Saying good-bye to Granddaddy

My grandfather, Lamar Stall, died Feb. 7, 2013, at the age of 94. I wrote this about him to be handed out at the memorial service:

It shouldn’t have come as a shock. Granddaddy was 91 years old. But still, on that day in the spring of 2010, when he first started talking about dying, I wasn’t ready.

He’d say he was okay with death, and he’d say it with grandiosity, with the longest of long-term lenses. He’d lived a very full life, he’d say, satisfied, and there simply wasn’t much more for him to accomplish.


His life, after all, had been defined by his accomplishments. Later that summer, a power plant named for him was going to become operational. He certainly wasn’t going to miss that. So I knew I had at least a couple of months. Yet, I didn’t want to risk waiting.

We had always assumed that a Boston Red Sox heartbreak would send him to his end. But Granddaddy, who became a diabetic late in life, was convinced that his heart wasn’t going to have the stamina to pump the necessary amount of blood to his extremities for much longer. It was his body, so I had to believe him.

In early June, I got in the car in Kansas City and drove through the Ozark foothills to Shreveport, hoping I wasn’t barreling toward the inevitable good-bye.


The plant opening arrived. One last moment in the sun. The J. Lamar Stall Unit of the Southwestern Electric Power Company — the enterprise he presided over as president before I was born — would stand forever as a monument to the ever- practical dreams of a boy from the humble town of Gibsland, Louisiana. They even let him hit the start button.

After the plant opening, his heart kept beating, stronger than he could have predicted. That meant three more Christmas visits, two more summers spent discussing the Red Sox. Granddaddy and I were cheating time, and we knew it.

What grandson gets to watch and learn from his grandfather for 30 years?

Many people knew Lamar Stall as a shrewd businessman. Some knew him as the man who regularly led the singing of hymns at Sunday school. Others knew him for his love of baseball or Bingo. But for three decades, I knew him purely as Granddaddy, and, as the years churned by, I began to understand how lucky I was to have that perspective all to myself.

Each time we would see each other, starting with that visit in June of 2010, I would force a moment of reflection, and I do mean force. Granddaddy was never one to put voice to his affection. He would show his love through generous gifts, through Hallmark cards that aptly said the words he couldn’t, through the crisp retelling of a story from my childhood, often accompanied by a laugh and his trademark wag of the tongue. Throughout the years, those gestures had been enough for me, but I would still tell him that I loved him when we got off the phone, even though I knew he probably wasn’t going to say it back.

On these visits, I was going to tell him how I felt about him, and I usually was able to leave feeling that I had said what I needed to say.

With each succeeding visit, the plan became harder to execute. He didn’t say as much, period. Neither did I. At a certain point, all that mattered to me was that he knew I cared enough to be there. I’d sit on the sofa using my laptop, chatting with my friends or working, and he’d doze off in his big leather chair, likely full on some meal of fried food we had gorged on earlier like the two bachelors we were.

Last Christmas, I decided to stay an extra night. I wanted him to feel like we’d had a real visit. I was planning to leave in the late afternoon on Christmas Day, but, by about 2 p.m., he was practically shooing me out the door to head back to my mother in Nacogdoches. Even at 94, Granddaddy had too much pride to have me staying there on his behalf.

I told him I wasn’t leaving right away. There was one more conversation we were going to have. Just in case.


In August of 1989, my mother pulled me out of class in the second grade. She had a surprise. She and Granddaddy were taking me to the Rangers-A’s game that night in Arlington, where Nolan Ryan was likely going to achieve his 5,000th strikeout. Having only been a student at First Baptist Church School for a few months, I was trying to find my place among my new classmates, and I can only assume that instance earned me some cool points.

On an October night in 1992, Granddaddy came over to the yellow house on Ockley Drive to look after me. I was 10, and it’s likely Mom was off playing the piano somewhere. The Atlanta Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates were playing in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. In the middle of the game, Granddaddy told me that he was taking me to the World Series, games 1 and 2, and so I’d better get a bag packed for Atlanta or Pittsburgh. The Braves won in miraculous fashion, with three runs in the bottom of the ninth, and, when Sid Bream slid under Mike LaValliere’s tag, I sprinted throughout the house with glee. I was going to Atlanta.

