It’s hard to believe, but 25 years ago this month I became a full-time newspaperman, taking an entry-level sportswriting job down in Valdosta, Georgia — the high school football mecca just above the Florida state line.
Granted, I’d had part-time newspaper gigs for a couple of years before that as a sportswriter in Americus and Montezuma, but Valdosta was the first real job. It was owned by a company called Thomson Newspapers back then, which had a reputation for being cheap and paying terribly — which I found to be completely, 100 percent true.
But those couple of years in Valdosta were where I truly got my on-the-job training in such newspaper basics as pagination, eating at 24-7 diners, cussing and trash-can kicking. Valdosta truly is a beautiful community with some small-town charm and big-city conveniences, but not too much of either. And there’s nothing like a football Friday night in Valdosta, where I spent an awful lot of time at Martin Stadium and Hyder-Bazemore Field.
That was a long time ago, and I’ve forgotten more than I remember about those days, but there are a lot of folks that I won’t forget from those days, including:
- Gladstone Bridgewater, the janitor who hailed from the Bahamas and seemed to be the happiest man on the planet. He spoke English, but between his stammering and thick Bahamian accent, we never were too sure what he was saying, only that he was happy about it.
- I worked for three different sports editors in two years — Greg McIlvain, Mike Grubb and Chris Beckham, who now has a talk radio show down there. They were three completely different guys: Greg set me straight on the fundamentals, Mike scared the hell out of me, and Chris was laid-back and got along with just about everybody.
- Bob Watson was the eye-patch-wearing composing room fella who would often come out bearing a long sheet of paper I wasted by having the wrong code in some story.
- Bob Morrell was the publisher and walked around with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. We had a “smokers welcome” sign on our front door there in the heart of tobacco country.
- I often sat next to Buck Belue, the quarterback of Georgia’s 1980 national championship team, in the press box at Valdosta State football games, for which he did the color commentary on radio back then. He was a good fella.
- I remember a lot of great local kids I covered — especially those who went on to play pro ball like Randall Godfrey, Brice Hunter, J.D. Drew and others. I saw current Georgia coach Kirby Smart play against those local Valdosta and Lowndes High teams when he played for Bainbridge High. That’ll make you feel old.
- I spent a lot of time with Skip Carey, Don Sutton, Pete Van Wieren and the Atlanta Braves broadcasters as we listened to the games on AM radio while we got the paper out. I’d watched the Braves for so many years, and they were terrible. When they finally got good, I had to catch most of the games on the radio.
- And, of course, Cher. I don’t know why but sports editor Mike Grubb would call the local AM station and request “Gypsies, Tramps and Theives.” That song will not get out of my head. Although it may not be quite as bad as co-worker Len Robbins’ (now a newspaper publisher in Homerville, Georgia) oft-requested “Tie Me Kangaroo Down.”
And there were countless other characters — many of whom I’m still in touch with occasionally through Facebook. I can’t believe how old — and responsible (i.e. Dean Poling) — some of those folks got. Glad it didn’t happen to me!
By the way, if you’ve never heard “Tie Me Kangaroo Down,” I’ll warn you against it, but you can hear it below. It may never get out of your head: