Gary and I go way back. I was the junior member of The Knoxville Journal sports staff from 1974 until he came on board a few years later. Being three years older and slightly more experienced, I did what I could to help him settle into his job. And, of course, I passed along to him all of the stories I didn't want to do.
It took only a couple of months to realize what a special writer he was. It took even less time to realize what a special guy he was. Gary was awfully quiet, so getting acquainted was no simple task. The more I got to know him, though, the more I liked him. He was genuine, funny and incredibly thoughtful. I remember making a wisecrack once that only Gary heard. When he repeated it and several co-workers laughed, he quickly pointed out: "Randy said it first."
Because The Journal's pay scale was ridiculously low in those days, both of us struggled financially. In the early years of their marriage, Gary and Cindy were so desperate for a second car that they settled for a beat-up rattle-trap that looked to be at least 30 years old. Most of the car's finish was either rusted or faded, so Gary bought a brush and a gallon of spread latex, then hand-painted the whole car himself. The improvement was minimal but he didn't care.
"The good thing about this car is that other drivers never cut me off," he once confided. "They know I'm not afraid to hit 'em."
Gary had such incredible focus in those days that he went into a trance-like state when he wrote. I'd walk into the sports department, see him typing away on a story and say, "How's it going?" He would sit there -- seemingly oblivious to my presence -- for 20, 30, 40 seconds. Finally, he'd look up and say, "Oh, hi." Then he'd resume his quest for the perfect transition paragraph.
Since we lived within a mile of one another, we attended the same church and began playing golf together. Both of us shot in the low 80s but I don't recall ever comparing scores. Nobody cared who won because the camaraderie was far more important than the numbers. And, in all the times we played I never heard him utter anything worse than an infrequent "Damn." This, of course, qualifies for sainthood by golfer standards.
Basically, Gary was the ideal golf partner. He was silent when you scuffed a shot but always had a kind word when you caught one just right. One day, when most of my drives seemed to be finding their way into the woods, I made a surprisingly good second shot while wrapped around a low-hanging tree limb.
"You sure hit good recovery shots," Gary said, smiling as he delivered the unusual compliment.
"I've had A LOT of practice," I said. We both laughed. Those leisurely rounds of golf we shared rank among the fondest memories of my life.
Gary also liked to play basketball. Several Journal staffers formed a pickup team one winter and bought matching jerseys. Each jersey had the players' nickname and number on the back. Gary had unusually skinny legs, so we jokingly called him "Massive Thighs." Since that wouldn't fit on a jersey, we shortened it to "Legs." I never called him anything else the rest of his life.
Gary had a reputation for absent-mindedness, and it was well deserved. He showed up for one of our golf outings without his shoes. He showed up another time without his clubs. And he was so prone to being late that I eventually started telling him our tee time was 30 minutes earlier than it actually was, figuring we'd get there about the same time. And we did.
I've learned from other sports writers that Gary's absent-mindedness extended to his work. He routinely showed up for assignments without a notepad -- ultimately scribbling notes on a checkbook, a napkin, even a handkerchief. One time he flew to New York for an NCAA Final Four ... only to discover he'd left his money at home. Lacking cab fare to get from the airport to his hotel room, he carried bags for travelers until he scraped together enough tip money to pay for a taxi.
Still, my favorite story is one I witnessed. Late one night, with the deadline for entering a sports-writing contest at hand, Gary was rushing about the office, assembling and clipping his entries. Unfortunately, each entry had to be glued to a piece of typing paper, and there was no glue in the office. I watched in amazement as my enterprising co-worker pulled two small packets of honey from his desk drawer, then used the sticky delicacy to affix his articles to the backing.
Remarkably good-natured, Gary relished funny stories, even when he was the subject of them. He once told me about flying from Baton Rouge to Knoxville after covering a Tennessee-LSU basketball game. He was typing a second-day story on his laptop computer when a distinguished-looking fellow in the next seat asked what he was writing. When Gary explained it was a followup article on the Tennessee-LSU game, the man asked: "Is LSU pretty good?"
"Yeah," Gary said, "but their coach is a real flake."
The man nodded thoughtfully, then asked Gary's name.
Gary told him, then countered: "So, what's your name?"
"I'm Bob Brodhead," answered the man who served as LSU's athletic director and hired the "flake" of a coach, Dale Brown.
Gary already was a very gifted and polished writer when I met him. Still, he advanced to a higher level following the premature death of his father. The pain of that tragic loss seemed to bring out an even more compassionate side of him. Years later, when his infant son Christian survived a life-threatening brain tumor, Gary's writing developed an even greater tenderness. He still could do a rip job when circumstances warranted, but he also produced human-interest stories so touching they would bring tears to your eyes. Suddenly, he was writing from his heart. And, suddenly, he was winning awards -- not just statewide, but national awards.
Classy guy that he was, Gary never displayed his awards; he kept them in a box in his basement. Accolades never impressed him and fame never changed him. He remained one of the most decent and unassuming people I've ever known right up to the day a massive heart attack ended his life at age 49.
He became the writer we all aspire to be. And he became the man we all aspire to be.
I'm not sure any of us will equal him in either quest.