CRAWFORD | A look back: Some things I learned in 2016 - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | A look back: Some things I learned in 2016

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Damion Lee and Trey Lewis reacted to adversity with grace for the University of Louisville basketball program. (WDRB photo by Mike DeZarn). Damion Lee and Trey Lewis reacted to adversity with grace for the University of Louisville basketball program. (WDRB photo by Mike DeZarn).

ORLANDO, Fla. (WDRB) — A lot of times at this time of year, I’ll write a column about my favorite columns from the past year, or my favorite people, or some kind of list.

This year I’m going to do something a bit different. I’m looking back at the past year, and I want to talk about what I learned. In doing that, we’ll roll through a few things I’ve written, and just as important, a few things I read.

I wrote most of this poolside from the Rosen Plaza Resort in Orlando, where I stayed for the Citrus Bowl last week. And I'm finishing it from Quills Coffee on Bardstown Road, an office away from the office. There are some long hours with this job. But there are a lot of great rewards, and I get to work with great people. Every year you can say that, you're quite fortunate.

1). PLANNING FOR THE END IS IMPORTANT. The biggest thing I covered this year was Muhammad Ali’s death and funeral, and I’ve talked plenty about that, and about Ali. But in looking back, it’s important for all of us to remember how much Ali planned for that final Memorial himself, and how his wife, Louisville native Lonnie Ali, executed his and their wishes that his final memorial be a celebration, and a teaching moment.

It was both. And it was beautiful. None of us will have the world watching when that time comes. But we ought to remember that it is in those times of grief that we can make a final statement to the world, and that our final statement ought to be worthwhile, and positive.

On the note of worthwhile and positive statements, probably the best sports piece I wrote all year was this recounting of the day, and of Ali’s memorial. In fact, I might be as happy with the way it turned out as any piece I've ever written. If you missed it, you can read it by clicking here.

2). I NEED TO TAKE MORE RIDES. I’m not talking about just getting in the car and going, but about remembering to look around or at least think a little bit while I'm on my way. The column I wrote this year that generated the third-most feedback — and not just via social media but from people sitting down and taking the time to email — was a pretty simple piece on my first trip across the new East End bridge. 

I’m always a little hesitant to veer away from sports, but in several cases in the past year, it was those trips outside the lines that generated some of the pieces that generated the most discussion. If you missed my rumination on my first trip across the new Lewis & Clark Bridge, you can read it here.

3). TRUTH REALLY IS STRANGER THAN FICTION. It’s a tight race, but probably my favorite book I read all year was The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough. Now, McCullough could write anything and I’d eat it up. His storytelling ability is superior, as is that of any great writer of history.

That he took the time to write about these two brothers, from just up in Dayton, Ohio, and their remarkable intelligence, toughness and determination, is a gift. Think about how they changed the world. Think about how flight changed the world.

I’m struck in this book at how they had to, in some ways, fight government efforts, and the Smithsonian, for recognition for their work. I was struck by the reactions of people taken up for flights in France, where they did most of the demonstrations of their new flying machine.

As I look back, everything I read in the past year was nonfiction. I think, because of the election, I was steered toward political biographies. I finished two-thirds of William Manchester’s three-volume life of Winston Churchill, titled The Last Lion. Manchester, maybe as much as any writer outside of Mark Twain, inspired me to become a writer. His prologue in The Last Lion is exemplary of great writing, and of his skill to transport a person back in time.

Jean Edward Smith’s Eisenhower: In War and Peace is a fresh look at a leader and president who many over the years have dismissed as simply a placeholder in the line of commanders in chief, but who in reality was a wise and accomplished talent. Any president who can never dip below 60 percent in the approval ratings must have done something right.

I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism. I’m fascinated by Roosevelt, and I’ll share one nugget about him below when I come to something else I learned.

I didn’t read any fiction — though I did re-read A. Scott Berg’s excellent Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. Perkins edited Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald for Scribners, and his ability to coax and cajole the greatest literary names of his age is worth the book, if not quite the subsequent movie that came from it.

Still, to read no fiction — save for a couple of things I read almost every year, almost as touchstones — is a curious thing for me, until I stopped and thought about the year that was, and the election season we had, and I realized, there was no need for me to read fiction in a world as crazy as this one was.

May it calm back down soon.

4). ON HANDLING CRITICS. I don’t suppose I do it well. I’m not alone. I have watched Rick Pitino chafe under difficult questioning. I watched Bobby Petrino try to stare down a reporter. I’ve watched Donald Trump Tweet all manner of things. I found myself wishing that Trump, in particular, had read some of the things that I was reading about Teddy Roosevelt.

He was hammered by critics. The editorial cartoonists were particularly brutal sometimes. Roosevelt couldn’t have liked it — no man would. Yet he saved many of the cartoons. He loved the likenesses of himself, the outrageously big teeth, the persona they were creating for him.

Once, when he was police commissioner of New York, Roosevelt discovered that police were making a killing collecting hush money from saloons to ignore their flouting of the unpopular law that their establishments were to be closed on Sundays. Roosevelt decreed that the practice would end. There was, as you might imagine, backlash. A huge demonstration was to be held — in the form of a parade. Organizers sent him a mock invitation. He accepted. For real. From Goodwin’s book:

Along the parade route, more than 150,000 cheering people were gathered, standing ‘in windows, on steps and poles and wagons, and even lampposts. . . . There were gilded floats, decorated and peopled in a manner most pleasing to the eye,’ reported the New York World, ‘and long lines of men in shining uniforms and all the glitter and splendor of mounted paraders.’ As more than 30,000 marchers paraded along Lexington Avenue, there was Roosevelt, the signal object of derision, smiling and waving for hours from the reviewing stand.

