The top line of my résumé and LinkedIn profile read “storyteller | retired paperboy.” This witty (well, I think it’s witty) bit of self-serving, semi-nonsensical description of my career path is partially true.
I am indeed a retired paperboy. That part of my career that eventually landed me in a series of grown-up communications, marketing, public relations and quasi-journalism jobs ended 25 years ago when I was a sophomore in high school but was a very important part of my life journey – even if I had no clue of its relevance at the time. That time delivering papers for the Daily Journal, which was still locally owned at the time, allowed me to be around some great journalists, press operators (a job that was so cool to watch) and circulation folks.
Over the last few years, as I’ve moved through my career and writing the third iteration of this column, I have come to learn that the storyteller part of my professional description is, in many ways, a stretch. This realization came into crystal clear focus yesterday (I am writing this on Wednesday morning), when I learned that Tom Higgins passed away.
I have the pleasure of reading and listening to some great storytellers in life. My grandfather, Furman Fleetwood McDonald Jr. (for the Richmond County folks; I wrote his full name because I think it’s awesome) and Brenda Gilbert (for the Scotland County folks) immediately come to mind. I remember being in rapt fascination listening to them on more than one occasion. But, for me, Higgins is the standard of storytelling against whom all others in racing journalism; nay, written storytelling regardless of the topic. And against that standard, I, and many others, fall short in the mantle of storyteller. I’m not beating myself up or disparaging anyone else; it’s just reality.
To say Higgins was a legend would be an understatement and for me to say he is one of my heroes is not hyperbole. Higgins began writing for the Charlotte Observer in 1964, covering both NASCAR and the outdoors. Before retiring in 1997, he covered nearly ever seminal moment in NASCAR of the 20th century.
To say he was prolific would also be a gross misrepresentation; Higgins routinely had four or five bylines in the Observer. According to the story of his passing in the paper, his record was 12 and many at the paper say more words by Higgins have been included in their pages than any other writer. I’d be willing to bet that over the last 10 years of his career (and his return engagements to the sports page), I read 75 percent of them. It was part of my daily routine to grab the sports page as soon as I got home.
When I was working at Rockingham Speedway, I had the pleasure of meeting Tom (and his good friend and legendary NASCAR journalist Steve Waid) and learned that his storytelling prowess was not limited to the written word. I don’t know that I’ve laughed so hard in my adult life.
For a solid hour, Tom and Steve riffed on NASCAR stories that I thought were legends or gross exaggerations in the same folksy style in which he wrote. I could tell he had an affinity for Rockingham and had a few good tales about the track’s long-time public relations director Herman Hickman (many I can’t put in print) and his time at Webb Farm in Ellerbe (none I can put in print).
Beyond mastering the art of storytelling, Higgins was one hell of a journalist. He built solid relationships with NASCAR drivers over four decades, most notably Dale Earnhardt. Higgins told the Observer a few years back: “There is an old saying in the Blue Ridge Mountains: ‘Don’t throw anybody in the creek.’
That means don’t do them dirty; don’t hurt them in any way. I heard my daddy say that so many times. And I think that, other than in one or two instances, I was pretty much able to do that.” I think that’s a valuable lesson many journalists need to learn now.
As I read the Observer’s story, I was reminded that Higgins was a quote machine. On his professional baseball career, he said, “I couldn’t solve the aerodynamics of a curveball.” On the 1958 Southern 500, “I swear to God, the press box in Darlington was nothing more than a chicken coop on stilts.”
When he retired from the Observer, reflecting on his career, he wrote, ““As they say back in the mountains of my native Yancey County, I shore ‘preciate it.”
No Tom, we shore ‘preciate it. Rest easy.
Andy Cagle, a former spokesman for Rockingham Speedway and motorsports public relations consultant, writes about NASCAR in a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @andy_cagle.