PAST EVENTS & MEETINGS
WDC's JANUARY 2019 MEETING - Featuring famed sportswriter Lee Walburn
An induction to Lee Walburn taken from a January 1, 2010 Georgia Trend magazine article by Gene Asher titled, "Lee Walburn: A Sporting Life: From the basketball court to the editor’s chair, with stops along the way"
You name it and Lee Walburn has done it – basketball player, baseball player, high and low hurdler, sports editor, sportswriter, Atlanta Braves publicity and promotion director, public relations guru and award-winning magazine editor.
What impresses me most about Roswell Lee Walburn is not what he has achieved but the kind of person he is: loyal, warm, empathetic, generous, altruistic – a giver, not a taker. All the character traits that one would like to have are the traits that Lee Walburn has – in spades.
Lee and I worked together in the old Atlanta Journal sports department. When it came time for me to leave and pursue another career, I went into sports editor Furman Bisher’s office, closed the door, and told him I was resigning. He was surprised, for he was expecting me to be his college sports editor. He did not take kindly to my announcement. An argument of some heat followed, after which I returned to my desk.
Walburn came over to me and said, “What was that all about?” I told him I had just let Furman know I was resigning. I had never done anything else except write sports articles.
“What are you going to do?” Walburn asked me.
“I am going to sell life insurance,” I replied.
“Then I am going to buy the first policy from you,” Lee said. And he did, even though I did not know how to complete the application. Lee was patient beyond reason.
Much later, when I wanted to take my dad to the World Series in New York, it was a sellout.
There were no tickets anywhere. I told Lee about my plight. By then he had become PR director for the Braves.
“Don’t worry,” Lee told me, “you and your dad are going to the World Series.”
And of course we did, thanks to Lee, who made several long distance calls before coming up with two of the best seats in the house.
After a long career as editor of Atlanta Magazine, Walburn, 72, is now retired and living in Armuchee, Ga., about 10 miles out of Rome. He lives in a 106- year-old lakefront home with his wife, Jackie. They have three children, Shannon, Steve and David.
Walburn’s home is not large enough to hold the 200-plus awards he has won. They include “Best Promoter in Pro Sports,” the Sigma Delta Chi “Public Service Award” and the “National Headliner Award” for feature writing, plus numerous honors that Atlanta Magazine won under his leadership.
He has been sports editor of the LaGrange News, assistant sports editor of the Macon Telegraph, editor of the Atlanta Weekly, columnist for the old Atlanta Journal and head of his own public relations firm. He has been a marketing consultant for the Atlanta Hawks and Carolina Cougars.
Walburn was born and grew up in LaGrange. He played basketball at LaGrange High School and helped take his team to the State Class AAA tournament four consecutive years. He was team captain his senior year. He ran track in the spring and played baseball for the Cotton Mill League. He got ink in his blood at La-Grange High and never got it out. He was editor-in-chief of the Clarion, the school newspaper.
At West Georgia Junior College, he was twice captain of the basketball team and an undefeated pitcher on the baseball team. He transferred to LaGrange College on an athletic scholarship and earned his keep playing forward on one of the winningest basketball teams in Georgia for the 1957-58 season.
At the Atlanta Journal Walburn was on his way. He had a short-lived career on the prep beat and he became beat writer for the old Atlanta Crackers. One day he received a phone call from Dick Cecil, General Manager of the Milwaukee Braves. “Cecil told me the team was moving to Atlanta and he wanted me to be the publicity and promotion director. I never dreamed I would ever sit in a major league press box.”
After six years with the Braves, Walburn started his own PR firm, Walburn and Associates, which he ultimately sold to J. Walter Thompson. He went back to the newspaper to edit the Sunday magazine, the Atlanta Weekly, and later, wrote a column for the paper. In 1987, Walburn became editor of Atlanta Magazine, where he spent 15 years, working with and nurturing some of the best writing talent in Georgia journalism history.
JOURNALING THROUGH LIFE
You were more than generous, Jerome. I have to tell you, based on previous reviews, writers are probably better read than heard and I always get a little nervous . My wife said the other day, “you get so stressed out, why do you keep doing them? I said, I guess it's because I would really miss those introductions.”
On or about May, 2011, an old man revealed to me one of Life's greatest secrets. I was so stricken by the fundamental truth of his revelation that I enthusiastically pass it along to you today.
