I got the nicest surprise over the weekend when Julia Nolte, a dear friend from elementary days at St. Matthew Lutheran School on the outskirts of downtown Houston, posted a photo of our first-grade class — one I’ve never seen — on our school group Facebook page (thank you, Julia!). The moment I saw it, my eyes went straight to me and I couldn’t believe it. I have some individual school photos from St Matthew, but no group pics, so this is a real treasure for me — even if I only recognize about five other kids.
This was the 1966-67 school year, and as the story goes, I started the fall in kindergarten, having turned 5 that February. My memory’s a bit foggy after almost 54 years, although I remember a little from that K class — singing “I”m a Little Teapot” and sleeping on red-and-light-blue nap mats.
But the teacher, the principal Mr. Schaefer, and Mom and Dad came to an agreement after the first few weeks that because I was bored, knew more than I needed to know to be in K and was wasting my time sitting around playing and taking naps, I should be moved into Mrs. Carnitz’s first-grade class just down the outside hall.
So that’s how I came to be with this group of kids, which is missing at least two very important ones — the boy who became my best friend, Paul Sweitzer, and sweet Marianne Pape Bliss, both of whom must’ve been playing hooky that day. The kids I do remember in this pic, and quite well, are all 3 girls at left in the back row, Elizabeth Renfro, Camille Peeples (Spreen) and Julia; John Reed, second from right on the middle row, who lives in Fort Worth and with whom I reconnected last year; and cutie-pie Liz Perkins (Roos), at the right end of the front row.
By the way, if you haven’t found me, that must mean you need some clues. All I can say, despite my complete modesty, is that of the nine boys in this group of 15 kiddos, I’m the cutest. Think the dark brown hair I used to have. And the big brown eyes. But if you really still can’t figure it out … I’m front row, far left! And no, back then I didn’t smile much for photos.
Over my years at St. Matthew, we added and subtracted a number of other great kids to our class, and we always had a close-knit group and wonderful teachers like Chris Kuhlmann Winstead, our fifth-grade teacher who was in her first year out of college that school year in 1970-71.
My brother Isaac (a year ahead of me at St. Matthew) and I and our parents moved north of Houston to Conroe ISD halfway through my sixth-grade year when I was just 10 years old in December ’71. But I’ll always cherish the nearly six years of school I attended at St. Matthew and the wonderful friends I made there.
The St. Matthew school we all loved is no longer open (although it’s still there on the church grounds), having closed years ago due to declining enrollment and financial constraints. But the church is still doing well, and Julia and Liz and their families still attend.
As I was working from home Friday, I took a moment to glance at Facebook notifications. I had spent much of the afternoon editing a long, sad narrative for The Dallas Morning News about a young African-American man from West Dallas who had been killed a couple of months ago, a tragic end to a life of hardship that had begun to show promise before he was struck down trying to rescue his mother from the drug house she was living in.
When I looked down the list of notifications, I saw something had been posted on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Friends group by my old friend and colleague Clarence E. Hill Jr., longtime Cowboys beat writer for the S-T, and I could’ve sworn the tiny post image looked like another friend and old S-T colleague. The small name was hard to make out without calling up the post, but sure looked like his: Roger B. Brown. It appeared to be a flier.
Right away, I had a very bad feeling. I hoped it was something about a speaking engagement, because “B,” or “Roger B,” as all of us who worked with him for so many years in the S-T sports department knew him, is known and admired far and nationwide, so that would sure be a possibility. B used to have a long-running radio sports talk show in Dallas, so CHill was probably just posting a notice about an appearance B would be making in the coming days. That was my hope.
But I knew better. It had to be bad news. As it turns out, B had left this world four days earlier, but I hadn’t been on FB enough lately to see the many posts, tributes, farewells and tears that had poured out for him from all over Dallas-Fort Worth, the state and the country.
