Bisher: Not as much fun without Grizzard

On the death of AJC columnist Lewis Grizzard, March 21, 1994

Lewis Grizzard fell in love with newspapering at an early age. Then he fell in love with The Atlanta Journal. In fact, this is what he wrote about his teenage decision:

"If it ever came down to a choice, I would rather work for The Journal than The Constitution. You have to work out the details of your career early."

He launched his sportswriting career when he was 10. It was a little awkward at first, for the star of the team he covered was himself -- in Moreland, Ga., where he will be returned to the earth Tuesday.

If you'd ever told him that someday he would be the top, front-page headline in Atlanta, he would have laughed with you. Lewis Grizzard, the same shy young man who walked into the old building on Forsyth Street in the early '60s and applied for a job. He was told there was none.

Now, on this Sunday morning, about 30 years later, this same Lewis Grizzard gets the biggest, blackest headline in the paper. This time both papers shared him. It was not the kind of headline he'd want to stick in his scrapbook. It said simply and starkly:

"Grizzard close to death."

It could have gone ahead and said it all. It was just a matter of time, and on Sunday morning, time took care of the rest. Lewis Grizzard was dead at the age of 47. Lewis Grizzard. Dead. It hardly seems real, and definitely not fair.

Not so long ago, before the first major bout with his heart, he said rather wistfully, "If I thought I could live to be as old as you, I'd be the happiest man on earth."

Is this the same Lewis Grizzard I wrote about above? Hardly. He had a humble ambition, and I can testify to that. In the book, "When I Get Back to Georgia, I'm Going to Nail My Feet to the Ground, " there is a line of which I'm rather proud, and with all immodesty, I reproduce it: "I made up my mind that when I became a sportswriter, I would write like Furman Bisher."

He overshot his goal considerably. This was a part of his early ambition, to ride the train and cover the Atlanta Crackers to such exciting destinations as Little Rock and Mobile, Ala. There was something about watching the countryside pass in review through a train window, having lunch on a white tablecloth in a speeding diner, seeing little towns fly by and hearing the warning bell sound its urgent ding-ding at crossings, where everything else stood still while your train raced through. It had something to do, I'm sure, with his lifelong romance with railway travel.

I'll give you an idea of what a personnel genius I was. I tried to make Grizzard an executive. What a waste. With all that talent for turning out columns that has the whole country as his market, I tried to turn him into something like the dispatcher at the bus station.

Jim Minter had left The Journal to become managing editor of The Constitution, and we needed an executive sports editor to replace him. After a week of agonizing, I gave the job to Grizzard. I couldn't have done him a worse disservice. It was sort of like hitching Whirlaway to a plow.

It was Minter who unscrambled his career for him. It was Minter who discovered the writer in him, first as a sports columnist in The Constitution. It was soon obvious that was like putting him in hobbles, restricted his humor and his breadth of subjects. When Minter moved him to the general section of the paper, it was like a liftoff. Grizzard was in orbit.

Where all those other sides of Grizzard developed, his stand-up humor, his ability to captivate an audience, was a mystery to me. I'm sure that Ludlow Porch, his stepbrother, had some influence in forming the entertainer that Grizzard became. I always told him he was never very funny when he worked for me.

God bless him, we had better times in the years after he came home to Atlanta from the Midwest chill of Chicago. He'd have been much happier if I'd left him to the work he loved and saddled another with the executive title. And I'll show you why, based on another line from "If I Ever Get Back to Georgia . . ."

One disgruntled employee had sued for overtime. (Way I've always seen it, there ain't no overtime in newspapering, all your time is newspaper time.) Lewis said it in his own way. "I got to see ball games and golf tournaments for free and got my byline in The Atlanta Journal sports section, by God. Wasn't that and 160 big ones a week enough?"

See, happiness wasn't as expensive back then. How times have changed, and so will our lives without Lewis Grizzard.

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