Wiedmer: A fond farewell 40 years in the making

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / .Mark Wiedmer interviews Vic Beasley at the Times Free Press's Best of Preps banquet at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Tuesday, June 27, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Beasley was the guest speaker at the banquet which honors the area's best prep athletes.

It was October of 1982. The phone rang in the bungalow my bride and I were renting on Grosvenor Avenue in Lexington, Kentucky.

"Weeds, this is 'X,'" exclaimed Roy Exum, the sports editor of the Chattanooga News-Free Press, in a booming voice caught somewhere between a bullhorn and a helium hit. "I want you to come work for me as an artist. I might even let you write a few stories. You'd be great. We'll have a lot of fun."

And, oh, what fun it's been from the first moment I walked into the NFP sports department at 400 E. 11th Street around 6 a.m. exactly 40 years ago today. I even had an unintentional twin of sorts that morning, the great Shelton Clark -- one half of the best Blues Brothers act this town has ever seen. He and I both showed up for our first day of work wearing the same style oatmeal colored sweaters, khakis and Wallabees, though we certainly hadn't planned that.

Clearly, you can take the boy out of McCallie School but you can't take the McCallie fashion sense out of the boy.

Anyway, having been a freelance artist for a couple of years before that day -- freelance being a code word for unemployed and broke -- I actually had to ask Roy for a few dollars to buy my wife a Valentine's present, which I believe became a pink button-down from The Leader. (Looking back on it, that gift choice on what's supposed to be the most romantic day of the year may also be why she became an ex-wife.)

But what transpired inside my head and heart from that first morning forward became nothing short of a hopeless addiction to the written word. I was no less hooked than if I'd been a heroin addict, and at no time would I have accepted methadone to escape it.

As I've said more than once, I've never worked a day in my life from that moment forward, and I have two ex-wives who'll tell you I have the bank balance to prove it.

Writing is not an occupation, though. At least it shouldn't be. It's a calling, something almost beyond one's control. All of you allowing my words, hopefully well-chosen in most cases, to come into your homes a minimum of four times a week these past four decades has been an honor, privilege and responsibility that I've never taken for granted, not to mention the absolute thrill of my life.

But everything except Southeastern Conference football dominance has to come to an end at some point, so this is my time to say good-bye and a most heartfelt thank you to so many.

I'll start with my parents -- Pat and the late Frank Wiedmer -- who turned me onto newspapers about the time I could learn to read. Their sacrifices made to send me to McCallie as a boarder before the start of my junior year in the fall of 1974 (my mom went back to work to pay the tuition) were the true definition of love.

As for McCallie, everything that's been positive in my adult life traces back to that school on the Ridge, right up to today, where they've generously given me a job pretty much doing what I've done my whole career -- writing stories and drawing pictures.

Where Roy Exum is concerned, thank you hardly seems to be enough. As he did with so many of us -- James Beach, the incomparable David Cook, the equally gifted Stephen Hargis (now the Times Free Press's award-winning sports editor), the SEC encyclopedia that is David Paschall, Eddie Baker and Clint Cooper, to name but six -- he saw something in us we might never have seen in ourselves, and at least where I'm concerned, I owe him everything for that.

I also owe at least a handful of journalism giants for heightening my love of sports writing. The best of those, Dave Kindred, is such a personal hero I still get tongue-tied in his presence. Right next to him on my sports writing Mount Rushmore would be former Free Press writer Mark McCarter, as gifted as anyone I've ever read not named Kindred and a terrific friend and mentor. In third, another personal friend and world traveler who's never found a story he couldn't turn into high art -- Chuck Culpepper. Former Sports Illustrated scribe Curry Kirkpatrick, who was as good as anyone in his prime, would round out my foursome.

Forced to name a "Blue Team," as the late, great Hall of Fame basketball coach Dean Smith once labeled his five-man reserve squad at North Carolina, give me Larry Green -- another NFP alum who'd moved on before I arrived -- Tom Archdeacon, Mitch Albom, Frank DeFord and Dan Jenkins.

An asterisk, and only because they weren't in sports: Jan Galetta, whose prose was always magical, and Mark Kennedy, whose prose is magical.

Sports editors? Many thanks to all of them, from Roy to Sam Woolwine to Kevin Spain to Calvin Beam to Jay Greeson to Hargis, as well as assistant sports editor Ward Gossett. Either through exasperation or resignation they all allowed me to be me, doodling my cartoons and writing my columns with little to no interference. Amazingly patient folks all, as has been Beth Blansit all these years in dealing with my incompetence on expense reports.

