Saturday, September 24, 2005

Speer, 72, Dies; The Gipper May Be Stamped On a Letter You Send

This was a while ago.

In fact, it was maybe back so far that the director of the Drake Relays--in this case, probably Bob Karnes, who has been retired for many years--was still hosting a poker party that was associated with the famous springtime track meet.

Among those who attended the poker party was a guy named Ron Speer, who worked for both the Associated Press in Des Moines and the old Des Moines Tribune--the city's afternoon newspaper.

It was probably before Diet Pepsi was on the market, so Speer must have been drinking something more potent while he was playing poker at the party.

Whatever, when it came time to go home, Speer quickly found that driving his car wasn't a good idea.

So he pulled over and did what all smart guys do when they've had too much to drink.

He went to sleep.

Rumor has it that he remained asleep until a policeman-obviously one of the metro's finest--checked the inside of the car and woke him up.

After that, Speer [whose photo on the right accompanies this column] was my kind of newspaperman.

Now, he's gone to the Great Newsroom in the Sky.

According to Tony Germanotta of the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, Ronald L. Speer died Monday at the age of 72.

"Ronald L. Speer [was] an award-winning editor and longtime columnist for the Virginian-Pilot," Germanotta wrote.

"Speer, a larger-than-life personality with a booming voice and unbridled enthusiasm, was the primary editor for the Pilot’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize for general news reporting.

“'It’s a great day for the race,'” he’d often erupt.

“'What race?'” his friends would reply, playing along.

“'The human race,'” Speer would declare.

"In recent years, Speer suffered from Parkinson’s disease. He had been living in a rehabilitation center outside Philadelphia since last summer, when he became seriously ill.

"Born in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, Speer was proud of his cowboy heritage but had to leave the plains in search of a career after graduating from high school.

"In the Army, he said, he found his calling after officers moved him from forward observer to public information officer when they discovered he was a quick typist. He discovered he loved writing stories.

"When Speer left the service, he became a newspaperman, taking reporting jobs across the country. He was in Watts, Calif., the night it burned.

"While in Iowa, Speer covered the state’s last hanging and met four U.S. presidents, Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev and a Mississippi River island hermit named 'Silent Henry.'

"His two children, Erik and Barbara, were born in Des Moines.

"In Atlanta, working for the Associated Press, Speer covered Henry Aaron’s assault on Babe Ruth’s career home run record and the Civil Rights movement. He counted Aaron and the Rev. Martin Luther King as heroes he had been privileged to meet.

"Speer covered the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, famous for the black power salute by American sprinters.

"When Speer went to work for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, he fell in love with the sea, a passion that continued until he was no longer physically able to handle his beloved 24-foot sailboat, 'Wind Gypsy.'

"In 1992, Speer and two friends sailed a 35-foot sloop from Spain to Virginia, commemorating Columbus’ trip with an Atlantic crossing Speer had long dreamed about.

"Speer joined he Ledger-Star, then the afternoon sibling of the Pilot, in 1977 . He was snared by an ad seeking an old pro to work in the 'Sunbelt by the Sea.'

"Kay Tucker Addis was the Ledger’s city editor when Speer joined the staff. She retired last year as the Pilot’s editor and vice-president.

“'Ron was a gifted writer, an inspiring editor and a true friend,” she said. 'He brought words – and a newsroom – to life with his talent and his exuberance.

“'There are legions of journalists across the country who count working with Ronald L. Speer as one of the highlights of their careers, and who count knowing Ron as one of the real joys of their lives.'

"One of them is Tom Turcol, who covers New Jersey politics for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

"Turcol was covering Chesapeake City Hall under Speer when he won a Pulitzer Prize by looking into the spending practices of the city’s economic development director.

“'Working for him was the most rewarding experience in my entire career,” Turcol said. 'He was a jewel as an editor, and as a person.'

"Turcol, who remained close to Speer even after he left the Pilot to work for the Washington Post and then the Inquirer, said Speer always was interested in his staff’s personal, as well as professional, lives.

"As an editor, Turcol said, Speer 'was a real throwback. He really believed that the most important role of a newspaper was being a watchdog for the people.'

Speer’s wife, Joanne, died in 2004. He is survived by his two children, Erik Speer and Barbara Brooks, and two stepchildren, Leslie A. Corpuz and Vernon R. Bush Jr.

"A memorial service is planned for Oct. 8 at St. Andrews By The Sea Episcopal Church in Nags Head."


I've got to thank my friend, Jim Feld of West Des Moines, for this one.

Jim was aware that I've been writing about George Gipp--better known as The Gipper in Notre Dame football history--a lot lately.

So he forwarded a story to me about how a likeness of Gipp [pictured above on the left] may be appearing on a U.S. postage stamp soon, according to the Marquette Mining Journal:

"A drive is under way to have legendary Upper Peninsula native George Gipp placed on a U.S. postage stamp," the story says.

"The one-time Notre Dame football standout was born in Laurium, near Calumet. He died in 1920, shortly after being named that season's top college football player.

"Gipp was the recipient of the Helms Foundation Award, the equivalent to today's Heisman Trophy. He was the first Notre Dame running back named to Walter Camp's all-America team, and some of his school records still stand.

"He was portrayed in the movie 'Knute Rockne All-American' by Ronald Reagan, who later became a U.S. president. Gipp is a charter inductee of the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame.

"'The Gipper'" was offered baseball contracts by the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox. He was a prolific basketball scorer on the Calumet High School teams of 1910-11.

"A book written by Emil Klosinski, whose father was a close friend of Gipp's, has been in bookstores since May, 2004. Klosinski also wrote a book about another Laurium native and Notre Dame legend, Hunk Anderson, who provided extensive details about Gipp for the book 'Gipp at Notre Dame-The Untold Story.'

"Gipp fans can join the stamp drive by sending a request to: Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, c/o stamp development, U.S. Postal Services, 475 Lenfant Plaza S.W., Room 5670, Washington, D.C., 20260.

"During his Notre Dame career, Gipp rushed for 2,341 yards and threw for 1,789. Gipp scored 21 touchdowns, averaged 38 yards a punt, and had five interceptions as well as 14 yards per punt return and 22 yards per kick return in four seasons of play for the Irish.

"The apocryphal story of Gipp's death begins when he returned from a night out to Notre Dame's campus after curfew. Unable to gain entrance to his residence, Gipp went to the rear door of Washington Hall, the campus' theatre building. Gipp was a steward for the building, and knew that the rear door was often unlocked. On that night, however, the door was locked, and Gipp was forced to sleep outside.

"By morning, he had gotten pneumonia, and eventually died from a related infection. It could be that Gipp got strep throat and pneumonia while giving punting lessons after his final game, on Nov. 20 against Northwestern.

"It was on his hospital bed that he delivered the famous, but possibly fictional, "win just one for the Gipper" line to coach Knute Rockne. The full quotation from which the line is derived is:

"I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy."

Rockne used the story of Gipp, along with this deathbed line that he attributed to Gipp, to rally his team to an underdog victory over the undefeated 1928 Army team.

The phrase "Win one for the Gipper" was later used as a political slogan by Ronald Reagan, who was the 40th president of the United States [1981–1989] and the 33rd governor of California [1967–1975]. Reagan was also a broadcaster, actor, and head of the Screen Actors' Guild before entering politics.

Among the radio stations Reagan worked for were WHO in Des Moines and WOC in Davenport. He was the play-by-play announcer of University of Iowa football games in the 1930s, then went to Hollywood.