In the course of my writing career I’ve had the opportunity of meeting and writing about many famous people.
For instance, there was the time in the 1970s that Hank Aaron confided to me that major league baseball managers were over-rated, that none of them had taught him anything that made him a better player.
Then there was the time that hall of fame pitcher Bob Feller called to complain that a trading card company was treating him badly, issuing press releases that he would make an appearance he had not agreed to. “Hell, now I have to go or I look like the bad guy,” Feller groused.
And there was Ron Stander, a not-so-well-known name but a man who once stood toe-to-toe with heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and was one punch away from claiming Frazier’s world championship belt. Ronnie once shared with me a hilarious tale that involved drinking, a courthouse, stuffed birds, a snowbank and an arrest.
But throughout my career I generally found telling the stories of so-called ordinary people to be even more satisfying. The first feature story I ever wrote as a professional set the course that would eventually lead to my present career as a personal historian.
Joe Whiteface had grown up on a South Dakota Indian reservation, where he was enthralled by American football, which he knew only from watching it on television. When he found himself in Council Bluffs, Iowa, for his senior year of high school, Joe decided to try football himself.
Joe’s career was ended before it began. At an early practice, he fractured his leg during tackling drills and ended up in the hospital where I first met him. Knowing that a kid in a hospital bed would make a lousy photo, I stopped at a magazine stand and bought a Street & Smith football yearbook as a prop for the photo. I could then use the book as reference material for the upcoming season, I reasoned.
I got a good story from Joe who was remarkably upbeat, considering the circumstances. One reason was the magazine. He couldn’t put it down. He may not have seen one before. There was no way I could take it away from him so I left it and he thanked me profusely.
I remember Joe Whiteface as much as I remember Stan Musial , Red Skelton, Waylon Jennings and George McGovern from my journalistic past. I’ll bet the ordinary people in your family history share similar spots in your memory.
Photo: Walter B. Lehmer met these girls on the train they were taking to California to visit their soldier boyfriends during World War II. (Walter B. Lehmer collection).