Journalist recalls personal encounters

Newspaperman remembers 'impact players' he has met over the course of a half century of work

FRED PETRUCELLI
Log Cabin Staff Writer
Published Saturday, January 01, 2000

Fred Petrucelli

I've run into a passel of people over a span of 50 years in the newspaper business -- some interesting and stimulating, some garden-variety.

Each made for good copy, however, the esteemed being the most approachable and likable. In a trade where perks are virtually lacking, being able to rub shoulders, even for the moment, with newsmakers is reward enough.

So now consider this melange of personalities who have crossed my path, or vice versa, ranging from Yogi Berra to Primo Carnera, Gunsmoke's Jim Arness, the Bishop of Canterbury, Ronald Reagan, the Rockefellers -- Winthrop and Nelson -- and Brooks Hays. And then there were George Andrews and Bishop John Allin.

The list is partial at best, but it is an eclectic group if there ever was one. That's the joy of this business: One never knows who he'll bump into.

These people were impact players in the 20th century, each contributing to the measure of the times in sports, politics, entertainment, education and business.

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One-time Yankee baseball star Yogi Berra, king of the malapropism, was engaged in a bull session with his manager Casey Stengel in a St. Petersburg, Fla., hotel room. Looking on was an assortment of Yankee players, smiling smiles of astonishment.

The Yanks had lost an exhibition game to the Detroit Tigers and Yogi was attempting to assess blame for the loss. Because his speech was ludicrous, it was hard to follow Yogi's reasoning. It was yada, yada all over again.

For a young sportswriter covering the Arkansas Travelers in the grapefruit league, sitting in the same room with Yankee greats was Nirvana, even if the reporter was baffled by the conversation.

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We go from the diamond to the pulpit, where the Bishop of Canterbury is preaching about the wonders of accommodation, loving your neighbors and denominations rejecting the state of positivism.

A gaggle of Little Rock churchmen and businessmen was assembled in Little Rock's Christ Church, across the street from the Arkansas Democrat where your servant labored for years, to hear the noted pontiff bring his message of grace and love.

He was the personification of gentleness while being interviewed by an anxious, young reporter who was to write, quoting the bishop, that Christians are Christians despite petty differences in liturgy.

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I knocked on the door of a room in the Hotel William Len -- which later on was to be imploded along with the Hotel Marion to give ground for the Excelsior and now the advent of the Peabody Hotel -- at Markham and Main streets.

The largest fellow in the world responded to my knock. He was huge and menacing.

Here was Primo Carnera, the heavyweight boxing champion who reigned during 1933 and 1934.

Relegated to the role of serving as a boxing referee, Carnera was on tour and carrying on a crusade for foreign fighters who "couldn't get a break" in the U.S.

I walked into the room, pitched my hat and coat on the bed and was about to begin an interview when suddenly I found myself in the air and being unceremoniously dumped into the hallway.

"You donna puta the hata on the beda," he advised. "It's a bad luck."

I was like a match stick in his burly hands. He pitched my hat after me.

Now a dilemma developed. What does one do betwixt the wrath of the big guy and admonishment from an editor.

So, electing to face the heavyweight fighter rather than an enraged boss demanding copy, I knocked on the door again. Carnera received me as though nothing had happened and a pleasant visit ensued -- after I draped my hat and coat on a chair.

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Jim Arness and Amanda Blake were much more genteel. They were in town for the Arkansas State Livestock Show, being hot properties on the strength of their new "Gunsmoke" TV show.

Cordial and displaying nothing of the snootiness of some Hollywood celebs, Arness and Blake were the souls of indulgence, responding to simple questions like: "What do you think of your recent episode?"

The reporter was thrown for a loop when Arness said, "We haven't seen it."

OK, do you think the show will be a hit?

"You never know. We hope we make it through this season."

You know the rest of the story.

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When a theologian says "all the Lord calls on his church to do is be faithful, he doesn't require it to be successful," I had a feeling he was dealing in an interesting verity and I reported it as such.

Episcopal Bishop John M. Allin made that provocative statement while pointing out that it is not a sin to fail; it is a sin not to try.

Bishop Allin was a young seminary student near the end of World War II when he came to Conway to become vicar of St. Peter's Church and its 17 members. This was the launching pad that carried him to the top post in the U.S. Anglican Church.

The bishop was the central figure for Episcopalians in Arkansas, being outspoken in his views, especially espousing the theme of cooperation among Christians and an appreciation for diversity in the church, often making headlines.

He was well-liked, forthright and absolutely devoted to the cause of his church. He also had a liking for newspaper people, probably because his brother, Richard, toiled for the Arkansas Gazette for years, and still does the same for today's Democrat-Gazette.

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Republicans of every stripe and standing converged on Hot Springs for a National Republican Governors Convention at the invitation of Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller.

All eyes were on Ronald Reagan, the suntanned governor of California, and the immaculate governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, who obviously were the stars of the show as well as hot contenders for the GOP nomination for president.

Arkansas and national writers marveled at the cordiality of the pols and, as I recall, their questioning was bland, hardly the type of confrontational inquiry now in vogue.

The convention was marked by a curious furor outside the Arlington and police security was rigid in the face of protesters who were angry for reasons that escape memory. I recall that women protesters were enflamed when the gendarmes refused them entry into the Arlington Hotel to use the restrooms.

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If you had the opportunity to sit down with Orval Faubus, it is likely that his charm and warmth would be captivating.

This opinion may be difficult to swallow for those who see the former governor as one dimensional and only in terms of opposing school integration.

Faubus had the reputation of being approachable and outgoing and a good news source. Many of our state institutions came from his efforts.

He was all of that before running afoul of the federal government and setting up a confrontation with the U.S. Justice Department.