This was what childhood was like as Lamar Stall’s grandson. You had once-in-a- lifetime experiences. No, you did not go to his mansion and swim in his swimming pool and ride in his Mercedes, although he could have provided all of that if he wanted. You went to his modest red brick house on Richard Avenue and rode shotgun in his Mercury Grand Marquis and did hours of yard work for $1, but then you also got to go to the 1992 World Series, the 1994 All-Star Game and the 1995 World Series.

You got to play sports all year long and know that you’d never need to ask for a ride home from practice or have to look in the stands at a game and wonder why nobody was there rooting for you. Granny and Granddaddy were always there, for my signature moments and the ones I would have rather crumpled up and tossed in the trash.

It was only natural that I’d come to view Granddaddy as something of a father figure. I had a loving and caring mother present, so Granny didn’t need to be anything other than my grandmother, the “boss of the presents.” My father went out of his way to be as present as he could be while living three hours away in Dallas, and I loved him for that dearly, but I needed Granddaddy to help me through the day to day.

Sometimes, it wasn’t easy. He once tried to teach me how to tie a tie, and I ended up with a windsor knot that was as big as my head. I’m pretty sure I asked somebody else to help with ties from then on.

And, while Granddaddy was as cool as they came most of the time, there were times when we ran into the two-generation cultural gap.

There was the time we were staying at the Red Sox team hotel in Arlington. I was a teenager, an experienced autograph hound at that point, and it was getting to be pretty late as I waited for players. I figured Granny and Granddaddy were asleep, so what did it matter when I came in? Well, all of a sudden, there was Granddaddy coming out of the elevator, looking disgruntled, his white hair going every which way. I was keeping Granny awake, so it was time to go to the room.

Then, there was the Head Shaving Incident of 1998. I was about to move with my mom and step-dad to Buffalo, New York, and I was playing in a three-on-three basketball tournament that summer with some friends that my grandparents believed would someday land me in jail. My buddies convinced me to shave my head down to the lowest level of the clippers as a final show of solidarity. I knew that it would make my grandparents miserable, but I did it anyway. Feeling guilty after the tournament, I called to warn them. When I returned to their house, where I was staying, the lights were off, and Granddaddy was sitting in the living room, waiting for me. He had never been so mad at me in my life. I was mortified.

They looked at it as me rebelling against them. It was undoubtedly bad timing. I was off to the unknown, to a place far away from the comfort of Saturday hamburgers homemade french fries on Richard Avenue, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d ever look at me the same way again.


Granddaddy came to pick me up from my father’s house later that summer. The Red Sox were in Arlington, and so of course we were going. My hair had started to grow back in, so he even allowed for us to have a picture taken together.

Soon, I would move to Buffalo, and I would love it. I had been ready for a new adventure, unbeknownst to him and Granny, and those Western New York winters provided more character-building than any Shreveport summer could.

I felt Granddaddy wouldn’t understand why I wanted to attend the University of Michigan over the University of Texas. I respected him enough to write him a letter, basically asking his permission, because he was going to be contributing significantly financially to either destination. I tried to be honest. In the end, it was no issue. Granddaddy acknowledged that he knew the U of M was a great institution and gladly gave his blessing.

Still, I felt I owed him something. If I was going to go out of state to a school like that, I needed to major in something practical that would clearly provide me a respectable income. That meant I entered school thinking I’d major in Statistics, and, for two and a half years, I toiled away in high-level math classes that I had no

business being in. Even after I started writing for the Michigan Daily and fell in love with sports writing, I continued enrolling in Statistics pre-requisites.

I should have thought back to a conversation I had with him late in my teenage years. Somehow we got on the topic of why people were successful. Granddaddy told me “You’ve just got to be nice to everybody,” which didn’t make a ton of sense. There were plenty of nice people who didn’t become successful. I think what Granddaddy was trying to tell me was that, if I treated people with respect, I’d rise up the ranks of whatever field I chose, just like he did.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised during my junior year when he told me he would support me if I majored in Sociology and pursued my dream of a career in sports journalism.

