An Ode to a Mentor and Friend
Art Lawler made readers think (and laugh) with his words, and he inspired with his maverick style, touching countless lives along the way
By Mark Godich
I knew I wanted to be a sportswriter from the time I was 14. I applied to only one school, and when I graduated from the University of Missouri in the spring of 1979, the job market was tight. Yet with a big assist from a college professor and mentor, Brian Brooks, I landed offers from a couple of mid-size dailies back home in Texas: the Abilene Reporter-News and the San Angelo Standard-Times. I took the job in Abilene. My gut told me it was the better opportunity, even if it meant starting on the news copy desk. It didn’t hurt that the paper was offering $10 a week more, which bumped my weekly pay to a robust $175.
I enjoyed the work, but my heart was always in sports. The powers-that-be at the Reporter-News knew as much, and about three months after I started, the sports editor threw me a lifeline. Art Lawler was looking for someone to run his one-person sports desk, and he wanted to know if I was interested. The conversation lasted maybe two minutes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the 3 1/2 years I spent in Abilene after learning on Sunday night that Art had left us. After a long illness, he died on Sept. 12 in Boise, Idaho, at the age of 78. And I’ve been reflecting on how lucky I was to have crossed paths with him.
Art was a true original. He was also an institution in a sleepy town 150 miles west of Fort Worth, a city whose most famous athlete is arguably Charles Coody, the 1971 Masters champion. With three colleges, two large high schools and dozens more in the vast region known as the Big Country, there was plenty to write about. Football, of course, was king. Art’s columns would often strike a nerve — Cowboys, college, high schools; it didn’t much matter. Some of his takes would send a jolt through the newsroom. Did he really write that? Those takes were usually spot-on.
“He always had an opinion, and he wasn’t shy about sharing it,” says Neal Farmer, who grew up reading Art and later shared space with him on the Reporter-News masthead. “But he was also kind.”
A reserve on the Abilene Cooper High School basketball team, Neal remembers having a particularly good game during his junior season. Art was there. Neal awakened the next morning to see his name in print. “Who says Cooper doesn’t have a bench?” Art wrote.
Art managed the department in the same unique way he wrote, which is to say he didn’t follow the training manual. He leaned on his wry sense of humor to constructively get his points across. After one particularly brutal Saturday night running the sports slot, I was invited to the Lawler residence for a critique of the section. I arrived to discover he had spread the section across the kitchen table, having circled every last typo. There were a slew of them, the most egregious of which was a sentence in which an Arkansas Razorback had rushed for 100 years. Art laughed with his devilish chuckle. No, it wasn’t funny, and yeah, I was embarrassed, but he found a way to ease my pain. We talked through what had gone wrong the night before, and he asked what he could do to make my job easier.
Bob Vernon was already on staff when I moved over to sports. We became fast friends, as we hailed from the same school district outside Dallas. As was the case with me, the Reporter-News gave Bob his big break. Upon hearing of Art’s death, Bob expressed gratitude for the manner in which his boss pored over his copy and offered suggestions on how he could improve. “Vernon, you write the way you were taught,” he recalls Art saying. “Now it’s time to write the way you talk.” Art called everyone in the department by their last name.
I loved the adrenaline-pumping deadline pressure that working the desk provided, but I was itching to write. What young journalist in his right mind doesn’t want to do that? Art took a chance, moving me into the morning slot rotation, which freed me up to cover a lot of football. A typical fall weekend might have involved attending a high school game on Friday night, a Southwest Conference game on Saturday and an NFL game on Sunday. Odessa and Sweetwater and Brownwood and all outposts in between to start the weekend. Austin and Lubbock and Fort Worth in the middle. Texas Stadium to wrap things up. I was living the dream, and Art was my biggest cheerleader.
Our staff also dabbled in golf. I loved to play, but covering the sport was a new experience. We watched Coody’s every swing. Abilene also became home to the LaJet Classic, a fall stop on the PGA Tour. And in the spring of 1982, I drew the assignment of covering Abilene Cooper’s dominating march to the state championship. How’s this for star power? The Cougars’ lineup included a pair of future Tour winners, Bob Estes and Mike Standly, along with two other kids who would play collegiately: Ron English and Kyle Coody, son of Charles. At the state tournament, Standly was in a three-man playoff for the individual medalist, along with Jeff Maggert and Scott Verplank. The little-known Maggert prevailed. Because of Art, I was in Austin to document it all. I just as easily could have been back at the desk writing the headline and fitting someone else’s copy.
We were a tight-knit group. When it wasn’t football season, we often gathered after work for a beer or a Friday afternoon happy-hour cocktail. Art was the guy who brought and kept us all together. Then, late in my tenure he moved into a role as the paper’s general-assignment columnist. He was still in the building, but the sports department lost a lot of its soul when Art moved across the newsroom.
