On David Climer

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Earlier tonight The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper and my first place of employment out of college, held a party for David Climer, the retiring sports columnist.

Because I’m some 3,000 miles away, I missed it.

And I’m bummed.

I don’t think David, who spent 38 years at the newspaper, knows the impact he had on my career. So allow me to share …

As has been well documented here, I was a little asswipe for most of my time in Nashville. I thought I was great (I wasn’t). I thought I knew everything (I didn’t). I thought editing was a waste of time, and that my copy was above the marks and dinks of desk people (it wasn’t). In short, based upon a couple of solid years editing my college newspaper, I believed I was a superstar. When, in fact, the real superstar of The Tennessean was sitting a few desks away, conversing in a soft southern accent, politely laughing at my gumption and arrogance.

David Climer could have smacked me across the head, screaming, “Stop being a jackass!” Nobody would have blamed him. Instead, he provided the most powerful gift imaginable: An example of character, professionalism, decency. He was a brilliant writer, without needing to tell everyone he was a brilliant writer. He was a fabulous interviewer, but never bragged about it. Sources trusted David Climer, because, well, he was trustworthy. Decent. Empathetic. You knew he wasn’t going to misquote you, or hype up a small little nothing in the name of creating headlines.

At the time, I thought great writing was all about BOOM! and POP! and HOLYWOWOW! I rarely spared an adjective, never let an awful analogy (“He’s a bigger bust than Mount Rushmore!”) pass me by. But David Climer’s stuff was just … pure. You wouldn’t read it the first time and say, “Well that was amazing.” But then you’d take a second glance, realize how much you learned in a mere 600 words, and reconsider. Yes, that actually was amazing.

It’s a cliche (one David would surely frown upon), but columnists of his ilk are, truly, a dying breed. Storytellers have taken a backseat to screamers and ranters. You need to have a take, and drive it home at 500 mph. You need to hate someone. Or call on someone to be fired. Or blame. Or accuse.

There’s not much room for class any longer. Which is a shame.

Because David Climer is all class.

PS: His farewell column—lovely, as expected.

The story that started my career


Lynn and Warren Thompson. 1995.

Lynn and Warren Thompson. 1995.

For a long time, especially in the early 2000s, I was known as “The Rocker Guy.”

I was the journalist who wrote the John Rocker Story. Who, depending on your perspective, either “screwed” John Rocker or “exposed” John Rocker. People have said that story “made” me as a journalist; that, ever since the final Sports Illustrated of 1999, my life has changed.

Eh … not really.

Truth be told, the story that “made” me came out in The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper. The date was June 18, 1995. At the time I was a general assignment features writer, taking on topics like the city’s best deli and where to catch great July 4 fireworks. One day my editor, a nice man named Patrick Connolly, said he heard about a woman who was dying of cancer. Her husband, Patrick said, had taken a vow to continue working her garden after she passed—even though he knew nothing of flowers. “You wanna do something on it?” Patrick asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Sounds interesting.”

Life. Changed.

I was 23. I knew nothing of death and suffering and pain and anguish. I certainly knew nothing of courage, beyond a courageous fourth-quarter rally. Then I was introduced to Warren and Lynn Thompson. They were husband and wife for 23 years; warm, embracing people with three children and a beautiful house. Lynn had first been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1990, overcame it, then—more recently—began suffering from ceaseless headaches. A CAT scan showed that her cancer had metastasized. It was everywhere. As I wrote (poorly) at the time: “Her call to the doctor was like an 0-10 pitcher’s call to the manager’s office. She knew what was coming.”

Lynn Thompson was dying.

So here I was, nervous, uncomfortable, out of my sports-and-funny-punch-lines element. I sat with Lynn outside her garden, and listened as she spoke of the inevitability of death; the sadness of knowing she won’t be there for her children; the love of her garden. I listened and admired, and saw strength in a way I’d never before known it to be. When I finally sat down at my computer, the story wrote itself. It was a tragedy, sure. But, really, it was a love story. A beautiful love story.

All these years later, I’ve never received such positive feedback for a piece. It was very important for me, in that it showed the true power of journalism. This business isn’t just about exposing wrongdoing, or making fun of celebrities, or breaking down Dolphins-Chiefs. No, there’s a real opportunity to make good; to make someone’s day; to show compassion via words.

It doesn’t happen often. But, when it does, it’s golden.

The reason I’m blogging about Lynn’s Garden is because, yesterday evening, while digging through my attic, I found the story. I’d pasted it into a photo album long ago, then misplaced the pages. It’s posted below. I’m not saying it’s the best thing I’ve ever written—it’s not.

It remains, however, the most meaningful.

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