on them enough.
8. Former president Dwight Eisenhower had to back out of his scheduled visit to help in the campaign. Shortly before he was to arrive, we received a telegram saying he had a bad cold and couldn’t make it. There was no mention of rescheduling, although there was time.
I spent much of election day at Bud’s home inNorman, losing bets to him on the small putting green in his back yard. In the late afternoon I went to our headquarters inOklahoma Cityand made some calls. There were no surprises, and when the first returns came on TV we were behind, and stayed behind. I went to the Municipal Auditorium, site of our “victory” party, and my wife greeted me by saying with a smile, “Well, now what?”
An hour or so later, Bud, as promised, left to attend theTulsavictory party. I told him he should concede officially on TV, and he said, “You do it.” So I did, and then my wife and I went home. The game was over.
Next morning Bud came to our house and we had a couple of milk punches while getting Ed turner to set up a press conference. There, Bud said he’d never run again and, when asked to comment on the campaign, quoted Chinese General Sun Tzu: “Defeated generals do not discuss the art of war.”
* * *
We lost, but the consolation prize wasn’t all that bad. K.S. “Boots” Adams, then chairman of Phillips Petroleum, gave us a week at his home inFt. Lauderdale,Fla. Bud and his wife, Mary; Ed Turner and his wife, Beth; and my wife Barbara and I made the trip, and to get us there and backAdamsprovided a Gulfstream.
While there, we had privileges at his country club, and the use of two boats, one to cruises the inland waterway that ran by the house and the other to use for deep-sea fishing. We did it all.
In the house, of course, were a cook, housekeeper and several underlings, including some who took care of us at the pool.
Bud and I played golf almost every day, and on one of our off-days, Ed joined us to fly over to Bimini to go fishing. Our boat met us there, and we went after the big ones, which we didn’t catch.
I’m not sure what the women did all that time, but we hated to leave. I was happy to get home, because one the plane, both ways, I lost money playing gin rummy.
* * *
The flight to Ft, Lauderdale was not the one Bud wanted to catch after the election. He had a ticket toWashington, where the winners of congressional elections across the country would be sworn in, and the earlier you were, there higher you were on the seniority list.
One time we talked about what would have happened if we had won. Bud was 48, and after serving the final two years of the Kerr term, he could have been re-elected five times before retiring at 80. it was unlikely he would have lost again if he cared to run.
In fact, two years after our defeat, the Democratic winner, Fred Harris, had to run again, and did poorly in beating a no-name opponent. Everyone said then, of course, that had Bud run, he would have won. Harris had fallen into disfavor for consorting with the Kennedys, not popular inOklahoma. Harris never ran for another term.
* * *
Soon after Bud lost, Jacqueline Kennedy was quoted as saying she was glad, because, she said, he tried to cash in on President Kennedy’s popularity, and his service in the Kennedy administration, to win a Senate seat.
She was poorly advised. President Kennedy never was as popular inOklahomaas Bud was.
* * *
Maybe the most interesting thing I did in the campaign was to put together a full newspaper page advertisement featuring about 60 of Bud’s former players saying he’s make a great U.S. senator. There were pictures of each of them, with a short statement under the photos.
Out of all the players I asked to participate, only one said he wouldn’t do it. He was Buck McPhail, the fullback in the backfield that also featured Eddie Crowder at quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Billy Vessels at halfback. McPhail said he couldn’t do it because he was a close friend of Bud’s opponent, Fred Harris, and had promised to help him in the race.
The players not only agreed to appear in the ad, but some of them came back and got on the stump to speak out for Bud. Jack Ging came fromHollywood, where he had a thriving movie and TV career. Crowder returned to workMuskogee, where he played in high school, and the surrounding area.
Jack Mitchell showed up , and he had a great message for me to deliver to Bud. “Tell him,” Mitchell said, “I’ll speak for him or against him, whichever he figures will do him the most good.”
I don’t know if it got us any votes, but it was fun. I spoke to each of the players on the phone, and most of them wanted to visit, and ask how the other players I’d talked to were doing. When Bud first saw a proof of the ad, I could tell he thought it was a pretty nice thing for them to do.
* * *
There were some laughs in the campaign, and some memorable moments. At one point there was a fundraiser for Bud inDallas, and H.L. Hunt, one of the world’s richest men, showed up. Before he left, he got Bud to one side and gave him an envelope stuffed with something. Thousand dollar bills?
Several members of the campaign staff were there, and we waited in great anticipation for everyone else to leave, so Bud could open the envelope. Finally the time came. The envelope was full of right-wing literature. Not even a dollar bill.
* * *
When I was in about the fourth grade inOklahoma Citythere was a girl in our class named Patricia O’Brien, and she wanted to be called Patsy. That was fine until one day, writing her name on the blackboard, she misspelled it and wrote “Pasty.” That did it. From then on, she was Pasty.
In the early days of the campaign I was greeting a group of volunteer women in our headquarters when one of them came up to me with a big smile and said, “Hi, Snider. I’m Pasty O’Brien.
* * *
Early in the campaign I invited a dozen of my closest friends from the old days to lunch, and they all accepted only after I told them it wasn’t a fund-raiser. Then, wanting to know if any of them would like to be active in the campaign, I asked them point-blank. Only four of them said they were sure they were going to vote for Bud, and only two of them wanted to volunteer.
A few weeks later I was visiting with Father Augustine Horn at St. Gregory’s, where I finished high school. He said Bud wouldn’t get any votes out of the monastery, a Democratic fortress. I was not surprised.
I called Henry Iba, legendary basketball coach atOklahomaState, and asked him what he thought about me asking Bb Kurland, who led the Cowboys to two national titles, to head up “Democrats for Bud.” I knew Iba well, so after he lectured me on Bud’s fatal error of not running as a Democrat, he told me to callKurland.
I did, and he told me what I expected to hear: That he wouldn’t do it without first talking to Mr. Iba – as all his players called him. Kurland called back and said Mr. Iba thought it would be a bad idea for him to change his colors after working 20 years to help Dem9ocrtas in a heavily Dem9ocratic state. It made sense to me.