I pulled up CHill’s post and stared at the flier in disbelief, saying over and over: “What? What? What?” It was an announcement of a Zoom tribute planned for this morning. “Join us for a Celebration of Life Honoring Roger B. Brown,” it read. “Sunrise May 15, 1959. Sunset May 18, 2020.”
As in the story I had been editing when I jumped over to FB and saw this shockingly sad news — although under entirely different circumstances — a beloved black man had been taken home when he still had so much more to do here and so many more lives to impact.
I read through the comments on that post and the one CHill had posted the day of B’s passing. I went to B’s sister Alicia’s page and looked through numerous posts there. It had really happened. He’d had a stroke recently, but was fighting his way back, pushing through rehab. Celebrated his 61st birthday on May 15.
Then, three days later, the great Roger B. Brown, the pride of Columbus, Mississippi, was gone.
Roger B and I, just a couple of years apart in age, both arrived at the Star-Telegram in 1987. I actually spent my first few months in the features department, editing copy and designing pages before I was recruited by sports editor Bruce Raben to join his copy desk. One of the paper’s crack high school reporters was none other than B, a funny, always upbeat, hard-working guy who had a great way with coaches and athletes. He could always get an interview, a quote, a scoop, whatever he needed because they all trusted him and he was everybody’s homeboy.
I had no idea when I joined the sports staff that B was the first African-American to be a full-time sports writer at the Star-Telegram, and I shouldn’t have to tell you how big a deal that was. Like several who honored him at today’s Zoom tribute said, he carved out a path that allowed so many others to follow. B went on to cover high schools for several years at the S-T before getting his big shot, taking on a pro beat covering the Dallas Mavericks. In his 15 years at the paper, Roger B came to know everyone and everyone — from Magic to Barkley to Jordan and more — knew him and loved him. And respected him.
There are a lot of things I’ll always remember about B, not only while working with him but being friends with him. He always had time to talk to people. He was always friendly, always optimistic, laid-back, gregarious and funny. He loved to laugh and make others laugh. I probably edited hundreds of his stories, and those of us on the desk knew that when the phone rang at 817-390-7760 at night, it was either someone calling in a high school score — or one of our reporters calling in his or her story. “This is Roger B,” or “This is B,” he’d say in his Mississippi drawl. “Got a story in there,” meaning he’d filed one remotely by computer and we needed to check to make sure it had arrived.
B, God bless him, was always known for filing late and filing too long to fill the space we had “dummied” in the sports section for him, so we often had to whack his stories down to size. Yeah, he complained some, but he also knew we worked our butts off to put out a sports section every night and didn’t make too much of it.
I also remember what a huge LA sports fan Roger B was — he loved him some Lakers and Dodgers. Speaking of the Dodgers, B came up with a nickname for me — Stubbs, for former Dodger (and short-lived Astro) Franklin Stubbs. For some reason, Roger just decided to start calling me that and it stuck.
We played basketball together, teaming up in 1988 with S-T colleagues Tim Madigan and Roger Campbell in a 3-on-3 tournament and ended up getting to the championship game, thanks to B’s shooting and Tim’s rebounding and toughness. Back in the day in Mississippi and at Tougaloo College, B was a pretty darn solid athlete in basketball and baseball. He played some on our S-T softball team called the RATS, too — that’s Star spelled backward. But we never knew when he was going to come to a game. He’d just sorta show up.
As for that radio show, B started that uber-popular side gig on KKDA-AM in Dallas in 1990, and “Talking Sports With Roger B. Brown” was a mainstay for more than two decades. He’d have local sports figures, celebrities, politicians — even his mother, a longtime English teacher — as guests. I only heard it a couple of times, but his sister says their mom would correct B’s grammar on the air when necessary.
In more recent years, Roger B worked for the Dallas Parks and Rec Department as a youth league developer/coordinator. He has three grown children, all of whom spoke at this morning’s celebration, which I watched on Zoom before my Saturday editing shift. It was a wonderful sharing of memories, tributes and honor for one hell of a guy who should still be with us. I’m shocked he’s not.
