Celebrating Dan Smith’s 50 Years in Journalism

BRBJ office
Dan in his office at the Blue Ridge Business Journal about 15 years ago.

(Dan Smith wrote this piece in late August and allowed me to publish it here.)

By Dan Smith

Copyright © Dan Smith. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Today marks my 50th year as a journalist. I walked into Asheville Citizen-Times Sports Editor Bob Terrell’s office Aug. 22, 1964 and asked for a job. My mama had told me to give it a try. I was working as a fry cook at King Arthur’s Roundtable.

I had no idea what the job would be, just that I wanted to work there, to become a sportswriter. He said, “Our copy boy left for the newsroom yesterday. Want that job?” I didn’t know what a copy boy did, but I lept at the opportunity and began work that night. The pay was $5 per shift. I was happy to get it.

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New to Roanoke, 1971.

It has been an often bumpy, always gratifying ride through embarrassing failure and soaring success and it has never been dull. I don’t consider myself to have been an exemplary journalist, or even an especially good one. When Casey Stengal was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he said something to the effect that his career was not a glorious one, but he always showed up and “when you do that, people notice.” I probably fall in there somewhere.

The fact is, however, that regardless of the quality of the journalism I have practiced over the years, I have loved the profession since that August day in Asheville. I have met and become friends with people who would never have been in my life without journalism. I have been presented opportunities to do some good, to influence the community, to help shape opinion.

Here’s how I remembered a day that would shape my entire life in my memoir Burning the Furniture:

“The first time I walked into a newsroom—a late August afternoon in 1964—I couldn’t see enough of it in my view shed. I turned around and looked at people and machines; listened to clattering, urgent noises; smelled cigarette smoke and coffee and paste and an asphalt- and oil-tinged breeze off the parking lot, as it wafted through open metal-framed windows. I wanted to touch something, and knew instinctively that a final level of stimulation would complete this sensual feast.

“As I sat in front of Bob Terrell’s editor’s chair in the sports department while he interviewed me for a copy boy job, my head continued to roam. His office had walls only rib high and above that I could see the activity at the city desk; I could watch reporters type and argue simultaneously on telephones; I saw the AP wire editor as he tore copy or watched AP Photos as they rolled out of their machine in magical fashion, making a screeching noise.

young sports writer
Front and dead center, covering a high school all-star basketball game in 1970s.

“At one point, I heard Bob say, ‘Dan, are you listening?’ and I realized I’d strayed from the interview. I said, ‘This looks like so much fun. I want to do it.’ I think the depth of sincerity of that innocent pronouncement from an 18-year-old who’d barely ever held a job got me a desk, a chair and a typewriter that I didn’t know how to use, starting that day, that hour, that minute.”

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Third from right. Virginia Communications Hall of Fame induction in 2010.
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How 1969 Changed a Boy’s Life and the Ryder Cup

(Friends and readers: Following is a preview of my article that will appear in the St. Martin’s Press history blog and newsletter next month after the publication of my new book.)

1969 was a big year in my life and the life of my family. Natives of Indiana, we moved from the Hoosier state to “The Golden State.”

California, here we come!

A cross-country move is a significant life event for anyone, and especially for a boy of 11. I said goodbye to my friends and traveled 2,000 miles to a strange new world in the back seat of our blue 1965 Plymouth Belvedere, my older brother alongside.

The changes were extreme: from the Ohio River Valley to the Mojave Desert, from a brick house with a walk-out basement to a one-level home made of stucco painted yellow, from neighborhood buddies to the new kid on the block who, I later found out, was supposed to get beat up not long after arriving in Palmdale. I somehow dodged that fight.

NeilArmstrongMy few memories of the summer of ’69 are blurred. They include a trip to Disneyland in Anaheim. The third week of July also stands out. That was when Neil Armstrong became the first man to step onto the surface of the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission. My family watched the historic moment in black and white on our Zenith television.

Armstrong famously said, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” The “a” wasn’t audible, but an audio analysis nearly four decades later confirmed that he did, in fact, say the “a.”

The astronaut with whom I shared a first name also was quoted as saying, “It’s good country for golf up here…you could drive a ball 2,000 feet.”

I don’t recall any of Armstrong’s words from that long-ago summer.

Golf?

That was a game my dad sometimes played on his day off. My sports were basketball and baseball.

But within two years of moving to California, I was playing golf with my dad and brother. And now, 45 years later, I’ve written a golf story that took place during the summer of ’69 and involved Hall of Fame players such as Jack Nicklaus, Tony Jacklin, Lee Trevino, Peter Alliss, Raymond Floyd, Neil Coles and Billy Casper.

That would have seemed far-fetched to the 11-year-old boy, but so did a moon walk until that other Neil visited the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.

Eight days before Armstrong walked on the moon, Tony Jacklin, a 25-year-old from the industrial town of Scunthorpe in northern England, became the first British golfer to win the British Open since Max Faulkner in 1951.

It changed his life and it changed golf, for Jacklin would go on to lead his British teammates that September against the mighty Americans in the 1969 Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England.