* * *
The campaign was not an experience I’d want to repeat, with any candidate, for any office. It had started for me in December of 1963 in theWillardHotelinWashington. I was there with Bud and his wife, Mary, when he decided to run, and now I was 43, with a wife and five children, and no job.
Our fate was in the hands of God, and Bud. I heard from Bud first. He called late one December night in 1964 and said he had run into a situation that should be of interest to both of us. He told me to meet him next day inChicago.
Since the election, he had been working as color man and analyst on college football telecasts, and now the season was over. I had remained on the campaign payroll, getting all our useful information in shape to turn over to the state Republican party. Actually, I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to steal the $200,000 or so left over from the campaign.
The scent of a job was welcome in our household. InChicagoI learned that Bud, by chance, recently had met the president of the Brunswick Corp., one of the two major players in the bowling business. It turned out he, and his counterpart at the other company, American Machine and Foundry (AMF), wanted to set up some kind of operation to improve the image of bowling. What it needed was a respected big name to head it up, and would Bud be interested?
Would he ever. The deal was made, and it included me. I called my wife back inOklahoma Cityto tell her we were solvent again, and before long the Lifetime Sports Foundation was in business inWashington. Our assignment was to stir up more interest in all sports and activities that could be enjoyed throughout a lifespan, and never forget bowling.
It was a sound approach, because both giant companies had subsidiaries covering all areas of activity. For example,Brunswickowned the Ben Hogan company, and AMF owned McGregor Sporting Goods company, which had Jack Nicklaus under exclusive contract for golf equipment.
We had some success with pilot programs in schools, and with seminars where we tried to persuade physical educators to include more sports (bowling) in the curriculum. The companies said they were satisfied with our progress, and Bud was happy, drawing a big salary, but still having total freedom to do his football telecasts and whatever else came along.
When I was with the Fitness Council, we lived in a rental house in the Rock Creek area inKensington,Md.We liked it, and this time I resolved to buy a home there. Luckily, there was one for sale just a couple of blocks from where we lived before.
It had four bedrooms and three baths, and I told the Realtor who showed it to me I wanted it, and then we talked about the down payment. He asked me if I had ever used my GI Bill of Rights mortgage loan, and I had, and he asked if there had been any hardship involved in my selling that house.
When I said I’d sold it to come toWashingtonto work for the Fitness Council – answering the call of my country in her time of need. Would that do for a hardship? He said it might, and advised me to check with the VA.
I did, and they said no. Then I had a sudden inspiration and called Kansas Senator Jim Pearson’s office. An aide there listened to my story, and said he’d call the VA. Next morning the VA called me and said they’d be delighted to reinstate my GI Bill for a new mortgage. That’s the wayWashingtonworks.
We hadn’t been in the house long before we had a boarder – Ed Turner, who had been a TV reporter inOklahoma Citywhen we hired him for the Wilkinson campaign for senator. Now he was inWashington, looking for a job in TV.
He found one, starting at the top. Channel 5, an independent, had decided to start a news operation, and was looking for a bright young man to run it. I’ll never forget him coming home, driving one of our cars, and saying he got the job, starting at $16,000 per year. That didn’t sound like much, even in 1985, but he’d have taken the job for half that.
Ed went on to create a really good news department, with talent that included Connie Chung, Maury Povich and others who went on up the ladder to fame and fortune. Ed went up and down, and back up. He got as far as CBS inNew York, but then drank his way clear back down toOklahoma City.
There, he saw the light and went into rehab. He came out with a job helping to start Cable News Network and wound up in charge of its world-wide news-gathering operation. That $16,000 he was so proud of probably was more like his monthly pay. But he left CNN eventually and tried to create a similar network just inCalifornia. It didn’t work.
Ed died of liver cancer in April of 2002 at the age of 66. I’ll remember him as a good friend, even though, not long after the campaign ended in defeat, he introduced me to a political gathering as “the man who took a household name and drove it into oblivion in nine months.”
* * *
After a couple of years with the Lifetime Sports Foundation, I was bored as I’ve ever been, even in a Latin class, and told Bud I was going to start looking. He said to take all the time I wanted, and to use the Foundation expense money freely. I made one call and scored, but the job I found not only was more challenging, but also way over my head.
This was in March 1965, and the person I called was Walter Byers, executive director of the National Collegiate Association. I found him in Louisville, at the NCAA Final Four basketball playoffs, and when he answered the phone and I told him who was calling, it was like he’d been sitting around, hoping I’d call.
I told him I wanted to talk about a job, and I was hoping he’d tell me to call him the next week, when he was back in his office inKansas City. Instead, he asked me if I could come toLouisvilleright away. Indeed I could, and we met the next morning.
He got right to the point. He said he was an admirer of NFL Films, pro football’s film operation, and that the NCAA had nothing going in that area. He said he’d like to create NCAA Films, but unfortunately didn’t have the budget to get it going.
He said if I wanted to take the exclusive rights to film NCAA events, from football to field hockey, and try to find the financing to get it off the ground, he’d help in any way he could.
It sounded really interesting, and I said I’d give it a try. The problem was, I didn’t know anything about film production. I couldn’t shoot, edit or talk a decent game, and I never had seen a motion picture camera up close. But I could worry about that later. First, I needed a rich partner.
I called Jim Vickers inWichitaand made an appointment to see him next day. He was one of the five brothers who played championship golf and was a former NCAA titleholder. The five of them were sons of the founder of Vickers Petroleum Company, and were big-time investors. The oldest, Jack, developed Castle Pines inColorado, home of the International tournament.
Jim listened to my story and immediately called Dick Boushka, president of Vickers. In what seemed like nothing flat, there was a limited partnership, with the company holding 51 percent, and Jim and I holding the remaining 49 percent. I set up an office inWashingtonand started drawing a salary. Soon, we signed a contract with an elated Byers.
