Friday, June 8, 2012

The legendary man, Mr. Byrd

    Lunch at one of our favorite spots in Shreveport, Strawn's Eat Shop, with Bea, daughter Rachel-- and Jerry Byrd. Rachel is a freshman at University of Tennessee. All of a sudden, unprompted, Byrd says, "Hey, Rachel, do you know the words to Rocky Top?" 
      Rachel has been around Byrd all her life, but she's shy and doesn't sense what is about to happen.
      Before she can reply, Byrd begins singing, "Rocky Top, you'll always be ... home sweet home to me ... Good ol' Rocky Top, Rocky Top Tennessee."
      It is a small lunch place -- 10 tables maybe, three booths, six round chairs at the counter. Byrd has a loud, booming voice anyway. He rocks the place.
      I refer to him as The Man, The Legend.
      This will draw a disdainful laugh from Byrd, or maybe a sneer, or a roll of the eyes. But he knows he's a legend. Anyone familiar with sports writing in Shreveport-Bossier, in North Louisiana, in the state, knows it. We've all grown up with Jerry Byrd.
      He's a big man, figuratively and literally. He's been baldheaded for years, but I actually remember him with some hair in the late 1950s. He is an imposing figure.
Jerry Byrd (from Barbara Byrd's Facebook page)
       Gene Freese, manager of the Shreveport Captains in the early 1970s, referred to Byrd as "The Head That Ate Shreveport." Yes, Byrd has a big head ... the better to store the mountains of information on sports he possesses.
      Any way you measure -- longetivity, quantity of work, quality of work -- there has never been a better sportswriter in Shreveport-Bossier (and arguably not in the state) -- than Byrd. He is the man.
      He's been a role model for me, and he's done so many personal favors, one of which early on was a column on me in my senior year of high school, 1965 (a blog on that column soon).
      Byrd has written, fearlessly and endlessly, on thousands of subjects and people. Sure, he was outspoken and opinionated. But he did it without suggesting that coaches be fired or programs be overhauled or crusading against the NCAA (well, not often). He was as honest as he could be.
      He started at the Shreveport Journal the day after he graduated from Northwestern State College in May 1957, and stayed for 34 years ... until the paper folded. But he's still writing at age 76.
     We're at a fairly large restaurant in Ruston for lunch, I'm with A.L. Williams and Byrd, and we're waiting on the Louisiana Tech women's basketball coach to join us. We're sitting in the very back of the restaurant.
      Front door opens and, boom, Byrd loudly (what else?) announces, "Ladies and gentlemen ... Leon Barmore!" Leon has to walk through the entire restaurant after this. He was wearing a red shirt, and his face was as red as that shirt.  
      Jerry Byrd has had to face tremendous challenges, making him even more of a person to be admired. Anyone who has talked to Byrd knows he has a speech impediment. He was born without a cleft palate (roof of the mouth) and with a cleft lip. Talking was always going to be difficult for him. When he began to talk, he stuttered badly; he was difficult to understand.
     He was painfully shy as a young boy, rarely spoke in public. But he was bright and he loved sports. He was a willing athlete, but the talent he discovered was that he could write. With the encouragement of a journalism teacher at Fair Park High (Antoinette Tuminello), he started on his life's work. He became sports editor of NSC's Current Sauce -- it was at NSC where his friends began calling him "Tweety" Byrd after the cartoon character -- and then went to the Journal.
     You realize how much verbal communication, interviewing for quotes and information, is a part of our business, and you know how much Jerry had to overcome. But he's done it beautifully.
     Byrd will tell you that he was only a so-so sportswriter for the first several years of his career. Then he began digging for deeper stories, for more background, for more insight.
      He became an award-winning writer. Few sportswriters in Louisiana -- if any -- have won more awards, been more honored. Byrd can probably give you the number of awards and honors he's received; modesty was never a strong suit.
     He definitely can tell you that he had a streak of 2,131 days (except for vacations) over a seven-year period when his column appeared in the Journal. He wanted to surpass Lou Gehrig's baseball record consecutive-games streak, and he did ... until a hospital stay for gall stones stopped him.
     I've met few people more determined, more strong-willed, more capable. Byrd is a perfectionist, and his copy -- with very few typos or dropped words or fact errors -- reflected that.
    No one worked harder for those honors and awards, or deserved them more.
    The kid who wouldn't talk has become an entertaining speaker when called upon. And he's become an entertaining singer. Oh, yes.
       Byrd loved to sing. Every day, he would serenade the Journal newsroom, booming out a tune. And like Mel Tillis, the great country music singer who had a speech impediment and stuttered but sang beautifully, Byrd never stuttered when he sang.
      Invariably, we'd all be laughing. He had a collection of favorites. So did we.
      Ed Cassiere chose This Is Dedicated to the One I Love. John James Marshall liked the Southwood (High School) fight song ... actually, the Bonanza theme, which Byrd interpreted as, "Southwood, Southwood, Southwood, Southwood, South-woooood."
     Gary West and I liked "... I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill." But "Duke ... Duke ... Duke ... Duke of Earl" was a classic, too.
     Teddy Allen: "When Mr. Byrd was really 'in voice,' his rendition of What's It all About Alfie? was hard to touch. I wonder if Alfie ever told him what it was about. He didn't tell us."
