Povich Eulogized as Hero
By Doug Struck and Thomas Heath
Shirley Povich, a gentle storyteller of games and players, was buried yesterday, having seeded childhoods with his love for sports and nurtured fans with delightful commentary for 75 years.
The funeral for the Washington Post columnist brought out sports figures who had felt the polite pinprick of his column, colleagues who universally pronounced him a gentleman, and readers who came to recall their moments spent with his column and the newspaper pages spread across the living room floor.
Povich, 92, died of a heart attack Thursday as he returned to his Northwest Washington home from dinner with his son David and other family members. His last column, a considered critique of batters he had watched more than six decades apart, was published the next day.
To hundreds of mourners in Adas Israel Synagogue in Northwest Washington, Povich was their morning cereal, his column a short recess to savor life's games as they headed out to work.
Don Mayhew was one of them. He hurried up the steps of the synagogue as the memorial service began, having just arrived after a 90-mile drive from Carlisle, Pa.
"My father was an engraver. Every morning, I'd find him at the breakfast table before he went to work at 6:30. He'd say to me, 'Read Povich today,' and for 60 years, I've been reading him," said Mayhew, a retired District fireman. "I came today for me and for my father."
For others, the recollection was personal and filled with the humor that even strangers saw in Povich's daily columns. His two sons and daughter recalled their father's patient exercise of the same honest judgment he applied to his columns.
Maury Povich, the columnist's son and a television talk show host, recalled his father's unsympathetic reception to his complaints that Post television critic Tom Shales had lambasted Maury's television show.
"But I'm your son," Maury recalls protesting. His father replied: "I helped get Shales on at The Post. You are [my son]. But good writers are hard to find."
Son David cringed at the expected disapproval when showing his father his new four-car garage. Shirley Povich dismissed it curtly: "Oy. Garage Mahal."
Povich's columns were from an old school of commentary: wry, witty, but couched in friendly prose that was forgiving as it did its damage.
"This is no time for cracks, men, those poor fellows were suffering," he counseled after the Washington Redskins' 73-0 loss to the Chicago Bears on Dec. 8, 1940. "They were trying to play football, if blindly."
Those at the memorial service recalled that style and lamented its loss. After all those years covering the stars of sports, "in a wonderful irony, the real hero turned out to be the guy writing the stories," said Washington Post publisher Donald E. Graham.
"Without Shirley, The Post probably wouldn't be here today," Graham said of Povich's long value to the paper. "In the 1930s, when the Post had 50,000 readers, there were many perhaps most of those readers who bought the newspaper to read their favorite columnist seven days a week."
Povich, hired as a copy boy at the paper, officially retired in 1974 but contributed more than 600 columns since then.
His body was escorted from the temple by his grandchildren and taken to Elevesgrad Cemetery in Southeast Washington for burial in a simple wood coffin. Family members and mourners each placed dirt or stones in the grave.
The memorial service brought mourners from sports, journalism and entertainment. There were Art Modell and John Kent Cooke, owners of the NFL Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins, respectively. Redskins General Manager Charley Casserly attended, as did former Redskins safety Brig Owens and ex-Senators pitcher Jim Hannan.
Abe Pollin, owner of the Wizards and Capitals, was there with his wife, Irene. Joe Brown was there from the NFL league offices. Neil and Susan Sheehan, both Pulitzer Prize winners, were also in attendance.
"I thought everyone was extremely eloquent," said Susan Sheehan, who was a bridesmaid in the wedding of David and Connie Povich. "They all gave you this wonderful human being who had the longest run of anybody. Here was this man that stood for all these wonderful, important beliefs that we all share but that you didn't expect to find in a sports columnist."
Katharine Graham, chairman of the executive committee of The Washington Post Board of Directors; Washington Post Co. President Alan G. Spoon; Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.; Managing Editor Robert G. Kaiser; and Assistant Managing Editor for Sports George Solomon were also in attendance, as were numerous Post reporters and editors who knew Povich.
It was a measure of respect for Povich that his colleagues from today and old chums who knew him from past eras the days of Sammy Baugh, Joe DiMaggio and Muhammad Ali described him with the same accolades.
"Shirley was something to see," said Byron Rosen, 69, a former copy editor in the Post sports department. "People were retiring after 40 years at the newspaper, and Shirley was there when they came and there when they left . . . writing his sports columns exactly 13 paragraphs long."
"I remember how he would shepherd the young reporters when they first started," said George Minot, a reporter and editor at the paper from 1957 to 1985. "He was engaging, charming, intelligent and a beautiful man. An inspiration to everybody."
Not that everyone enjoyed Povich's attention. "Howard Cosell stopped talking to Shirley" after criticisms in a Povich column, recalled Solomon, in remarks at the service. "Shirley once told me it was a rejection he would live with."
And Povich could and would complain about editors, Solomon added. Solomon recalled that he deflected one Povich criticism by acknowledging that he, and not a sub-editor, had changed the wording in a column.
"Well, you ought to have a look at yourself," Povich retorted, his most ungentlemanly complaint.
Members of Povich's family span a broad spectrum of interests from show business to law but their recollection of the patriarch was uniformly fond, and they shared it at the service with his widow, Ethyl.
"I was the only daughter in a family of sports-obsessed men," said Lynn Povich, managing editor of MSNBC on the Internet. "Because of Dad, I was the most popular girl in the high school. Nearly every boy wanted to go out with me because they wanted to talk to my dad about the Senators. It was tough getting them out of the living room."
That affection by her suitors was not returned by her father, she recalled. "He always had just two words: Drop him."
"It's a very close, caring family," Susan Sheehan said. "And that came through."
But his family included the millions of devoted readers.
"Not many people leave an impact on the world, but the world is a better place that Shirley was here," said Hannan, the former pitcher, now a stockbroker. "He was honest, accurate, and really elevated the level of sportswriting. Red Smith and he stood alone."
Even his competitors came yesterday to pay tribute.
"Shirley was the reason I got into sportswriting," said Dick Heller, columnist for the Washington Times, standing on the steps before the service. "I admired him. But I never have seen another writer that wrote the way he did."
"It's true," said Steve Guback, who used to write for the now-defunct Washington Star. "I would copy his phrases down. He had such a style that I thought if I looked at it and looked at it long enough, some of it would rub off."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company