Now came the hard part.
At the same time Byers was signing up the newly created NCAA Films, he also was negotiating renewal of the contract with ABC to televise college football games live. ABC wanted to go more than halfway in order to please Byers and get an extension to the lucrative contract, so he figured this would be a good time to launch NCAA Films.
He went to the bargaining table and said he’d like to have a Sunday morning college football highlights show that would increase the game’s presence on the network, and also feature some teams that seldom, if ever, were selected for Saturday afternoon live coverage.
He also said he’d like for NCAA Films to be considered for the job of producing the show. ABC got the point.
Before I could even talk to an expert, much less find one to accompany me, I found myself in a meeting with Chuck Howard, the top producer at the network, and his staff. It was one of the worst hours of my life. I was totally without a clue as to what we were talking about, and I said nothing to indicate I’d ever get beyond that point.
For example, one of the young producers asked me if we’d use any high speed cameras. I didn’t know a high speed camera from a bale of hay, so I gave out another large “harrumph” and said we’d use the finest cameras available.
My finest moment came when I was asked how many cameras we’d use on a game, and that was my first inkling that anyone ever used more than one. In a flash of brilliance, I said we’d probably follow the strategy of NFL Films, the best in the business – then and now.
ABC told me to come back with a solid plan, based on a budget of $15,000 per show. This was 1968, and football season was about four months away. I was desperate.
At one of my darkest moments, the answer came to me. I said to myself, clutching a straw, if NFL Films is the best, why not turn to them for help? I warmed up to this idea, and even though the pros and the colleges are supposed to be rivals, I would approach them honestly, telling them what a pickle I was in, and maybe they’d think it was so funny they’d help me.
I called Ed Sabol, president of NFL Firms located inPhiladelphia, and told him briefly what I was after. He immediately asked me to meet him inNew Yorkfor lunch. I did, and in less than an hour we agreed that, for a price, his people would film our games and would provide all the camera equipment and film. It’s still the best deal I ever made, ranking just ahead of discovering popcorn machines.
Sabol never did laugh at me, but a few years into our arrangement we shared a great laugh.
The NFL owners, who also own the film operation, never did fully realize they also were providing all our film. But they came close, and one day Sabol asked me to meet him again inNew York, and he told me NFL Films would have to end our working arrangement.
“The owners are beginning to complain about the quality of the college film,” he said, “and last week one of them said we’d have to improve our work, because the college film is better than the pro film.” Our critics, of course, told us our film wasn’t as good as the pros.
Sabol was a great guy who saved my life. Before we parted, he gave me a list of the best freelance camera men in the country, and also gave me the OK to use his staff shooters on Saturdays they were available. Thanks to him, NCAA Films in a few short years went from zero cameramen to having the best in the country.
* * *
In the beginning, with Sabol handling the shooting, it was easy for us to set up laboratory, editing, recording and tape facilities inNew York, and NCAA Films hit the ground running. Thanks to good people, particularly producer-director Kemper Peacock, we never missed a deadline.
In 1970 we moved the operation toChicago, where the central location made everything a little easier for us.
The Snider family continued to live in theWashington,D.C., area through all of this, but in 1973 we moved toWichita,Kan., where the home office of our general partner, Vickers Petroleum, was located. Vickers had been acquired by corporate octopus Esmark, and in 1976, Esmark ordered Vickers to get out of the film business. That was it for me.
We made arrangements for the film operation to be turned over to the NCAA inKansas City, and I began a new career in a new line of work that eventually led to the title of vice president of corporate communications for Vickers, involved in advertising, public relations and politics.
Things moved so fast in this world I never had time to miss the film operation. It stayed on the air until 1982, and in its 15-year run it supplied one of TV’s most exciting challenges: Filming the games on Saturday afternoon; getting the film to New York, and later, Chicago; processing and editing it; transferring it to tape and putting the narration on it; and getting it on the air at 11 a.m. central time Sunday.
In the nine years I ran NCAA Films, I worked almost exclusively with TV network people, conference commissioners, directors of athletics, coaches, college sports information directors and players; and, of course, the people on my side – cameramen, writers, announcers, editors, lab technicians and the rest of the pros who actually put the show together each week.
For couriers, the men who carried arriving film from the airport to our production facility, we used off-duty cops. They were vital to our operation, because in the pick-up area they demanded attention and got it, and saved us valuable time. They also provided an endless string of stories about police work when they weren’t running down film. We paid them well, and they were worth it.
I met a lot of nice people while learning a little bit about the film business and television. First among them is Kemper Peacock, who signed on in the first year as an editor, and wound up in the third year running the whole show. I would spend most of every week making arrangements to get the shot and get it delivered to firstNew York, and later, toChicago, and then it was up to him.
He always was a steadying influence in a situation where one was badly needed. He never got upset, and he never missed a minute of work time when he was needed, and the result was that we never missed a deadline. That wouldn’t have happened without him.
* * *
Our first announcer was Bob Murphy, who this year retired from his job as one of the voices of the New York Mets. He was followed by Bill Flemming of ABC, and in all the years he did the talking he never was absent, or even late. The only close call we had with him was after a show.
Bill flew his own plane, and one Sunday morning he took off for home, nearDetroit, as usual. When the time came, he put the plane on auto pilot and started reading the paper. He woke up with a United Airlines pilot telling him over the radio that the ground control people had been trying to reach him for about 30 minutes.
He made contact, explained that he was having “radio problems.” He even did a monologue that included static, burps and whistles, saying later it was one of his finest on-air performances.
Our routine called for us to show Bill a segment of game tape, so he could compare it to his script and get himself ready. But often, when the clock was killing us and things were hairy, he’d do it cold, and it almost always worked. He was remarkable and, thank God, had a great sense of humor.
The first producer-director we had was Joe Gallagher, also from the Mets production group. He was good, and probably knew more about the business than the rest of us combined, but one morning when we were running well behind time I interrupted the Murphy’s recording to point out a serious mistake in the script. Gallagher told me to never again interrupt what was going on for any reason.
