I wil miss Mr. Byrd
Jerry Byrd and then-LSU basketball coach Dale Brown sat in front of me in the old Trinity Heights Academy gym when I was a 12-year-old sixth grader. The vast majority of us packed into the stands and along courtside were there to watch Wayne Smith and the THCA Eagles romp over another opponent on its way to winning coach Billy Wiggins another state championship trophy.
Brown was there to see Smith but Byrd was there to talk to Brown. Smith eventually went to Louisiana Tech and fed Karl Malone basketballs so Brown missed his man, but like always Mr. Byrd got his.
Certainly no one noticed who I was as Mr. Byrd pulled out a “Big Chief” notebook (the ones little kids used with the wide rules) and interviewed the LSU hall of famer. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but I could see Byrd’s scrawling penmanship as he jotted down quotes which were illegible to my middle-school reading level.
I first met Mr. Byrd some 20-plus years later when I was the sports editor of the Minden Pres-Herald and he was writing at its sister paper, The Bossier Press-Tribune. We actually had our first conversation when I became the editor of the Press-Tribune three years later and told him about watching while he interviewed Dale Brown.
“You are the reason I became a journalist, I thought it would be so cool to meet Dale Brown and you just sat down next to him like he should be thankful you were there.”
Byrd’s speech impaired response, “D-dd-don’t hang that rap on me,” as he walked out the door.
The next few years at the Press-Tribune did nothing to improve our relationship. He would speak to me (his editor and boss in name only) when he wanted me to go take pictures of a game. Other times it’d be rare if he’d even look my way. But, he was always writing. Word after word, line after line and column after column. Mr. Byrd showed up for work and knocked out his sports “stories.”
I’d heard about his singing voice (he sang whatever came into his head while he was typing) but never was so stunned as the first time I heard him singing, “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog” while pounding out a story about Parkway’s first baseman. Elvis Presley had nothing to fear, but anyone who stood between him and one of his story ideas sure did. Jerry would ask a question no one else thought of, write a story with a lead no one else dreamed of and then headline it in 50-point type… PANTHERS’ BATSMAN WEARS PINK SOCKS…
The first Independence Bowl I did not attend was the now legendary “Snow Bowl.” I’d have enjoyed standing on the sidelines during a rare Shreveport blizzard watching Texas A&M lose an overtime game to Mississippi State, but it could not compare with my task for the evening. I was assigned the desk that night while Jerry covered the game.
In today’s world I seriously doubt anyone would dictate a story over a phone line. A writer in a press box reading to a type setting young editor back at the newsroom is no longer an efficient way to communicate. The Internet and laptop computers have eliminated that menial task…but not for Jerry. In the year 2000 Mr. Byrd watched from the press box and then used a cell phone to call me up. I knew he’d be calling and when I answered with “Hello Jerry,” he never acknowledged me except to say, “The quarterback snap was no snap for the Texas A&M Aggies in the 2000 Independence Bowl…”
And on it went, me typing and trying to guess what he was saying before he could get the words out.
After fifty-plus years in the newspaper business it’s certain Mr. Byrd had called in a story to a waiting typesetter in his newsroom in the past. But I bet I hold the distinction for the being the last to pick up the phone and record his words for the waiting public. Certainly it sounds silly to some but it was an honor indeed for an old-school want to be journalist like me — who came around a generation or so too late.
As much as I remember those “fun times” I was also on the periphery for some of the sad times. We had all been told Mrs. “Pat” Byrd was not well and we knew Jerry spent hours at her side before her passing in 2001. It was another late Thursday night for me, and I honestly was waiting on Jerry to come in and finish his work so I could take a cursory glance and head home. He was late but he came in. We didn’t speak (which wasn’t unusual) and he sat down, sighed a loud moan and started typing.
When he left I read his column titled “Saying goodbye to a forever person”…I still remember the part about the two of them “smooching like a couple of teenagers” during a movie night at Pat’s nursing home. I cried that night for Jerry even though I had only met Pat once years earlier. And I found myself missing something I’d never really experienced.
Jerry had that kind of power sitting at a keyboard.
Although Jerry would never give up writing until his mental state made it an impossibility I certainly did. My “retirement” from the newsroom came in 2003 and the good folks I worked with at the Press-Tribune ordered some lunch, bought a cake and even purchased a present for their “outgoing” managing editor. And yes, Mr. Byrd came to the party.
I’ll never forget the greatest compliment my sports writing hero ever gave me. It came during that send off. With a little dab of icing smeared on his face Mr. Byrd said, “Hey Clint,
I’ve worked with a lot of editors in my time…and you’re one of them. Now, don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way out.”
I took his advice and never looked back… but I will miss Mr. Byrd.
Clint Land is a former Managing Editor of the Bossier Press-Tribune