I last spoke with B about six years ago when I was organizing a reunion lunch for Bill “Bullet” Ramsey, a former S-T colleague of ours, and we were able to catch up a bit. I feel awful that, after having his number in my cell all this time, I hadn’t connected with him since.
It won’t be the same here without you, but we’ll all see you again, Mississippi Homeboy.
I recently learned about something beautiful and patriotic: For years, the mother of a former Conroe High School classmate of mine has used her God-given artistic talents to create portraits of fallen soldiers that she has given free to the families of these American heroes.
Martha Wilcox, the mom of Celia Wilcox Blauser, has crafted over 600 of these portraits. I think that’s just extraordinary, and I believe everyone ought to know about her.
Mrs. Wilcox’s admirable efforts began when she became involved in a national project to paint portraits of soldiers who had given their lives in service, and they were displayed in a Washington exhibit called “Faces of the Fallen” from 2005 to 2007 and then given to the families. She has continued to honor these men and women on her own as the Fallen Soldiers Tribute, and paints portraits still today despite eye surgeries in recent years.
I also learned that Mrs. Wilcox, who is in her early 80s, has been a sculptor and presented a sculpture to President Ford while Celia and I were in high school when the president visited Conroe in April 1976 during the election campaign. The sculpture is in his presidential museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he was raised.
Here’s Mrs. Wilcox’s website if you’d like to see her amazing gifts.
A couple of months ago P.P. (Pre-Pandemic), I was sifting through a couple of bags of photos that my brother Crys Workman — the oldest of the three full siblings I life-transformingly found 15 years ago next month — handed off to me several years ago. There were dozens, probably more like a couple hundred, and I really hadn’t had a chance to look at many of them. They included wonderful small B&W pics of Crys as a little kid in the 1940s, many of his three children as adorable youngsters in the ’70s and ’80s, and lots of Crys as a young father with those great kids. I loved seeing every last one of these photos, because they give me a cool and much-welcomed window into the life of one of my beloved birth siblings and his family long before I was blessed to find and bond with him.
And then, I discovered, there was the incredibly sweet memory you see here from 1984 of my dear late birth mother Betty, the mom who raised Crys, our late brother Robin and our sister Terry — and who, at age 39, placed me for adoption at birth in 1961 after conceiving me with the father of all of us, her ex-husband Bob, about a year after their divorce. The biggest smile in the history of smiles filled my face the moment I saw this image, and it will every time I see it from now on.
The two boys with Betty are Crys’s sons Brad (left), born in 1975, and Tim, who was born in 1978 and joined the family through adoption in 1982. Brad is the proud father of a brilliant teen who’s graduating from high school in Colorado and plans to study biochemistry at Regis University. Tim, a police detective in Lakewood, Colo., is the father of two smart, gifted boys, one an Oregon college student and the other in high school.
As it turns out, my adoption by Olga and Clark Christlieb started a trend in our family, as sister Terry followed our mother Betty’s lead in placing a baby boy for adoption — at the tender age of 19 in 1974 — and then Crys and his wife Charlene lovingly adopted Tim to make their family complete, years after Brad and his sister Lew (1973) were born.
As for this touching memory of grandmother and her grandsons, the setting was Stevens Drugstore in Huntington, West Virginia, my birthplace. Betty, an only child, began working in drugstores — starting with Walgreens — when she had to drop out of Huntington High halfway through her sophomore year in 1937 to help her father and his new, much younger wife pay the bills (Betty’s young mother had died tragically after a hysterectomy a few years earlier). She worked at Stevens and, briefly, another drugstore through most of her marriage to a second alcoholic until she died of lung cancer in December 1992. This photo was taken upstairs at Stevens, where Betty toiled as a clerk from the late ’60s until the late ’80s.