He said that to me. I was responsible for getting the show on the air, and he said it in front of our crew. I remained silent because I couldn’t afford to have him walk out on the spot, but his goose was cooked. His future on the show was behind him.
You would think that in such a stressful situation, that over a nine-season stretch, we would have had a lot of explosions of temperament, but we didn’t. There was the thing with Joe Gallagher, and the only other one happened inChicagowhen an editor screamed a world-class tantrum. I had to ignore it, too, because we needed him to finish what he was doing, but when he was done, he was done – for good.
The people at ABC were pretty easy to work with. They pretty much told me what they were going to pay for it, and then left us alone. They, probably more than anyone else, knew what we went through to get it done, and I’m sure their attitude was that as long as Walter Byers and the NCAA were happy, they were happy.
I even had one brief and one-sided conversation with the renowned leader of the ABC operation, Roone Arledge. One day we were standing in the back of the room, watching the screening of a preseason show we had done for the network. It came to a commercial break, and on the screen it said, “Place commercial here.”
Arledge turned to me and said, “What commercial?”
That was it. End of conversation.
* * *
In addition to the weekly highlight shows, ABC, thanks to Byers, had us do one-hour, prime-time season previews, and on a couple of occasions assigned one of their rising young actors to host the show. The first was Burt Reynolds, who took off from the filming of the movie “Deliverance” to join us inDallas, where we did the show around the Cotton Bowl game betweenTexasand Notre Dame, and the second was Lee Majors, the six-million dollar man.
He was that, and then some, and so was Reynolds. Both were outstanding, easy to be around and easy to work with. Majors was with us in his backyard, in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Keith Jackson, ABC’s top play-by-play man, worked with us on another pre-season show, going behind the camera to write, edit and produce “The Year of the Quarterback,” about all the excellent passers returning in the coming season. Pat Sullivan ofAuburnwas one of them, and he won the Heisman trophy.
In the show built around the Cotton Bowl game, we did something that may not have been done before or since in a major college game. We had hidden cameras and microphones in theTexaslocker room before the game, at halftime and after the game.
All this was possible because theTexascoach at the time, Darrell Royal, is among the all-time greats in sports when it came to getting along with the media. In that game, he agreed not only to allow cameras and sound equipment in the dressing room, but also let us put wireless microphones on him and his coaches in the press box making offensive and defensive decisions.
How cool was Royal? Try this: In the heat of the battle in the first half, when Notre dame was driving to take the lead, Royal’s microphone went out. We told a young technician to tell Royal the problem, and ask if he’d let us replace it..
Without a word of complaint, Royal unbuttoned his shirt so both the mike and the power unit on his hip could be replaced. It was done, and the game went on with no more problems. How many million-dollar coaches today would have done all that? I don’t know any.
The Easterners at ABC didn’t understand all they heard of the conversation between Royal and his coaches during the game. At one point Royal said of his fullback Steve Wooster, “Steve’s dobber is so damned down I don’t know if we should put him back in right now.”
The ABC people checking the show before approving it called us and asked, “What’s a dobber?” We told them it was sort of a barometer of a person’s attitude. If your dobber is up, you feel good; if it’s down your spirits are sagging.
ABC said it sounded like it had sexual connotations. We assured them it was nothing more than a common saying. We didn’t add it might be common only inOklahoma,ArkansasandTexas, so it stayed in the show.
Still, some viewers were surprised to hear it, certain the phrase had something to do with erectile dysfunction.
Before the show aired, I called ABC headquarters inNew Yorkto warn them we’d have Royal talking to his team to close the show, and to ask them not to interrupt him with some kind of promotional announcement. It didn’t do any good. As soon as Royal started talking, and ABC announcer came booming in, talking about programs to follow.
One more note: On that same show, we had Dan Jenkins write the script. It was a real touch of class.
* * *
In my new job at Vickers, I won’t say I worked with a higher class of people, but they were different. There were advertising agency workers, petroleum marketing personnel and – politicians. Government relations was one of my assignments, and it was both the toughest and most interesting, because we constantly were asking politicians to do something for us or to not do anything to us. The conversations often were accompanied by good food and drinks.
The most entertaining part of the job was working with comedian George Gobel on radio and television advertising spots. The veteran entertainer had been the Vickers advertising spokesman for many years, and he was perfect for the job. He was naturally funny, and he enjoyed doing our commercials. There was nothing phony or pompous about him, and he kept us laughing all day, and most of the night.
He was tough to keep up with after the sun went down, but he was always ready to go to work early the next morning.
By the time I joined Vickers, all five of the Vickers brothers – Jack, Jim, Byrne, Bob and Tom – had left their jobs with the company, comforted no doubt by the trust their dad, founder of Vickers Petroleum, had left them.
All of them met George Gobel at a night club inWichita, where the comedian always was featured for a week or so while he was on tour. Later, each of them would say it was his idea that Gobel become the spokesman for the company. However it happened, it was all good, because he created a friendly image for Vickers Petroleum, and maintained it for a long time.
Only once did a TV commercial backfire. We filmed it outsideFort Worth,Texas, on a lonely country road. We didn’t have to block traffic, because we saw only about a dozen cars in the two days there.
Gobel was dressed as a duded-up deputy sheriff, with a badge, all kinds of official patches on his uniform, a gun and other belts carrying lots of police equipment, and a crash helmet. In the commercial, Gobel runs out of gas, and all kinds of cars and farm trucks that we hired pass him up as he tries to stop them.
Finally, a Vickers transport truck comes along and stops and gives him gasoline. It leaves, and as Gobel starts to follow it, one of his front tires blows out. And, not according to the script, when it blows out, it nearly blows the fender off the car. It scared the hell out of Gobel, and we had to film that over, using less explosive.
The commercial hadn’t been on the air more than week before sheriffs’ departments from about six states called and complained, saying it wasn’t very funny, and it was demeaning to them. We pulled it.
