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 apparently not at the same time. Pines Lake had something called split session at the time, which meant one group went to school in the morning and another went in the afternoon. Therefore, we wouldn't have come into contact with each other. Casey thinks we switched sides,er, time slots at halftime of the school year, and I don't recall anything like that but I believe her. My guess is that attendance was done by geography, so kids in the same neighborhood stayed together, more or less. 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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