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LORAN SMITH: Maybe Lewis has forgiven me by now

FEATURES COLUMN: Getting legendary columnist Lewis Grizzard his first newspaper job became a funny story later

Loran Smith

Loran Smith

One day in the mid-’60s, Charlie Harris, who was a coach in Newnan, called me about a high school kid for whom he had extraordinary praise. Charlie didn’t attempt to apply governors to his expansive laudation about the kid. “He wants to be a sportswriter, and he’s good. He is so exceptional. Quite honestly, he is remarkable,” Charlie waxed on and on. A typically modest man, Charlie didn’t sound like himself, going over the top in describing the talents of his young friend.

Charlie had come to Georgia from Goodwater, Ala., a big back with speed. He had running skills that made him about the most genuine prospect for stardom Wallace Butts had had in a long time. Dan Magill, the inventive publicity director, named Charlie “The Gliding Ghost of Goodwater.” Injuries, however, would derail his football career. Charlie and I were teammates in track, hard driven by Olympic gold medalist Spec Towns, our intimidating coach.

I knew Charlie would not speak of a precocious talent without substance and sound reasoning. However, you often hear glowing appraisals of small town phenoms who may or may not be as good as advertised. “The reason I am calling,” Charlie said, “is that this deserving boy will need financial aid to go to college. Will you find him a job?”

I did find Lewis Grizzard a job, with the short-lived Atlanta Times, which sparked laughter in the years that followed as the Times went under. Lewis was but one of the victims holding a fistful of past dues.

Getting Lewis Grizzard his first job would probably not impress anybody who knew about his talent, but starting out, even John D. Rockefeller needed a break.

Soon Lewis was being noticed for his clever columns with the upstart Athens Daily News, which began as an independent morning paper, competing with the older and established Banner-Herald. His work was noticed by more than loyal readers. Jim Minter, a seasoned veteran of the Atlanta Journal sports department, sought to hire Grizzard as the fledgling writer was about to take leave of the Georgia campus where he had found opportunity, pleasure and matrimony — the latter being something he was never very good at.

In the beginning, Lewis’ versatility was appreciated more by his colleagues than readers. He became executive sports editor at the age of 23. He was good at such skills as headline writing and makeup of the sports pages. He had a sixth sense for the types of things that went on in newsrooms in the days of copy paper, linotype machines and ashtrays by every manual typewriter.

Sportswriters in Lewis’s day worked long hours and took prideful stances on doing good jobs, getting it right and enjoying a sense of accomplishment when the paper rolled off the press and hit the street. They were crestfallen when an error spoiled their handiwork. Sometimes, I think that many of today’s writers don’t care about anything in the paper except what they write themselves.

The honeymoon with the AJC lasted almost 10 years for Lewis, who subsequently landed with the Chicago Sun Times as executive sports editor. Those were not the best of times for Lewis, who soon was saying that if he ever got back to Georgia, he would nail his feet to the ground. A lawsuit and Chicago’s bitter winters were among the things which set him free. It was Minter, the best friend Lewis ever had, who hired him to write a column for the Atlanta Constitution. It began pretty much as a sidebar on the inside sports pages, but soon he was the most popular columnist in Atlanta. Before you knew it, Lewis had moved to the front page of the Metro section. Over 400 newspapers bought his column from a syndicate. He gathered big bucks making speeches. Lewis became a folk hero.

The life and times for Lewis were like the weather. Unpredictable. His love of beer, barbecue, the Braves and dogs — especially the Georgia Dawgs — made him the toast of the state. The root cause of his early demise, at age 47, began when, after his first open heart surgery (there were four), he got an infection from his wisdom teeth. I often think that if doctors had told him to pull his wisdom teeth, he might be with us today.

Lewis died 20 years ago this month, causing me to remember the fun we had. When that ultimate curtain falls, we often make heaven out to be what we want it to be. I’m no different. I can see my old teammate Charlie Harris and Lewis in conversation on a cloud about the forthcoming football season. By now, I hope Lewis has forgiven me for getting him his first job.