When we’d shoot Gobel commercials, the routine was that when he arrived at the site, he’d get made up and then sit on the steps of the trailer we provided him. Soon, local folks would drift over to see him, and he’d start talking to them. In a very short time they’d be chuckling, then laughing out loud. Most of them would hang around, because between takes Gobel would be at it again.
At dinner, he’d eat a little, drink a lot, talk to whoever was handy, enjoy the laughs and sign autographs until his son, who usually traveled with him, would lead him off to bed. Next morning, he’d be ready to go again.
* * *
At the time, Vickers was building new stations and acquiring others, growing into a large regional gasoline retailer, with about 500 units scattered fromArizonatoTennesseeand up toMinnesota.
At this time, in the mid 1970’s, Vickers and other independent oil companies were threatened by state legislation started on the east coast spread rapidly westward. It was called divorcement legislation, and it basically said to the companies, if you are a refiner, you can’t be a marketer, or if you’re a marketer, you can’t own a refinery.
Vickers owned a refinery inArdmore,Okla., that was a winner, so we were ready to pull on the gloves and fight this legislation in every state. Vickers helped form the Committee of Independent Refiners-Marketers (CIRM), and I was assigned to represent the company in this crusade.
There were about 30 companies active in our group, and we got busy hiring lobbyists, courting politicians, testifying at legislative committee meetings, spreading our gospel with printed material and talking to editorial writers or anyone else who would listen.
For months, I traveled three or four days a week, and our efforts paid off. We won in every state we worked, and the divorcement idea never got any farther than a couple of states in the east. The good guys were still in business.
Winning was remarkably easy in some places. InLincoln,Neb., I hired a lobbyist who set his fee at $25,000. After we reached that agreement, he excused himself from his office, saying he’d be back in about 10 minutes. I don’t know where he went, but when he returned he said, “You don’t have anything to worry about inNebraska. I can tell you for a fact that bill’s not going anywhere here.”
I walked out of his office saying, “GO BIG RED.”
InArizona, the lobbyist costs more, but Vickers had more at stake there, with a bunch of high-volume stations inPhoenixandTucson. And, the lobbyist had to work a little bit harder. The second time I saw him we went to a committee hearing that probably would settle the issue.
On the way, he said that after the testimony, Legislator Jones would make a motion to table the bill, killing it. He said Legislator Smith would second the motion, and that the committee vote would be 5-2 in our favor. That’s exactly the way it happened.
In most of our states the bill never was introduced, and if it was, it never got out of committee, and if it did, it never was debated on the floor. When it was all over, those of us who had been out on the trail felt like we’d won the Super Bowl. Without a doubt, it was the most interesting and satisfying thing I’ve ever done.
* * *
On the other hand, when President Harold Grueskin told me in late 1979 that Vickers wanted to entertain crude oil suppliers from around the world at the 1980 Olympics inLake Placid,N.Y., he also told me to go toLake Placidand see if I could arrange it. I said, “You’ve got to be kidding,” and he said, “No, I’m not. Can you go tomorrow?”
On my first day there a Realtor I had contacted by phone showed me all the rentals left in Lake Placid, and I phoned Grueskin, confident that when I told him the only suitable house available would cost us $50,000, he would tell me to forget it and come home. Instead, he said “Take it.”
There was room in the house for a couple of Vickers executives, for a live-in housekeeper-manager, and for up to 10 guests. Over the next few days, I hired a manager and a cook to prepare breakfast and lunch. For dinner, I reserved a private room in the town’s best restaurant for every night, for the duration of the games.
I used the only avenue open to buy tickets for the events. I made a donation of more than $30,000 to the U.S. Olympic Fund in order to be allowed to buy about $26,000 worth of tickets – including hard-to-get tickets to the opening ceremonies and the ice hockey.
I paid $10,000 for a van to transport our guests, but before it was delivered, the dealer declared bankruptcy and left town. The local district attorney told me, “Tough luck.” So I made arrangements to lease one fromBurlington,Vt.
Finally, I shelled out about $10,000 for stuff we needed in the house – food, an extra-well-stocked bar, extra TV sets, linens, extra refrigerator, some rental furniture and what have you.
Our game plan was that guests would fly intoNew York City, with a new group arriving, and the present group leaving, every few days. They would be put up at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and the next morning would fly toLake Placidon corporate jets belonging to Esmark, the parent company of Vickers. The routine would be reversed when they departed.
So, I went toNew Yorkand made the hotel arrangements, and also chartered luxury buses for each new group, to be used only if bad weather precluded flying. We never used them.
Then I went home, and when I reported to Grueskin, I commented that this deal was costing a lot of money. He said it was nothing if Vickers made any crude oil deals because of it. Grueskin later got to see theU.S.victory overRussiain the ice hockey competition, the highlight of the Games. He came home happy, and said he was pleased with the whole deal.
I was, and I wasn’t. I was happy there were no glitches, but when I went toLake Placidwhen the Games were over to collect the stuff we purchased for the house – like TVs, linens, kitchenware, booze – it was all gone, and so was the housekeeper. City and county authorities said they’d let me know if she showed up.
It was my plan to give all but the booze to charity, and give it to myNew York Cityfriend, Kemper Peacock. It turned out we gave it all to charity, and the charity was the housekeeper. Considering that, I think it was totally proper that the Olympic city atLake Placidwas turned into a prison.
* * *
Bud Wilkinson by this time was president of a Texas-based insurance company that featured deferred compensation for public employees. It was called “PEBSCO” and in order to sell its product in any state, it had to first obtain approval from the Legislature, Assembly or what have you.
Bud was perfect for that assignment. He’d call his coaching friends and have them lobby for him, and it worked. What public servant inAlabama, for example, would turn down coach Bear Bryant? It was humming along, but it hit a roadblock.
For some reason, Congress issued a ruling on this type of insurance, effectively putting the company out of business temporarily. But it later came back strong, and Bud’s son, Jay, eventually succeeded him as president.
