Monday, May 15, 2017

Past meets present

Was I ever this young? Apparently so. Say hello
to my third-grade class in Pines Lake. Wonder what
happened to everyone else over the years?

If you ever doubt that it's difficult to out-run your past life, I have some proof to convince you. It's an unlikely story spanning more than 50 years.

I received an email from a woman named Casey in Delaware last week. She had forgotten about the names of some of her elementary school teachers way back in the early 1960s. Casey did, however, remember a teacher she didn't have - Miss Bosland of Pines Lake Elementary School in Wayne, New Jersey. So she headed for the nearest search engine and tried her luck.

There, she found a link to a newspaper article. The beginning was this: My first-grade teacher, Miss Bosland of Pines Lake Elementary School in Wayne, N.J., once told my mother that I was a vast storehouse of worthless information.' Thursday night I will appear on the game show 'Jeopardy!' Still think the information is worthless, Miss Bosland?" This was how I started a preview for my appearance on the game show for the Buffalo News.

I assume Casey said "Eureka" or some similar thought. With my email address at the bottom of the story, she sent me a note. Casey explained that she had attended the same NJ school from 1960 to 1966, and wondered who my teachers were to see if they could jog her memory.

I wrote right back and said, "You've come to the right place." Heck, I've still got a couple of report cards from that school. I went over my teachers, including Miss Bosland - who I discovered in a visit to Wayne in 1996 or so had just retired. Casey and I figured out that we were in the same classroom and did indeed have the same fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Link - but maybe not at the same time. Pines Lake had something called split session around the time, which meant one group went to school in the morning and another went in the afternoon. My guess is that attendance was done by geography, so kids in the same neighborhood stayed together, more or less. I'm not sure if that was the case in this particular year, but we do remember some of the same people. By the way, that classroom had the unforgettable advantage of having its very own bathroom; I don't think I ever heard the reason why.

This all prompted a furious exchange of emails between us for the next couple of days. We both remembered Mrs. Rodda, the school principal. Her biggest impression came during school lunches, when she walked into the cafeteria with a scowl on her face because there was too much noise. (Seven-year-olds making noise at lunch? I'm shocked.) Casey had another memory of the usually sour-faced principal. When President Kennedy was shot and killed in 1963, a sobbing Mrs. Rodda came into each classroom personally to tell the children about it. (Me, I was home after school, eating lunch as my mother watched "As the World Turns.")

Casey mentioned that she was in some sort of Christmas pageant as a singer. I responded with a distant memory of being "the funny elf" in some sort of similar activity. Maybe we were costars. I had just rediscovered the picture shown above and sent it to her. She sent me a shot of her third-grade class on the same auditorium stage, along with some memories of the people that I had identified in my photo. Where have you gone, Elizabeth Cleary (bottom row left) and Terry Spivak (next to Elizabeth)? I'm in the top middle of the photo, wearing a red bow tie and sport coat. Pretty snappy, I'd say, for eight.

A few other memories popped up as well. Like everyone other kid in that area, we both loved to go to the Old Barn Milk Bar for burgers and onion rings at dinner and/or ice cream. Especially ice cream. A cone was a quarter. Yum. One of my Police Athletic League baseball teams was sponsored by the Old Barn, and we received a free cone after wins. Too bad we didn't win more games; it was a much better sponsor than T-Bowl Drugs. The Old Barn itself was eventually sold to a car dealer. Sigh.

Casey filled me in on the name of the junior high school, Schuyler-Colfax, which apparently had nothing to do with the crooked vice president of the 1870s but with his ancestors. We both played the harmonica in elementary school, which may have been my last first-hand exposure to a musical instrument. And I thought about my speech teacher, Miss McCullough, at school. Not only did she teach me to say "leaf" and not "weaf," thus enabling me to go on to a brief career in radio, but she was the first African-American I ever met. There sure weren't any in the student body.

Wayne was a place back then where the truck would come down the street at dusk and spray pesticides in the air to cut down on the bugs. I'm surprised everyone hasn't gotten cancer by now. It was where Chicken Delight ("Don't cook tonight!") and Charles Chips were, not to mention the Good Humor Man. My neighborhood was filled with young businessmen who were on their way up and had plenty of kids. I'm sure all sorts of things went on there that I didn't know about and may not want to know about now, but - with a playmate at almost every house and a beach on the lake down the hill - it was a happy spot for the youngsters to grow up - swimming in the summer, skating in the winter.