City Editors: Thank you so much, Tom Griscom, for your leadership and wisdom. Same for current editor Alison Gerber, who's been a beacon of hope for local journalism in difficult times. Also, our retiring owner Walter Hussman (his daughter is following him, keeping it all in the family) deserves the whole community's thanks for holding tight to his journalistic standards and not selling out to Gannett, which would have made us just another cut-and-paste operation similar to Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville.

To our retired copy editor Ron Bush, I apologize for the gray hairs I brought you by almost always being five minutes late and seven inches too long. Perfection is unattainable unless you're Jesus, the Beatles, Hellman's mayo, Rupp Arena in full throat, Neyland Stadium on a sold out Saturday night (and you thought I couldn't be objective, Clorox Orange Nation!), Augusta National's Amen Corner on a certain sunny April Sunday, the backside of Churchill Downs at dawn, the Keeneland paddock area in the fall or spring beneath the giant Sycamore, 150,000 at Churchill singing my "Old Kentucky Home," at least a few of them through watery eyes, on the First Saturday in May, a sip of Pappy you didn't have to pay for, the voices of Sinatra and Streisand in their prime, singing Silent Night by candlelight on Christmas Eve, or the first time I spied each of my newborn daughters, Julia Caroline and Ella Beth, born 27 months apart in Erlanger East's Magnolia Suite.

But that didn't mean I haven't strived for perfection in almost everything I've written or drawn over the years. Stubborn, silly me.

Finally, to the MVP of this entire paper, the tech wizard Paul Schulz: You deserve a corner office, a limo driver and a lifetime meal pass to Champy's. We'd be gone in a week without you.

Once upon a time, "X" told me that the people I met and wrote about would become what meant the most to me. He was so right.

Yes, covering 30 Final Fours, 16 Kentucky Derbies, eight Masters, a handful of World Series, SEC and national championship football games was special. But as a writer, it was no more special than watching Joe Schoocraft -- the Scenic City's all-time best Special Olympian -- looking like Secretariat at the Belmont every time he entered the 400-meter run.

Or the late Jane Ensign, a young and spry 89 at the time, completing the Chattanooga Chase's one-mile fun run with the help of a walker, then saying of the state record she'd just set: "It's easy when you're the only one out there."

Or former Howard star athlete Dank Hawkins and ex-UTC basketball great Herbert "Book" McCray recalling what it was like to be a Black man in Chattanooga in the 1970s.

Or the late Neyland Pickel, who lost his eight-year battle with cancer a little less than a year ago at the unthinkable age of 11. His remarkable courage, toughness and spirit inspired the Tennessee Wesleyan baseball team to the 2019 NAIA national championship in Lewiston, Idaho, with Neyland in the stands.

I won't get into every UT-Chattanooga coach who touched my life, but I'll be forever grateful for the three Bs I shared with Mack McCarthy: basketball, barbecue and Bea's Restaurant; the late Henry Dickerson's character, dignity and grace; the enthusiasm and passion of John Shulman and the off-court empathy and philanthropy of Will Wade.

I also wish that every football coach who couldn't sound like Bear Bryant could sound like former Mocs boss Buddy Nix, a Southern football coaching voice for the ages.

And for just being knee-slapping funny, it would be tough to beat former GPS softball coach Susan Crownover.

Throw in the late Howard basketball coach Henry Bowles, late McCallie football coach Pete Potter, late UTC women's coach Grace Keith, the late Ringgold baseball coach Bill "Sockie" Womack and former Baylor basketball coach Austin Clark, and I've been blessed to know the best of the best.

A favorite prep moment: In the mid-1980s, I became something of a beat writer for Womack's baseball team. One year, after a season-ending playoff loss, a window rolled down on the team bus and out flew a Ringgold ball cap. Shouted Womack, "You're one of us now."

I wasn't, but I've never forgotten Tigers such as Jesse Cross, Brad Butler, the Chandlers, Greg Vanore and assistant Steve McDaniel -- such good folks all.

As I was preparing these last couple of months to pen this column, I often thought I would lead with the words, "I'd rather leave while I'm in love," an ode to the 1970s Rita Coolidge hit.

But those words hint of a love about to end, and I'll forever remain in love with my time as a TFP sports columnist and eternally thankful for our readers, especially those who sometimes disagreed with me, for they always made me better.

Alas, at least for now as I type my final words for this newspaper, I'll close with another song title, one first recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1960, then made famous by Nazareth in 1974: Love Hurts. And thanks to all of you, that's a good thing, a very good thing.

You can now reach Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@mccallie.org.