Remembering my friend Edwin Pope: He spoke to some of us on high frequency, like a dog whistle

The world has lost a wonderful writer and even better man.

To read him was a blessing. To know him was an honor. To count him as a friend was a treasure.

I felt a profound sadness and deep sense of loss when I opened my Facebook Page last Friday to learn that Edwin Pope had died of cancer at 88. And after reading Greg Cote’s fine tribute to his former colleague, I wept.

Like so many other young writers over many generations, I wanted to be Edwin Pope – at least the printed version of him. I tried to write like him – both a premature and absurd aspiration, of course.

I wanted to emulate his look. As a young plebe I even bought a pair of black horn-rimmed glasses so that my column logo would look like his.

There was something different about his column – funny, feisty, descriptively colorful or just plain smart. It had an energy that others lacked. He played the typewriter and the computer keys like Ray Charles played piano.

Many of us remembered Edwin as our “mentor.” Which tells you about his generosity of spirit: We all thought he was put here just to teach us.

For so many of us Edwin Pope Wannabes, his words jumped off the Herald sports pages like a flare illuminating the pathway of a struggling sports writer, looking for a journalistic pathway. He guided and mentored generations.

We knew Edwin – or “Eddie” or “Ed” – or thought we did, because he spoke to us in an enlightened voice that resonated in our hearts, minds and souls. It was like a dog whistle that only we could hear and understand.

I loved his writing, but also his panache and style.

Edwin Pope, right, shares a moment with the late Furman Bisher, his mentor in Atlanta, during a lull covering the Masters.

Many admired Edwin for his incredible Horatio Alger success story as the 15-year-old sports editor of the Athens Banner-Herald during World War II. A degree from University of Georgia in hand, he went on to become sports editor at the Atlanta Journal at age 21. He quit in anger because the Journal refused to buy a new $1.79 pencil sharpener, whereupon he took off for Miami in 1956 to begin his epic career at the Herald.

I was a Pope-A-Holic starting in my late teens. On days that the Bulldog edition of the Herald in the Gainesville or Ocala published too early to include Pope’s column, I felt cheated.

The Edwin Pope I first met was the DOS version in the early sixties. Years later we became friends, sometimes sharing a press box, an airplane ride or perhaps a beer. But from the beginning of my career in my early 20s, I targeted Edwin as the guy I tried to emulate.

I never made a job change without first talking to Edwin. In fact it was because of his recommendation that I accepted a job on the staff of the Nashville Tennessean, later realizing it was a mistake and returning to my home state.

I went back to my old job in Ocala six months later with a vengeance and a motivation to improve. That’s when I dug in, often inspired by the work of people like Pope, to raise my game. There was an immediate result. I began winning a few awards and receiving an occasional job offer. I thought maybe the Pope karma was rubbing off. I even had a dream that I’d one day work with him on the Herald and, at his suggestion, interviewed there, but the job never materalized, so I went to New York instead.

Perhaps my greatest honor came as a 25-year-old sports editor/columnist of the Ocala Star-Banner who had just received his first state award for writing excellence. It happened on a chance meeting he had with my wife waiting for the elevator at Gainesville’s University Inn. Pope had just finished judging the Florida Sports Writers Association contest when they met and she introduced herself as “Buddy Martin’s wife.”

Later she told me he had said, “Your husband is a helluva newspaper man.” I felt like I had just won the Pulitzer Prize.

No honor, compliment or comment about my career ever meant so much because it validated my work and inspired me to keep chopping wood for many years.

To have shared time together with Edwin Pope made me a richer man. Most of the people who have written about him since last Friday were pre-ESPN 1979 followers. The Edwin Pope I knew was 15 years prior to that and after.

Usually we had the most time at the Masters or the Kentucky Derby, because he was otherwise always grinding, hammering away on deadline in the press box at Miami Dolphins, Miami Hurricanes or Florida Gators games. Hard work was one of his hallmarks.

It was because of Edwin’s insistence that the Masters “was the best writing event in sports” that I began covering it, making more than 30 treks to Augusta.

There were many conversations ahead for us over the next several decades, mostly about people, or something personal, or passionate –- rarely sports and never politics or numbers.

As a single guy in his 30s and 40s, Edwin had been a regular at the watering holes of Miami and Miami Beach and professed a strong preference for green Heineken bottles and later Chardonnay on ice. That’s when he wasn’t working, because he rarely mixed the two contrary to what some may have assumed. He loved football and diligently covered the Dolphins and Hurricanes – and sometimes the Florida Gators.

I loved his stories. Three that come to mind – two told by him, another about him:

  1. His early days as a teenage sports editor in Athens when he had to start the fire in the coal stove on cold Georgia mornings. “Did you ever try typing a column in gloves?” he laughed.
  2. The story told by his former Atlanta Journal colleague Bill McGrotha, whose plane crashed in a Georgia cornfield on the way to cover a game in Furman, S.C. Edwin was working the desk back in Atlanta for a rather tyrannical (at the time) sports editor, Furman Bisher, when he took McGrotha’s phone call. The way McGrotha told it, when he informed Pope he couldn’t make the game because of the crash and the resulting injured back, Pope remarked: “But what am I going to tell Bisher?” Edwin somewhat denied that.
  3. The story told by him about quitting the Journal because the paper wouldn’t buy a new pencil sharpener for $1.79. True. And it sent him packing to Miami for a brilliant career of over a half century.

At the Masters he brought “The Pope Library” full of notebooks containing other stories about this event that he cobbled together and was kind enough to share. Edwin was a living, walking, breathing Google even before Google. A voracious reader, he spent several years reading Shakespeare, who he called “the greatest writer ever.” Ironically, he was one of the most literate sports columnists to ever grace a newspaper.

Edwin had a prankish side, too. When the new press facility opened at Augusta, he and former colleague Larry Dorman collaborated in making up fake pages for dead golfers or pets which were announced over the PA system while they both cackled.

In personal one-on-one chats, he liked to talk about non-sports things, never missing a chance for a question about life’s important matters, or sharing a conundrum about his faith. He came to his Christian faith a bit later, but when he did, it was with commitment.

“Let me ask you this – how do you feel about tithing?” he would say on plane ride.

When he came to sharing the knowledge of his writing skills, he didn’t really have that many tips to offer – he just put on a clinic with his own columns. He didn’t talk much about his work, but did beam often about David, his son by marriage to Eileen. I do believe he was prouder of his story and columns about fishing with David as a small boy than most anything.

Maybe the first thing I ever learned from Edwin Pope’s writing was that a journalist should pay attention to detail, both heard and seen. We were covering a Florida-Auburn game in the early 1960s, won by the Tigers because a Gator tight end dropped a pass. We all wrote about it, but Pope did one better. He described a scene in the locker room with the tight end sitting down, staring at his hands.

He hated numbers and hated himself for writing columns with numbers in them, especially statistics. He was sort of an anti-metrics guy because he was a Word Man. So I do apologize, Edwin, for so my references to ages and years.

Some people may not have known that a few of his pals referred to him as “Teddy Bear,” the origin of that nickname notwithstanding. But it fits in so many ways.

“We have lost a great man,” tweeted my old workmate at the New York Daily News, baseball writer Bill Madden. “Loved Eddie. Such a kind and fun guy.”

They didn’t name the stadium after Miami Herald legend Edwin Pope but they at least gave his name to the press box where the Miami Dolphins play.

So many fine tributes have rolled in this week on Twitter and Facebook posts, emails and texts and columns from other writers – Cote of the Herald, David Hyde of the Sun-Sentinel, etc. Writers like Barry Jackson of the Herald, Steven Wine of the Associated Press. They talked about him being partially responsible for the Miami Dolphins hiring of Don Shula, of ushering in every major sport in Miami. Of having the press box named after him.

“They should have named the stadium after him,” Shula said.

The last -30- for Edwin