A Writer Returns to His Roots
t’s a winter Friday morning in Norwich, N.Y., and the Deja Brew coffee shop near the northwest corner of Broad and Main is hopping. A dapper older gentleman in an LL Bean jacket walks through the front door carrying a shopping bag. Before he gets to my table, he pulls out a loaf of bread and hands it to a customer, and then another to another, and another to another. When he gets to my table, he sits down across from me and hands me a loaf.
“Hello, Your Honor.”
My honor, actually. The label on the bread reads BAKED ESPECIALLY FOR YOU, and underneath a drawing of a loaf continues BY HOWIE SULLIVAN and then, next to a gavel, JUDGE FOR YOURSELF.
The Honorable W. Howard Sullivan served Norwich and Chenango County as a judge for over 37 years right around the corner, beneath the golden Lady Justice atop the courthouse. He retired in 2012 but still fills in once in a while when the courts in Binghamton, 35 miles southeast of Norwich, need a hand on a gavel.
Sullivan grew up in North Norwich, went to Le Moyne College, received his law degree from Temple, and settled in Norwich, where he raised four children, who gave him six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. I came to know Howie from noontime pickup basketball games at the old Norwich YMCA when I first arrived in 1972 to write sports for The Evening Sun, right after I graduated from Hamilton.
He started baking bread about 40 years ago out of curiosity, borrowing a commercial bread slicer from a friend. “My one machine became two and at times I had three. I hand them out randomly and supply them to nonprofit bake sales.”
“How many loaves have you given out over the years?”
“In a few days, I will pass 53,000 loaves. Now you know the real reason why the bailiff would say, ‘All Rise,’ when I walked into the courtroom.”
The judge has done more for the people of the county than bake bread. He was a founding member of its Big Brothers Big Sisters program, served on the school board, and coached baseball. He’s especially proud of his role in building the new YMCA, which provides the community with all kinds of recreational and educational opportunities for reasonable fees based on need.
I express to the judge my amazement at how much he has done for Norwich over the years. He says, “The one thing I’ve learned in life is that no matter how much you give, it’s never equal to how much you receive.”
n the 50 years since I worked in Norwich, the county has lost the sheen of prosperity as most of its industries left or folded. The bread, then, is literally a godsend. Still, the can-do spirit of the town is very much alive, like the marquee of the restored Colonia theater on South Broad, which is now showing Plane and M3GAN.
When I pulled into town in August of ’72, the Colonia was showing The Graduate. Like Benjamin Braddock, the character played by Dustin Hoffman, I too was in search of myself. That’s why I drove around New England and Upstate New York in a powder blue ’68 Chevelle Malibu, dropping off my résumé and writing samples at various newspapers. One day, I left the packet at The Evening Sun offices, which were housed in a matching powder blue cinder block building on the corner of Hale and Birdsall streets.
Shortly thereafter, I got a call from Tom McMahon, the publisher of The Evening Sun, asking me to return for an interview. The mostly one-sided conversation with McMahon, who bore a resemblance to Clark Kent, went something like this:
“I need a sportswriter. I can only pay you $95 a week, but you’ll get a raise after a few months. You’ll work your butt off here for a year or so, and then you’ll leave and take a job in Florida because that’s where the jobs are. You’ll be there long enough for somebody to notice you, and within five years, you’ll be working at Sports Illustrated.”
Sounded like a good deal to me. And so, on Aug. 3, 1972, my professional journalism career began with an assignment to interview John and Mary Maxian, a father-and-daughter rifle team who were about to compete in the Smallbore Prone Championships in Camp Perry, Ohio.
The next day, I got to my desk at 4 a.m. to write the first draft of my story longhand, just as I did for my papers at Hamilton. An hour later, my editor, a wonderful guy named Barry Abisch, walked in and asked me what I was doing. Before I could finish explaining, he rolled my chair over to the manual Royal typewriter behind me and said, without raising his voice, “This is where you will be writing from now on.”
Four hours later, I watched as McMahon pasted up my first story: “Norwich Father-Daughter Duo Seeks National Shooting Title.”
I’ve been typing ever since, for The Fort Lauderdale News, Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, and ESPN.com, and now, in the sunset of my career, the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I pretty much followed the same path McMahon laid out for me, helped along by Abisch’s directive. I evolved along with the keyboard — IBM Selectric, Portabubble, RadioShack, several generations of Macs. There was also something I kept in mind from that first story — a quote from Mary Maxian, the teenage marksman: “Preparation keeps my heart from jumping around.”