I found the governor to be a charmer. On many occasions he would regale the press with anecdotes and stories of his boyhood home at Greasy Creek. His press conferences were a joy and they always produced news.

At one point during the integration crisis, Faubus went into hiding. Only one reporter, the Democrat's political writer George Douthit, knew where the governor was, and he wasn't telling.

Government officials were beside themselves when they read accounts concerning the governor and his pronouncements under Douthit's byline.

The Arkansas Democrat was in high cotton in those turbulent days. Its circulation rose, its ad lineage improved considerably. All because of its neutral editorial stand on school desegregation. The Arkansas Gazette, on the other hand, supported the federal government's position to allow black students to enter previously all-white schools. The Gazette suffered but its editorials brought it a Pulitzer Prize.

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Singer Julie London and her husband musician, Bobby Troupe, had invited me into their Hot Springs hotel room. I was to find out how they liked Arkansas and especially the Spa City, where they were performing at the Vapors Club.

Obviously, they forgot I was there because in that motel room I heard the darndest ruckus I've ever heard between man and wife. It had suddenly erupted. Over what, I still don't have the foggiest, but suffice it to say I slipped out of the room empty handed and had to rely on publicity blurbs to write a story.

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One of the most engaging guys I came across was Johnny Sain, the noted Boston Red Sox pitcher and a native of Arkansas. Sain would talk baseball for hours on end.

He was especially disdainful of modern-day pitchers who threw for only six innings, if that much, before being hopefully baled out by a reliever.

In his heyday, he and Warren Spahn, one of the best pitchers ever, needed only one day of rest between starts. The Beantown slogan: "Spahn and Sain and one day of rain" became a rallying cry of the Bosox of the day.

Between sips of coffee, Sain once said: "A pitcher has got to try to go nine innings and win 20 games, otherwise forget it." He said it so forcefully that you had to believe him.

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Hazel Walker was on the phone. "I need a couple of games in Jackson and Hattiesburg."

When the well-known Arkansas female basketball star spoke, you jumped, especially if you were responsible for booking games around the country for the Hazel Walker All-Stars.

I was the critter on the other end of the phone. Sometimes the men's teams that the All-Stars faced did not relish getting the tar beat out of them, which invariably was the case, and canceled out. Walker had one of the best basketball teams on the road, known as the female version of the famous Harlem Globetrotters.

Hazel was the star, providing half-time entertainment by hitting 50 free throws in a row from the foul line.

The team played on the road for months at a time. The tall redheaded Walker had only one drawback I could see: She wanted to play every night, making life difficult for her booking agent.

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You would have imagined that dismay visited Brooks Hays when the distinguished Arkansas congressman was defeated by an upstart, write-in candidate during the heat of the school integration crisis in Little Rock.

When he met the press after that startling event, Hays was in perfect control, the soul of circumspection, as he remarked that his personal plight could not compare with the welfare of the nation. He handled himself like the statesman he was.

Hays had pursued a role of mediation and was the voice of reason in the bitter confrontation between President Eisenhower and Gov. Faubus. But accommodation was impossible and Hays paid the price for his attempts to resolve the impasse.

It was difficult for some members of the media to watch Hays peppered with invective. He had been head of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the foremost speakers of the age, a man with a stunning wit, and a brilliant congressman. And yet he was turned out of office after 16 years of distinguished service.

Some dubbed Hays a liberal. But history has proven that he was a man of truth and justice.

Some said that Hays' sense of humor sustained him. It's quite likely. One story he tells demonstrated his penchant for humor. When Hays was proposed as the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member said to another, "We don't want a politician for our president, do we?"

His friend replied, "Well, Brooks ain't enough of one to count."

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Ah, those professional wrestlers. At one point, I was on a first name basis with the likes of LeRoy McGuirk, the one-time collegiate star at Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State University, who had turned professional, and the rest of the gang who regularly stopped at Robinson Auditorium and at Barton Coliseum.

Say anything about them, write anything about them, but never reveal their secrets.

On one occasion, I threw caution to the wind and wrote that the blood oozing down the face of the "injured" grappler in copious amounts was caused by a slight razor blade cut purposely inflicted in the eyebrow. It was a gimmick pure and simple. The blood flowed, enraging the fans. I had the audacity to reveal that little secret in print.

When next I showed up at ringside, the fans were ready for me, throwing missiles with such unerring accuracy that I was forced to give up my chair and hasten out of the building. They refused to believe me. And they probably still do.

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I liked George Andrews from the start, but when I later learned what this fellow was made of, I knew that my first impression was on target.

Andrews lacks the celebrity status of the passing parade, but he has the chutzpah to match anybody's. Andrews is a man of considerable warmth and grace, whose ministry is bounded in respect and regard for people of any stripe, any station in life and especially those who were dealt a lifelong disability.

He is a fellow apart. He is a churchman, a comic, a humanitarian. His everyday living is laced with joy, with good cheer. You feel good in his presence.

He works on the premise that the harder you work for others and for the fulfillment of important social goals, the more fulfilled you become.

Andrews ministers to the clients at the Conway Human Development Center. He covers the rooms at Conway Regional Medical Center, he works as the police department chaplain, and anywhere else he's needed.

He once told me a story that reflects his wondrous attitude, a story of a young hospital patient who wanted Andrews to pray for her.

"Let us pray," he began. "Please God, hear this woman, and give her the help she needs."

A look of disappointment clouded the woman's face. "Why that wasn't a very long prayer," she protested.

Andrews' response, recalling the biblical entreaty to the Lord by Peter in a stormy sea, went like this:

"If St. Peter had prayed any longer he would have drowned."

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(EDITOR'S NOTE: Features writer Fred Petrucelli has worked at the Log Cabin Democrat since May 1988.)




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