When the Tennessee Sports Writers Association asked me a few months ago to inform Roy Exum that he'd been elected to its Hall of Fame, my first thought was, "He's not already in it?"
Yet because the Hall of Fame didn't exist until 2006, such late legends as John Bibb, Gary Lundy, Grantland Rice, Fred Russell and Tom Siler all needed to be enshrined before it could consider honoring the man who first hired me at the old Chattanooga News-Free Press more than 31 years ago.
Besides, by going in tonight, "X" gets to be feted with close friend and former Nashville Tennessean sports writer Larry Woody, which should make the whole evening at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tenn., oh so perfect, as Roy might write.
"Having Larry go in with me makes this even more special," said Exum on Wednesday. "We've shared a lot of fun moments together. I remember driving around Athens, Ga., one night after a game with Larry, it's about 2 a.m. and the hood suddenly flies up on the car we were driving and Larry's got to jump out and tie it back down. That must have been quite a sight, if anybody was up to see it."
Here's a sight: During the late 1970s -- back when the Southeastern Conference's most influential sports writers reported from every SEC campus each August during their annual Skywriters Tour -- Woody and Exum helped stage a toga party at a Lexington, Ky., hotel
"There was never a dull moment," Exum said, "with Larry around."
And "X" was there for all the big moments: Major bowl games, the Masters, the Final Four, the Kentucky Derby.
Yet those aren't the moments that stand out to him as he enters the Hall of Fame.
"I couldn't tell you the score of a single game I covered, not one," he said. "But I remember every friend I made along the way. Whether it was (former Auburn football coach) Pat Dye, (former Free Press staffer) James Beach or Coach (Bear) Bryant, the friendships are what stands out."
Those friendships have clearly expanded through the decades, their numbers swelled by Exum's 36 years at the old News-Free Press, which was owned by his grandfather, Roy McDonald, who turned it into a $100 million enterprise before selling it to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1998.
Numerous free lance assignments with Reader's Digest and his current gig with chattanoogan.com have also helped build a Rolodex the size of a ferris wheel.
"I've been lucky," he said. "And I certainly don't deserve to be in the same Hall of Fame with Grantland Rice and Fred Russell, who was my idol growing up. I was born with a golden spoon in my mouth. Whenever I'd make somebody mad enough that they wanted to get me fired, I'd just say, 'Perhaps you'd like to speak to my grandfather.' Not many people can have that kind of security.'"
But that doesn't mean he's been wrong to stir things up all these years.
Huntsville Times columnist Mark McCarter may be the most successful of Exum's former employees, a winner of Alabama's Sports Writer of the Year multiple times, as well as an Associated Press national sports writer of the year for his circulation category.
"There's no doubt that Roy can be polarizing," said McCarter, a product of Brainerd High. "But every good newspaper executive and columnist needs to be polarizing at times. As I approach the sunset of my career, I appreciate Roy's style more and more."
That style can be as hard to explain as a Jackson Pollack painting, however. The same guy who's carved up SEC football coaches and local politicians has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Bethel Bible Village, Big Oak Ranch and Orange Grove through emotional columns that have made their way all over the world via Reader's Digest and the Internet.
Or as the late Atlanta Journal Constitution great Furman Bisher once told me, "Nobody can bring a tear to your eye better than Exum."
Especially his annual "I'm thankful for..." columns on Thanksgiving and "I wish..." Christmas missives.
Yet nobody was ever more determined to withhold tears from the eyes of this area's high school athletes than Exum, who often told his prep writers to avoid criticizing those players by adhering to the following instructions: "Everybody does well. Some just do better than others."
Nor was the "X" factor confined to media alone, though the fact he's overseen the development of three different Sports Writers of the Years in two different states, including this year's Tennessee winner, Stephen Hargis, is impressive on its own.
There's almost no question that the SEC women's basketball tournament would never have called Chattanooga home for seven years during the 1990s without Exum's influence. Nor would UTC have likely turned to Mack McCarthy to run its basketball program in the 1980s without "X" trumpeting the former Auburn assistant.
And without his constant push to highlight prep sports, Spring Fling would not have begun its run in our town.
Even today, his constant criticism of certain Tennessee Walking Horse industry trainers, owners and politicians regarding the mistreatment of their show horses is drawing national praise from animal rights groups.
However, it also takes its toll, all these causes. The thickest head of hair I've ever seen is still thick, but now far closer to pure white than jet black. The right arm that's endured 132 surgeries due to a jeep accident more than four decades ago is a permanent mess. The gait's not as quick, the voice not as loud.
But bring up his career choice and the twinkle quickly returns to Exum's 65-year-old eyes.
"I've just been so blessed to be able to do this all these years," he said. "I just get up every day hoping something I write can make a difference in someone's life."
And you don't need to be a Tennessee Walking Horse to be oh so thankful for that.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...