The commissioner ‘laughed louder than any one else,’ as the scathing banners and placards came into view: ‘Send the Police Czar to Russia’; ‘Rooseveltism is a farce and a humbug.’ Sighting one banner emblazoned with the words: ‘Roosevelt’s Razzle Dazzle Reform Racket,’ he asked the bearer if he could keep the banner as a souvenir. ‘Certainly,’ replied the man. ‘That is the best yet,’ Roosevelt chuckled, pointing to a wagon entitled ‘The Millionaire’s Club.’ The float sported three gentlemen in frock coats and tall hats, with one bearing ‘a striking resemblance to Theodore Roosevelt.’ The trio sipped champagne at a ‘private club,’ while at the rear of the wagon a mock arrest of a beer-drinking laborer was staged. ‘That is a really good stroke,’ Roosevelt burst forth with admiration.

Even the New York World, which had been ‘shrieking with rage’ against Roosevelt, conceded that the crowd was delighted by his appearance: ‘It looked almost as if the whole affair were in his honor, and the long lines to whom he bowed, took off their hats in salute.’ All along the way, marchers shouted, ‘Bully for Teddy!’ and ‘Teddy, you’re a man!’ His ability to turn the tables, to relish his protracted self-mockery in public, was compressed into the headline of a Chicago newspaper: ‘Cheered by those who came to jeer.’

Roosevelt, despite the day, refused to change his unpopular position.

What a lesson for any of us who comes under attack from time to time. And in it, perhaps, something for the President-elect to think about. I felt like he missed a chance to earn some goodwill by reacting with humor to, say, Saturday Night Live, instead of reacting with anger.

5). QUICK ELECTION NOTE. I was right in my estimate of the election. I felt like there was a bias for change — both for Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side and Donald Trump on the Republican. If Sanders had been able to emerge from the Democratic side, he’d probably be preparing for the inauguration. Instead, it’s Trump.

On June 2, in this story, I wrote of Trump: “Based on what I know about this country in 2015 and '16, I'm going to be surprised if he's not elected.”

Probably because of all my political reading, I offered several history-based columns looking at various election issues. including this piece examining our most qualified presidential candidates.

And I actually defended the study of history itself, in this column. I want to say, in the wake of that column, that personally I'm a fan of our Lt. Governor Jenean Hampton. She has an inspiring life story and message that probably needs a bigger platform than it has gotten. We've heard a lot about a "backwards, racially motivated" electorate that overwhelmingly backed Trump in the Presidential election. What isn't as much noted is that it's the same electorate that just elected the first African-American woman to statewide office in Kentucky's history.

What did I learn from jumping into any of these discussions? People aren’t as opposed to reading history here and there as I thought they might be, at least in small doses.

The piece I wrote this year that got the second-most feedback was a historical piece with modern application. It was a resounding approval of Harriet Tubman being chosen as the face of the $20 bill, and why I thought it was appropriate. You may read it here.

6). PEOPLE WANT TO BE HEARD. When I wrote about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and the root cause being that no one would listen to people when they complained, it struck a nerve. Many wrote to me about having the same experience, in one form or another.

I think it’s a basic fact of our time. People are dying to be heard, to be seen, to be listened to. Whether it’s on social media or in their activities, it is becoming a basic need when we all are, for better or worse, living lives in public.

Here’s the column I wrote on Flint. The root problems at play there are part of what has given rise to our current political climate. They’re worth remembering.

7). ON HANDLING ADVERSITY. A couple of graduate seniors for the University of Louisville basketball program taught us about reacting with grace to an unfortunate situation that was not of their making.

When the University of Louisville banned itself from the NCAA Tournament for wrongdoing it found in connection with Katina Powell bringing strippers and prostitutes into the men’s basketball dorm, Trey Lewis and Damion Lee were put front and center to explain the players’ reaction to the news.

Lewis and Lee did it with grace and candor. That’s all you can ask for. If you didn’t read it at the time, my story about that pair, and the lives that prepared them to offer such a strong example in such a moment, is worth reading now by clicking here.

8). ON HANDLING SUCCESS. I still think the challenge of handling success, and all that entails, was a big issue for the University of Louisville football team in its late-season collapse. Let me give you a picture of my job, after, say, the Citrus Bowl game.

The second the game ends, I post a 600-word recap of the game. Then I go down to do interviews, talk with Bobby Petrino, players, whoever the program makes available, and then coaches and players from the other team if I can. Then it’s time for television. We spent about 40 minutes shooting “stand-ups,” multiple hits for the evening news show, morning news show, news the next evening, you name it.

After that, we pack up and leave the stadium to return to the hotel. And it’s only after all of that activity that I sit down to write a column. By that point, the game is a couple of hours, maybe three, in the rear-view mirror. It’s old news. What people are talking about is what happened to this Louisville team, which in September appeared poised for a run at the playoff, only to lose its edge in losing its final three games.

I still feel like something happened with this team that we don’t necessarily know about. But I also had a strong feeling that inexperience in handling success played a role in its stumbling down the stretch. Anyway, I got quite a bit of feedback on the piece I wound up writing. You can read it here. 

For any who followed me on Twitter or Facebook or read my offerings in the past year, I’m more grateful than you know. I’ll try to do better in 2017. Thanks.

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