Farewell, Mr Harwell

Ernie Harwell passed away last night.  He was 92.  For almost a year he’d been battling cancer and, I think, showing us the same grace in death that he showed in life.  He was always polite, always respectful and always had time for his fans (even, near the end, attending a gathering at Comerica Park so his fans could say goodbye to the him).

I used to run Tiger Baseball when I worked at WPZ, in Petoskey, MI. Almost every night, all summer long, I’d make sure the commercials ran when Ernie and Paul took a break.  Hearing the two of them, together, well…it just sounded like summer.  But it was long before that that I first met Mr Harwell and learned the most valuable lesson of my radio career.

Forgive me if you’ve heard this story, but it’s one of my favorites.

279570354_27a413bea0It was a sunny day in Detroit, near the end of  May, 1987. Someone gave my dad three tickets to the Tigers/Twins game so my brother John joined us for the day at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. We had seats behind home plate,  just below the announcers booth.

At one point in the game, I heard a familiar voice shout from above, “Is that Bill Rabe?”  I look up and there was Ernie Harwell!  I had no idea my father knew Ernie Harwell, let alone that Ernie Harwell would know who the heck my father was.  He came down to say hi and stood there chatting with my dad while the people around us buzzed, “That’s Ernie Harwell!”  It was cool.  Just before he went back upstairs, a man asked if Ernie would mind posing for a picture with his wife and Ernie said, “Of course!”.  He climbed over the seats, gave the man’s wife a big hug and chatted with them for a bit.  He said goodbye to them, to us and went back upstairs.

Fast forward a few years.  We were on Mackinac Island to either open or close the tourist season (I don’t remember which.  We were all wearing warm clothes, I know that…but in Michigan, that could be either end of the season.  Or July!). Each year, to signal the beginning or end of the season, my father put on an event for the moving-in-of or the moving-out-of the pool table at the Mustang Lounge.

They moved it out at the beginning of the season, to make room for more tourists and back in at the end of the season because they don’t need the extra room anymore.  It was quite the event, with speeches, a band playing the pool table in or out and the pool table passing in/out under crossed pool cues.   That year, Ernie Harwell was the special guest speaker.

You reach Mackinac by ferry, and my dad sent me to meet Ernie and take him to his hotel.  He stepped off ErnieHarwellthe boat, looked around, saw me and said, “You must be James!”  As we were about to climb into a taxi (on Mackinac, it’s horses and bikes only, so the taxi is really a horse drawn carriage), someone on the street put their hand on Ernie and said, “Mr Harwell?  Do you mind…I’d love an autograph.”  Ernie turned, chatted with the guy for a while, signed the autograph and then climbed into the taxi with me.

On the way to the hotel, to the sound of the horses clip-clopping, I finally had him alone and could ask him something I’d been wondering since we first met.  As a young radio guy, I couldn’t wait for the day when people would recognize me and ask for autographs.  After meeting Mr Harwell, I rethought that.  What a pain it would be, being well known.  Eating dinner?  People want an autograph.  Spending the day on the beach?  People want an picture.  Using a public restroom?  People want a handshake.

“Does that bother you?” I asked. “People always bugging you for a picture or an autograph?”

“Nope, ” he said. “People give me hours and hours of their time.   The least I can do is give ‘em a few minutes of mine.”

I thought that was a pretty cool thing to say.  After reading tribute after tribute to the man, I can tell that he didn’t just say it, he believed it.  He always had time for his fans.  Even as he was sick and getting close to the end, he made time for the people that made his long and wonderful career a blessing.

It was the single greatest radio lesson I’ve learned.  I get the feeling, tho, that it wasn’t a lesson he had to learn.  It’s just who he was.

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