Looking back, there were so many things that I thought Granddaddy cared about that he actually didn’t. What part of the country I lived in. What school I went to. What field I pursued. But I realize now that he had worked his whole life and stored away most of his earnings so that his only grandchild could have the resources to do whatever it was he wanted.


When the Red Sox lost to the hated New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series on an 11th-inning home run, I wrote a column in that week’s Michigan Daily entitled “You think the Sox loss hurt you? Talk to Granddaddy.”

I told the story of my relationship with him, our shared love of the Red Sox and how I wondered how many more games I would get to go to with him at Fenway Park. He was 85 then.

The next year, the Red Sox and Yankees met again in the ALCS. This time, Granddaddy was willing to give it a go, even though it was becoming harder for him to travel by air. We met in Boston for Games 3-5, with the Red Sox already trailing 2-0 in the series.

We’d seen enough Red Sox baseball to know how it was likely to go. They hadn’t won a World Series in his lifetime for a reason (cruelly, he was born September 19, 1918, eight days after the Sox won their last World Series). Sure enough, the Yankees pounded the Sox 19-8 in Game 3.

Granddaddy and I showed up early for Game 4, just hoping to extend the series. The Sox won that one with some late-inning magic. I went to Game 5 by myself, but felt like Granddaddy was right there with me as the Sox pulled another one out.

The rest is oft-told history. The Sox took the final two in New York, becoming the

first team to win a series when trailing 3-0, and Granddaddy and I were there to see the beginning of it. They’d win the World Series with a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals.

My Shreveport friends and I had often theorized that, if the Red Sox ever won a World Series, Granddaddy would lay back in his chair with a content smile, take off his black-rim glasses, close his eyes and leave this world a happy man right then and there.

But he and the Red Sox — who won it all again in 2007 — weren’t done yet. ***

So no, after all of that, I was not going to just leave Richard Avenue last Christmas without saying a few things, things I’d probably already written or said to him numerous times.

We were going to keep having this talk until that day came when the conversation actually served its purpose.

We sat in the living room, him slumped in that big leather chair and me in the orange chair in the corner. How do you start another good-bye?

I wanted him to know that I was making personal improvements. That was new. I had been running a lot the last six months, and I was training for a half-marathon. I said I wanted to be in the best shape of my life so that I could be there for my theoretical children and grandchildren like he was for me. I said that I wanted him to know how responsible I would be with my money (his money) and that it was my job to make sure future generations would be taken care of through his sacrifice.

These things all pleased him.

He told me once again how proud he was of me and the man I’m becoming, and how we’d had as good a run as any grandfather and grandson could hope for. He told me to keep ‘em flyin’ up in Pittsburgh, and to inform him of my progress.

There we were, doing it all over again. We knew where we stood.

I gave him a hug and headed back to East Texas, thankful for these 30 years, mentally preparing to carry on the improbable legacy of a quiet boy from Gibsland.

“Roger Ebert … knows things we don’t know.”

Last week, I drove through the Midwest on a college basketball road trip with three friends from the Post-Gazette. We stopped in for a game at all of our alma maters — Notre Dame, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois — plus Butler for good measure. Obviously, it was awesome. We rented a brand new mini-van that had a TV. We ate whatever we wanted, drank whatever we wanted, said whatever we wanted, sang whatever we wanted.

During our last stop, in Champaign, Ill., I met a couple of young journalists at the Daily Illini. I was detailing to them some of the greats who came before me at the Michigan Daily, and so naturally asked them who the big DI alums were. They immediately mentioned Will Leitch, the founder of Deadspin, and Roger Ebert, the esteemed film critic. Apparently, Leitch and Ebert, despite being decades apart at the DI, had formed a relationship — one that was severed when Leitch, early in his career, wrote a scathing critique of Ebert.

After I got back to civilization here in Pittsburgh this week, I pulled up a post Leitch had written about Ebert for Deadspin (click here), which linked to a profile written by Esquire’s Chris Jones about Ebert (click here), which linked to Ebert’s response to Jones’ piece (click here).

