Notes from the Southwest Corner, 3: Remembering Fred Russell, courtesy of JB Leftwich

This was column #3 for The Lebanon Democrat. It is a repeat from when i posted it here a bunch of years ago.

SAN DIEGO – To be honest, it is difficult to write this column.

My inclination is to write yet another tribute to JB Leftwich, whose funeral services were last Saturday. But there have been many tributes, including several of my own, and JB would frown on excessive editorializing.

I will honor what I believe to be his wishes and move on with my recollections of my early days in journalism at The Nashville Banner, which happened primarily from JB being in the background.

JB often wrote for The Tennessean and occasionally covered some local sports for The Banner.  In the late summer of 1964, after I mucked up my pursuit of a college degree, JB, in conspiracy with my mother and father, used his influence to land me the position of cub sports reporter and office boy for Fred Russell at The Banner.

I worked at The Banner for ten months, ten of the most wonderful months of my life.  When I resumed pursuing my college degree at Middle Tennessee, I continued to be a sports and Wilson County news correspondent until I graduated.

I hobnobbed with George Leonard and Dudley “Waxo” Green, the two senior sportswriters. I arrived at the Banner offices, co-located with The Tennessean, long before daybreak, with Bill Roberts, the sports managing editor.

Roberts was a bantam rooster, chain smoking, no nonsense, hot type prototype of a managing editor, old style. I don’t recall ever seeing him without his necktie loosened and his sleeves rolled up. He would direct me in collecting the wire stories, writing headlines, editing under pressure, and even taking me out to the press room and assisting in making up the pages in the pre-computer days: galleys of lead into metal frames, which would eventually become the printed word. If an actor ever played Bill Roberts in a movie, it should have been Peter Falk.

JB was my teacher in the basics of good journalism. Bill was my tutor in the gut process of getting a sports section into a newspaper.

George Leonard was a quiet gentleman with a desk in the back corner of the sports department. He covered Tennessee Volunteer football among other assignments. His writing was perceptive, precise, and on target. George and I shared a lasting love of Orange jerseys (no obeisance to white at home and color jerseys away back then), high tops, single wing offense, General Neyland, Bowden Wyatt, Johnny Majors, the Canale brothers, and the quick kick.

Waxo Green never drove a car. He played golf and had many wonderful stories of the golfing world. Waxo reported on all Vanderbilt sports with enthusiasm.  He was bald, told jokes with a raspy voice, laughed loudly all of the time, and like the others, took me under his wing. He loved Vanderbilt basketball. I am sure there was a bar frequented by reporters near the Banner-Tennessean building. I wish I had gone there with Waxo.

Mike Fleming was a solid reporter who covered a variety of college and high school sports. He was younger than the rest of the staff, and he and I became close. 

Then there was Russell. Fred was erudite and Southern classy in his dress. He knew all of the sports figures nationally, and all of the Nashville people of influence. He brought me into his practical jokes, and occasionally let me drive his old Mercedes sedan.

(photo below is of Fred Russell and Grantland Rice, 1951; i cannot get it to align with the text or the caption: i remain technologically challenged)

He was kind and perceptive. In the winter of 1965, he introduced me to Bear Bryant, visiting the office before the Banner’s football awards banquet. Bear put his big hand on my shoulder, walked me to a corner and talked to me for almost an hour.

Fred wrote me a letter when he was 95, a year before he passed away (2003). In a shaky scrawl, he spoke of the closing of The Banner with sadness.

I too am sad at the demise of afternoon dailies. I also miss my two journalism heroes. As with many things, I recognize necessary changes brought about by technological advances and changing lifestyles but wish we would retain the good parts of the past while advancing. That does not occur often enough. 

And i wish people like JB Leftwich and Fred Russell would provide the same kind of guidance for the current and future journalists.

They were the best.

2 thoughts on “Notes from the Southwest Corner, 3: Remembering Fred Russell, courtesy of JB Leftwich

  1. Feel blessed to have had the experience of the wisdom they passed in to you making your contribution richer and helpful to those who followed.
    Hopefully we learn from having people like that in our lives and honor their gift by passing it on to those who follow perhaps enriching some will carry it forward.

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