T.R.’s Memoirs steps aside in an ode to a great journalist. Call this one Galyn’s Memoirs
(Photo courtesy of T.R. Sullivan)
T.R. Sullivan note: Galyn Wilkins, who passed away Sunday, was the lead sports columnist in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for many years. An outstanding journalist, Wilkins presented an authentic Texas voice to the Star-Telegram Sports section.
This article appeared in the Dec. 20, 1985, edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Sweetwater was getting ready to play Tomball in the Class 4A state championship game at TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium.
This is Galyn at his best. In the week leading up to the game, Galyn went back to Sweetwater, where he had worked on the newspaper in 1958-59. He wrote about what he saw and heard, what he could feel, smell and taste as the town eagerly prepared for the big game.
It is a deeply personal column but was all-inclusive in touching the heart and soul of a hometown and Texas institution so meaningful to many of his readers. Galyn, as he did so many times, captured it all perfectly. In the photo above, he is the gentlemen in the front row wearing a blue blazer and red sweater.
The 27-year-old images of that first morning on the job are still clear, as if I am turning the pages of a scrapbook.
Here I am, the new sports editor of the Sweetwater Reporter, on my way to meet the man who, in the way of high school football coaches in West Texas, owned the town.
I’d asked about Elwood Turner, of course. He’d played at TCU just after World War II and had coached his way across West Texas. In 1957, the year before I first knocked on his door, he had taken the Sweetwater Mustangs to the state finals, where they lost to Nederland, victims of a third-quarter blocked punt.
Elwood. An odd name for a coach, I remember thinking. I envisioned a shy, somewhat clumsy Jimmy Stewart character groping and stammering his way through life.
Instead, I found a restless figure who resembled a lot of high school coaches. His nose had been broken by a careless or angry elbow years ago, hastily straightened and broken again. His fingers, gnarled and blunt, looked like railroad ties.
Like most West Texans, he smiled first and asked questions later. He had a huge generous heart, as well as an ulcer and unremitting sinus problems. I would meet many Elwood Turners through the years, tough, banged up, coarse, totally dedicated men.
His office was decorated in what might be called Early Coach. It had two chipped and peeled desks — one for Elwood, the head coach, and another for his three assistants — and a sporting goods company calendar on the wall. There was always a fresh layer of dust in the mornings, so the coaches could draw plays with their fingers on the desktops.
I spent 10 months in Sweetwater, learning what makes newspapers and coaches tick. I came to appreciate the difficulty, the luck and the talented coaching involved in getting back to the state finals, especially since Sweetwater’s road led across a devil’s road map of Breckenridge, Stamford, Abilene, Snyder and Lamesa.
Turner clung to a dream of going back, and riding home in the unbridled din of a victory bus.
He never realized it. His team — heck our team — lost to Breckenridge in the first round of the playoffs. He left Sweetwater a few years later, an unfulfilled prospector searching for golden trophies over the next hill. He got as far as Arizona and was still looking, still a high school coach, when he died on the operating table in 1971.
Now, half-a-dozen coaches, 27 years and almost two generations of high school players later, Sweetwater finally is back in the finals. The Mustangs, in the good, tough, dedicated coaching hands of W.T. Stapler, play Tomball at Amon Carter Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
After they made it over the semifinals hump last weekend, I wondered how perilous and harsh the 27-year journey has been — not just for the football teams but the city.
In West Texas, they are dependent upon each other, breathing life and hope into each other. The cotton crop may be dying, but there’s always Friday night. The last train may have pulled out and the tracks uprooted, but they still have Friday nights.
Like its football teams, Sweetwater is a tough town, a town that won’t give up. I was surprised that the population, now about 12,200, is about the same as when I left.
It could have dried up when the railroad virtually abandoned the town, when I-30 bypassed it, when the oil crunch struck, or when the cotton didn’t get enough rain, or too much.
“Somehow we survive,” says the president of the First National Bank. That’s Pat Gerald, all-state guard and captain of the 1957 Mustangs, the last Sweetwater team to reach the finals. “We’ve been through some hard times but things are looking better.”
“We still have problems,” says John McDougald, publisher of the paper for the past seven years. “We’ve got a good cotton crop, but what people make from it will go to the bank to pay for the loans they had to get when the crops were bad.”
Oddly, one of the things that keeps Sweetwater alive and breathing is its dust: Gypsum. Elwood Turner could draw off-tackle plays on his desk in it, and big companies can mine it. Two of them have helped stabilize Sweetwater the past three decades.
Another burst of hope comes from the football team, especially one sticking pins in the perilous road map to the state finals.
“You wouldn’t believe the excitement in this town,” said Bill Ransberger, who used to pilot the early morning Santa Fe train to Brownwood and retired several years ago. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was Russia because everybody’s wearing red this week. A thing like this pulls a town together, no matter how bad times are. Everybody’s speaking to each other this week.”
Oh yes, I’d believe the excitement. Another snapshot from the scrapbook: I remember a block-long line of Sweetwater citizens burrowed into sleeping bags waiting through the night for tickets to go on sale for the 1958 playoff game with Breckenridge.
Ransberger and Gerald promised if I can make the game Saturday, I’d see some of the old heroes, many of whom have become prosperous pillars, as had Gerald. One, linebacker Leon Fitts, even earned a Ph.D. in Greek philosophy and became a college professor.
Let’s see, Gerald said, Pat Fraley became a commercial artist, Carl Morris and Dickie Woods have done well in real estate, Don Bishop is an attorney, James Parker, a great, tireless fullback, was last seen working with an oil field equipment firm in Oklahoma.
Glenn Reed, a halfback, I’d heard about. He was among the four or five players who received college scholarships. Gerald and Wood went to Rice, Fraley to TCU and Parker to Oklahoma. Reed was playing at UT El Paso and coming home for the holidays when he was killed in a car wreck near Van Horn.
Only Gerald, as it turns out, came home to Sweetwater. The others are scattered from the East Coast to Lubbock.
I asked about the newspaper, of course. It was in a small brick building close to the square, a building full of the cheerful noise of daily newspaper making — the Linotypes, the flatbed press, the typewriters, the customers dictating ads.
The “newsroom” was in the attic, a dark, dusty place that, like Elwood’s office, resembled an archaeological tomb. My desk was next to the staircase. In back of me was the city reporter and the editor. To my left was the society editor and to my right was a clattering teletype.
“You wouldn’t recognize it,” the current editor, Gail Redding, told me. “The building has been modernized and your attic office has been boarded up. We all work downstairs now.”
I remember the day the bells went off, the signal. I had read in journalism books, that urgent news was about to appear on the teletype. I jumped to the machine, fearing that a Russian armada might be on the way to Sweetwater.
The bells were telling Sweetwater that Fidel Castro had conquered Cuba. Because of the bells and the fire-alarm urgency, I figured it was hot news. Told Elwood about Castro that afternoon.
I think he said something like. “Yeah? Let him try to beat Breckenridge and Abilene on successive Friday nights.”
Elwood, may his tough soul rest, knew what was important in Sweetwater.
Postscript: Sweetwater defeated Tomball, 17-7, the day after this column was published. It is the only football state championship in the town’s history.