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JACK WEATHERLY — A long winter’s drive to say good-bye



The air has a clarity and depth that set off the gray, monumental trees.

We are driving the Natchez Trace from Jackson, Miss. to its beginning near Franklin, Tennessee, which is close to Murfreesboro, which is the end of the earthly line for my friend who would’ve been 90 in May.

Hank Haines convinced many young journalists that they could get there from here.

The here was Blytheville, Arkansas, and the there was, well, anywhere. Anywhere your heart, brains, drive and luck would take you – whether it was Boston or, in my case, Atlanta.

That beginning was, for me, a short four decades ago.

But there was another side to Hank that I really hadn’t fully known till after his death.

His funeral service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was replete with eulogies that told of the sacrifices that he made for his stand in the ’50s and ’60s on civil rights for all.

He championed the downtrodden and was given an award for that — a burning cross in the yard of the house where he and his wife and three daughters lived. Not to mention the threatening anonymous notes left in their mailbox.

Nor the loss of advertisers who boycotted him for his editorials in The Courier-News.

He hadn’t related those details, telling me in one of our long conversations, only that he “made a lot of people mad.”

One tribute arrived too late to be included in the crammed funeral service.

It tells of Hank becoming the unofficial coach for middle school kids from the wrong side of the tracks. He describes those poor kids in their motley uniforms taking on the kids in swell gear and brimming with smug superiority.

“Wow, they looked good,” writes David Arnold, one of his players. They “had real uniforms. Football pants, cleats, jerseys with numbers and helmets that all matched.”

The poor kids were wearing blue jeans and their only pair of shoes, and jerseys of varying shades of green.

“Some of the other coaches and dads from the other teams . . . began razzing Coach Haines. ‘Who do you think you could beat with that bunch, Hank?’ ”

“They seemed to consider it high comedy. Coach’s response was a smile.”

The poor kids won that game and every other one for two years running. It is a story worthy of a screenplay.

But it went far beyond coaching on the playing fields of the Delta.

One boy, Alfred, surely one of poorest of the poor — lived in a rat-infested home with holes in the floor with a crippled father who had to pull a wagon through the alleys around town and pick up scrap, and a mother who was crazy.

Alfred was facing juvenile prison but Hank saw to it he made it into an orphanage, in which the boy thrived. He would later graduate from college.

Because of his father’s failing health, Hank had to withdraw from competition much later for a Fulbright fellowship. Hank told me once, not in a boastful way, that he “was probably the smartest kid in Blytheville.”

Granted, saying you are the smartest kid in a small Arkansas Delta town isn’t much.

But in boxing parlance, you had to beat whomever took the ring with you.

He boxed at the University of North Carolina, where he majored in journalism, and knew his pugilistic history, rattling off names of greats, and their fights, from the past that I, an undefeated and untied Trivial Pursuit player before the era of Google, had never heard.

Hank had a little boxing club that he ran at the Y for any kid who wanted to learn a bit about the sweet science, as A.J. Liebling called it.

Meantime, Hank punched away on the keyboard in his editor’s office at The Courier-News, whether in the cramped old office with a map of Vietnam on the wall, or in the state-of-the-art plant he built not long before I arrived from Memphis.

Hank was not a hands-on editor, as you might expect given his nature.

But he would nudge, joke, feint and challenge you.

You might be green and more than a little wild (as I was in my new-found craft), but he’d stick with you.

Or if you wrote a good column, he’d be the first to praise you.

Eventually, he got out of the racket and learned to write short fiction, which was published in prestigious literary quarterlies over three decades, and taught college courses. And, of course, he pursued his lifelong passion of another art form, crafting fine pork barbecue.

Closing the service was the playing of “When The Saints Go Marching In,” music provided on an old trombone, as the faithful processed to the fellowship hall and had, what else, barbecue.

Hank. Hank.

How to describe you? Atticus Finch with a left hook maybe.

After all these years, I hardly knew ye.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.


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