     And here's  how Teddy remembers Byrd's daily office entrance: "Shoes untied. Whistling. McDonald's coffee. ... Might say good morning and might not talk for an hour. And that would be, 'JJ, how many yards did that boy have?' "
     As Teddy said, "I never had it so good. So beautiful."
     I think Byrd's favorite might've been Carly Simon's Nobody Does It Better. That became a slogan for the Journal sports section at one time, I believe, because Byrd believed it applied.
     In addition to sportswriting, Byrd was a coach, most notable of the City of Shreveport Swim Team for a couple of decades. And he was a good one; the club was always one of the state's best. Then Byrd turned to organizing junior track and field athletes and taking them to meets in the area and around the country.
     He was -- and is -- a devout Christian, a religious man. And he is one of the most regular movie-watchers you'd find anywhere. How often did he write about his favorite scene from Shane?
     As a sports editor in the 1970s, Byrd was demanding -- of himself and his staff in a drive-you-mad way. But the Journal sports section, through the Byrd-Rick Woodson-Wally Rugg days of the early '70s to the long string of college grads in their first jobs -- a very talented group of people -- kept producing great stories.
     He's produced several books about Louisiana athletics, primarily high school sports. He is the reigning authority in that area, most notably track and field.
    Working with him meant great laughs almost every day. It also meant desk drawers or books being slammed, or a stream of profanities, or a petulant outburst. (Told you he was a role model.)
    But mostly, it was fun, and it was rewarding, and I'm sure that most of those guys who worked with Byrd will tell you how much they respect him.
    Lunch at PoFolks in Bossier City with coach Jimmy Russell. You've seen how the restaurant crews will gather and sing Happy Birthday to people. On this day, they do so close to Byrd and Russell's table. Byrd gets up and joins them in singing Happy Birthday.
    Can you imagine that scene?
     A few minutes later, an older woman comes to the table and says to Jerry, "You look just like someone I saw last week." To which Byrd replies, "You mean there's someone else out there that looks like me?"
       No one was ever going to outwork Byrd, at least not through the first couple of decades he was in sportswriting. But after he met Patricia Hood and married her in the mid-1960s, his life changed from all work to family man.
      Then Tricia and little Jerry came along, and maybe with them, a softer side of Byrd. Maybe.
      He became the involved dad, and the often-exasperated one. I can hear him now: "Tricia ... Tricia ... Tricia." Or "Jerry ... Jerry ... Jerry." Both often followed by, "Clueless ... Clueless ... Clueless."
      And now, of course, he is the much-involved granddad. Patricia, sadly, passed away in 2001. Two years later, Mr. Byrd found a second love, a long-ago admirer from Fair Park days, Barbara Crouch Copeland, and married her.
      When the Journal folded on March 30, 1991, Byrd was out of a job for the first time since 1957. The Shreveport Times should have hired him to be a regular columnist; instead, it hired him to do community news-type sports stories. Please ...
       Jerry went on to the Minden paper for a while, then to the Bossier Press-Tribune for years. He has gone through bypass surgery and a bout with cancer, but he  continues to write columns for the Bossier paper -- still informative, still on top of things, still recalling people and times and events from decades past, and the athletes and coaches of today.
      Big basketball game at Captain Shreve High one night in 1986; Airline, undefeated and the best team in Shreveport-Bossier, is the visiting team. We -- the Journal sports staff -- are all there. Airline ends up winning the game, but near the end, a fight breaks out in the stands. In the middle of the fight  is the Airline principal, Phillip Haley.
       Haley had been a great player at little Belmont High School and then at Northwestern State in the 1950s, then a coach at Parkway (Bossier). He was a big, burly guy, and a good guy, and he had a big temper -- he blew a fuse every five minutes or so.
       In the Journal account of the Shreve-Airline game the next day, we had a game story and we had Byrd's column in which he basically ripped Haley for being involved in the fight.
        The paper's first edition came off the press at about 11 a.m. At about 11:20 -- I am not kidding -- the sports phone rang and I answered. It was Haley, and he was hot.
       "Let me talk to that baldheaded (bleep) (bleep) (bleep)," he yelled. I tried to calm him down and he yelled, "Byrd has never liked me since I played at Belmont." He went on for another 30 seconds. Finally, I said, "Hang on, Phillip."
        I put the phone on hold, and turned to Byrd. "Hey, Jerry," I said, "Phillip Haley is on the phone and he's not happy."
        Byrd picked up the phone and said, "Hey, Phillip ... What took you so long?"
        Postscript to the Rachel story at the top. Same site three years later, Strawn's, lunch with Rachel, Bea and Mr. Byrd. Again, Jerry says to Rachel, "How about Rocky Top?" and he started singing. Our girl, now a college graduate and no longer shy, this time joined right in with Byrd.
      And they probably heard it in Knoxville.
       Life with Byrd. Quite an adventure. Nobody did it better.
       So I end with this, as John James Marshall suggested Byrd would sing ... "This is dedicated to the one ... I ... Looooooove!!!!"

1 comment:

  1. Sweet man, sweet story, sweet life; pleasure to have met him and grateful that he makes someone I love happy~ God bless Mr. and Mrs. Byrd.