Great Britain had lost 14 of 17 Ryder Cups dating back to the official beginning in 1927 when English seeds tycoon Samuel Ryder donated the gold trophy. In September 1969, few people, British included, held out much hope for the 12 men playing for Great Britain, even though they were the home team playing a familiar style of golf on a seaside links course.

Just like America was first to the moon, it was also first in golf. In fact, at the time, the United States was seemingly first in everything.

This time, however, led by new Open champion Jacklin and fiery Captain Eric Brown, the British players didn’t bow to American supremacy. What followed, according to many who witnessed it, was the most controversial and compelling Ryder Cup ever played.

All tied up after three days and 31 matches, the 1969 Ryder Cup came down to the last two men in the last match putting out on the last green. The matter would be decided by Jacklin and Nicklaus. That’s when one of the most famous moments in golf occurred, a rare act of sportsmanship that sealed the first tie in the 42-year history of the Ryder Cup.

Great Britain rejoiced, for a draw was nearly as sweet as a victory. The United States was far from enthusiastic about the stunning outcome. Yet, in the ensuing years and decades, most would agree the 1969 Ryder Cup had a perfect ending.

Eight players from those two 1969 teams went on to become Ryder Cup captains, including Jacklin (four times) and Nicklaus (twice).

The summer of ’69 that changed one boy’s life also forever changed the Ryder Cup.

The epic battle at Royal Birkdale breathed life into the matches during a period when they were struggling to survive. It also helped make the Ryder Cup what it is today–the biggest event in golf and a biennial sports event that attracts worldwide attention.

Neil Sagebiel is the author of DRAW IN THE DUNES: The 1969 Ryder Cup and the Finish That Shocked the World (September 9, 2014). It includes a foreword by Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin. Sagebiel is also the founder and editor of Armchair Golf Blog. He lives in Floyd, Virginia, with his wife and daughters.

5 Questions for Judging Your Literary Work

Steven Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and most recently The Lion’s Gate, sends out a newsletter for writers called First Access.

In a recent edition, Pressfield talked about managing expectations when your book is published. It’s a minefield, as you probably know.

“The problem with books is it’s so hard to penetrate the clutter,” Pressfield wrote. “I don’t care how much you network, or how supposedly powerful your publisher is, your book is sallying forth into a marketplace that is overloaded, overstuffed, overstimulated. Your work is swimming for its life in a sea of other thrashing, gnashing competitors.”

Authors get distracted, or obsessed, with rankings, reviews and such. (I have.) Pressfield said don’t listen to the market and don’t monitor the charts. Pay no attention to the critics, he added.

Good advice? Sure, I think so. Hard to do? Oh yeah.

I liked the five questions Pressfield uses to judge his literary work. Maybe they’re a help to you and me.

1. Was this a worthy effort?

2. Did it call upon you to give more than you believed you had in you?

3. Did you conduct yourself honorably in the enterprise?

4. Did you give it all you had?

5. Did you succeed according to your own standards, the measures that only you know and only you can define?

“Those are the only criteria I can control,” wrote Pressfield, who tries to live by an axiom from the Bhavagad Gita:

You have the right to your labor,
but not to the fruits of your labor.

Celebrating ‘MICHAEL JORDAN: THE LIFE’ By Roland Lazenby

MichaelJordan
Buy at Amazon / Barnes & Noble

It’s May 6, publication day for MICHAEL JORDAN: THE LIFE by veteran basketball writer and author Roland Lazenby. (And also a friend of yours truly.) The MJ biography is a massive work in so many ways, 700 pages of digging, reporting, context and revelation by the same talented author who so wonderfully presented Jerry West, a complex basketball icon, and the West Virginia roots that formed him.

“Michael has had a huge, huge life,” Roland told Ed Sherman, who wrote an early review for the Chicago Tribune. “It’s a business story, a basketball story, a baseball story, a cultural story, a family story, and I could go on.”

If you’re an MJ fan or a basketball fan, you’ll definitely want to read this story. If you’re interested in the compelling biography of a person who transcended his sport and shaped culture, order your copy and start reading.

Dan Smith and Roland Lazenby.

I’m a fan–of Roland’s. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know him the last few years because we live in the same area. He has tremendous passion for his work, and a generous spirit when it comes to helping and encouraging other writers and authors. I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve experienced it firsthand.

 

Roland shared this MJ nugget in his author bio at Amazon.

“Michael Jordan saved my life once,” he said. “It was during the 1995 playoffs, Chicago vs. Charlotte, after a practice at the arena in Charlotte.

“He was walking out of the building with a group of reporters following. Walking backwards, I was leading the pack, with my tape recorder in his face, interviewing as we walked. I was a foot from walking off the loading dock at the back of the arena, about a 10 foot fall onto concrete, when he reached out and grabbed my arm to stop me from going over the edge.

“So when I say that I have an interest in Jordan, I mean it.”

