We were a Constitution family when I was growing up. Back then Atlanta was a two-newspaper town. My daddy worked the second shift in the mill so we got the morning paper. That created a conflict for me because Furman Bisher was in the Journal, which came out in the afternoon. I eventually started using the dime I got each morning to buy a newspaper instead of an ice cream cone or cherry Coke so I could read what that great scribe had to say.
Furman Bisher got me in trouble when I was in the eighth grade. Our teacher, Mr. J.T. McKay, assigned our English class to write an essay describing the things for which we were thankful. Instead of the flowing literary prose Mr. McKay preferred I penned a staccato-type column. "I am thankful for cold ice on a hot day. I am thankful for the smell of a freshly mown lawn -- particularly when I am not the one who had to mow it." That sort of thing -- in a style unabashedly copied from Bisher's annual Thanksgiving Day columns in the combined edition of the Journal-Constitution.
"I ought to horsewhip you," Mr. McKay said when he handed back my paper -- with a big red "F" on top. I don't think J.T. McKay would get by with threatening to horsewhip a child in today's politically correct school climate. When I explained to him that I was emulating the great Furman Bisher, and produced one of his Thanksgiving columns to back up my claim, my teacher apologized -- and changed my grade to a "C," admonishing me to "develop my own style."
I have -- but I still write a Furman-style column every Thanksgiving.
In high school, I became sports editor for the school newspaper, the "Ram Speaks," and made it known that becoming a sportswriter was my life's goal. Who wouldn't want to make a living going to ball games? Mike Lassiter immediately christened me "Furman" -- a nickname I secretly relished. Later on I worked as a stringer for Bob "Furman" Greer -- longtime sports editor of the Covington News. It was probably Mike Lassiter who gave Bob Greer his nickname, too -- and I bet there were hundreds of other "Furmans" writing for hundreds of other school and small town newspapers across Georgia and the South -- just like every kid who played catcher in those names was called "Yogi." Furman Bisher was the dean of sportswriters.
He wrote about baseball and golf and college football and horse racing in such a way as to make the reader feel not only like they had been at the game or match or race but like they had enjoyed a personal interaction with the competitors. Every writer has the same supply of words at his or her disposal but Furman Bisher could arrange them like none other.
For 59 years he covered sports for the Atlanta newspapers. He became, as many have said, an icon. He was Atlanta sports and he helped Atlanta grow into a major league city. He also wrote for national publications and after retiring from the big city paper three years ago continued to write a column. In fact, his column appeared in this paper as recently as last week.
Furman Bisher was a throwback to what was, in my opinion, a better age -- a time when newspapers arrived each day and, when people picked theirs up from the front steps or driveway, they hadn't already read every word in it online. They hadn't been tweeted the news or seen it on Facebook. In those days, writers were true craftsmen -- wordsmiths, if you will -- who really put their hearts and souls into their work. They were writers, not bloggers -- and trust me on this one, there is a world of difference.
We, the readers, were loyal to those whose columns we read on a regular basis. We came to feel like we knew the writers and they were part and parcel of our daily lives. We didn't always agree with what they had to say -- my father refused to read Bisher for years after his "Story of a College Football Fix," maligning Georgia's esteemed football coach Wally Butts, appeared in the Saturday Evening Post -- but we still read every word, thankful for the talent they so freely shared with the world.
I had the great fortune to meet Mr. Bisher for the first time about 15 years ago. He was warm and friendly and gracious and I couldn't believe I was actually having a conversation with one of my childhood heroes. The top of a pedestal is a precarious place and many times, after meeting those I had placed on said pedestals, I have come away feeling disillusioned. Such was not the case with Furman Bisher and every time I have run into him since that first meeting he has been just as friendly as the first.
Furman Bisher died Sunday of a massive heart attack. He was 93. His death marks the end of an era. We will never see his likes again. May he rest in peace -- and may he live forever in the printed words he leaves behind.
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.