Betty and fellow clerks Shirley Booten and Dolores Gardner were best of friends, working together at Stevens all those years. I was fortunate to have the chance to visit by phone with Dolores several times in 2011 and 2012 before she, too, died of cancer, and with Shirley, who told me that she saw Betty as a second mother to her and that she carried Betty’s photo in her purse for many years.
It still holds true that whenever I see a photo of Betty for the first time, it brings me absolute joy like this one did. Since I never had the chance to meet her, seeing photos of her and hearing my siblings and others who knew Betty talk about her is the closest I can get. Until we meet in the hereafter, the gratification and love I feel from those memories and seeing photos like this are fulfillment enough.
A fantastic ballplayer, the Toy Cannon, died Thursday at age 78. When I fell in love with baseball and the Houston Astros, he was one of the guys I fell hardest for.
After we moved from West Virginia when I was a baby until I was 10, we lived 5 short miles from the Astrodome. I was barely in school when center fielder Jimmy Wynn and the Astros started ruling my sports world. In my mind the first true star-quality player the franchise had, Wynn played for the Colt .45s and Astros from 1963 to 1973, hitting 223 homers while playing 81 games a year in the cavernous Dome.
I was just 6 years old in 1967, but I remember Wynn’s great year, when he hit 37 homers and drove in 107 runs, even while hitting only .249 and leading the NL with 137 strikeouts for a team that finished a miserable 69-93. For a guy of less-than-menacing stature at 5-10 (but closer to 5-9) and 160 pounds, Wynn had great pop, earning his Toy Cannon nickname and ending up with 291 dingers in a career that later took him to the Dodgers, Braves, Yankees and Brewers. After he and Astros teammate Doug Rader became the first hitters to reach the upper deck of the Astrodome in 1970, their feats were memorialized with “Toy Cannon” and “Red Rooster” seats where their bombs landed.
A highlight of my brief sports writing career was meeting Wynn in my first job, at The Odessa American after I graduated from Texas A&M in 1983. In early February 1984, he was among the sports celebrities attending the annual Midland sports banquet that I covered. The other two biggies on hand that night were baseball Hall of Famer Vernon “Lefty” Gomez, who won 5 World Series with the Yankees (1932, 1936-39) and hulking former Oakland Raiders defensive end Ben Davidson, who, at 6-8, towered over 6-2 yours truly. Now that Wynn’s gone, all three have passed away.
The three of them were gracious enough to spend a few minutes letting this 22-year-old rookie journalist interview them separately before the event began. But I’ve got to admit, for me it was all about getting to talk to the Toy Cannon. Of course, I told him I’d grown up watching him play. At the time of that banquet 36 years ago, his 37 homers and 107 RBI in 1967, as well as his 223 HRs while playing in Houston, still stood as franchise records.
“I went through more managers than players,” he cracked of those “really tough years” when the team struggled mightily to break .500. “The only thing I really regret about my years with the Astros is we didn’t bring the people of Texas a championship ballclub.”
Wynn said he remembered his Houston friendships as among the most memorable aspects of his playing career — guys like Joe Morgan, Larry Dierker, Bob Watson and the late Don Wilson.
“All of us, whenever we went on the road, stuck together,” he said. “It was just like a beautiful family. We always ate together and had a few drinks together. Those friendships will be with me for a long time.”
At the time of the banquet, Wynn had been working community relations for the Astros for the past year. It was clear he was itching to get into coaching, and he would’ve been a hell of a good one. But he never did.
“I’m having a lot of fun in what I’m doing,” he told me, “but I would like to get back. I have so much knowledge to give to these young kids. It makes me feel like I’m throwing my life away. I hope to return to baseball soon.”
Hopefully it won’t be long before he’ll either be on or filling out one awesome lineup card in heaven.
The calendar, and my birth certificate, told me Friday was a notable day in my life: my 59th birthday. But today, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, also marks a milestone: 20 years ago, I walked through the doors of The Dallas Morning News at 508 Young St. on my first day as an employee of this distinguished, long-respected newspaper.