Casey, by the way, did ask how I did on Jeopardy, so I scanned a three-page note about the experience that I had sent friends at the time and fired it off to her. We ran out of stories after a while, so we agreed to save the others' email. Since she was from Delaware, I told her to drop in on my Syracuse U. friend at the Delaware Historical Society for the greatest tour ever of the area. Some day, I hope, robin will get an unexpected visitor who knows a lot about where one of her college friends went to elementary school.

My memories of that time (we moved there in the summer of 1961, and moved out four years later) are mostly snapshots, but it was nice to have a few more such thoughts "developed" from my new and unexpected friend.

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Thursday, May 04, 2017

Character

From the Buffalo Sabres' 1970-71 media guide
If you follow the world of fun and games long enough, you'll know that every coach will say at some point that sports build character. Me, I'm more out of the school that sports reveal character. But, more to the point here, they create characters.

And if they ever get around to building a Hall of Fame of Memorable Characters, Paul Wieland should be in it.

Paul finally and allegedly is retiring from the working world. "Professor Wieland" has been teaching communications at St. Bonaventure for the past several years. While I'm sure he was a wonderful teacher who cared about his students deeply - I've heard about some of the great feedback that those students have offered - in some ways Paul is still the Merry Prankster that probably terrified and delighted all those he encountered throughout his life.

In other words, he may have grown older, but he never completely grew up. 

Wieland's long list of professional stories begin for me when he was at The Buffalo News in the 1960s.  I remember him telling me about the time the phone rang one day at the News office. The person who answered the phone yelled out, "Does anyone know what the world's longest river is?" Paul said, "Transfer that to me," and answered the phone, "River Desk." The caller repeated the question, and Paul quietly had someone get an almanac while he stalled. "It's really nice of you to call us today. I don't get too many calls about the length of rivers here at the River Desk. The Missouri, of course, is the longest American river ..." For the record, that job at The News has gone unfilled since Paul left.

From The News, it was on to General Motors. I'm no business major, but if there's a better example of straight-laced organization and structure in a corporation than General Motors in the 1960s, I can't think of it. In hindsight, Paul was either the one breath of fresh air in the entire corporate structure, or an outsider who the guys in the red ties and blue suits just couldn't understand. It must have been an odd fit.

But the hockey business - that was different. Paul was an amateur goalie and loved the game, and had the chance to jump to the Buffalo Sabres when they were just getting started in 1970. Get in on the ground floor of a pro sports franchise? How could he resist? The photo above is from the first Sabres' media guide for the 1970-71 season. Not only does it display the young and good-looking assistant public relations director (I think he used that photo for the next 25 years in the annual guide, thus becoming ageless), but it also has him above comptroller Bob Pickel on the page. That probably wasn't a wry statement on the front office, but it should have been / could have been.

That first year offered a couple of unique attractions for a young business professional/goalie. The Sabres had a veteran in the nets in Roger Crozier who was good when he was healthy, but he frequently wasn't healthy. It was always handy to have an extra goalie around the office who could be the equivalent of a tackling dummy in practice when needed. Paul even made a save or two on Gil Perreault every once in a while. Besides, as Paul pointed out, the early Sabres weren't too good ... but they sure could drink after practice. "How was work today, honey?" "Same old, same old."

You've heard about some of the stunts that Paul pulled. He had a willing partner in general manager Punch Imlach, who would go along with anything as long as he had a little notice. When the 1974 Entry Draft threatened to go so long that it would delay the start of the regular season, Wieland helped create a fictional player, Taro Tsujimoto, who was drafted by the team. The Sabres even set up a locker for him in training camp. Interestingly, a couple of decent NHL players were drafted after Taro - Dave Lumley and Stefan Persson. You still see people wearing jerseys with Tsujimoto on the back.

I stole this image from a Sports on Earth article,
which stole it from Time magazine.
Then there were the April Fools' jokes, planned better than some military adventures - and more successful. Thus the Sabres were involved in Sliderex (plastic ice), the purchase of a battleship as a training vessel, and the naming of the Sabres as "America's Team" by the White House. Later I heard about when the Sabres' hockey department was acting, um, defensively toward everyone, so Paul bought toy plastic soldiers that were placed on the top of the department's office dividers - with the rifles aiming out at the rest of the staff. By the early 1980s, I had figured out that Paul was a kindred spirit, and got to know him a little bit in my days as a radio reporter.

Besides all the laughter, though, there was a rather sharp businessman lurking in Paul's head. When the Sabres were selling out their building every night, he and vice president Dave Foreman worked on bringing the home games to cable television. It worked, and it could be said that their actions helped to revolutionize professional sports. Think of what a revenue stream that single idea created. It probably should be in the first paragraph of his obituary, whenever that day comes - it really changed the industry. Paul's responsibilities concerning the television seemed to grow by the year.

By 1986, I had more or less figured out that the radio business was not going to work for me, and Paul threw me a life preserver with a job offer in public relations. There were even benefits to the position - such as health insurance and working with Paul every day. Who could resist a job where you couldn't take calls because you were giving a presentation about the next April 1st stunt? Who else would order you to leave work early to fill out a doubles tennis match in Snyder? But around the office, Paul was always willing to listen to an idea, support it when appropriate, and give you the credit when it succeeded. You couldn't ask for more from a boss.


Paul didn't always laugh at everything. When annoyed by something that went against his principles, Paul could argue with the best of them. For example ... there was the time he was ordered to dump out of a Sabres' broadcast early so that Channel 49 could join a showing of "Gomer Pyle" already in progress. That was the moment when WNYB-TV forever became "The Gomer" around the office.

(Tangent: I was put in charge of the Sabres media guide, which always included some sort of joke on the media information page. One year featured this line: "Press box seats will be filled on an as-available basis. Gate crashers in the press box will be forced to watch reruns of 'Gomer Pyle' for four hours.")



You never knew what might happen in that office, which also featured another memorable character in John Gurtler. One time Paul was sitting at his desk when Seymour Knox III walked in. "What are you doing, Paul?" "Planning the parade, Seymour." "What parade?" "Well, if we win the Stanley Cup, we'll have a parade, right?" "Right." "And if we have a parade, we need to plan for it." "Good work, Paul."


By the late 1980s, Paul spent more time in the television business, having little oversight on the rest of the communications department. Our loss, as others like to stick their noses into the operation for better or for worse.

And by the early 1990s, he was starting to become a little unhappy at times. He grew to enjoy the TV business, but he was the first person I know to recognize that professional sports was losing its sense of humor. His stunts, such as making up a "Buffalo Sabres Universally" car sticker, had only improved the Sabres' image in the community. But by then the money had gotten more serious, and so the people took themselves seriously. Too seriously.  I remember how Paul talked to a Sabre marketing person once who couldn't understand why the fans went home unhappy after a game, even though the team lost that night.

And so, after I left the team, he was off to Massachusetts for several years to work in cable television, where he learned to understand my affection for all things Boston Red Sox, and then he returned to Western New York to work at St. Bonaventure. I have been to the house in Great Valley once, and I have no confidence that I could find the place again with a dogsled armed with a GPS unit. We try to get together once in a great while for a leisurely lunch - two old friends discussing a variety of subjects old and new. It's the best possible conversation. I'm the one trying to age gracefully; he's the one who still sounds like a fired-up junior in college when discussing the latest bizarre development in politics.

It's always good to see someone reach the finish line of a professional career like this, even if he did take a few extra laps than most. The thought of Paul with no work duties, however, is an interesting one. How will he get into mischief? Luckily, our professional sports teams don't seem to have lost their ability to self-destruct in spectacular and imaginative ways. He'll have plenty of bubbles to burst with his mouth and his keyboard, and we'll have plenty to discuss over lunch.

Sports really did reveal a character in Paul Wieland. I'm so glad I got to come along for part of the ride. May he have a long and happy retirement.

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Sunday, April 02, 2017

Two planets

If Scott Brown had a baseball card, this certainly
would be a good pose. By the way, the shirts were so
cheap that after games we had sunburns on our back - 

except where the numbers were located.
Sometimes the planets in the solar system line up just right, and you find yourself orbiting with a similar object for a while.

That might be the oddest way anyone has described a friendship, but it comes to mind when I think back on my friendship with Scott Brown. He passed away on Friday after a long illness.

Scott showed up at WEBR Radio in Buffalo in 1979, shortly after I did. We quickly found ourselves to be relatively kindred spirits. The two of us were just getting by financially, since it was rare in those days to get a raise until Congress boosted the minimum wage. We were thinking that better days were ahead, and we couldn't wait to get there. That made us a little rebellious and brash at times. But we also were determined to have some fun along the way.

It didn't take long for us to click. Scott was a good-natured presence in the newsroom. He wasn't above the cheap laugh - such as putting a microphone screen over his nose, and lapsing into a Karl Malden/American Express ad imitation. "Lost your wallet? What will you do? What ... will ... you ... do?" But he was obviously smart and knew his stuff.

There are a variety of "you had to be there" stories that come to mind. One time Scott was working on the writer-reporter's desk when protestors at Love Canal took a couple of state workers "hostage" in a symbolic act. Scott knew someone in the protest group and called her up, asking how the hostages were doing. "Oh, you want to talk to one of them?" the woman answered. Scott said OK, and she handed the phone to him. "Hi, Scott, how are you?" he asked. Scott answered, "How am I? You're the hostage! How are you?!"

For whatever reason, I remember the time he stopped in the sports office on his way out the door. Scott had to cover some event, and told me he had to stop at the bank or something on the way back to do some personal business. In my best snarky tone, I jokingly said, "Well, don't forget to punch out." He replied in fake horror, "Punch out? What is this, Two Guys?" And then we both laughed loudly.

Naturally, more fun came after hours. Snapshots of those moments come back every so often.

That's Scott at the writer-reporter's desk in the main newsroom
at WEBR in August 1979, with Dennis Keefe on the left of the
photograph. Kids, that object in front of Scott was called
a typewriter. Ask your parents about it some day.
* Athletics. The WEBR slo-pitch softball team was usually mediocre, mostly because we didn't have enough people on the staff to have a deep roster. We had to rely on pitching and defense. I can say that here because I was the usual starting pitcher, and Scott was the backup. Our strategy was to try to have people hit the ball toward center fielder Steve Tawa, who could catch anything hit in the area code. Occasionally, someone would hit the ball over Steve's head and off a house on the other side of a fence. Scott would come over from second base with some comforting words. "Don't throw him that pitch again," he snorted. We all spent several Saturday afternoons together as a team, drowning our sorrows or celebrating our wins at Wiechec's in Buffalo.

I probably had an edge on the softball field over Scott, especially at the plate, but he was a better basketball player. Those guys from New Jersey always loved to take the ball to the hoop. But neither of us took to roller skating, as we discovered one frigid February night.

Reporter Mark Charlton used to have "Blue February" parties, saying that by that time everyone in Buffalo is depressed that winter is still going on and on by that month. Therefore, he'd have a party featuring blue mixed drinks. Around 11:30 p.m., someone remembered that the group from Channel 17, a business partner of WEBR, had rented out a roller-skating rink in Amherst. So off we all went, a bit overserved at the time. Scott grabbed on to "instructor" Pam Benson for support and lessons, which was a less-than-subtle but wise move on his part. Pam quickly regretted it, I'm sure, upon realizing that Scott was on shaky legs and didn't know how to skate. When he fell down, she fell down. The noise of falling bodies always drew a stare even with the loud disco music in the hall, and it was followed by Scott's distinctive high-pitched giggle. Scott reported a day later that, "Boy, is my ass sore, and I can't remember why."

* Poker. Scott fit in pretty quickly with my high school pals for the odd game of poker. One time I had invited some of them to my house for a little gambling, followed by a movie on the newly-invented and just-purchased VCR. The idea of watching a film on video tape at home was a exciting novelty then. Still, whenever Scott lost a hand, he'd mournfully look at his shrinking pile of chips and say grimly, "No movies!" We never did see that Woody Allen film.

One game that we used to play was called "Garbage." It was a seven-card game with a ton of wild-cards. The catch was that a pair of natural sevens beat everything. In one game, Scott seemed sure to win a nice pot, because he had about six aces. But someone came up with the two sevens, turning sure victory into defeat. Scott didn't take it well, since $15 was big money at that point in our lives. On the very next hand, featuring a different type of seven-card stud game, someone got two straight sevens face up. "Two sevens - you win!" Scott shouted with mock enthusiasm and he started pushing things at the other player. "You win all the chips in the pot, and all of the chips in my pile, and all of the potato chips in the bowl, and my beer, and all the money in my wallet, and my credit cards, and (dramatically reaching into his pocket for keys) my car!" The set-up and timing were so good that Glenn Locke nearly spit his beer out on to the table when the car keys came out.

Fan Kim Dehlinger, Scott and Bill Rosinski go over a
softball game at Wiechec's in South Buffalo. We needed
lessons on how to wear our baseball caps.
* Music. I believe Scott and I went to the relatively famous Who concert at Memorial Auditorium together. That was the one right after the show in Cincinnati that featured a stampede caused by festival seating, and a few people died. We also saw Bruce Springsteen at the Aud. The Boss played "Thunder Road" at the end of the first set, and we talked at intermission. "I can go home now," Scott said. "That's what I came to hear."

