Wick Communications

No machine replaces Bisher

In Writing on March 23, 2012 at 8:31 am

It would stretch the truth a country mile to say Furman Bisher and I were friends. I’m sure he didn’t remember me as anything other than one of hundreds of young men who would give anything to be able to do what he could do so effortlessly. But we did share seats in the same press box, first at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium then at Turner Field, for a few years there. He was a towering figure in Atlanta sports. Suffice to say, I was not.

If I conjured the courage at all, I spoke to him as I might to the Pope, with reverence and a bowed head. To be acknowledged by Bisher, in Atlanta, was akin to beatification.

Bisher made being a sportswriter a majestic thing. He worked for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution for 59 years. That’s right, 59 years. He covered the first NASCAR race in 1949. I doubt he missed a Master’s golf tournament in all that time. He interviewed Shoeless Joe Jackson, for heaven’s sake. And, as the AJC notes in its obituary, he wrote his final column on the same typewriter he used when he started in 1950. (I think the typewriter thing was part of his schtick. I’m sure he used computers.)

Bisher wasn’t a legend because he had been behind that typewriter a long time. He was a legend because he was this good. It’s a column about the death of his son, Roger. Before you read further, just think about that task for a moment. Now read:

Let me tell you about Roger Bisher, the athlete. It won’t take long because the career was short. …

He was well-built for a kid. Looked like an athlete. Could run like a deer. He had a coachable attitude. So the Pop Warner coach at Chastain Park talked him into coming out for the team. His brother Jamie was already a player. Roger looked like a natural. He pitched in with moderate enthusiasm, then discovered that the coach knew all about machinery, so while the others practiced, Roger talked machinery with the coach, who enjoyed talking machinery with Roger, and football got lost. End of career. …

Bisher went on in that April 2000 column to write about Roger’s affinity for junkyards and his mechanical nature. Roger was the neighborhood repairman and even worked on projects for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The column ends this way.

The subject of Roger comes up today because I have lost him. A beautiful, handsome, loving man, no finer son has any parent ever had, and I grieve. Old men like me should be going first, not one who had so much to give to the world as he. Roger Chisholm Bisher passed away Monday afternoon. I saw him take his first breath in life and I saw him take his last. He was just 44, but in my heart he shall always be that smiling child blowing up his workshop. Thanks for giving me your time.

Bisher expected a lot of his readers. He never spoke down to them. He was literary, a real writer. His columns could be long and read more like something written by Homer than some homer in the press box. We don’t know precisely what Bisher would have said about the kind of software promulgated by companies like Narrative Science. But I doubt he would worry that some conglomerations of 1s and 0s would ever delete him.

In fact, Bisher might have been happy to leave the gamer to GameChanger. That would only leave him more time to write about the people who played the games, the ways sports shed light on our commonalities and differences.

Bisher’s death is a reminder of one way in which we differ from our computer overlords: We will all die. Bisher wrote about death often in the course of his life. If that seems surprising of a sportswriter, it’s only because too many of them spend too much time writing about lesser things. Here is Bisher again, in a collection gathered by the AJC’s Mike Tierney:

On racecar drivers, after a track fatality: “Death is always present, but seldom ever given the courtesy of acknowledgement. [Drivers] speak in terms of caution and care and warning, but they never say for what. They never say it’s for the privilege of living another day.”

On his late family dog, Dean: “I can see his little grave from where I’m sitting. A few brown leaves from a maple tree have drifted down and fallen on it. I didn’t cry yesterday. I couldn’t afford to. It upsets little boys to see their daddy cry. It’s my turn now when nobody else can see.”

On the golfer, Bobby Jones: “The final decisive humbling of man is death. It comes to each and all in various manners and sometimes the lowly are redeemed in the end by dying heroically, and sometimes those of highest dignity are brought to their passing by the most excruciating of forms.”

If you are a sportswriter, and you are worried that some computer program will take your job, let an old sportswriter teach you an old trick: Make your job one the computer can never understand let alone replicate. Write about love and death and hard work and empathy and hate and war and what it all means. In other words, write about us, not just the games we play. Worked for Bisher for six decades.

Clay

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