Every Friday Jerome Webb and I eat breakfast with our buddies at Dirt Town Deli. It's a little cinderblock general store that is a throwback to another era when nobody thought it politically incorrect to swap hugs with the waitresses. The patriarch of Dirt Town Deli was the late Rowan Hicks who passed away last year. He was the type of fellow you all know. He never eavesdropped on a conversation he couldn't interrupt with a story of his own. One morning as I was laughing and swapping tall tales with a friend, he nudged his way in to talk about the latest exploits of his bird dog, “Prime Time.” I teased Mr. Hicks about his barging in. He stepped back and I could tell that without meaning to I had embarrassed him. Then he said something that stabbed me right in the heart. POW!He said, “Well, you know, Lee, all we really have in life is our stories.” REPEAT
In so few words Mr. Hicks had revealed to me a universal truth, that stories, woven together, form the very fabric of our lives, tell What was important to us.......and more important, Who was important to us. What's the first thing you do when you gather with friends, like today. You start telling stories. Even Jesus considered story telling the most effective way to reveal the truths of life.
Basically, that is what I do, that's who I am. I tell stories. Since spilling words on paper has been the biggest part of all my jobs, first as a reporter and afterwards with the Atlanta Braves, then back to the AJC and Atlanta Magazine, its true that the gathering and telling of stories has allowed me to meet some fascinating people.
I'm going to mention a few of the more familiar to you, not as a matter of name dropping, which would be a diversion from the purpose of today's meetings, but rather to provide a contrast to my main point today.
I shamelessly admit I have kept a hand-written thank you letter from Dolly Parton. She even drew a little butterfly on the envelope.I received it following a story I did about her and on a subsequent interview she gave me my favorite quote ever. I asked her , “Dolly, does it bother you when critics call you just another dumb blonde?” And she said to me, “Naw, it don't bother me none. You see, I know I'm not dumb. And I know I'm not blond.”
At another time and another place I could tell you at least a hundred tales of what the legendary columnist Lewis Grizzard was really like. March 25th is the 25th anniversary of his death and people still want me to tell about hanging out with Lewis. Their sustained interest causes me to wonder, when do people really die? Is it when we put them in the ground or when we stop telling stories about them? Under that definition, Lewis still lives and probably the same could be said about certain of your friends or some eccentric uncle in your own family. I could tell you about meeting my boyhood hero, Gene Autry and about shaking hands with Rev. Billy Graham in the White House. I could tell you about the boxes of hate letters Hank Aaron kept stored in his attic. I could tell you about Satchel Paige who was a coach for the Braves when I was public relations director. Satchel gave me some of the best advice ever about not getting too big for my britches.
“Be who you is,
Not who you ain't.
'Cause if you ain't who you is,
You is who you ain't.”
Most of my favorite stories are not about celebrities like Satchel or even about events. I'VE ALWAYS THOUGHT THE MOST COMPELLING STORIES ARE TO BE FOUND IN THE HIDDEN CORNERS OF OUR INDIVIDUAL MINDS.....LITTLE STORIES SOMETIMES KNOWN ONLY TO YOU AND YOUR BEST FRIEND …..AND SOMETIMES ONLY REALIZED AND REMEMBERED BY YOUSELF.
With that philosophy in mind, I have come to adopt as the guideline for my essays, the wisdom of Chief Joseph, legendary leader of the Nez Perz Indians. When asked how he achieved wisdom that rivaled that of Soloman he replied, “Make big things small and small things big.” In other words, don't overreact to widespread tensions in the world and don't fail to appreciate those little everyday things that keep life in perspective.
Now there have been many ways to tell my stories and here is something I think illustrates Chief Joseph's philosophy. Forget my stories about infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, forget my series about living on the streets of Atlanta as a homeless person, forget the time at Atlanta Stadium when I was ordered by the FBI to help detain a suspected terrorist.
A column after noticing that my Mama had stopped reading drew a much greater response. Just writing a 750-word piece about the surrender of her passion, illustrated more vividly than any medical journal could have about how Alzheimer's Disease robs the joy of life from so many of our loved ones.
In hundreds of my articles and columns may be found the heart and soul of little mill villages like Shannon and, of course, my hometown of LaGrange where my first job after high school was in the spinning room.
Now I've known some wonderful people from Shannon, have swapped many a story with them and about them.
I never had a friend for a longer time than the late Wayne Minshew. We met in 1955 as teammates on the West Georgia College baseball team. We both became newspaper reporters, we both served as public relations director of the Atlanta Braves. I'm the one who hired the first Noc-A-Homa. Years later Wayne was the one who reluctantly had to fire him. We continued to see each other often when he retired to Calhoun. When he gave his own talk to the District Council, it was called “There Used to Be a Ball Park Here,” he let me read it first. When he died, Buddy Minshew gave me the honor of delivering Wayne's eulogy.
It was through mutual friendship with Wayne and mutual concern for him during his final illness that I came to know Model High School's gentle giant, Jerome Webb, and his beloved Anjell. I tell you this, I may have had friends for longer times, but I've never had one I treasure more. My friendship with Jerome has led me to conclude that late life friends may be the most profound of all.