You more than get the idea. Alas, the good times usually don't last forever. WEBR had a lot of talented people at the time who moved on to better things when they got the chance. Scott got one of those offers, and soon he was off to do television news for Channel 2. He roomed with Glenn for three years in that era, so we still saw each other quite a bit. But clearly, Scott had moved into a different orbit. It happens.

Eventually, Scott left broadcasting for a stint in County Executive Gorski's office. There he got to know my wife, so she saw him more than I did for a while. We'd bump into him somewhere, and he was always chatty and friendly. Then Scott took a job for District Attorney Eliot Spitzer in the New York City area and was gone ... until he came back somewhat unexpectedly to WGRZ. Our paths crossed once in a great while, such as when mutual friends like Mark Hamrick came back to Buffalo to visit. He seemed happy and content, which was great, and he did his job very well. But we were still in separate orbits.

Then Scott more or less disappeared from on-air work without explanation. I think I sent him an email message to check in, but never heard back. Hmmm. Then a mutual friend said he spotted Scott at Roswell Park. Well, at least that explained things a bit. Scott certainly had a private side. When I asked a friend at the television station about the situation, he said I knew more than he did. I was heartened by Scott's return to the air at one point, but then saddened by his disappearance again after a short stint.

You put a few miles on the odometer, and you are bound to come across situations where you know bad news is coming but you don't know when. Such was the case here, so I was shocked but not surprised by the announcement of his passing.

Scott and I developed one habit when there was mutual good news, like a run scored in softball or a split pot in poker. We'd try to give each other a "high five," except miss on purpose as if we were total nerds. No comments, please. I would have liked to have tried it one more time, except that we'd actually complete the gesture for once to mark the good times we had together. But since I can't, I'll just be happy that our paths, er, orbits once crossed.

(Those interested can make a donation here. Feel free to share a fun story about Scott in the comments section.)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Answering the question

It's been quite a weekend on social media, as the Trump Administration begins its term in office. A day after the inauguration ceremony, a few million people - mostly but not exclusively women - took part in protest marches and rallies in all 50 states and in several major cities throughout the world. 

Here's one such comment I saw that drew a little reaction from others.

"Can anyone clarify what they are protesting about? These very aggressive women are bitching about what? Cool down, have a drink with your husband, have sex and laugh. Enough said!"

All right, a lot of reaction. Here's a serious answer.

Admittedly, it's difficult to narrow down the motives of millions of people. I'm sure some just went along with friends, and others are still upset about the Presidential election and wanted to vent a bit.

But I think it's fair to say that there are a lot of people out there who are scared.

If they are part of the 20 million people or so who have health insurance through the ACA, they are scared that the members of the federal government have vowed to cancel the program without coming up over the past few years with any hint of the details of a replacement plan. And some of those who are scared are sick.

If they are people of color, they are scared that states will continue to make it more difficult to vote by closing polling stations in rural areas. And they are scared that the potential Attorney General was rejected as a judicial candidate in the 1980s because he was judged to be a racist by both sides of the aisle. 

If they are immigrants, they are scared of being targeted for harassment and hate crimes, and in some cases they are scared that they could be deported or that their families won't be allowed to join them in this country.

If they care about climate change, they are scared that the new head of the EPA will choose the economy over ecology every time - no matter what scientific data says. 

If they are part of the LGBT community, they are scared that they will be subject to more discrimination from this day forward and not less. Because there are people in government who think it matters who they love and where they go the bathroom. 

If they are interested in protecting reproductive rights, they know that the new President said that he would punish women who had an abortion. And they probably know someone - a relative or a friend - who could be affected by that. 

If they have children, they are scared that the only qualification that a Cabinet nominee appears to have to oversee their public education is that she can sign checks made out to political parties, candidates or causes .

If they prefer honesty from their government, they are scared about a chief executive who is willing to lie about whether it rains on his inaugural speech and the size of the crowd in front of him - and if he'll lie about that, he'll lie about anything.  

And if they are part of the general American population, they are scared of government workers who used the word "enemies" to describe their political opponents. Because they know what happened when Richard Nixon used such descriptions. 

Some of these views are oversimplifications. A much more narrow focus on the particular issue is necessary in order to have a rational discussion on it. Some of these fears won't come close to being realized.

But the protestors' feelings are real and legitimate. They demonstrated that fact, rather loudly, and they deserved to be taken seriously.

If you don't, it says much more about you than it says about them.