David ‘Ogi’ Overman, the publisher of the Jamestown News, on a man that we all loved and respected, Al Thomy….Mr. Thomy passed away on Sunday October 14 and Ogi has many memories about Al and his life covering sports…..
My mentor, my hero, my friend
Al had never given me any reason not to believe any of his stories — and there were many — but this one, I must admit, had me wondering. Oh, I was listening raptly, like I always did, and was appropriately awestruck, like I always was, but still there was a tiny lingering doubt that maybe he’d embellished this one just a tad. Without going into all the details, the story boiled down to this: Al Thomy was a pallbearer at Ty Cobb’s funeral.
See why I was a bit skeptical?
Al, already a veteran sports reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, had been assigned the task of covering Cobb’s funeral for the paper. He was one of the few reporters who had anything resembling a relationship with The Georgia Peach, by then an embittered, paranoiac, virtually friendless curmudgeon, and, if memory serves, was the only reporter there. In fact, there were only a handful of mourners there, and when it came time to carry his coffin from the hearse to the burial plot, they were one pallbearer shy. So Al was called upon to fill the breech.
Several years passed and I’m sure I heard the story retold a few times, but I never let on that I had a few doubts about its veracity. In fact, I’d heard and read and edited so many of his stories over the years that had turned out to be 100 percent true, that I think I gave him the benefit of the doubt, anyway. I’d read one of his interviews with Cobb, so I knew he did have a relationship of sorts with him, so even if he had stretched that one, who could really prove or disprove it?
Well, turns out Ken Burns could. The famed documentarian’s epic nine-episode work, “Baseball,” was airing on PBS and I was dutifully taping it. It was in either the fourth or fifth inning (rather than parts he broke them down into innings) when the proof came. Burns had come across some grainy, black and white footage of the Hall of Famer’s sparsely attended funeral. There, into the frame saunters a short, bespectacled man who grabs a corner of the coffin and helps tote it to the grave. Clearly, without a doubt, Al Thomy.
The Ty Cobb story was but one of several told by another of my heroes, legendary News & Record feature writer Jim Schlosser, as he eulogized Al at his funeral last Thursday, Oct. 18. Oh, there were more, and if all the writers there could’ve gotten together with those who’ve passed on, we could’ve been swapping Al Thomy tales well into the evening. Of course, when the subject was a man whose career spanned seven decades, merely rehashing some of his better tales would’ve taken days. We could’ve talked about his covering the very first NASCAR races at Daytona, Darlington, Atlanta and Charlotte; or his scoop on Rocky Marciano’s retirement; or his founding of the East-West Shrine Game while still writing for the Greensboro Daily News before heading to dailies Houston and Atlanta; or his being the director of the National Basketball Writers Association; or his covering 14 Super Bowls and three World Series; or 37 press awards, including 15 on the national level.
But as I mourn for the loss of my mentor, my friend, my hero, rather than recite a list of accolades, allow me to share a few remembrances of him on a personal level. Our relationship began in early 1985 when I was a wet-behind-the-ears editor of The Sports Page, a free weekly tabloid. I knew that Al had retired from the Atlanta paper, had moved back home, and was writing a book, his third, on NASCAR’s Bill Elliott. My publisher rushed into my office one morning, handed me Al’s number and said to call him and talk him into doing a column for us. Much to my delight, he accepted, and thus began a professional and personal relationship that endured ‘til the end. That paper folded after three years and I co-founded another, ESP Magazine, and my very first hire was Al Thomy. That one lasted until 2005, and if Al missed a deadline, I’m not aware of it, an unbroken 20-year stint.
Back in the early days I would go pick up Al’s column on Monday mornings (I know, it seems quaint now). He would invite me in, retire to his study, start banging away on that old Underwood, and 20 minutes later bring me four pages of magnificent typo-free verbiage. To this day I am astounded at his ability to crank it out on demand, essentially from memory, and hit it dead-solid perfect.
I also had the great pleasure of working many events with him — many GGO’s, ACC men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, Generals and Hurricanes hockey matches, and Bats and Hornets baseball games — learning from him along the way, watching his interview techniques and relating the finished product to the questions he would ask.
Now, Al was not one to pull punches or play footsie with his subjects. He asked specific questions and expected specific answers, and if a coach’s response was straight out of the Nuke LaLoosh handbook of canned clichés, he would let them know it. I remember after an NHL playoff game he grilled the opposing coach pretty good and later I said, “Well, you took no prisoners in there, Al.” His response was something I‘ve carried around with me since, something I use as not only the way I write but the way I try to live my life. It was this: “I knew him as a player, and he knows I’ll be fair with him. As long as they know that, you can ask them anything you want. But if you ever double-cross them or print something off the record, they’ll never talk to you again. So, just be fair, Ogi, all you’ve got to do is be fair. Word will get around.”
For almost 20 years I was a guest at Al’s annual Super Bowl party at his home in Latham Park. This was a gathering of neighbors and friends but was also a Who’s Who of local journalists. Many times I would gaze around the room at the assembled talent — at the likes of Charlie Harville, Irwin Smallwood, Larry Keech, Meyer Anthony, Lenox Rawlings, Kevin Reid, Wilt Browning, Ken Irons, Moses Crutchfield, et. al. — and think to myself, “If there are 20 writers in here, I’m probably the 20th best.” Most times I would just sit there and listen to them swap tales, some of them unprintable, and quietly appreciate the company around me, hoping some of their experience and expertise would rub off on me. Ah, those parties were some of the most memorable times of my life.
But now it dawns on me that I have no place to go this year.