Life lessons from a writing legend
It might seem woefully naïve to be shocked by the death of a 93-year-old man, but I was in no way prepared for the death of Furman Bisher. I was not alone.
I have been reading, with great interest, the numerous tributes and testimonies celebrating the life and times of James Furman Bisher, who passed away last month. If Bisher, the legendary sports columnist of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, had not been felled by a heart attack, you certainly would have found him sitting on press row at this year’s Masters, out-hustling and out-writing men and women half his age.
I had the honor of working with him for more than 25 years, a mere blip in his storied career. Bisher was a journalist’s journalist, a passionate and gifted wordsmith, energetic, sharp, uncompromising and demanding. He had a rare set of gifts and talents, well-suited for the fast-paced, hotly competitive world of daily newspapers. His passion did not end with writing. He was also devoted to his church, his wife Lynda, his family and friends.
Some of the tributes proclaimed that Bisher “was always a Southern gentleman.” Forgive my slight grin. I guess it depends on your definition of “always” and “gentleman.” Few people who worked with him, or for him, would press the point. Certainly, he was a gentleman when the situation required it but, at all times, he was purely Furman Bisher, just the way the good Lord created him.
Former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Jim Minter, a devoted United Methodist and a wonderfully gifted writer in his own right, has an impressive track record of identifying talent. He was Lewis Grizzard’s mentor as well as boss. Minter, not known for hyperbole, said this of Bisher: "He put more quality words on newsprint than any other writer in the last half of the 20th century."
Bisher thrived in the golden era of newspapers when influential columnists could get coaches hired or fired and players traded. Knowledgeable people credit him with being the driving force behind the construction of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and luring the Braves from Milwaukee.
In this era of waning newspaper influence, you’d be hard-pressed to find a columnist with enough clout to get a $6.75 stadium hot dog discounted to $6.70.
In tribute after tribute, journalists gushed over details of Bisher’s remarkable career: his long-term relationships with Ty Cobb and Bobby Jones, his ground-breaking interview with Shoeless Joe Jackson, witnessing Jack Dempsey’s last fight, covering virtually every major event for more than 50 years.
But reading accounts of Bisher’s myriad achievements and deep connections to the biggest names and events in the glory era of American sports gave me a fresh perspective on the man I have admired for so long. Other people lauded Bisher’s unparalleled career and longevity. He did not. He preferred living in the moment.
Too many of us make a habit of retelling history and celebrating old successes. We live in the past.
In my lengthy experience with him, Furman Bisher was always focused on the present. It didn’t matter if he had once spent a day golfing with Bobby Jones or drinking coffee with Joe DiMaggio. His priority was always the task at hand, whether that was in his role as a father, a husband or as a columnist.
He didn’t hang around the office reminiscing about Mickey Mantle’s clutch home run in the ’64 series. He didn’t talk about all the Super Bowls he covered or world records he witnessed. Other people did that for him.
Bisher fretted over our coverage of the amateur golf tournament taking place in Fulton County. He fussed when we left out the results of the previous day’s horse race in California.
He never lost his passion. He never lost his drive. It kept him young.
It is similar to the mindset the Apostle Paul writes about in Phil 3:
“One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
There is no glory in resting on your laurels, no benefit in reliving the past over and over.
Furman Bisher lived his life like there was always important work to be done and a deadline to meet.
I guess that is why it came as a shock that he died at the tender age of 93. I will not remember him for the longevity of his days but for his commitment to excellence and passion for the present.
It may be the most important lesson I ever learned from him.