Right Opinion

Who Is Roy Exum?

Roy Exum · Feb. 5, 2010

I am deeply flattered and quite humbled to join a crowd that I consider to be the best journalists in America as I sign on as a columnist with The Patriot Post. Some of you will wonder, after a time, how a mule such as myself ever joined such thoroughbreds so allow me to reveal I am hardly like the others who you have already come to enjoy.

Those who know me best are always kind enough not to mention the fact I attended five different high schools while my folks “never moved.” I don’t pretend to be a scholar, or even a great writer, but in the South some are gifted with the ability to tell a story and I came about in a pretty honest way.

There was a time that once the dishes from Sunday lunch had been cleared, it was part of the day’s experience to tell stories around the huge dining room table. The subjects were broad and varied, as you’ll find in the columns that follow and, because my life’s path has been a colorful one, you can expect some peaks and valleys.

I am the second of six children. My dad was from central Mississippi and was a great story teller. The fact that he had six years of Latin and five years of Greek lent richly to his easy drawl. He was evermore a scholar with post grad years at Princeton and Stanford and met my mother when he was hired to teach at an exclusive prep school (McCallie) in Chattanooga, TN.

My mother was also from a big family, the first of five children and her father, for whom I am named, was the biggest factor in what I have become. In my early years of growing up he owned a large supermarket business, as well as a huge farm where I knew how to drive every vehicle by age 8.

He also owned a daily newspaper (The Chattanooga News-Free Press) and my brothers and I were well-schooled in everything from baling hay to helping on a cornucopia of construction projects, this from the time we were 12. The rules were simple; if the sun is up then you are late for work and quitting time was when the last adult would leave at the end of the day.

This was the first fertile field of glorious tales but when I was in my junior year of high school, it was decided I should broaden my mind instead of my muscles and I was put in the newspaper’s sports department. Since ours was an afternoon newspaper at the time, I would get to work at 5 am, work until 8, then scurry to school before coming back in the afternoons to cover prep sports at night.

There are no better story-tellers than you’ll find in a newspaper office. So rather than be taught “creative writing” or taking reporting classes in college, my classroom was the newspaper itself and I had no way of knowing that that first day I would enjoy it so immensely I would embrace it for a lifetime.

Because I was placed by fate in such a unique position, the world quickly blossomed into whatever I wanted it to be. I would soak up every issue of Sports Illustrated, relish the work of guys like Chicago’s Mike Royko and Los Angeles columnist Jim Murray, and go through a stack of out-of-town newspapers every day.

Understand, I wasn’t self-taught, not at all, but the great reporters I was with constantly were tough critics and, as is the way with anyone who writes, I am a reflection of many candles that molded me into a writer who has won some really nice awards.

Better still, I finally escaped the old saw, “The only way a fool like you could get a job is because your family owns the paper,” when Reader’s Digest started picking up my stories and there were some nice job offers with larger newspapers that I always rejected because of the great family bond I enjoyed.

My grandfather, Roy McDonald, was my “True North” and when he died at age 86 in 1990, three major things would soon happen in my life. The day he died, I was in the hospital recovering from surgery on my right arm. It had been crushed in an automobile accident in 1971 but I loved to play either golf or tennis every afternoon when the paper was put to bed.

I had essentially wrecked the elbow but no one could have predicted in 1990 that, in the years to follow, I would endure a medical odyssey that now totally 127 surgeries, countless days in the hospital and many more long nights.

The second big thing occurred in 2001 when my family sold the newspaper. One of my uncles had been stricken with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and, since the financial tentacles were so long and varied, it was the best course but I was devastated. I adored our newspaper and was so bitter when I left I swore I would never write again. I also made a vow to start life anew, turning my back of many friendships I have since realized meant more to me than anything else in my life.

The third major happening was that a longtime newspaper colleague, John Wilson, had started a Chattanooga-based news website and, after a wonderful psychiatrist ever so gently lured me into writing once more, John made his chattanoogan.com available to me. For the last three years, I have written stories every day that, well, I enjoy telling.

I wasn’t ready for the Internet. In the 10 years I did not write, I wasn’t prepared for the way Google, Yahoo, and other huge search engines would zip my stories across the globe the second they appeared. I also wasn’t ready for the deluge of emails that comes, not just locally but from around the country so the “roar of the crowd” has been the biggest award I have ever received. My stories are my personal blessing.

There are many things you will learn about me as you read my entries on Patriot Post but I need to be upfront in explaining I type every story with just one hand. Because of that, it takes me longer than it normally would so almost every day I find a moment during the task to thank the good Lord for the blend of unforgettable experiences that I have had during my life.

Secondly, I still love sports but, when I finally got where I could write with few errors, my better tales were about the human experience. Sure, you will see a strong thread of sports stories but my bigger focus has always been the people and the events, in and out of the arena, that made them who they are and molded me at much the same time.

I still have a small sign that reminds me, “Great stories begin with powerful elements of human emotion.” My other mantra I learned in junior high civics class when we were once shown the movie “The Grapes of Wrath.” Perhaps you will remember Henry Fonda, who played Tom Joad, and the classic way he delivered these lines:

“Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark - I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build - I’ll be there, too.”

Finally, before we launch my foray into The Patriot Post’s “big time,” writing in the same heady medium with men and women I consider the greatest artists of the printed word, allow me one more minute to tell you what takes place at, of all place, a rodeo.

Those who ride the bulls are a little crazy, lest they wouldn’t dare climb on a 1,500-pound animal without a saddle and try to stay on for eight seconds. The bull riders are well trained but people forget that bulls with names like “Fu Manchu,” “The Terminator,” and “Eat My Dust” know what they are doing, too.

When a bull goes into a tight circle and tries to buck the rider inside so the animal can then stomp the rider, that’s called “being ‘throwed’ in the ring.” Another favorite move is when a bull kicks his hind legs high, throwing the cowboy’s weight backwards and then immediately rears his head, the poor rider’s face crashing forward into the back of the bull’s skull in a way that the hospital surgeons have to use a driver’s license picture to make the man resemble himself.

What most spectators never catch is that when any contestant is thrown, the public-address announcer says, “Rider down!” and with the fallen hero lying motionlessly in the dirt, a hushed pall descends the arena as the clowns try to divert the angry animal. Understand, his family, his closest friends, his fellow riders and all the others are somber, watching the stilled rider.

But after several agonizing moments, the guy shakes his head, stretches in a way that assures him nothing is badly broken, and gets up to fetch his hat. “Cowboy up! Cowboy up!” screams the loudspeaker and everybody claps and laughs delightedly as the cowboy returns to the chute for his next draw.

It is my hope that the stories you will read from my hand will further assure you and me that I am on the way to being a “cowboy” instead of a “rider” because every morning, when I pull on my boots before sunup, my prayer always ends, “Lord, help me to be a cowboy today.”

So I’ve got my boots on snug, and I’m proud to be with The Patriot Post.