Back then, Norwich was a thriving town of 8,800, located on Route 12 roughly halfway between Utica and Binghamton. The Evening Sun had a circulation of 5,000 and a staff of six editors and writers, not counting McMahon, who helped paste up the pages. My job was to cover the many teams of the dozen high schools in the Chenango County area, as well as individual achievers like the Maxians, and the local softball, bowling, and golf leagues. There were the glorious fall afternoons covering 8-man football in South New Berlin, the winter nights when I tapped out 12 different basketball stories, and the summer evenings when I played second base for Rowe’s O’s in the People’s Softball League and then wrote about the game, occasionally quoting myself.
I spent 15 months there, living in an area of nearby Oxford that was so isolated that its five houses shared a party line. I also learned a ton from Abisch, McMahon, editor-in-chief Joe Quinn, and Tom Schwan, a chemist at Norwich Pharmacal who covered the big games for us. When I headed south to find a job in Florida, the Chevelle had 50,000 more miles on it, and I had a tankful of gratitude.
Now, half a century later, Judge Sullivan and I are reminiscing about the old days and pondering the future of Norwich in a café near where the Blue Bird Diner used to be. “You know what’s very cool?” he says. “The sportswriter for The Evening Sun now is my granddaughter, Morgan Golliver.”
He then excused himself to go to Mass.
o we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
If you haven’t already recognized those words, that is the ending to The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve read it countless times. But I didn’t fully understand it until 2022, when that current felt like a tsunami.
Hamilton was partly to blame. It was the year of our 50th reunion, and Jon Hysell, J.K. Hage, and I had been chosen to write the half-century annalist letter for the Class of ’72. It was a labor of love that put us in touch with our classmates, sent us back into the stacks of the library, and awakened hundreds of memories of our years on the Hill.
Going through the old Spectators, I came across the baseball preview from the spring of my senior year that mentions the new coach, Tom Murphy, and a sophomore infielder named Steve Wolf. I used to joke that my mistaken identity was a signal to give up baseball and take up journalism. In actuality, I knew I wasn’t that good at baseball, and I had no idea if I’d be any good at writing. Just like baseball, though, I liked it, and I needed to make a living.
The Evening Sun was the perfect place for me to start. McMahon and Quinn were indulgent enough to let me cover Richard Nixon’s second inaugural with my close Hamilton friend, Rob Ziegler ’72, an extraordinary photographer. The paper even ran our Rolling Stone-like two-part feature on the front page. I also wrote a weekly column called “Just For Starters,” in which I pontificated on anything to do with sports, including the 1973 Associated Press Major League All-Star Team. I took particular umbrage at the selection of Giants shortstop Chris Speier, naming 10 other shortstops I liked better.
Perhaps my finest piece, though, was a news story about the theft of a 14-pound ham from Taranto’s Market. It ended with, “Police are now on the lookout for a large purchase of mustard.”
Before 1974 rolled around, I got back in the Chevelle and drove to Florida, as McMahon had suggested. I was running out of highway when Bernie Lincicome, the sports editor and superb columnist for The Fort Lauderdale News, decided to hire me to cover horse racing and work the desk.
Last June, I was watching Chris Evert report from Wimbledon for ESPN, and I flashed back to another June morning in 1974. The phone on the sports desk rang, I picked it up, and Jimmy Evert, Chris’ father, was on the line. He ran the tennis program at Holiday Park, so he couldn’t get away to see his daughter play at Wimbledon, and because the matches weren’t yet televised, he wanted to know how she was doing in her second-round match. I went over to the AP teletype machine, phone in hand, and told him that she had just beaten Lesley Hunt, 11-9, in the third set. (Evert would go on to win her first Wimbledon title and 55 consecutive matches.)
I can’t remember where I put my reading glasses, but memories like that hit me all the time. While Fort Lauderdale wasn’t a big city, it was a hub for the famous. I used to cover boxing, too, so every time I see a video clip of Muhammad Ali, I remember that he would howl my name whenever he saw me at the local boxing gym. Hank Aaron was on the brink of breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record when I went up to him at the Braves’ spring training site in West Palm Beach to ask him a question that had been nagging at me.
“Hank,” I said, “Have you ever given any thought to the significance of you being both the first player alphabetically in the history of baseball and the greatest player, too?”
He looked at this long-haired kid in bell-bottoms with a notebook and said, “Shiiiit.” Then he turned and walked away.
The other day, I was playing with my 2-year-old granddaughter Jane and some toy horses she had. The stable they were in looked just like the stables along the backstretches of the race tracks I frequented in my early 20s, and suddenly, I was at Gulfstream Park walking alongside a huge horse named Forego with his tiny jockey, Heliodoro Gustines.
Working on the annalist’s letter, I thought back to my old classmate Tom Creamer ’72, who had once introduced me to his father, Robert Creamer, a senior editor at Sports Illustrated and author of the seminal biography of Babe Ruth, Babe. When I felt it was time to leave Fort Lauderdale, I wrote Creamer a letter, with some clippings, asking if there might be any openings at SI. He later told me that he had tossed the package on the desk of Merv Hyman, who was the chief of reporters, and said, “You should hire him.” Which Hyman did.
