Dan Jenkins wrote, “You have to laugh trouble down to a size where you can talk to it.” But the loss of a father, a good father, is very big trouble, and he was the one person who could laugh that down to size for me. As his daughter, I’m here to tell you he was full of as much wit in person as he was in print. You see my problem.
He was not what you would call a classic family man, because sportswriters drive against the normal traffic of life. He worked on Saturdays and Sundays and was gone on most holidays. His presence on weekends and Thanksgivings was a phantom one on the rabbit-eared TV set that my mother turned on to show us where he was, saying, “Do you understand how hard your father works?” He acknowledged his absences with the kind of drollery that characterized his parenting style. “Don’t rob old people,” he would say as he headed off.
He was an unindicted co-conspirator, constantly in trouble with my mother for his scandalously unorthodox child-rearing. One afternoon in our hometown of Fort Worth, when I was about 7, he drove my two brothers and me the wrong way down a quiet one-way street. Delighted, I stared at the baffled drivers and street signs pointed in the opposite direction. “People are easily led,” he instructed.
Yet in my estimation, he was a better father than nine-tenths of those I knew. Granted, growing up I thought everybody’s father drank 10 cups of coffee and smoked three packs a day, and wrote novels on vacations, and got hate mail from Notre Damers, and wore Gucci loafers with no socks, and swore like a janitor every time he put up the Christmas tree, and became the most influential sportswriter of his generation. Mainly, I thought all fathers were the drop-dead funniest guys on earth who could make three pajamaed-urchin children capsize their glasses of milk with convulsive giggling.
Funny as in the way my dad could turn even a reading of the morning paper into a comedy. Like the time he shook out the New York Times and said of Margaret Thatcher, “The only time she cries is when she tries to pull a comb through her hair.”
Once, he decided to advise my twin brother, Marty, on his love life over the breakfast table. It was Dad’s opinion that the girl he brought home looked like trouble. “She’s a speed trap,” he warned.
My father actually managed to make open-heart surgery funny. In fact, some of his wittiest moments have occurred in hospitals, where he spent a good deal of time. Several years ago, he was scheduled for a quadruple bypass. He sailed off in a wheelchair down the hall of the cardiac unit bound for the operating room and waved to his family gaily. “Every street’s a boulevard,” he called.
Roughly three hours later a surgeon emerged to tell us the good news that he had required only a triple. When my father heard this, he grinned through his tubes.
“I birdied the bypass,” he said.
Even on the morning I was born, seven minutes ahead of my brother, my father sized up the situation and decided, at arguably the most profound moment of his life, that it was rich with sporty one-liners.
“Girl at 3:50, boy at 3:57,” the doctor announced.
To which my father replied, “Kinda heavy, aren’t they?”
When we were just old enough, he began to take us on work trips with him, my mother’s idea, so that we could tell him apart from the electrician, he said. Really, it was so we understood what he did for a living. “Most people hate their jobs, and you’re lucky if you have one you love,” as he told us.
Once, we were on our way to a golf tournament, him at the wheel of an Avis rental car and me in the front seat next to him, clutching a copy of the latest book he had given me. We used to stand for long minutes in front of the tall bookcase at home while he decided what to select for my young mind — Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny,” Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandria Quartet” and Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” wound up in my hands. On this occasion, he had chosen“Gone With the Wind.”
At some point on an old South Carolina interstate, I mentioned to him that I thought I would like to be a pompom girl.
“I’ll break your legs,’’ he said. “And while we’re at it, I also forbid you to join a sorority.”
I learned on these trips that my father’s fabulous wit cloaked some qualities in him that were less obvious. The quiet integrity and concentration with which he approached good writing. His fidelity to his family, his wife of 59 years, my mother, June; and my brothers, Marty and Danny. A buried, subtle religiosity. Which was at the bottom of a deep reverence he had for great athletes, for their hearts, their minds, their fascinating talent and above all their dedication.
He couldn’t stand champions he thought weren’t good people. He thought competition was pointless without ethic — he never forgave Tiger Woods for how he treated underlings or his wife. We would talk about those he admired most and knew the best, the Ben Hogans and Jack Nicklauses and Tom Watsons. He told me that athletes felt obliged to fulfill their talent with hard work because to leave potential unspent was “a kind of sin.” He also told me: “Learn your craft. And don’t ever let a piece of writing out of your hands until it’s as good as you can make it.”
I learned something else on these trips: the depth of the respect so many of the greats had for him in return. I remember how Joe Namath and Fran Tarkenton lit up when they saw him, heard the expressions in their voices as they shook his hand and said, “Hey Dan!” I realize now that they gave him an extraordinary and maybe even unprecedented welcome. He sat with them in the restricted backrooms that were off-limits to other journalists, where they gave him their confidences, insights and understanding of events he was covering. Once, I spent a week with him in Akron, Ohio, for the World Series of Golf at Firestone Country Club, having lunch every day with Tom Watson in the players’ grill after his rounds as my father worked on a feature story about Tom’s “trophy-littered life,” as he later wrote. They fed me cheeseburgers, and I sat and listened to them talk. I think I was 13.
Tom wrote to me on my father’s death, “in tears,” he said. He has a vivid memory of my father sitting on the upper balcony of Augusta National Golf Club at the Masters, having late breakfasts and talking with all comers, the shouts of laughter at his table, Tom said, “breaking the club’s code of silence.”
“Your Dad made me laugh and think at the same time,” Tom says. No one has had a truer insight into him.
Underneath all that laughter, he was a significant writer engaged in pursuit of a profound understanding. “Who can explain the athletic heart?” he asked. The humor was his style, not his substance, a kind of athletic jauntiness: He loved how great athletes could make excellence look nonchalant, and he strove for the same effect on the page.
Work and laughter were principles with him and as essential to him as breathing. Even at a sickly 90 years old he still went to his desk every day and wrote, and he still soldiered on to cover the major golf tournaments. In the last years, my beloved twin, Marty, drove him to events, practically carried him on his back to the majors, and on their long road trips, Dad would make him laugh so hard he wrenched the wheel. “I was afraid I would wreck,” he told me.
A new manuscript of a novel my father just finished is still open on his desk — he was working on it on his last day at home before he fell and broke his hip and the congestive heart failure had its final say, from all the bacon and cigarettes. The novel, titled “The Reunion At Herb’s Café,” tells readers where his major fictional characters ended up. (It will be published by TCU Press.) His most famous and true creation was Billy Clyde Puckett, a sort of composite of all the dashing NFLers he knew. I stood over the manuscript this morning in tears, then read a line and almost spit my coffee.
In the book, Billy Clyde is a retired old man, with two dogs.
He named them Tom and Giselle.
So here’s the deal if you want a recipe for father worship, if you want kids who, when you are dying in the hospital, will race at 60 mph across town in search of the grape Popsicle you requested, just to please you one more time. Take your little girl or boy everywhere with you, even into bars. Do small, harmless things with them you shouldn’t, let them off easy and end every conversation with a laugh. But give them your God’s honest truth about what matters, and let them see you work.
He preferred brevity, loathed false sentiment, prized candor and humor above all character traits and was a free speech absolutist. Privately, he was a lenient, adoring and adored man. As great a writer as he was, I don’t know that you can say anything higher about a guy than that his children preferred his company to all others and his approval to all the credit in the world. I was so lucky to be his.
“I don’t know who to try to impress anymore,” I told my mother.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.