May 12, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
If life is a game -- and the angels that Bud Shrake thought talked to him would tell you that it is -- then, as he said, "It must have an end."
They buried Bud Shrake Tuesday, underneath the huge live oak trees which provided the shade that allowed a surprisingly gentle, cool breeze to touch his friends who had gathered there at the Texas State Cemetery. The marker of his late, great friend -- former Gov. Ann Richards -- was nearby.
The learned and the legends were there, from fellow writers who were in awe of his work to sports figures who represented but a few of the hundreds of subjects he would cover in a career which he began as a sports writer more than 50 years ago.
And that really is where our story begins.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, before the NFL became such a factor, college football dominated the national sports coverage in the fall. It was that era that produced not only the stars who would become famous, but the writers who would make them darned close to immortal.
Those of us who were young journalists would spend our time trying to emulate those writers as we wrote for our school papers and tried to find ourselves in our quests to become the next great American scribe.
It was a time when Darrell Royal's Longhorns were the talk of college football, and every single orange-blooded fan would know the outcome of our Saturday's heroes. But it was also a time when we would wake up early on a Sunday morning and grab the Dallas Times Herald or the Houston Post to see what Blackie Sherrod or Mickey Herskowitz had to say about it.
Blackie was the king, not only as a sportswriter, but as the leader of a group of writers who understood that writing was a gift, a present to be used for a positive presence. Dan Jenkins and Shrake were part of that group, and they soon were whisked away to New York to a fledgling new sports magazine called Sports Illustrated. Bud's last year with a Texas newspaper came with the Dallas News in 1963 -- when the Longhorns won their first National Championship in football. Gary Cartwright, who was tutored by Sherrod, Jenkins and Shrake, soon would become part of a unique literary society, which had its roots in sports writing, but would gain its fame in other venues.
Working with these guys in their ventures into the college football world were a equally unique group of sports publicity men which included Jones Ramsey at Texas, Jim Brock at TCU and Wilbur Evans, who split time between Texas, the Southwest Conference and the Cotton Bowl. They worked for their universities, and with the media.
The common bond between them all was that they genuinely liked and trusted each other. They worked together, socialized together, and together they chronicled moments and memories that would last a lifetime. They didn't try to make the news; they tried to use the gifts they had been given to tell the story that would be the news in the next day's newspaper.
For Shrake, that gift of writing carried far beyond the boundaries of the sidelines, the courts, the boxing ring or the retaining ropes at a golf tournament. He became a superb author, screenwriter, playwright, journalist, and -- most of all -- friend. And he possessed that rarest of all qualities -- integrity. Once a hard liquor drinker with the best of them, he quit in 1987 and wrote what many believe to be one of his best novels, "Night Never Falls," just to prove he could write without the kind of stimulants that made guys like Hemingway famous.
When the audience, which had packed the funeral chapel for Shrake's service, was asked to use one word to describe him, the one that came to mind for me was "supportive." He was always willing to offer advice, always willing to serve somebody else.
Fortunately for Bud, that trait rewarded him in the most unexpected way. When his love for golf and for an aging old pro at Austin Country Club named Harvey Penick prompted him to suggest that he team with Penick for an instruction book based on Penick's years of notes, the project became, "The Little Red Book," which became the biggest-selling sports book of all time.
The success brought him fortune, but he always deflected the fame to Harvey.
In a way, it wasn't "who he was" that brought the elite to that funeral Tuesday, it was more about "what he had done for others." But that, more than anything defined "who he was."
Those who study such things will tell you that his books and his plays are as good as any ever written, but when Ray Benson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson sing at your funeral and sports figures like Darrell Royal, Ben Crenshaw and Barry Switzer mix with literary giants and those who would like to be, you know you had to be somebody really special.
Bud was not a religious man as some might define the genre, but he was a person of the spirit. He believed in angels, and he celebrated people and creatures, and sometimes those were interchangeable. And he believed that to be a game -- any kind of game -- it must have an end.
Was it yesterday, or was it nearly 20 years ago?
It was the Cotton Bowl dinner dance on Jan. 31, 1990, and there was Bud, dressed in his tuxedo and dancing with his companion, the new Texas governor Ann Richards, and there was Dan Jenkins and his wife June, with Dan laughing as he remembered the old days at the Cotton Bowl Ball, when they were part of the media, who were just happy to be at tables at the back of the ballroom.
Before her election, Ann, as State Treasurer, had been a regular visitor to Texas women's basketball games, sitting courtside with Bud and former congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Bud asked me that night if he and the Governor could come and sit courtside at the men's games.
"Well," I told him, "we have a firm policy that only working press sits courtside at our men's games, so I don't think I can make an exception, even for a governor."
And then I quickly added, "However, I will be happy to have you as a famous sportswriter, and you can bring a guest if you want."
So the tall (he was 6-6) Bud and snow-white haired Ann became regulars, sitting with the "working press" when the media tables ran the length of the court, and they would dance together as partners for 17 years before her death in 2006.
In the shade of the oaks on a postcard kind of moment at the picturesque setting at the cemetery, Darrell Royal and Dan Jenkins were soon joined by Dan's daughter, Sally, who long ago joined the ranks of the truly outstanding writers of our time. Turk Pipkin, the famous writer and actor, talked with Ben Crenshaw about Bud's last round of golf, and how he parred the final hole he ever played.
In his time, Bud had written about sports legends and fictional characters who came to life in his many novels, plays, and screenplays.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to live out our dreams telling stories cherish those who tell them well, and nobody did it better than Bud. But his willingness to help those who follow will always be his best legacy. To those searching, he often said, "The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning, and a lightning bug."
In 2001, when Bud was hospitalized with a serious infection, I took him a copy of One Heartbeat, the book I had just finished with Mack Brown. When he got out of the hospital, he wrote me a note, thanking me, and congratulating us for a good book. "It will have a long shelf life," he said, meaning that the book, and its message, would be enduring. It was typical of Bud, who was always willing to encourage.
In a sense, Bud's passing is part of the ever-nearing twilight of an era in the world of sports, but even as those days close, his greatest story is his own -- of the life he lived.
The game had come to an end for Bud last Friday, cradled in the arms of one of his sons.
At the funeral home Tuesday, a lot of powerful things were said that defined Bud, but they also reflected life. Perhaps the most powerful came from Pipkin, who said this: "You woke up this morning knowing who you were. Now go out and find who you can become."