Back then, SI hired prospective writers as fact-checkers to make necessary corrections to stories, learn the ropes, and aid the actual writers. Our offices were on the 20th floor of the Time & Life Building, on the northwest corner of 50th St. and Avenue of the Americas, and we reporters were given desks in what was called The Bullpen. Most of the stories came in on Sunday morning, and we would spend the day “checking them” before repairing to the Ho-Ho, a Chinese restaurant downstairs, to nurse beers and try to catch the eye of a senior editor who might assign us a story.
I got my first such assignment from a senior editor named Peter Carry. It was for the upcoming 1978 college basketball issue, and he needed a preview of the best Division III teams in the country. As it happened, Carry was from North Norwich, N.Y., and went to grade school with Howie Sullivan. One of the teams he wanted me to write about was Hamilton College, whose coach was Tom Murphy, my baseball coach for about a week. I wrote about how Murph had transformed the basketball program, which went 1-15 his first year, into a D-III powerhouse that wasn’t allowed to play in the NCAA tournament because NESCAC prohibited its teams from postseason play. Much as the coach wanted the Continentals and their star Cedric Oliver ’79 to prove themselves on a bigger stage, he freely admitted, “If the administration stressed athletics, it wouldn’t be Hamilton.”
Thanks to assignments from editors like Creamer and Carry, I began to be noticed and was made a staff writer. McMahon was right, after all.
“‘Hank,’ I said, ‘Have you ever given any thought to the significance of you being both the first player alphabetically in the history of baseball and the greatest player, too?’”
ast summer, shortly after our 50th reunion, the Philadelphia Phillies honored the 1980 World Champion team. I covered that World Series with the Kansas City Royals as one of SI’s baseball writers. All sorts of scenes from that Series still spin around my head like a kaleidoscope. One of them was from the victory parade down Broad Street. Accompanying me to pick up color for my story was a reporter who had just been promoted from the news bureau, Jane Bachman, fondly known as Bambi. We both took notes as float after float passed by. When the float carrying Tug McGraw, the relief pitcher who had saved two games and won another in the Series, came abreast of us, he spotted me in the crowd, waved, and yelled, “Hey, Wulfie!” Bachman was suitably impressed.
I don’t think that was the reason, but almost exactly four years later, we were married. As both of our careers took off, we settled in New York City and became parents — first to Bo, then John, and then twins Elizabeth and Eve. By the time we moved out of the city to Larchmont, Bambi was chief of reporters and I was a senior writer.
I wrote a lot, so as I beat on against the current, I often encounter the flotsam and jetsam of my career. Last April I attended the memorial service for the father of Neil Fine, a dear colleague of mine from ESPN. Alan Fine was a primary care physician in Watchung, N.J., who grew up in Brooklyn. When I walked into the chapel, the first person I encountered was Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of both the Chicago Bulls and White Sox. Turns out he and Alan were childhood friends from Flatbush. I’d known Reinsdorf since I did a story on the White Sox, which he had just bought, in 1981. But the first thing he said when he saw me last April was, “Bag It, Michael.” We both laughed.
In the spring of ’94, Michael Jordan had decided to try his hand at baseball, and I was assigned to describe the circus. He clearly had a lot of work to do, and I had a little fun with his awkward swing, but I did note that he was putting in the hours and behaving like an ideal teammate. However, the managing editor, Mark Mulvoy, took offense at Jordan’s quixotic quest. The cover billing for the March 14, 1994, issue read “Bag It, Michael!: Jordan and The White Sox Are Embarrassing Baseball.”
Jordan was so mad that he cut off all contact with SI, even after he returned to basketball. I subsequently wrote pieces praising his stint with the Double-A Birmingham Barons, trying to walk that original story back, but the cover haunted me right up to the 2020 ESPN documentary The Last Dance. Ironically, my daughter Eve, then at ESPN Films, actually worked on the film and has an Emmy as proof. But by the time I ran into Reinsdorf last April, we were both able to laugh about it.
When I made a few trips to Clinton last year to work on the annalist’s letter, I always made sure to stop off at Cooperstown. Because of my work for the Hall of Fame, I like to avail myself of its down-the-rabbit-hole library and visit with its kind and gracious staff members. My visits are never complete without a slow walk around the plaques in the Hall of Fame gallery. I’ll silently ask Hank Aaron the same question I asked him in ’74, even though he is no longer first alphabetically — Damn you, Dave Aardsma. I’ll thank all the Hall of Famers who did give me time over the years, men like Johnny Bench, Craig Biggio, Bert Blyleven, Cal Ripken, Dennis Eckersley … you get the idea.
