Just a few months ago, as I marked the eighth year of my return to San Antonio to manage LOCAL Community News, I began to wonder who should get the blame for launching me into this crazy calling known as journalism.
Mind you, it’s not my first rodeo in the Alamo City. I’m the son of an Army officer and, since the 1960s, have lived both in Alamo Heights and in quarters at Fort Sam Houston, among other areas of town (Cibolo, anyone?) I also worked for years at both the San Antonio Express-News as a longtime crime reporter and as the executive editor of Prime Time Newspapers Inc.
But on this eighth anniversary, my thoughts drifted waaaay back to the beginning, more than 45 years ago when I was a starry-eyed Cole High School freshman earning $5 a story as a sports stringer. (Back then, I had hair that reached past my shoulders. Not so much today). My future — unknown to me at the time — began one crisp Friday night in 1976, when I called in a football game from the Cougar field house to a veteran Express-News sports writer at the paper downtown.
The routine was simple and time-honored: Across South Texas, dozens of kids like me (I reported for Paw Prints, the school paper, so I guess the coaches thought I was the logical choice to call in the games) would cover their local high school gridiron matches, then race around trying to find a phone and ring the newspaper’s sports desk. (The convenience and immediacy of cellphones remained years away).
At the other end of the line, a newsroom filled with veteran sports writers and other reporters, editors and copy editors wanting to make a little extra cash waited to answer those calls, type up the details, transform them into a narrative and beat deadline so the waiting pressmen wouldn’t go into overtime.
Readers benefited, because stories of their teams wins’ and losses appeared in the paper on their lawn just hours later, little epics of varsity athletic derring-do ready to be clipped and shared, saved in a scrapbook or magnetized to a refrigerator.
When my call was answered, I dutifully recited a list of dry stats from a standardized list tallying everything from yards gained to the number of fumbles. The veteran writer on the other end of the landline took down the figures and turned them into “deathless” agate type.
As we talked, however, the sports writer began asking for more particulars. I offered what I could, recalling key plays and adding a little commentary, describing the mood in the stands, the aghast expression on a receiver’s face when he dropped a pass, a coach’s agonized groan, the smell of Frito pies from the concession stand wafting in the fall air and so on.
During the exchange, the professional writer complimented my eye for detail (his phrase), my facility with the written word and my ability to make deadline. He then convinced me I had a future in newspapers. His message — which I feel sure he must have cheerfully shared with a legion of high school kids who called the sports desk every Friday night — fired my imagination.
In the end, his five minutes of praise sparked an interest in a vocation that now has lasted more than four decades, and set my feet on a path that has led to kings, presidents, governors, generals, the Cold War, the paranormal, police, militias, drug runners, gang bangers, murderers, psychopaths, sociopaths and, of course, politicians. Not to mention a certain a Hill Country angler who, every time he landed a record-breaking catfish on his trotline, showed up with the catch in a kiddie tub and wanted his picture taken.
What an incredible job, this thing called newspapers, and I basically owe it all to a quick chat with one very enthusiastic and encouraging sports writer. To this day I am convinced that individual is Barry Robinson, who started at the Express-News in 1969 and went on to an incredible career that included managing the sports department and eventually landed him among the upper levels of newsroom management. He also was the editor and trusted confidante of legendary sports writer and broadcaster Dan Cook.
For me, there have been others along the way who nurtured my spark of enthusiasm for covering the news that grew into a flame, but Barry was the first.
To him, that long-ago conversation was probably just one among hundreds or even thousands on a routine Friday night covering high school football, but for me, it remains a milestone and a turning point in life.
It also taught me the value of taking the time to share encouragement and praise with young people when they deserve the accolades. I hope I have done for others what Barry did for me.
For us oldsters, maybe these quick talks are just a pleasant, brief conversation, but for the young people listening, it might be the very thing they need to overcome doubt or harden their resolve. Encouragement should never be wasted.
Over the years, as I rose among the ranks in the news profession, Barry always remained a steadfast friend, a quick wit and a wise sounding board.
He’s retired now and even became something of a world traveler, but wherever he goes, Barry always has a special place in my heart.
Barry Robinson, thank you.