In the meantime, however, Bud was grounded, and he either needed some income or was restless. Whatever, he called me at Vickers and asked if I had anything he could do in terms of TV commercials, public appearances or the like. That was a switch. The man whose coattails I had ridden so long now was looking at mine.
It worked out. I signed him to do a 15-minute TV show each week during the football season that ran in the Big Eight area. He discussed that week’s games and picked the winners. We paid him well, and he seemed to enjoy coming toWichitaeach week to tape the show.
There was only one problem, and it was almost a major disaster. For some reason, late in the season, Bud pickedNebraskato beat OU – inNorman. OU won bog, and Sooner fans threatened to run both Wilkinson and Vickers out of the state.
Getting back to why he did the series of shows, the reason could have been money, because he was newly divorced and remarried at the time. Before he did that he called and asked what I thought about it. I said, in my opinion, the terrible problem would be having to tell his wife of more than 30 years, Mary, a great person, and his two sons. I added something to the effect that he was 21 and had to do what he had to do, and whatever he did wouldn’t change our relationship. I wished him good luck, and he thanked me.
I later learned he made the same call to at least two other close friends, Eddie Crowder, who played and coached for Bud at Oklahoma, and Duffy Daugherty, coach at Michigan State and Bud’s partner in an annual series of coaching clinics. Still later, I heard that Duffy told him he was out of his mind.
Bud made the same sort of call to me again in 1977 when he was offered the job of coaching the pro football St. Louis Cardinals. He was concerned about his age, 61, and how the press would treat him. I had the feeling he was doing it for the money, but whatever the reason, it was easy to understand he wanted to do it and easy for me to say, “Go for it.”
Bud died in 1994, following a series of medical problems.
* * *
The Vickers brothers deserve a close look. They could play golf, and they could just play. One time at a member-guest tournament at Wichita Country Club Byrne had himself delivered to the first tee in a hearse. It pulled up, the attendants rolled out the casket and Byrne climbed out, looking like he had indeed come close to dying the night before.
That was typical. On the other hand, only Byrne never aspired to tournament victories. The rest of them were contenders any time they entered a tournament. Although Jack won a Trans-Miss, and the others won or came close to the Kansas Amateur title, it was Jimmy who got the most ink.
Some of it was good and bad at the same time. He once led the U.S. Amateur after the first round, and next day Associated Press writer Will Grimsley said of the start of play:
“Jimmy Vickers, one martini in his hand and two more under his belt, teed off in the second round, etc.” Jimmy said it was to calm his nerves.
He wasn’t doing any of that when he won the 1952 NCAA title. Normally, all of them took their golf seriously. I was playing with Byrne once when he expressed displeasure with a shot by slamming his 2-iron through the side of a golf cart. I don’t know what made him think he could hit a 2-iron.
At a company R&R outing one day at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, I was in Jack’s foursome. I was hacking away, thinking about the 19th hole, when a voice thundered, “STRAIGHTEN UP THAT LEFT ARM!” It was Jack, and he was talking to me. Those guys can’t stand to play badly, or to watch someone else do it.
They should understand, however, that nobody can hit a golf ball if he’s shaking.
* * *
Although I worked for Vickers Petroleum inWichita, a summons in Jack, inDenver, was like a priest being called to theVaticanby the pope.
One day he asked me to fly out, and when I got there he said the assignment was to find him a good public relations man for the hockey team he was bringing toDenver. After a two-day search, I came up with Curt Mosher, who once worked at the Topeka Capital-Journal, theUniversityofNebraska, and for the Dallas Cowboys.
He had the credentials, and he agreed to come for an interview. Jack talked to him at length, and liked him, but Mosher decided he wanted to stay in football. He turned down the job, and I asked him if he was trying to get me fired. I tried to explain that you don’t say no to Mr. Vickers.
Jack finally settled on a hockey man.
On another occasion, Jack beckoned, and he had another talent search for me. He was a heavy hitter among backers ofColoradofootball, just as he is in anything he gets into. Colorado, he told me, had a problem: it couldn’t play defense. It couldn’t stop Molly Putz and the Flag Football Fumblers.
Jack decided the Buffalos needed a new defensive coordinator, and my assignment was to find the best one in the country. Jack would take it from there. I still don’t know if he told theColoradohead coach about this arrangement.
Whatever. I got on the phone and talked to every coach I had ever known. I told them I was doing a poll and wanted to single out the best. I gathered a list as long as your arm, but there was no standout. A couple of coaches had three or four votes, but 60 more were tied at one vote apiece.
I was about to cut my throat when a miracle saved me. Chuck Fairbanks, who had coached atOklahomabefore leaving to go to the pro New England Patriots, had decided to return to the college ranks, and he was available toColorado. Jack was overjoyed, and thanked me for my sterling effort.
I was overjoyed when he became wrapped up in the Castle Pines project, and his new International tournament. He never called to get my help on anything to do with golf, which proves that failure can have its rewards.
A few weeks after the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, Dick Boushka, our board chairman and boss of bosses, called a meeting of Vickers executives. That included me, because by then I was vice president of communications and corporate affairs, a mouthful, but nothing more than I deserved. Boushka shocked us by telling us Esmark had sold Vickers Petroleum to Total Petroleum, a company owned 51 percent by the French government. He gave each of us an envelope, with a memo telling us about the sale and a fat check that was ours if we agreed to stay on board through the transition. I couldn’t afford not to stay, even if I’d had a place to go.
Eventually, a team of Total executives showed up, and in the meeting that followed, the Total president, a Frenchman, smiled and said he knew the Vickers people wished their company had been sold to some giant who’d tell us to continue to run things and stay in touch. He said that wasn’t the way it was going to be.
He said, “We’re an oil company, and we’re going to run Vickers.” He added he hoped all of us would want to make the proposed move of Vickers toDenver.
The Frenchman in charge of marketing came to see me and told me he didn’t believe in advertising or the convenience store concept of marketing. He also told me whom he had selected to be the new marketing boss of the Vickers subsidiary, a man who was, in my opinion, the weakest of our retailing geniuses.
