Paying unwanted tribute to a true master of craft
But Bill Heinz was not there; he had passed away in Bennington back in February, at age 93, after spending much of the last 43 years of his life in nearby Dorset. His insistence that there be no memorial service after his death wasn't being ignored on Saturday, so much as necessarily circumvented; his daughter Gayl clarified that it was "not a ceremony, (but) a tribute."
So here were several dozen family members, friends, acquaintances and admirers, convening to celebrate the life and work of a man widely considered to be among the most influential American sports writers of all time.
When fellow journalistic icon David Halberstam selected stories for the venerable 'Best American Sports Writing of the Century' collection in 1999, he chose three of Heinz's pieces; no other writer was represented more than twice within the compilation's 59 stories spanning 76 years of collective work. In his introduction, Halberstam lauds the "greater sense of truth" in Heinz's work, and his role as one of the industry's "pioneers" who gave readers "a glimpse of an inner world heretofore closed off to them."
Heinz achieved this effect through a masterful separation of himself from his subjects, whereby he maintained an invisible yet seemingly omniscient presence within many of his stories. And so it was at Saturday's tribute; Bill Heinz was gone, and yet he remained, the most powerful presence in a room full of heavyweights from fields as varied as media and medicine.
The tribute began with the words of family, first from Gayl and then from Don Keelan, Bill Heinz's CPA and financial advisor, real estate broker and chauffeur, personal brownie baker and on-call gofer. Keelan revealed that his introduction to Heinz had been made as a fledgling writer to a master of the craft, with an original purpose of evaluation and critique that had then blossomed into much more. It was a scenario retold time and again throughout the afternoon's tribute.
Renowned journalist Bard Lindeman recalled how, upon his graduation from Middlebury College - an alma mater he shares with not only Heinz, but also Bennington's Bob Matteson - he was promised some guidance from the already acclaimed scribe, guidance he assumed would equate to the obligatory brush-off. Instead, it was the first step in a 60-year personal and professional journey together, that would include the shared experience of the historic Selma-Montogomery civil rights march in 1965 which Heinz famously chronicled.
"Bill took me to lunch, and it was the beginning of an association that continued until we both grew too old to care if I was a good writer or not," Lindeman said.
Bill Littlefield is currently the host of the National Public Radio show "Only a Game," and has been a contributing writer to such journalistic institutions as the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times. His tribute to Heinz on Saturday was arguably the most fitting moment of the entire proceeding, in that he evoked the late writer's trademark style of maximum impact through economy of language with a four-minute oration on Heinz's legendary 1949 column, "Death of a Racehorse."
Littlefield read aloud several paragraphs from the story, in which a colt breaks down after his very first race and must be euthanized just as a thunderstorm begins to erupt over the track. The piece - dubbed "the Gettysburg Address of sports writing" by Sports Illustrated's Jeff MacGregor - is a tour de force of style that reads more like a classic short story than a newspaper column. It is at once timeless and dated, in that it deviates so thoroughly from the mode of sheer information delivery that largely defines modern sports writing.
"Bill wrote 'Death of a Racehorse' for a newspaper; the next day there would be another paper, and another story," Littlefield said. "Someone else, almost anyone else, would have hacked out the account of Airlift's first and last race quickly, perhaps automatically, and hurried off ... Bill knew the story deserved better; he knew how it should be told."
MacGregor spoke next, and made reference to the famous typewriter on display in the lobby of the museum - a 1932 Remington given to Heinz at the age of 17 by his father, and reputed to have been borrowed at one point by Ernest Hemingway when he and Heinz were both war correspondents.
"Millions of words came out of that typewriter - and not one of them was dishonest," MacGregor said.
Matteson was in the audience at the tribute and later concurred with MacGregor's claim, calling Heinz "a real straight shooter." The two had worked together on the school newspaper, "The Campus," at Middlebury; Heinz was the sports editor, while Matteson served as editor-in-chief.
"He could spot make-believe - or phoniness - right away in a person," Matteson said. "And he wanted no part of it."
Therein would seem to lie the key to Bill Heinz's writing, his true method for distilling parable from the mundane. There is a sort of universal admission among those who were close to Heinz that he could be averse to, even dismissive of, certain people and personality types - but there is equally compelling evidence that such an attitude stemmed from his heightened sense of intuition regarding truth. Without such intuition, it is unlikely that he could have even recognized - let alone captured - the majesty and romance that pervades so much of his work.
"The secret ... is love," MacGregor said. "It's his empathy, (though) not for individuals; I don't know that (Heinz) even liked people. His genius was his empathy for the situation that we all share, that common cause of human enterprise. The truth that (Heinz) wrote about is the struggle that we all face, every day, when we get out of bed - and how good a fight we put up before the end of the day."
Perhaps the most extraordinary appearance at the tribute was made by Bill Heinz himself, via unused archive footage provided by videographer Carl Howard, a pioneer within his own respective medium. Howard's footage was shot at Heinz's home overlooking Fillmore Pond in Dorset, at a time when the writer had long since retired from his craft. The predominant shot is a classic "talking head" crop; bright sunlight off the pond behind Heinz causes a washout of overexposure, which manifests itself in a soft glow all around the writer's head as he speaks.
Heinz describes the melancholy of retirement, retelling a story of boxer "Sugar" Ray Robinson pining, even at the peak of his glory, for the feeling he got from his first Gold Gloves introduction as a teenager long before turning pro. The story evokes the same sentiment as Heinz's classic 1958 story "The Ghost of the Gridiron," about retired football star Red Grange - who reportedly kept no souvenirs, trophies or news clippings of his football achievements.
"Your work has to be very good if you're ever going to want to read it more than once," Heinz says in Howard's footage. "What you hoped would be your golden years for the most part end up being pyrite years, with you trying to find some gold in there somewhere."
The segment concludes with Heinz shuffling away across his lawn, leaning on a cane, with his name and the years of his birth and death superimposed on the screen. The overwhelming sentiment is that he has, after such a poignant and honest moment of reflection, made peace with his life's achievements and is prepared to leave them all behind.
To the utter benefit of anyone fortunate enough to discover the world that can only be entered below the byline "W.C. Heinz."
"His work is going to live forever - that's good," MacGregor said. "His work will abide forever among people who care about language."
Adam White is Sports Editor of the Banner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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