This was Jack Hairston’s sendoff Wednesday afternoon at the First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville, but sitting there flanked by Norm Carlson and Joni Martin, my mind did a whistlestop tour of the past 41 years. For all of my adult life, Jack Hairston was a constant. I’ve always remembered years and events by the music that I listened to but as I sat in the church Wednesday, I realized that I also remember the moment by the good times and sometimes sad times I spent with my close friend and mentor.
Jane Fowler, whose husband Mark became the head honcho of the Federal Communications Commission during the Ronald Reagan presidency, was my senior English teacher at Gainesville High School in 1969. It was a turbulent time in the country with the Viet Nam war in full swing and racial riots in some of the nation’s large cities. Dealing with the breakup of my parents’ 23-year marriage didn’t help. For much of my senior year, I carried a D- average in Mrs. Fowler’s class. She thought I spent far too much time working part-time as a sports writer that year, first with the Gainesville Sun, then with the Florida Times-Union and for the last three months of the school year with the Jacksonville Journal, where Jack Hairston was my boss. Mrs. Fowler wrote in my high school annual that she hoped that I would give up sports and discover the real world. “You’ll be a fine adult someday,” she wrote.
It was at the SEC championship playoff between Ole Miss and Florida in Gainesville that Jack Hairston and I really began our friendship. He had hired me a few weeks earlier at the princely sum of $25 a week but we really didn’t get to know each other until he came to Gainesville to watch Archie Manning play shortstop for Ole Miss. I didn’t know it but Jack was friends with the man who gave me my start as a sports writer, Charlie Gordon the sports editor of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. I wrote junior high sports when I was 13, graduated to high school sports at 14 and when I was 15, Mr. Gordon sent me to cover my first college football game in Oxford.
“Charlie Gordon was a legend when I was a young writer coming up,” Jack told me. “There are a lot of young sports writers out there who got their start under Charlie Gordon.”
Jack was a proud Mississippian who got his start in the newspaper business because someone just like Charlie Gordon saw something in him when he was just a kid. That day at old Perry Field on the University of Florida campus as we saw Ole Miss beat the Gators, Jack encouraged me to follow my own dreams and become a sports writer.
I’m not sure I’ve ever become a fine adult, but I have followed my dreams and I hope I’ve become a pretty good sports writer.
* * *
In 1976, I was writing sports for the Miami News. After a shocking loss to North Carolina in Tampa in the season opener, the Gators won their next six games, leading everyone to believe that “wait ‘til next year” had finally arrived and that the Gators were on the verge of their first Southeastern Conference championship. All they had to do was beat Georgia, which was coming into the game 7-1.
I told Jack that I thought this was Florida’s year. Jack wasn’t so sure.
“I think (Doug) Dickey has them (the Gators) too tight,” Jack told me. “I can tell you Vince Dooley will have Georgia playing loose and the Gators will lose a game they have no business losing. I think Dickey is so tight you couldn’t drive a straight pin up his ass with a sledgehammer.”
With the Gators leading 27-13 at halftime, I was full of myself. Jack reminded me it was still early.
Willie Wilder ran the third quarter kickoff back to the 11 where he was decleated. Dickey went ultra-conservative and the Gators ran the three lowest risk plays in history, then punted. I think Georgia scored in six plays and it was 27-20.
That set the stage for Fourth and Dumb. After getting the ball back, the Gators ran three conservative plays to the UF 30 where it was fourth and two. Dickey elected to go for it, called an option play and Earl Carr was dragged down for a one-yard loss. Georgia scored again and went on to win 41-27. A week later, Florida lost to Kentucky and it was “wait ‘til next year” once again.
After the Georgia game, Jack turned prophetic, predicting that Doug Dickey wouldn’t be coaching the Gators in three years.
“I think today (Georgia loss) is the beginning of the end for Dickey,” Jack said. “He needed this game. He desperately needed to win this game. He lost his team today. He’ll never get them back.”
Dickey was fired after going 6-4-1 in 1977 and 4-7 in 1978.
* * *
I think Jack was the only writer who wasn’t the least bit intimidated by Charley Pell. Charley wasn’t the biggest guy in the world — he made All-SEC at Alabama as a 170-pound offensive guard — but there was a toughness about him and he had this voice that sounded like sandpaper mixed with a few pounds of gravel.
Charley and I were friends. I went on recruiting trips in the early stages of his Florida coaching career. I flew on Ben Hill Griffin’s plane with Charley to Richmond where he signed Parade All-American tailback Gordon Pleasants to a scholarship (this was legal under NCAA rules at the time) and we talked on the phone a lot.
And then we had a falling out. Charley got in my face one day and called me every name in the book. I walked to my car, got inside and buried my face in my hands. I cried. I had never been that intimidated by anybody.
“Charley had this tone … it’s hard to describe but when he got into that tone of voice he could turn your knees to jello,” Charley’s widow and my good friend Ward Pell tells me.
