Karl Lindholm: Blame it on Gene Wise

The late Gene Wise. He was my adviser in graduate school.
Gene was an intellectual historian — that doesn’t mean he was a historian who was an intellectual (though he was); no, he studied American intellectual history, the history of ideas and thinkers and so forth.
I was a full-time secondary school English teacher in Cleveland, with all that entails (coaching, for example), and part-time graduate student. Intellectually, Gene and I were not a close match.
What Gene and I had in common was an interest in sports. In the casual interstices of our mentor-student relationship, we talked sports.
He had played small college basketball at Hanover College in Indiana (he was very tall) and I had played at Middlebury College. Cleveland then, as now, was an avid sports town, and had just picked up its own pro basketball team, the Cavaliers.
Gene gave me permission to take sports seriously, to consider sports as culturally significant. Once when I queried the legitimacy of the study of sports, he offered this response:
“Karl, last night there was an open meeting in City Hall with the mayor and other civic leaders to discuss a costly and controversial expansion of public mass transit into the suburbs, a crucial initiative.
“Nine people showed up.
“Also last night,” he said, “there was a Browns’ football game at Municipal Stadium: 90,000 people showed up.”
He then suggested an independent study course for me: I would write an essay a week on whatever I chose, and he and I would discuss the essay and its various implications.
I still have those essays (pictured below), the Dead Sea Scrolls of my life: my cramped handwriting on long yellow legal pads with Gene’s comments in green or red (this of course was well before computers and word processing and electronic mail).
I cite this story this week on the 20th anniversary of my sports column in the best small town newspaper in the country. The first piece I wrote in this space for the Addison Independent was just about 20 years ago, January 14, 1999.
In the fall of 1998, local sports legend Richard “Ziggy” Livingston died. For years, Ziggy (pictured, right) had been providing his idiosyncratic meditations on local sports in a column, “Zig Zags,” that ran at the top of the Independent’s sports page.
I had some things on my mind, so I thought I would offer to write an occasional sports piece in the space vacated by Ziggy’s departure.
So I walked into that time warp which is the Independent’s newsroom (enter there and you think you’re in a 1940s film and Spencer Tracy, in green eyeshade and sleeve garters, will appear any minute) and I spoke with the then assistant editor Peter Conlon.
“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”
My first column was about Tim Johnson, the manager at the time of the Toronto Blue Jays and before that a coach with the Red Sox. Johnson was known to regale his players, especially in tough times, with dramatic stories of his combat in Vietnam with the Marines.
Trouble was, he had never served in Vietnam. He served Stateside in the Marine Reserves, never left San Diego. His lies are called “borrowed valor,” and he deserved the contempt I expressed in the column.
Johnson’s story had special poignancy for me as I too had sat out Vietnam in the Reserves, preferring that role to the military draft and Vietnam, jail, or exile to Canada, the alternatives in 1967.
I joined the Army to avoid the war, an irony typical of that confused time. I vowed I would never dissemble or lie about my motivation. “To lie about your war record,” I concluded in that first column, “is really low.”
My second column was more fun. It was about making the transition from player to referee in the town basketball league. I thought it would be easy.
“About five minutes into my first game,” I wrote, “my former teammates and friends were transformed into snarling monsters, casting aspersions on my eyesight, honesty, masculinity, heritage, my very being.
“I knew immediately I had been naïve. By the third game, I thought my name was ‘Jesus Christ Karl!’”
“In Search of Ted Williams” was next (March 11,1999), a reflection on a week at Spring Training with the Red Sox in Winter Haven, Florida, in 1986 with Jon, my lifelong friend. Needing a salve for a painful time in our individual lives, we were taking the baseball cure.
So we watched baseball with Ted Williams, all day long and into the night for seven days, mostly on the lower fields where the young players (and Teddy Ballgame) were. Actually, we watched practice and games in the vicinity of Ted: we were in his orbit. Good therapy.
And it has gone on from then to now: 20 years, nearly 300 columns.
I realize I’m a dilettante, writing one or two columns a month, about whatever I please, taking as much time as I want, revising, cutting and trimming, while those ink-stained wretches at the Independent — Andy, John, Angelo, and other full-timers — write story after story, against deadline, putting out two newspapers a week.
This is the point where you may be expecting me to say, 20 years is enough! I’m going to pack it in and sit on the porch in my rocker and whittle.
Think again! I’m doing this as long as they’ll have me. I’ll even take a pay cut.
As Hall of Fame baseball player Brooks Robinson said in his dotage: “They’ll have to tear the uniform off my back!”
Karl Lindholm is the Dean Emeritus of Advising at Middlebury College. He earned his Ph.D in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

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