Over last few days, Jerome and I have discussed how I might make my talk relevant to a group whose very purpose is Preservation. Most of you are of an age that will nod knowingly at the assertion that Marriage IS an Act of Preservation. Only 50% of Americans are married now, a 20% decline since 1960. Since 1990, divorce rates for the over 65 age group, has tripled. Overall, 41% of births are to unmarried mothers. And Jerome took great care to accredit high marks to my marriage and much of what I have to say in the remaining moments reflects his observations.
I admit I've written more about my own marriage than any other single subject, mainly because for the last 60 years there has been so much unusual material without having to leave home. I'm talking about my wife, of course, who was born in a duplex that she seems to recall was on First St. in Shannon village. She and her family lived in one side of the duplex and her father learned to barber on the other side with her Uncle John King, ten cents a haircut. She remembers the terror of crossing the Oostenaula on Bells Ferry, which was the only route to her grandparents farm in Everette Springs.
I actually never met her until September 1955 when I happened to hear some laughter that was not like any laugh I had ever heard. It wasn’t dainty, perhaps not even ladylike. Instead, it seemed to spring from nature, like the ripples of whitewater.
At that time I was rounding the corner of Mandeville Hall after football practice at West Georgia College and the laughter drew me to its source. She was rocking free and natural in a big cane-backed chair, a country girl, I guessed to myself, someone who had probably spent 18 years of Sundays on rickety front porches swapping stories with neighbors and waving at passing cars. Her eyes were gorgeous, like the centers of brown-eyed Susans, and I knew at that precise moment that somehow I must impress the girl who said her name was Jackie Miller.
I’m sure she figured that since we were landlocked on the same college campus she would not be able to avoid me entirely, so we might as well learn a little more about each other. We would both be playing basketball for the West Georgia Braves we discovered. Naturally I proposed that who ever scored the most point in the season opener would receive not only lavish praise from the other, but also a free hamburger from the Maple Street Cafe in Carrollton.
In the men’s first game I scored eleven points. In her first game she scored 52. Since she is a member of the Rome-Floyd County Sports Hall of Fame, some of you already know she is a local legend, that her jersey is still framed on the gym wall at Armuchee High School where 64 years after her graduation she still holds every scoring record and you may or may not know that in only 18 games with the legendary Atlanta Tomboys on a tour of Cuba in 1955, she was named to their all-time team, that she rejected an offer of a contract as a professional basketball player in order to marry the sports editor of the LaGrange Daily News who was making $45 a week. Later on, in Atlanta, she not only won a city championship in tennis doubles, she coached a city championship youth soccer team. Although she is afraid of water and can barely swim, in Florida she saved the life of an Atlanta Journal baseball reporter’s special needs son who was drowning in a hotel swimming pool. No wonder that around Armuchee, where she grew up, most commonly I am referred to as “Jackie Miller’s husband.”
That designation makes me very proud. What you may not know, but perhaps have suspected, far beyond basketball and tennis she can do most things better than her husband. She can repair cars with coat hangers and fix plumbing with chewing gum.
Once, when a date asked our oldest son what sign he was born under, he replied, “Caution—Men at Work.”
One day when Decather Miller and I had labored long hours under an unforgiving sun to complete a project she was supervising, Decathur propped wearily on his shovel and begged, “Lawed god, Mr. Lee, make her stop.”
It burdens my heart to disappoint her in that regard. The drip-drip-drip of my sweat across acres of our sun-baked pastures seems to reassure her in an old-fashioned head-of-the-family way that a penny saved is a penny earned. So, I tell myself the $125 saved by mowing our lake banks makes her happier than would the $500 I could make by writing 500 words in the same length of time.
I often describe her as safe harbor when I am lost, lonely or road weary, always available to dispense country psychology at any hour of a sleepless night. I know that when I hurt, her cornbread will heal me and when I need an audience she will laugh her magic laugh.
Each time columnist Lewis Grizzard emerged from his several heart surgeries, he demanded bowls of Jackie’s vegetable soup. He wrote three separate columns about her. In one he declared, “There may be a better person on God’s earth than Jackie Walburn, but, then, I have never met Mother Teresa.”
She is unremittingly modest...but even more so she is Country girl frugal. So by tomorrow she will have forgiven me...as I hope you will, for using this month's Watters Council meeting to save postage on a love letter. I dedicate it to those of you here today who, in your mind and in your heart, are preserving the stories of love in you life.
Monday, May 27
A plaque commemorating Shannon's fallen soldiers and a man named Julian K. Morrison. Read the tribute written by Jack Dickey.
Click on photo for a larger view, then click Go to link below the caption to see a PDF of it: