The Editor Who Made My Life

Let’s start with details. Frank would insist on details. There was a room in the back of the photo studio in the back of the department store in a corner of the mall. The fact that department stores had photo studios tells you this is an old story, a story from an ancient time when cameras inside cell phones was the stuff of science fiction and newspapers were at the very center of your hometown.

The room was small, a closet really, and there were three tiny cubicles inside. At each cubicle was a telephone and nothing else. The room was harsh with light; it was the sort of place you might want to do a World War I interrogation. Each chair in the room had something wrong with it. One felt like it leaned forward, like you were perpetually on the downhill of a roller coaster. Another had a broken back so that you were always falling backward.

I cannot begin to describe how depressed the room would make me. In this room, we lucky few called people at home to schedule their quote-unquote “free” photo studio session. The whole thing was quite an operation. The photo studio manager hired stunning and glamorous young women to wander the department store and give out coupons for a free 5x7 photograph. The only thing required to get the coupon was to fill out a card asking for a name and phone number. The stunning and glamorous young women were, as you might expect, spectacularly successful at securing those names and phone numbers.

We ordinary and drab young men and women were given the cards.

These were the Glengarry leads.

Our job (for $3.85 per hour) was to call these people and get them to schedule their photo sessions.

I got this job at a spectacularly low moment in my young life. I had just flunked out of accounting school. I had just finished working all summer in the factory where my father worked, a soul-crushing experience that felt at the time more like a harbinger than a summer job. I was 18 years old, and I had no prospects at all, no talents at all, no ideas at all. I called people’s homes night after night and tried to get them to schedule the free photo sessions they had signed up for but uniformly did not want. This was my present. This was my future.

I still do not know what moved me to send out those letters. It was this one glowing ember of a survival instinct; I had an electronic typewriter and I felt motivated enough to send out letters to people who I thought might have answer. They were typewritten prayers. I wrote to anyone who came to mind. I wrote to Bob Costas because I loved him on TV. I wrote to someone at Sports Illustrated because I loved Sports Illustrated. I wrote to a local sports talk show host name Gary Sparber because I listened to him a lot.

And I wrote to the Sports Editor of The Charlotte Observer because that was our newspaper and in those days nothing was bigger than the newspaper.

The Sports Editor’s name was Frank Barrows.

I knew nothing about Frank then, did not know that he had been a legendary sportswriter and columnist, did not know that he knew more about basketball than just about anyone on earth, did not know that he would soon be promoted into the upper echelons of news editing where he would put together a Hall of Fame journalism career — he had a genius for identifying stories and helping people bring them to life. I only knew the name (I think I called the paper to ask) and I wrote him a letter with the hope that my desperation would shine through and not shine through at exactly the same time, if that makes sense at all.

What did I expect to get in return? I can tell you: I didn’t think that far ahead. Several people did write back. Costas did. Sports Illustrated did. Gary Sparber did. They wrote back with with words of encouragement, advice, support. I’ll always be deeply grateful. Who could ask for anything more?

Frank, though, wrote offering something more.

He offered the path that forever altered my life.

“The only way to tell if you have the ability is to try your hand at the work” he wrote. “Because we are frequently in need of stringers — people who occasionally cover a sports event for us for, say, $35 — we can give you an opportunity to see how you might do.”

I read those words again … and I’m back in that little room in the back of the photo studio in the back of the department store in a corner of the mall. That’s where I read and re-read that letter, a hundred times, a thousand times. I was shaking. This was my shot. For the first time I could see something, a future. I would be a stringer!

I braced myself to make what I knew — absolutely knew — would be the most important call of my life. I hit the buttons. I don’t remember this exactly but Frank must have told me to call back. I know this because on the letter — the charmed letter I have kept for almost 35 years — I scribbled: CB 2:00. That “CB” was photo studio code —it meant Call Back. There was also NH (Nobody Home), LM (Left Message) and the dreaded and most often used X (Not interested).

I was the only one in the room. I sat in the chair that leaned forward, and I’m sure my voice cracked when Frank answered the phone. I know it took WAY too long for me to thank him and thank him some more and thank him again, but eventually I shut up, and he explained again that that the paper sent out stringers (there was that magical word again) to cover high school games for a few bucks. He said if I was interested (??!!) he would send me out to a game with a real Charlotte Observer reporter to see how it was done. And then, if I was still interested (??!!), I would go out myself and see if I had any knack for this sportswriting thing.

I asked him if I needed to come in for an interview. Frank said no. I apparently already had the job. This is because it wasn’t a job. It was a chance.

But here was the big thing: Frank didn’t just give me a chance. He made sure I didn’t blow that chance. He refused to let me fail. In the letter, he had given me the secret, the blueprint for a life in journalism.

“What it takes to succeed in this field,” he wrote me, “is a willingness to work with great intensity.”

I though I got that. I was ready to work hard. I was ready to outwork every other sportswriter in the world. But that’s not exactly what he was saying. “To work with great intensity,” requires more than effort, more than sweat, more than late nights and early mornings. It took me a long time to get the secret.

“You,” Frank would say, “are a natural writer.”

This seems like an especially nice thing to say, doesn’t it? But that’s not how he meant it. He meant it as a warning. He meant it to caution me of the danger ahead.

See, Frank was not a natural writer. The words came came to him haltingly, reluctantly, in a monotone of static pierced only by the occasional microwave popcorn pop of creativity. He suffered. Frank would come to his desk with a gallon of Tab, and he would literally strap himself into the chair using some sort of makeshift seatbelt that he had devised, and he would not let himself out until he had written the necessary words. Each story was a war with himself; this is why he eventually became an editor. The toll of writing was too great.

And when he became an editor, he saw things clearly.

“Talent,” he told me, “has ruined more writers than anything else.”

I didn’t understand it (I also did not think myself talented or natural). So he explained it another way. He would say, over and over, to stop “tap dancing.” He said that natural writers could not help but fall back on their talent. They would tap dance around weak reporting. They would slip out of challenging and baffling story problems with tidy bits of cleverness. They would turn away from sun in order to get off a crackerjack line. In other words, they — I — would not go deep enough, not suffer enough.

And to emphasize the point, he would sometimes print out my stories and circle a section and write, “TAP DANCING.”

These, so often, had been my favorite parts of the stories. But I would re-read them, realize that while the words were sort of pretty, they did not add up to anything. Frank was right. I had to stop tap dancing.

And in the 33 years since I got that first letter, the consistent voice in my head — the voice that has shouted out “TAP DANCING!” anytime I considered taking a shortcut or an easy or shallow road — has been the voice of Frank Barrows.

Wednesday afternoon, while walking along 5th Avenue in New York, my phone rang. It was my dear friend Tommy Tomlinson, another writer whose life was changed by Frank. We sometimes called ourselves Frank’s Boys. He told me to stop walking. He told me that Frank had died suddenly. He’d had some health problems, but he had seemed to be getting better. He was 72.

I don’t know how you repay the friend who does not just offer you the path but also walks you along to be sure that you don’t fall. I suppose you don’t repay them. In the last years of his life, Frank loved walking around the mall, the very mall where I read and re-read that letter he sent me, the one that changed everything. I would see him there from time to time, and I would always think about that little room.

“It’s always a pleasure to hear from someone who wants to be a journalist,” Frank wrote. “There are not enough really good ones in the world.”

There is one fewer today.