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A life gone too soon, but the legend lives on

After Furman Bisher retired as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s sports columnist, he continued to write columns for little papers around Georgia.

Here’s the last one, published March 7.

History, perspective, fun.

You tell me.

Why should that writer ever retire?

Retirement was not in Bisher’s plans. But newspapers these days have no clue. It’s about numbers, not stories. They dump people to get smaller payroll numbers. If by dumping people, they lose stories, they don’t much care. If by dumping a Furman Bisher, they lose integrity, they don’t much care. And newspapers wonder why readers don’t much care about them.

Pick any column: Ed Hinton, lyrical. Jeff Schultz and Mark Bradley, colleagues who learned at the master’s knee. Larry Dorman, who saw the great man work. Scott Michaux, poignant.

Then tell me.

Isn’t Bisher a guy you’d want in your paper and on your paper’s website?

He probably would have written for free. He didn’t need the AJC’s money; he’d made his and he handled it well. Edwin Pope, later a columnist at the Miami Herald, was a kid on Bisher’s first staff in Atlanta. “One year Furman went back home to North Carolina,” Pope said. The Bisher family owned a hosiery mill. The boys in sports asked him to bring them back some socks. “Bisher, to our surprise, because he was so damned cheap, returned with a barrel full of socks and told us to take all we needed. We dived in – until Bisher started counting the pairs of socks we’d taken and said, ‘That’ll be 35 cents a pair.’ We threw ‘em back in the barrel.”

The limbo, Pope said, was invented when Bisher first came to a pay toilet.

I didn’t know that Bisher.

“Hell on wheels,” Pope said.

With Jeff Schultz’s column, there’s a mocked-up newspaper page in the background of a Bisher photograph. The page carries a big headline drawn, I’d guess, from a Bisher quote delivered in that booming Bisher voice at a moment when he, if no one else, cared about the AJC: “This Ain’t No Goddam Magazine, It’s a Newspaper.”

That’s the Bisher I knew.

A reporter.

He took great notes. He wrote them longhand. He wrote in complete sentences. His southpaw’s cursive was sweeping, legible, and pressed firmly on the notebook page. Next to his, my notes looked like scribbled Sanskrit abbreviations. At an event, I watched him do that beautiful thing. The next morning, I looked in the paper. There they were, those complete sentences, so vivid and so shrewd that they seemed to have been written not in the heat of battle but long after, perhaps after a bourbon or two, the cadences created in cool contemplation. Only Bisher could do that.

I sat with Bisher at a basketball tournament the first month we worked for the same newspaper. I was a veteran, but still decades the junior officer to the southern legend. I had been advised, “Don’t ask Furman what he’s writing.” But that day we both would write for the Sunday paper. It seemed silly not to ask. It might also be fun to hear what he’d say. So I nudged him and asked, “What’re you writing, Furman?” He looked at me. He looked again. And he said, “Judas priest! General observations on the day’s events.” Only Bisher could make general observations sing.

I rode with him in a limousine maybe 20 years ago. Jim Murray sat across from us. Time had been at work on Murray. He was blind in one eye. He had broken a foot crossing a room in the dark. He had been in surgery 12 hours for repairs to his heart. When he finished the laundry list of his physical woes, Murray pointed to the mighty Bisher, even then old enough to be dead. “And that sonuvabitch,” Murray said, “can’t catch a cold.” Only Bisher would live forever.

The April of his 86th year, Bisher sat in the interview room at Augusta National Golf Club. Jack Nicklaus was on stage. Midway through the Nicklaus session, Bisher rose and shuffled down a row of the assembled literati, headed for the exit.

Nicklaus noticed. “Furman, don’t you want to hear me?”

Only Bisher would say, “Jack, when you get to be my age, you respect your kidneys.”

Every one of those April evenings in the big-numbered years of that extraordinary life, his wife, the luminous Lynda, checked in by phone at dinner time. Bisher’s voice often carried from his Row C seat to the top of the press auditorium. But never in conversation with Lynda. He was a kid in love. “I just finished, honey,” he said, meaning he’d just filed the day’s column She must have asked if he liked it. “It wasn’t much,” he said. “I keep trying. I’ll do that perfect column someday.” He was 88.

Only Bisher.

Only Bisher ever sat with Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Henry Aaron.

Only Bisher did roadwork in hotel corridors. I saw him, when the streets were icy, pounding back and forth in a Marriott hallway. In Calgary for the 1988 Winter Olympics, the AJC’s Tom Stinson was awakened in the paper’s rental house by sounds he described as “a horse giving birth.” He followed the noise to its source. There was Bisher frolicking in sweats with a towel stuffed into his shirt, Rocky Balboa, only older. “Oh, I do this every morning,” Bisher said. It was 6 a.m.

“Furman’s a force of nature,” Bill Millsaps said. A fellow geezer columnist out of Virginia, Millsaps saw the young bull in the old man, the barrel chest, the thick arms and hands, a man perpetually energized.

“The amazing thing,” Glenn Sheeley said, “is how long Furman was able to do it – and to stay ornery the whole time.” Sheeley wrote golf and the NFL for the Atlanta papers. He worked alongside Bisher hundreds of times. “The U.S. Open, first day at Oakmont in ‘94, Tom Watson shot 68 and Nicklaus a 69, but the paper got, like, only eight inches of my story and Furman’s column on the front,” Sheeley said. “Furman saw it and said, ‘Judas priest! That’s an outrage. Don’t they know how long it’s been since Nicklaus and Watson were at the top of an Open leaderboard?’ He got on the phone to the office. ‘Give me Robert Mashburn!’ The sports editor. ‘Give me Ron Martin!’ The executive editor. He wanted to bitch at everybody. That was so cool. To see him,75 years old, fighting for us that hard.”

To quote Blackie Sherrod, who was to Dallas what Bisher was to Atlanta: “Mr. Bisher has a chemical makeup that allows him to wax warmer than most, so much so that bystanders are occasionally flecked with a light froth.”

“For a sports columnist,” said Tom Callahan, one of the best, “it’s not the legs that go first, it’s the enthusiasm. Furman kept his.” Callahan counted Bisher as one of a lost kind, the gentleman columnist identified with his city, the elder who made sure the cub reporter met the baseball team’s manager. “With the column, Furman had a way of introducing the parenthetical remark that made you smile. He saw the overgrown golfer, Craig Stadler, as ‘a carnivorous moose stalking his breakfast.’ He could say the most impolitic things, the way a man would who was born in the South the month World War I ended. But he was no raging bigot. He was a softie. When my paper, the Washington Star, died, he called to ask how I was doing. A generous man.”

Read this column, on a son gone too soon, and you’ll get a sense of the Bisher some of us were lucky enough to know.

Read this one, on his leaving the AJC, and you’ll be reminded, again, of what newspapers should be.

I was watching television the other night when I noticed the flashing red light on my BlackBerry. I clicked on the email and saw words I never expected to read.

“Sportswriter Furman Bisher dies at 93.”

A heart attack. He had planned to watch golf that afternoon, but felt ill and was taken to a hospital where he went to sleep a last time.

What a life, Furman Bisher’s.

Geezers mourn.

Dave Kindred’s latest book, “Morning Miracle,” is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached by email at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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