Twist of Fate
When one door closed for Furman Bisher, another opened, leading him to UNC and propelling him to the top of his profession. Three quarters of a century after he arrived in Chapel Hill, he's still writing.
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is journey through the then backwoods of South Carolina to Chapel Hill began over 75 years ago with a simple gesture that he demonstrates today—a thumb pointed to the sky. Furman Bisher was hitchhiking home to Denton, North Carolina and then onto UNC. "That's how nearly everybody got around back then," he explains.
When Furman University shut down its journalism department heading into the 1936 academic year, it lost a namesake and the football team's manager, an aspiring sports journalist who needed to shift course on the fly. He arrived in Chapel Hill just two days before the start of classes in the fall of 1936 and immediately had his schedule filled as he assumed the duties he left behind at Furman. He would be the Tar Heels football team manager while finishing off his degree in journalism. "I didn't have time for an adjustment period," he laughs. And thusly, a lifetime association between a school and future sports writing legend was underway.
Just a day shy of his 93rd birthday—"We don't celebrate those anymore, I'm just happy to be healthy"—he shared an afternoon of reflections in his private lakeside retreat just south of Atlanta. Bisher, to the surprise of nobody that knows him, is still active both physically and mentally. His column is syndicated to four newspapers in Georgia, allowing him the freedom to work when he wants, which appears to be quite often. His life is split between his home south of Atlanta and a residence on St. Simon's Island—each filled with memorabilia and honors from a 70-year career and accented by the work of a talented painter, his wife Lynda.
A half a century ago, while in Atlanta, Time Magazine named him one of America's five best columnists. He has interviewed Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ted Williams and Bobby Jones. During the course of his career he has been the President of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association of America as well as the Football Writers Association of America. Still, sitting in his house so many years later, the memories of his time in a pre-World War II Chapel Hill run strong.
"When I was there we had All-Americans like Andy Bershak and George Stirnweiss," Bisher explains. "Stirnweiss was later the second baseman for the New York Yankees and led the American League in hits one year. It was a different atmosphere altogether. College football has become an industry, not a sport."
Furthering his point that college football has undergone a large transition, Bisher details an offseason fitness program utilized by the coaches in the 1930s and ‘40s that bears little resemblance to the weight training regimen preferred currently. "The football coaches actually wanted their players playing basketball," he says, "because it kept them in shape. Andy Bershak played basketball and so did George Stirnweiss."
Bisher's 1938 UNC diploma maintains a prominent spot on his wall
Bisher's primary focus was no doubt the football team at both Furman and UNC, but in Chapel Hill his ties to the hoops program were strong as well. The North Carolina basketball program then didn't carry nearly the regional or national significance that it does now, but for Bisher, it would have been a challenge to not hear the updates from the hardwood. "As a junior, for some reason or another, I got assigned to a room with a freshman who was a basketball star and playing football as well," he recalls. "Ben Dilworth from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania—he was captain of the basketball team three years later. Ben was a delightful guy and here he was, he was stuck with this country hick and we had a great time together. His last couple of years they had a 6-7 player come in named George Glamack and George was an All-American so Ben moved to forward. He lost his job at center, but they won the conference championship."
Like so many young men from his era, Bisher was called upon to serve his country in World War II. He was in the Navy Air Patrol for three and half years as an operations officer in the Pacific. After returning from the war, Bisher picked up work again with the Charlotte News just as Chapel Hill was witnessing the birth of one of the great careers in the football program's history. The mere mention of the words "Choo Choo" Justice causes Bisher's eyes to twinkle and a smile to run across his face. These are special memories of a special player that would later blossom into a special friendship between the two men.
"He was a different sort of a guy," he begins. "Nowadays, the stars, you can pick them out. They walk around with a halo. Charlie was about as down-to-earth as you'll ever see. There was not one ounce of self-glamour about him at all. Here is a guy that is a big-time star, an All-American, second in the Heisman voting twice in a row and he couldn't do anything wrong and you'd never know he was a great athlete. You'd see him walking around the campus, just about 5-10 or 5-11 and weighed about 165 pounds and you wouldn't pick him out as a great athlete.
"I remember he ran a punt return over here in Athens when they were playing Georgia 80 yards for a touchdown and old Wally Butts was just incensed. Charlie was everything you would expect a campus hero not to be. There was nothing heroic about his behavior. He had a great sense of humor and a nice laugh. He was good to be around, good company. I played golf with him later on up in the mountains and we had a good friendship."
