The recent death of my wife’s esteemed mentor in the public schools of Albany, Ga., brought recollection of those who led me to the field where I toiled for 40 years. Anyone who ever held a job for more than an hour had a mentor.
Mary Lee worked in elementary education in the southwest corner of Georgia for 30 years, guided by a lady who was her school’s principal and later an assistant superintendent in that district. Bert Maguire latched onto Mary Lee and guided her and befriended her for the next 40-plus years. They remained great friends until Bert’s death at age 96.
It was my father, Charles B. Gordon, who motivated me to go into the newspaper arena. I joined the paper boy delivery ranks at about 11, then he moved me into the darkroom and sportswriting corner in the newsroom as an adolescent. I am indebted to him for more than life itself.
I left the Navy in that same Albany on a Friday and went to work on Monday at the Jackson Daily News under the most grizzled Mississippi sports editor of the era, Lyle Lee Baker.
A year under the veteran, renowned newspaperman was one of enlightenment, encouragement and unease. The gangly Illinois native who came south to play basketball at Millsaps College could be the devil to work for at times, but learning accompanied the fear.
It would be difficult for any reader of the Jackson newspapers’ sports section in the era from the 1950s to the 1980s to not recall Baker and his column, “Baker’s Dozen,” which seemingly appeared seven days a week, but probably less. Baker traveled the country covering Mississippians in sporting events, including several NCAA track meets in faraway Oregon.
Baker was inarguably the first Mississippi sports editor to give African-American athletes sprawling coverage on his pages. He covered Alcorn State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State long before most of his contemporaries appeared on those campuses.
Yes, he was there in 1963 when Mississippi State’s basketball Bulldogs sneaked out of the state to compete in the NCAA tournament, defying state laws prohibiting whites from playing against blacks. A classic photo in Sports Illustrated’s coverage of the event proved Baker was on scene.
I recall as a teenager battling other sports addicts in junior high school for the library’s copies of the Jackson papers. Laurel native Carl Walters’ column “Shavins” was a must-read in the morning Clarion-Ledger, as was Baker’s in the afternoon Daily News.
Walters had a huge following and a writing style less truculent than Baker’s. I never worked directly for Walters. His mentoring of me was largely through osmosis and my adoration of him.
Another tutor in my early working years was Pennsylvania native Bill Ross, sports editor of the Tupelo Daily Journal, who saved my life by bringing me back to Mississippi after I senselessly wandered off to a Texas newspaper for a sojourn. Ross had largely covered umpteen high schools and colleges by himself before making me his first assistant sports editor.
Ross could be as irascible as Baker, but his understudies learned the high value of covering local sports events to a regional newspaper’s circulation growth.
When the revered Ross’ coverage slipped a bit, his readers would call him out. I recall a junior college football game he and I covered where fans kept yelling and advising him where to spend eternity after he failed to cover an earlier contest.
These are the type mentors most of us couldn’t have done without. I remain grateful for mine.