It’s so fortunate that his genuine interest in Jordan has resulted in this definitive biography. If they gave out rings for such things, like they do for NBA champs, Roland would get one for MICHAEL JORDAN: THE LIFE.

How John Grisham Mentored an Unpublished Novelist

What if John Grisham offered to mentor you on writing a novel?

You’d wake up.

But for Tony Vanderwarker it wasn’t a dream. The Charlottesville, Virginia, writer tells how he came under the tutelage of the world-renowned novelist in an interview on With Good Reason (about 15 minutes).

Teaser from With Good Reason:

With seven unpublished novels wasting away on his hard drive, Tony Vanderwarker was astonished when world-renowned author John Grisham offered to take him under his wing and mentor Tony on the art of thriller writing.

Dick Paetzke: From Master Wordsmith to Portrait Artist

Dick Paetzke is an advertising legend in the Seattle area. He worked as an award-winning writer and creative director on countless campaigns for every imaginable client and industry. Recently, Dick, nearing 80, shared what he has been doing in his retirement years. I was amazed and inspired. So, with his permission, I’m sharing it with you. The following is an edited version of his email.

By Dick Paetzke

Copyright © Dick Paetzke. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

I took up portrait drawing—actually learning how to draw. I’d had an affinity for it as a kid, and did some yearbook cartoons while in high school, but my primary focus as I matured was always writing.

I mostly teamed with an art director in an ad agency creative team, and as an agency creative director, I frequently felt a strong tug to put my oar in my partner’s water and make graphic suggestions. They were usually clearly met with, “Hey, I’m the guy who’s trained in this, butt out.”

As a major agency creative director, I had to supervise both writers and art directors and developed a very good sense of what was required on both sides. Enough to much later speculate, “I wonder if I could do that?”

I took a North Seattle community course in portrait drawing, eight two-hour sessions on Saturdays.

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One of Dick’s 68 portraits.

The instructor had spent years in the University of Washington Art Department and was at the time teaching the same class in about four local community colleges.

He was the worst teacher I’d ever had in my life. All he did was talk about himself and how he was far better than his teachers. With us, a bunch of ignorant novices, he only bothered to fill us in with some basic information about art tools and gave us a whopping supplies list that cost me almost $200 in an art supply store. We used hardly any of it.

His art instruction went like this: “Got your pencils or charcoal? Alright, Terence Brown is our life model. Okay, draw a portrait.”

“Huh?”

At the end of each session, whether we’d drawn from a life model or a large , projected photo of someone, we’d put our drawings up on a white board rail and the students (who didn’t know zip) were asked to critique them. Then Jon, the instructor, would pass in review with comments like, “Well, this one looks like a favorite uncle of mine.” No definititive direction.

While we were drawing, Jon also would draw the same subject. After we had all floundered through the student critique, he would triumphantly tape up his drawing at the end of the row. Given, his art technique was far beyond any of the rest of us. Except, you couldn’t recognize the face of the person he just drew, which seemed to me to be the whole idea of a portrait.

Fortunately, on the first day of class he had mentioned several books, which I noted on my drawing pad.

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Joy and gratitude come from Dick’s art.

So I ordered a book of John Singer Sargent’s charcoal portrait drawings. I spent hours just looking at it. Jon had also said the one valuable thing that stuck with me: “They say that to master anything you have to repeat it a minimum of 1,000 times.”

I later read elsewhere that mastery of anything required at least 10,000 hours of doing it. I didn’t think I would live that long.

Before I finished the entire class I had already decided that I would try to learn on my own. But I set at least an achievable goal, regardless of how well I did the work. I committed myself to finishing 100 graphite portraits as a self-teaching apprenticeship. I am now starting on No. 68.

I’ve been having fun and have even sold a couple of portraits that were commissioned. I’ve framed at least three as gifts for widows of three men I have known, including Seattle copywriter David Hyman.

I can’t tell you how much joy and gratitude those three gifts returned to me. They alone have made all the rest of my effort enormously more meaningful.

So far, as you can probably tell, I haven’t managed to achieve very great consistency, but I’m grinding away at it. The process has a certain amount of pain to it, kind of like striving to master a consistent, controllable and predictable  chip shot out of a sand trap to borrow a simile from your favorite sport.

But ultimately the pain is good and purifying.

Photos of My Writer’s Retreat at Ambrosia Farm Bed & Breakfast

ambrosia-farm
The farmhouse.

This past weekend I joined with talented writers from Floyd, Richmond and Annapolis for my writer’s retreat at Ambrosia Farm Bed & Breakfast (located in Floyd, Virginia).

I led sessions on writing and publishing nonfiction and fiction, with an emphasis on books. I had a very enjoyable time with these new writer friends. (More to come on activities and topics.)

Special thanks to owners Caroline Thomas and Craig Gammarino for hosting us.

The below images are courtesy of artist and writer Patricia Robin Woodruff.

Retreat1
I encouraged writers to discover
and trust their writing process.
Retreat3
Another fresh and delicious breakfast
by Caroline Thomas.
Retreat4
Ideas, sharing and notes flowed on Saturday.