This Frenchman obviously was 50 years behind American retailing of gasoline, and he scared me. So it was that I was very happy to get a call two days later from Chuck Worman, a friend who was president of the Pester petroleum operation inDes Moines. We met for lunch next day and he offered me the same salary to do the same things I did for Vickers. Also, the same benefits and the same perks, starting with a new Oldsmobile.
I accepted, and it was a disastrous decision: 1) I choseDes MoinesoverDenver. 2) Pester already had a guy in an advertising agency who was a close friend who had taken care of their advertising needs for years. 3) Pester had a full-time lobbyist who spent all day, every day, puffing his pipe in the state capitol up the street. 4) The Pester operation, including a refinery inEl Dorado,Kan., and some 300 stations spread fromColoradotoMissouri, and up to theDakotasandMinnesota, was headed downhill.
I had worked closely with Jack Pester, the majority owner of the company, and Worman, and got along great with them. I thought I’d enjoy working with them, but we never got a chance to try it. They were totally absorbed with the financial struggle, and I had little to do other than busy work, and to attend meetings called to address the crisis.
I had to fire the assistant I’d hired, because she had less to do than I did, and when the bankruptcy was announced it was no surprise. There was temporary hope for salvation when merger talks started between Fester and a smallTexascompany. The idea was killed by theTexasstockholders.
I was hoping for one of those happy calls before I was run off, and it came. This time it was Chuck Neinas, whom I had known since the 1950s when he was a top aide to Walter Byers in the NCAA office inKansas City. He became commissioner of the Big Eight conference, helped found the College Football Association and break the NCAA’s choke hold on the rights to televise college football games.
The CFA needed help, and Neinas called the right place at the right time.
Pester and his company, and Worman, weathered the financial storm, and prospered. Pester became senior vice president of Coastal Petroleum, and Worman was his top man in the field, in this country and abroad. There was a long-standing connection between Coastal, headquartered inHouston, its subsidiary, Derby Petroleum, inWichita, and Pester, and when he and Worman became available, Coastal snapped them up, recognizing them as two of the best in the business.
Also, Pester was able to take most of his key personnel inDes Moineswith him toHouston. They probably wound up saying the bankruptcy was the best thing that ever happened to them.
* * *
The College Football Association was located inBoulder,Colo., and I figured going there made up for the mistake I made when I choseDes MoinesoverDenver.Boulderalso is the site of theUniversityofColorado, which attracts many wealthy students, such as Robert Redford’s daughter, who lived in our apartment house.
Neinas had opened the CFA office there back in the days when everyone wondered why he was doing it. They began to understand it when the universities ofTennesseeandOklahomasued the NCAA, seeking a judgment saying membership in the NCAA did not automatically mean the school handed over the rights to televise its games.
The breakthrough, and the vindication of the CFA, came when a federal judge inNew Mexico, Juan Burciaga, agreed with them. The decision meant the end of the NCAA’s restrictions on how many games would be on TV. It meant that suddenly, every institution in the NCAA could make its own deal. Only one, Notre Dame, managed to sell its home games to a major network, NBC.
The CFA put together a national package for ABC-TV, but revenue was down because Notre Dame, the Big 10 and the Pac-10 were not part of it. Conferences made TV deals with the networks and independents had games on single stations or regional hookups.
The deal was, college football went from a single game, or maybe a doubleheader, or maybe four regional games, on a Saturday, to having a game on every network, at the same time, plus more games on Saturday night. Now there are games on Thursday night, and even on Friday, which once was a time reserved for high schools that didn’t want college games on TV keeping fans away from local games.
I spent a lot of time answering questions from schools wanting to know if they could put games on local TV. The calls would still be coming in late Friday, wanting to know about TV next day or night. I usually wound up as confused as the caller, and often the solution was, “What the hell, if nobody out there objects, do it.”
I did some promotional TV messages for use on CFA games, and the usual propaganda, plus a regular publication of CFA doings. I also represented the CFA at a game most weekends and saw a lot of playing fields, some familiar, some new to me. I also saw a lot of airports but, as was the case with the constant flying I did for Vickers, I didn’t earn any airline miles. I was ahead of those good deals.
The highlight of my CFA career, I suppose, was testifying before a U.S. Senator, Republican Chuck Grassley ofIowa, atNorthernIowaUniversity, at a hearing into how much all this sudden television was going to hurt attendance at high school and small college games. I said something to the effect that after the new wore off, this wholesale TV would have no appreciable effect on attendance elsewhere, and everyone laughed, like I was some kind of nut.
I was spouting the party line, of course, but in this case I believed it, and time has proven it to be correct. Many thought radio would kill attendance, but it didn’t; many thought televising an event would kill both radio and attendance, but it didn’t; and so far, saturation television hasn’t done great harm to football attendance.
A poor team has poor attendance, and as the team improves, so does the crowd. Look atKansasState.
The CFA worked its way out of business. As television patterns settled in across the country there was no need for an NCAA-like national watchdog, and the CFA disappeared. Neinas, whose name had been synonymous with the CFA since its beginning, started a new business that was an immediate success.
He’s a head-hunter for college sports, placing coaches and administrators. He saves the schools the time and trouble of screening, interviewing and checking background of applicants by doing all the work and recommending his choice of the right man for the job.
In late 1985 I was only a few months short of reaching the age of 65 – or, as Phog Allen put it, the age of statutory senility – and my wife and I were wondering where to go to retire.Topekawas the obvious choice, and this time I made the phone call that nailed it down.
I called Jerry Dick, an old friend who still was an editor at the Capital-Journal, and asked if the paper needed a news-side columnist. The timing was perfect, because it turned out the paper had been thinking about adding that feature.
I went toTopekaand talked with the publisher, John Stauffer. We made a deal, and the first column after my resurrection there appeared onSeptember 1, 1985. At the paper’s request, I started the three-per-week columns before I left the CFA. I worked the football season and the winter conventions that followed, and then we moved.