We’re not at 508 Young anymore – we now carry out our crucial, 365-days-a-year mission as journalists at 1954 Commerce St. It’s on the other side of downtown from the old place, in the four-story former Dallas central library, renovated into a modern office space with a cool vibe that we’re all loving.
I remember how awed – and nervous – I was when I interviewed to join this staff. I’d been working at another great newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for almost 13 years. But the DMN was different. In terms of circulation and reputation, it ranked among the top newspapers in the country. For journalists hired here, it wasn’t a stop along the way to something bigger and better – it was a place to spend the rest of a career.
But in my 20 years, so very much has changed in our industry. There’ve been seismic shifts altering the way we produce and present news. But more significantly, often-crippling developments have brought complete disruptions to people’s lives, livelihoods, families and careers, and have caused hundreds of papers to stop the presses for the worst reason imaginable – shutting down forever.
The survival mode newspapers find themselves in is not something I saw coming when, the day after my 39th birthday, I eagerly and hopefully walked into the historic old DMN offices built in 1949 to start my new job as a copy editor on the Universal Desk.
During the past 15 years, I’ve watched countless friends and immensely talented colleagues leave the paper in emotional tatters after getting caught up in the industry’s ongoing painful realities, victims of reductions in force that have slashed our newsroom’s size by hundreds from the day I started. I’ve lost count how many times staffers have been laid off.
I’ve also watched, especially in more recent years, as others have left for new opportunities outside the newspaper business. In the environment of uncertainty in which we’ve been working, no one can begrudge them those choices, tough but often deemed necessary.
Nonetheless, the paper has kept producing consistently strong journalism across every section, covering communities all over North Texas as well as thoroughly reporting on state and national issues that affect residents locally, statewide and on the border. We’ve done this despite the increasing difficulties endured by the industry as advertising revenue and readership shrink exponentially.
We’ve had to evolve into a digital-first media outlet while ensuring that our print product remains viable for readers who prefer to get their news the old-fashioned way. As multiplatform editors, my closest colleagues and I work on both products, doing our best to maintain accuracy and readability of the stories reported and written by DMN staff writers and contributors.
In May, I’ll have been a graduate of Texas A&M for 37 years. In all that time, I’ve worked for only three newspapers: I spent just short of four as a sports writer at The Odessa American, nearly 13 as a sports and news copy and assigning editor/occasional writer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and now 20 as a copy/multiplatform editor/sometimes writer at the DMN.
I’ve genuinely cherished my 20 years at The Dallas Morning News, the stories and projects I’ve been fortunate to have worked on, the responsibilities I’ve been entrusted with in interim roles in other newsroom departments, and, especially, the people I’ve done so much important work with. If there’s any profession where teamwork is more vital than in a newspaper newsroom, someone please show me.
Until this week, when Google told me, I didn’t know some of the famous folks who share my Feb. 28 birthday. (Aside: It’s out of control how many, and of what stripe and “talent,” classify as celebrities these days. Gamers, YouTubers, Influencers, TikTok stars. I’ll just sound old if I go down this path. Oh, wait, I guess I am. As of today, one more year till I turn 60 … sigh.)
Many of the “real” names I came across were entertainers: Gavin MacLeod, Charles Durning, Mercedes Ruehl, Bernadette Peters, Jason Aldean, Zero Mostel, Lindsay Lohan (OK, scratch that one). Then there’s mobster Bugsy Siegel, race car driver Mario Andretti, basketball coaching legend Dean Smith, and budding Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic.
But there’s another big name — big to me, anyway — who has a birthday today. I didn’t learn that he did until getting a life-changing call from a remarkable woman (who, sadly, has since passed away) in West Virginia on June 10, 2005. In fact, I didn’t even know he existed.
As I furiously scribbled a steady stream of information on a legal pad, the voice on the phone gave me his name: Crystal Edward Workman, born Feb. 28, 1944, the oldest of three children of Betty Louise Workman.