I am a smarter journalist for having read all three, which is no surprise considering the accomplishments of the authors. I’d heard about Jones having written on Ebert in the Twitterverse, where Jones (@MySecondEmpire) had admitted he was crushed that his Ebert story wasn’t a National Magazine Award finalist.

I totally understand the disappointment of thinking a piece is worthy of an award and not getting one. Of course, I have never written something on the level of what Chris Jones wrote about Roger Ebert. Hopefully someday I will.


“This is Sandy Koufax”

In every great story, there are lessons tucked away for people aspire to write great stories. Here is one from David Finkel, who wrote a profile of Larry King in The Washington Post back in 1991. He observes King telling a story to a group of admirers that relates how he and the great southpaw pitcher Sandy Koufax were childhood friends in Brooklyn. Finkel doesn’t take this at face value, which is the lesson, and a hard one to learn, no matter how many times you hear it.

If you’re like me, you are a trusting person. You want to believe that people are telling the truth. So when Larry King tells you that he was friends with Sandy Koufax, you want to believe it. David Finkel checked it out anyway, as part of the correct process for writing a true story about Larry King.

The revelation in that phone call to Sandy Koufax is the one that made Finkel’s story — “Is He Happy? Is He All Right?” — a memorable one.

Getting to know Ted Williams

When Ted Williams was chasing .400 in the summer of 1941, my grandfather was 22 years old and just out of college at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La. He was studying to be an accountant, and he loved baseball because, to him, it was “the thinking man’s game.” He’d say that phrase to me often as he brought me up to love glove, ball and bat, and he’d tell me about the “Splendid Splinter,” No. 9, Ted Williams.

imagesWilliams was the best hitter who ever lived, and this idea of who Williams must have been stuck with me, and it would manifest itself in odd ways. At the craps table, I liked to have my chips placed on 9. And when I’d hold the dice in my sweaty hands, I’d think to myself “Ted Williams.” It seemed to me, whether it was true or not, that I was more lucky when my money was riding on 9. Anyway, Ted Williams has always been mythic to me, and I never took the time to really find out much about the guy, which was nice, given that today you can’t help but find out about what athletes are really like. I knew Wade Boggs, my true childhood idol, was an alcoholic who was known for his drinking exploits on airplanes. I knew Roger Clemens, another idol, was an accused steroids user who cared so much about his reputation that he was willing to drag his family through years and years of public embarrassment as he fought the allegations. But all I knew about Ted Williams, other than a few things like that he was always in battles with the Boston media, was that he could hit the cover off the ball and that he made my grandfather get really excited.

Granddaddy, as he tracked Williams’ pursuit of .400, didn’t get to do much else other than check the box scores in the newspaper. Ted went 3-of-4 today. Oh, well he only was 2-for-5 yesterday. He didn’t know that Williams was obsessed with being the greatest of all time to the point of near madness, and maybe that was better. I often battle with the question of whether we know too much today, or whether this sporting life without so many heroes strikes the right tone.

All of this leads to last week, when writer Richard Ben Cramer died. Through Twitter, I was introduced to one of his seminal works, a profile of Ted Williams, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now,” in Esquire. Cramer tracks down Williams in his 70s, in the Florida Keys, and one of the most enriching profiles I’ve read ensues.

Now, I feel like I know Ted Williams. I sent a link to my grandfather, who is 94 and uses e-mail regularly. I am not surprised, for a variety of reasons, that I have not heard back about the story.

I’d love to know what you think.


So, I’ve never been much of a blogger. My editors at The Kansas City Star would confirm that for you. But I’m going to give it a try. Don’t expect too much. I’m much more comfortable writing when I have about 50 pages of notes and an outline that tells me exactly where I’m going.

I want this site to be a place where I can post links to great stories written by others and also post my best work and possibly explain some of the reporting that went into a story.

Every once in a while, I might rant about Michigan sports or some other topic that moves the meter in my brain.

Please let me know what you think of the site!