We, and the moving van, arrived on Christmas day, and we moved into the apartment we had rented. It was easy to settle intoTopeka, because although we had been gone 25 years, many of our friends were still around, and people I’d worked with before on the paper were still there.
Working at home, I wrote the three pieces per week until March of 2002. During that time the Stauffers sold their communications empire to Morris Communications of Augusta, Ga.
I got along very well with the first two publishers Morris sent toTopeka, but the third one was far from a charm. I never met him, and he never spoke to me when I’d see him in the building. He’d been there about a year when he sent word to me through an editor that I was forbidden to write any more columns about school board budgets. I quit on the spot, and still haven’t met, or spoken to, this publisher.
Although I had worked for the paper a total of 27 years, in two stints, my farewell consisted of three lines of agate (small) type under my final column, which had been turned in just before I quit. The goodbye read, “This is Dick Snider’s final column for the Capital-Journal. Dick has been a columnist for many years, providing readers with lively commentary.” That shows a lot of class, right?
Judging from my mail, and the results of readers selecting “The Best of Topeka,” where I always ranked right up there with Bobo’s Burgers and Blondie’s Barber Shop, my column was well-received. The only formal readership poll I ever saw was taken in 1991, and Pete Stauffer, who was the publisher then, gave me a framed certificate in recognition of the large percentages of readers I had. No raise. Just the certificate.
That piece of nice paper, and a letter I received from Bob Considine that began, “You are a hell of a fine reporter,” are the closest I ever came to a Pulitzer prize, so I am among the jealous overlooked scribes who claim the list of those who never won the prize is just as impressive than the list of those who did.
Consistently, my favorite column targets were my children and grandchildren, my growing-up days in Oklahoma and my dad’s drugstore in our home town of Britton, lawyers, politicians, the Topeka city council, the Kansas Legislature, Bud Wilkinson and other sports figures and happenings from the past, golf, old friends, the many jobs I’d had (six in my 25-year leave from the paper).
I also wrote about subjects that interested me, and maybe few others, like the government’s treatment of Indians, people who stutter, perceptions of hell, the Catholic Church before and after the sexual abuse scandal, Oklahoma and Kansas history, war heroes and what have you.
I gained a brief extra measure of local fame in a column I wrote about the state Republican Party’s hard-core conservatives. There had been a vote on an abortion issue, and Republican moderates prevailed, causing the conservatives to lash out.
In the most extreme case, a conservative legislator chastised a moderate colleague over his vote, and then shouted at him: “As of today, you are no longer a member of the Roman Catholic Church.” It was legislative excommunication, the first inKansaspolitics.
In the first paragraph of my ensuing column, I referred to the Republican Party’s super-conservative wing (and then came an inspiration) hereinafter known as the Wingnuts…”
It got a lot of reaction. Moderates loved it, and conservatives wanted it shelved. I was enjoying the credit I was receiving for piercing the thin skin of the Wingnuts, but in a short time, it wasn’t my word anymore.
At a cocktail party, I heard a female lobbyist say she invented it, and was glad of it. A legislator said in an interview that he had “a word for them – Wingnuts.” It became a commonly-used word, and soon nobody knew or cared where it came from.
Such is life.
I had other high points. In 1988Kansaslegislators passed a pension enhancement bill for themselves, and I raised hell about it in columns for three years before it was repealed. I was given some credit for helping to get it done, and it was a satisfying moment.
Another time, there was a big hassle over who ordered the Highway Patrol to stop giving tickets to overloaded grain trucks during harvest time. The attorney general, who didn’t like the governor, threatened an inquisition to nail her for doing it. I solved the mystery by asking the head of the Patrol who issued the order, and he said he did. The general said, “Oh.”
This was the same KHP colonel who donated a kidney to lobbyist Pete McGill in an operation at the Mayo Clinic. I was first with that, and thanks to McGill, I also had a few little political scoops that were of some interest. An example is the column about the Kansas Turnpike brass, and spouses, going to the international road and bridge convention.
Incidentally, my best scoop may have come when I wasn’t writing a column. I was at a cocktail party inBoulderduring my CFA days, and heard a prominent lawyer say he was going toPhoenixnext day to finalize the move of theSt. Louispro football franchise toPhoenix. I immediately called Bob Hurt, former Capital-Journal sports editor who at the time was the sports columnist for theArizonaRepublic, and he scooped the country.
In all my years of trying to give the Legislature, and other governing bodies, the hotfoot, the funniest thing that happened was the comedy of agricultural aerial spraying, or the spray that would drift to the wrong targets.
Farmers wrote and called me to tell me how errant spray killed their trees and shrubbery, and even orchards. They said the sprayers had no insurance, and they wanted my help in getting the state to make the insurance mandatory.
Finally, after I heard from one couple who ran a small winery, and said off-target spray was threatening their vines, I pitched in. I wrote column after column lashing the aerial sprayers for not having insurance, and the state for not making them get it.
Finally, Gov. Joan Finney told the Department of Agriculture to do something. Hearings followed, and for two years there was testimony pro and con, until one day a department official testified – and dropped a bomb
He saidKansasalready had a law requiring aerial sprayers to have insurance covering drifting spray, and what’s more, it had been on the books for years. Why the state hadn’t enforced it, he didn’t know. It turned out nobody else did either.
It was the biggest oversight, or the biggest cover-up, in state history. Whatever, the problem of aerial spraying insurance just drifted away.
Zula Bennington Green wrote a C-J column for 50 years or so under the name of “Peggy of the Flint Hills.” She was well into her 90s when she died, and I occasionally was accused of trying to break her record. I really wasn’t. I was 81 when I quit the paper, and looking back now, my only real regret is that my departure was not announced with class, civility and grace.
I suppose you can’t have everything. I enjoyed writing the columns and deeply appreciate the response from readers. Now, I enjoy writing a weekly column for the Topeka Metro News, where the publisher talks to me and gives me confidence our inevitable parting will be friendly.