He, the voice told me with unshakable certainty, was my brother. All three were my siblings.
Within a month, after numerous hours of getting to know one another by phone and emails, a wonderful first visit in Colorado with Crys, our sister Terry and their families, and a DNA test for the three of us (in the early days of cheek swabs for that kind of detective work), we knew what we were all but certain to be true: Not only was their mother Betty mine, but their dad Bob was also my biological father, as a result of my being conceived a year after their divorce.
The story has sent me on an emotional journey for almost 15 years.
On the day I was born, Feb. 28, 1961, what was Crys doing besides turning 17?
He was going to school as a junior at Ironton High School in southern Ohio, just across the Ohio River from our birthplace of Huntington, WV. Crys, Terry, our brother Robin and Betty had lived together in a small apartment in Ironton for several months the previous year while Betty was pregnant with me.
Ironton was where Betty and the kids landed after a domestic incident with Bob caused her to flee Huntington out of fear around the time she learned of her pregnancy. They’d been divorced a little over a year and, though we’ll never know the true circumstances that seemingly brought them back together for a time, now the breakup would be permanent. Bob would drown a homeless man in Tampa in July 1962.
Crys tells me times were tough those few months in Ironton, when Betty spent part of her pregnancy working as a waitress and singing with a trio at the Sandbar in the upscale Marting Hotel. He was a basketball player and wanted to play the season with the IHS varsity, always a successful program. So when Betty and her two youngest children moved back to Huntington that fall when she was about six months along with me, Crys stayed in Ironton and lived with the family of little Ellie Lawless, one of whose brothers, Butch, was a manager for the basketball team.
After basketball season ended in March, Crys moved home, ready for track season at Huntington East High. When he got back, he asked Betty:
“What happened to the baby?”
Betty told Crys, with little explanation, that she’d lost the baby. That was the end of it. He assumed the baby had died in childbirth. The subject never came up again. He never thought about it again. But I know Betty did. Constantly.
I remember my reaction to learning I had a brother with my birthday. I was stunned. How could it be that two siblings from the same family — one torn by alcoholism, divorce, a child placed for adoption — could be born 17 years apart to the day?
I excitedly told the lady who had found all the records leading me to my natural family that Feb. 28 was also my birthday. But in that long phone call, she was just getting started unloading her months’ worth of discoveries, so understandably, her reaction wasn’t the same.
There was so much for me to process in that call. The first news I received was the saddest — finding out that meeting Betty, my driving hope in starting the search for my past, would not be possible in this life, because she had died in December 1992.
When Crys and I spoke for the first time the following day, it was a two-hour visit between brothers that felt so easy, like we’d known each other all along, thanks to his calm and kind demeanor and his willing openness. Of course, I told him we had the same birthday, and, like me, he thought it was a crazy coincidence and really cool.
But in the nearly 15 years since my siblings and I became a long-overdue-to-be-reunited family, I’ve learned that Crys and I have much more than a birthday as a bond. Although we’d never be mistaken for brothers based on looks (although we’ve both always been tall and lean), we’re much alike — more than even he may realize.
Crys is kind, compassionate, generous and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. (I’d like to think I’m all of those except for the last one.) We share interests in sports, music (including classical) and other areas. We’re both generally quiet, introverted and pretty passive, and I believe those qualities are where we’re most like each other.
I’ve always considered myself lucky to have grown up with an awesome brother like Isaac, my adoptive bro whom I dearly love. I’ve been infinitely blessed to have added more love to my life in my birth siblings, whose acceptance I felt right away when I reached out to them, a sure sign of the brand of people they are — and, I believe, who our mother Betty was, and in his own way, our father Bob was.
Happy birthday, Crys. I’m thankful and thrilled to have you as a brother, lucky to share a birthday with you, and honored that we have so much in common. Thank you for loving me, believing in me and being proud to call me your Little Brother.