That’s not to suggest he wasn’t approachable. David Ramsey, who joined the sports department after I had left, remembers the large office Art occupied at the back of the newsroom. David would occasionally venture over to pick Art’s brain. “He had an abundance of courage, and he challenged me in his direct/indirect way to be more bold and courageous,” recalls David, who made the walk for three years before leaving for a job in upstate New York.
In a reply to a tribute I posted on Facebook, Phil Shook said Art “made me laugh and always had a bit of devilment in his eye — an approach that carried over to his writing.” Phil recalls the dilemma Art faced when he traveled to Dallas for a press event involving Prince Charles, the man who would become King. Art was stumped. What does a guy who was raised in small towns across Oklahoma as the son of a Methodist minister say to royalty? He wrote about the experience. The column drew laughs, memorably because of the way Art accidentally addressed the prince, calling him “Your Honor” instead of “Your Majesty.” Analisa Lawler heard her father tell the story of his encounter with the prince countless times. “It was one of his favorites,” she says. “He was shocked by how much dandruff the prince had. He thought royalty could afford better hair products.”
Art wasn’t much for technology or social media, but when he shattered his phone in late 2013 and lost all of the contacts in his directory, he sent out an urgent plea on Facebook asking his friends to reach out. He included his new phone number and an email address, concluding the post by saying he was still trying to figure out how to navigate Facebook. His son, Brien, soon replied: “I now have seven numbers for you.”
After leaving the Reporter-News in the mid-1980s, Art worked at papers in and around Dallas. He also spent time at the Idaho Statesman in Boise, touching lives there as well. Jan and Larry Stamps shared an excerpt from a column Art wrote about the death of their son in a gun accident. Dylan Stamps was a preschool teacher, and Analisa was among his 4- and 5-year-old students, who understandably struggled to process what had happened. They wanted to send balloons to Dylan in heaven, messages attached. Art eloquently wrote:
Watching them stand there in the parking lot on a perfect sunny morning, their heads looking straight up at the floating balloons (holding their messages) was a beautiful sight. We all had it at one time, you know. The blind faith. Then we grew up, got educated and traded for intangibles like sophistication and maturity. … A rare few seem capable of giving us that feeling. Special coaches. Players with hearts the size of the stadium. And almost any preschooler with whom we choose to share our lives. Dylan thrived in their presence. To watch these little people of faith, it’s not hard to believe that somehow Dylan will get their messages. And that somehow, he will smile again and know that he is loved by the purist souls of man.
Art knew all too well about tragedy. He, too, buried a child, having lost his daughter Shari in 1996. She died suddenly, of a brain aneurysm, at 31, the mother of two small children. That would have been difficult for any parent or family. It was especially difficult for Art, Analisa says. The Lawlers and the Stamps had gathered for dinner on a November night. Shari complained of a headache and ultimately said she needed to go to the hospital. She died in the emergency room waiting area. Larry Stamps had recently taken Shari to Dylan’s gravesite. She liked the area so much that she mentioned she would like to be buried there one day. Shari was buried next to Dylan.
Al Bunch worked at the Statesman, but Art didn’t arrive until long after Al had left the place. “We met at church and became good friends,” Al wrote on Facebook. “We spent many hours sitting around campfires in the mountains of Idaho, swapping stories about our experiences as newspapermen.” Oh, to have had a seat at one of those fireside chats.
Art reminisced about his days in Abilene. “I think that’s where he was the happiest,” Al told me in a subsequent phone call. Who knows? Maybe Art shared the story about the 22-year-old copy editor who let it get into print that a college football player had run for all of those years. I am semi-retired now, and I am grateful for the opportunities I have had. So I have kept my hand in the game, guiding young reporters and talking to journalism classes here and there in the same way Art mentored me. We’ve all been blessed to have people like Art in our lives. They got us here.
But for those of us who worked with Art, the relationship was about more than the journalism. He was truly a gem — approachable, so easy to talk to, and one hell of a storyteller. “I probably talked to him twice in the last 20 years,” says Scott Kirk, a colleague at the Reporter-News, “and each time it was as if we were picking up a conversation from a couple of days ago.” Scott says Art taught him how to work, adding, “I wouldn’t trade the experience of being on that sports staff for anything.”
We’ve now said goodbye to three folks from that crew. We lost Ken Brazzle in 2013 at the too-young age of 63. Bill Hart died two years later, at the age of 83. Somewhere Art is holding court. Bill is sharing a story for the umpteenth time, prompting a sigh and an eye roll from Ken. Laughter abounds.
And if he hasn’t already, I’m confident Art will track down the Queen to share the tale about the day he met “Your Honor.”
RIP, my friend.