Friday, April 29, 2016

A few personal observations about Blackie Sherrod

When I taught journalism at El Centro College I discovered I was instructing a group of semi-eager students many of whom had never written anything before, let alone a news story. I realized the most difficult challenge for me was getting them to overcome their fear of the blank page. The first thing I told them to do was read, read, read. Read anything they could get their hands on. It didn’t necessarily have to be the local newspaper, although that was a good start. But if they would rather read a trashy mystery, then read that. If they liked reading the Bible, then read that. Then I told them to start keeping some form of a diary and enter something into it every night before they turned off the bedroom light. I didn’t care what they wrote in that diary, whether it was they did that day or what was on their mind at that given moment. Just write it. I told them the more they read and the more they wrote in the diary, the easier the task of writing would become.

I also told them to borrow freely from the styles of whatever they read. Steal something from this writer, steal something else from that writer and eventually your writing style would be the amalgamation of everyone you stole from, but it would be your own. I admitted freely I stole from other writers, specifically I told my students, from Blackie Sherrod.

"In fact," I told my students, "I don’t know of a single writer in Texas and a lot of other places that hasn’t, whether it was consciously or subconsciously, stolen from Blackie Sherrod at one time or another."

When I was working in with the New York World Journal Tribune in the late 1960s I was on a staff with some great writers — Jimmy Breslin, who I was fortunate enough to call a good friend at that time; sports writer emeritus Red Smith; the great humorist Art Buchwald. But, to me, Blackie was the best of them all.

In the mid-1970s I was writing about rock music for The Dallas Morning News, which, back then, was considered covering a subject that was, to put it mildly, outside the North Central Texas mainstream. One evening I joined John Anders, another superb writer and the gentleman who coaxed me to come to the News, at a bar on Lemmon Avenue that was known to be a hangout for writers. As soon has I walked in, I couldn’t help but spot Blackie sitting at the bar chatting to about three other gentleman. John asked me if I had ever met Blackie and when I told him I hadn’t, he said "Let me introduce you." I protested. "No, I don’t want to bother him," I told John. I mean, you just don’t walk up to the Pope and stick out your hand. There are protocols to be followed when you’re in the company of greatness. But John insisted, so hesitantly and quite timidly I walked over to where Blackie was sitting. John immediately struck up a conversation with him and ultimately said he was with someone Blackie should meet. Blackie looked at me and I just said, "Hello, I’m Pete Oppel." Blackie said "Pete Oppel, I read every word you write."

To this day, I have never received a greater honor.

A living legend left this world yesterday when Blackie died. He was 96 and he was, quite simply, the finest newspaperman I ever knew.

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