At far left with sportswriters at the 1949 Sugar Bowl (UNC vs. Oklahoma)
Bisher's career and his mark on the national scene would be made outside the confines of the Tar Heel state. He wrote his first column for the Atlanta Constitution in 1951 on a Royal typewriter that he still owns and operates today. Bisher's work at The Masters in Augusta, Georgia each year is the stuff of legend. His influence is felt by many, including the Emmy Award-winning essayist and reporter for TNT, Jim Huber, who had a chance to learn from Bisher firsthand. "In the opening stages of my career," Huber begins, "I had a sports editor who put me on a daily regimen of writers—Red Smith, Blackie Sherrod, Furman Bisher—in the hopes I would somehow subconsciously create my own style from their words. To experience the magic of Bisher on a weekly basis, from long distance, was remarkable and I like to think that somewhere in my work rests a bit of the man.
"In 1970, I was offered the Atlanta Hawks' beat with the Atlanta Journal and who should be winding down his remarkable career (or so we thought) at that time but Bisher. I watched daily as he stalked into his office, which was removed from the rest of the sports department, and stalked out six or seven hours later, soaking wet, having wrung out another column. It was as though he had wrestled a bear all day long.
"As I had years before, I absorbed every word and, though I was too timid to ask for advice or review, I was told to accept the fact that if he hadn't yelled at me, I was doing something right. It's been 41 years now and I still tremble at his feet, though he has made me an accepted friend."
Through his work in golf and the time he spends at his second home in St. Simon's Island, Bisher has developed a friendship with another famous UNC alum. Nearly everything that can be said about Davis Love III has already been recorded in magazines (including this one), newspapers or on television. Still, it is Bisher who comes up with a unique observation that helps to explain the beauty of Love's swing. "You can close your eyes and hear him swing and know who it is," Bisher says. "I covered him when he won the PGA Championship. It disappoints me that he hasn't carved a better record among the Majors than he has. For instance, he should have won the Masters one year, he came close, but he's got so many other irons in the fire."
The famous motto for what is now The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is "Covers Dixie Like the Dew." Bisher is quick to point out though that the focus of that Dixie coverage was on southern Dixie. The AJC didn't deem North Carolina to be of as much interest to its readers. For that reason, Bisher saw the UNC basketball program develop from afar. However, despite being hundreds of miles away, he always felt like Dean Smith granted him terrific access and Bisher had an inkling why.
With Charles Kuralt in the late 1970s
"Dean came along after Frank McGuire and he was a vast change," he says. "I was long gone by then. I was down here, but I liked Dean. He never glamorized himself. He never needed to do so. He was a coach and that was it. As far as I'm concerned, he's the one that laid the foundation for what they have now. Dean always had time and it might have been because I was a Tar Heel."
Bisher describes writing as an attempt to "paint a picture with words." As far back as he can remember, he wanted to be a sportswriter—nothing else. In that career, he has climbed to the highest rung on the ladder and simply did not walk down the other side.
Sure, he retired from the AJC in 2009—offering his signature "Selah" closing line for a final time after nearly 60 years. But his departure from his post never signaled the end of his writing. Many more selahs have followed. He still writes an annual column on Thanksgiving and some other special occasion pieces for the AJC, plus you can find periodical columns from him in the Rockdale Citizen and he has an online blog. "I knew I wasn't going to quit writing, for heaven's sake, I have to breathe," he says, tacitly explaining that the exercise of punching a keyboard—putting pen to paper—is in fact the only life he knows.
In 1985, Bisher was elected into the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame. It was an honor that at once humbled and, as he looked back on his roots, surprised him. More than anything, though, he was grateful. "I hold the University of North Carolina in high regard," he says, as ever, carefully choosing his words. "Not for what it is now, but for what it did for me and how I saw it during the days that I was in school. It is a wonderful institution. I'm very proud of it and for them to honor me and things like that—look, I was never a star when I was there. I didn't work on The Daily Tar Heel. I didn't have time for The Daily Tar Heel. I was managing the football team."
Furman Bisher still makes it back home to Denton, North Carolina occasionally. His older sister Helen still lives there as do several other family members. It was there that he was born to Mamie Morris and Chisholm Bisher and after 93 years, the legend of a man in the sports writing community rendered himself very much like many other men when describing what makes him most proud. "I always wanted to be a man my mother would have been proud of," he says, "and I think I might have lived up to what my mother's expectations might have been for me."
Selah Furman Bisher. Selah indeed.