Charley and Jack went at it for a good year and a half after the NCAA began investigating. Charley yelled, bullied and threatened. Jack never let Charley intimidate him. When Florida went on probation and Charley was fired, Jack Hairston took no joy in what happened to the UF football program or to Charley Pell and he never carried a grudge. Years later, Jack and Charley talked and worked things out. When Charley died of lung cancer in 2001, Jack was moved to tears.
A few weeks ago during one of our late night talk sessions at the hospital, Jack and I talked at length about Charley Pell. Jack never once blamed Charley for what happened and actually admired him for taking all the blame for the NCAA sanctions even though the bulk of them were the result of a couple of rogue assistant coaches on the staff.
“It [the violations that led to sanctions] happened on Charley’s watch so the buck stopped with him,” Jack told me. “Charley never tried to blame anyone else for the troubles so you could say he fell on his sword for the people who really were cheating but if you want to know the truth, in the SEC in those days, if you were winning you were cheating and Florida was winning. I don’t think people give Charley enough credit because he galvanized the Florida fan base and got the boosters organized. Without Charley Pell, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer wouldn’t have had the kind of success they had.”
* * *
During one of our late night marathons, Jack blew my mind when we started talking baseball one night. Over the course of an hour and starting with the 1950 World Series and all the way through 1964, Jack gave me the score of every single game, the winning and losing pitchers and who hit home runs. He had a phenomenal memory for detail. On another night, he recalled the score of every Florida football game during the Ray Graves era — all 105 games. On both nights I went home to check my almanacs. He never got a score wrong.
Most of the time I spent with Jack in the last days we talked about Florida and Southeastern Conference football. Jack wrote about 10 different head coaches at Florida — Bob Woodruff, Ray Graves, Doug Dickey, Charley Pell, Galen Hall, Gary Darnell (interim), Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook, Charlie Strong (interim) and Urban Meyer. Coaches such as Bear Bryant, Shug Jordan, Bobby Bowden, Johnny Vaught, Vince Dooley and Frank Broyles called him friend.
When word got around that Jack had told the doctors to pull out the tubes because he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in bed being tended to by nurses, Spurrier, Dooley and Bowden were among the first to call to say their good-byes. It gave Jack a great sense of pride that all three of those coaches told him he was the most accurate and fair sports writer they had ever encountered.
I talked to Bobby Bowden before his conversation with Jack and the former FSU coach said, “You know, I didn’t always like what he said about me but Jack was always fair. If you deserved praise, he gave you praise. If you deserved something else, that’s what he gave you. He never sugar coated things. I could appreciate that about him. Not too many sports writers like old Jack Hairston anymore but there needs to be.”
* * *
Jack married Margie, his first wife, a few weeks after he met her. It was love at first sight and it lasted 47 years until Margie went into a local hospital for a routine heart catherization procedure and never came home. Jack spent the next two years in a deep depression that was lifted when God sent an angel named Marilyn to the rescue.
Marilyn’s combination of compassion and tough love — she made Jack get out and do things even when he didn’t want to — broke through the clouds of depression, allowing Jack to return to the living. They had eight years together and they were good ones.
A few days after the Orange and Blue Game when I was sitting at Jack’s bedside, the talk went from football to Marilyn.
“Franz, I have to be the luckiest man that has ever lived,” Jack told me. “I got to write about sports and that’s what I always wanted to do. I married Margie and we had two beautiful daughters (Beth and Martha). I lived through cancer four times, a heart attack and a stroke. And, I married Marilyn and she’s been everything to me the last eight years. I would have died a long time ago if not for her. Her solution to everything is that love can conquer anything and she’s right.”
I told Jack that Marilyn is proof that God gives Mulligans in life and added that a lot of people go through life wishing they could find one good woman and that he found two.
Jack just smiled and laughed. Then he said, “God is good, isn’t he?”
* * *
For my entire adult life, Jack Hairston was a friend I could always turn to in good times and bad. He gave to me far more than I could have ever hoped to give to him but every one of Jack’s friends — and they were far too many to count — could say that. He was a man’s man and a friend’s friend. I don’t know if I could give someone higher praise than that.
I want to share one more thing before I close out this chapter of my life. During the last really good conversation we had before Jack’s memory started fading and it became difficult for him to put sentences together, we talked about leaving a worthy legacy. I asked him how he hoped to be remembered. The answer didn’t come right away because he wanted to choose his words carefully.
“A good husband to two beautiful women who deserved much better, a good dad to two great daughters, a good friend, a good worker … someone who was honest and fair and who tried to give more than he took,” came the reply.
Then he looked at me, squeezed my hand and said, “We’ve had a good journey, haven’t we? You’ve been my good friend.”
All the money in all the banks in all the world couldn’t buy what I got from those few words from a friend who defined what a good friend should be for 41 years.