Last October, I got a surprise callback out of the blue. A man named Dmitry Sagalchik, a native of Belarus who is active in international baseball, contacted me because the Ukrainian national baseball team was coming to New York to play teams from the NYPD and the FDNY at Brooklyn Cyclones Park on Coney Island. He thought I would be interested because once upon a time, in July of 1985, I wrote a story for SI on a baseball tournament in Moscow between teams from the Soviet Union (“The Russians Are Humming”). In the final, a team from Ukraine had upset the host team by a score of 8-7.
Prior to their games on Coney Island, I met the team at an indoor facility called New York Empire Baseball on the west side of Manhattan. I brought along a copy of the 1985 article, along with a team photograph sent to me by SI photographer Peter Read Miller that hadn’t run in the story. Because it was taken 37 years ago, I didn’t expect any of the current players to recognize anybody in the photograph. But then I heard someone shout something in Ukrainian, followed by a quick translation to English: “That’s me!”
It was Igor Lenets, a coach with the team from Kyiv. He was a pitcher on that ’85 team. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said through a translator. “We had beaten Mother Russia, and we came home like heroes.”
My son John ’12, who works in player development for the Washington Nationals, came up to watch the Friday night game against the NYPD. New York’s Finest were clearly the finer team, but the Ukrainians might have been able to beat the Continentals John played for. He especially liked the catcher, a cancer survivor named Viacheslav Babii.
All four of the children Bambi and I raised have careers in sports — go figure. Besides Eve and John, our eldest, Bo, covers the Philadelphia Eagles for The Athletic. Elizabeth is the assistant woman’s hockey coach for UConn, and one of their early season games was at Northeastern. Before the game in Boston, I made a lunch date with an old acquaintance who’s the coordinator for basketball advancement there. Tom Murphy. The same Tom Murphy who was briefly my baseball coach, who figured in my first SI byline, and ended up winning 602 games in his 34 years as the men’s Hamilton basketball coach. He is now in his 14th season coaching for Bill Coen ’83, one of his former Continental players and coaches.
Even at the age of 84, Tom hasn’t lost a step. He remembers every one of his Hamilton players, including one from Norwich, Mark Griffin ’81, now an attorney in Washington, D.C. I asked him how he was able to build such a successful program from a team that finished 1-15 his first year.
“Honestly, a lot of it was luck,” he says. “In 1975, I recruited a Utica kid, Cedric Oliver, who was too small for D-I schools. He was not just a great scorer but a great person. I found guys to play around him, and when they were seniors, they showed the freshmen how to play hard, and those freshmen became seniors who set an example for a new set of freshmen. It’s easy to recruit when you have a winning record at a great school.”
I loved the job, and not just because I got to cover Jordan’s return to the NBA in ’95 and Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak. I was working with some of the best minds in journalism, people like Gaines, Jim Kelly, Rick Stengel, Nancy Gibbs, and Walter Isaacson. And because Time had something called “Saturday Duty,” a rotation in which a writer had to show up on closing day just in case something happened, I sometimes got a chance to stretch myself beyond sports.
On one fall Saturday afternoon — Nov. 4, 1995 — I got a call from Gaines asking if I could come in. Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had just been assassinated, and they needed me to write the story. “Why me?” I asked. “In all honesty,” he said, “you’re the fastest writer we have. Don’t worry. You’ll be writing from files.”
God bless Barry Abisch and those dozen basketball stories for the next day’s Evening Sun. I was fed compelling dispatches from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Washington, knitted them together in a few hours, and handed a first draft over to Gaines, who made it much better. The result was “Death of a Peacemaker,” a story that was awarded Best News Story of the Year 1995 by the Overseas Press Club. Now, whenever trouble flairs in the Middle East, I’m borne back to that night.
I would have happily stayed at Time, but in 1997, ESPN announced that it would be publishing a biweekly called ESPN The Magazine. One of my best friends from SI, John Papanek, was chosen to be editor-in-chief, and he asked me if I would like to be an executive editor. The opportunity to start a new magazine was almost too good to pass up, but we — my wife and I — had a little problem. By then, Bambi was assistant managing editor of SI and was told, in no uncertain terms, that if I went to ESPN she would no longer hold that position. This was a woman who had hired such SI talents as Armen Keteyian, Steve Rushin, Jon Wertheim, and Grant Wahl, and who could work magic with a mockup.
Bless her heart, she saw the potential for The Magazine and the blatant sexism of the threat. With her encouragement, I took the job and she was parked at SI For Kids, which made a certain amount of sense because our own four kids were now ages 3-11. A year later, she too found a better place — Time, where she became assistant managing editor.
Becoming an editor gave me a better work/life balance. Because I was no longer on the road all the time, I could spend more time with our children, coach their teams, and drive them hither and yon. But I did miss the writing. When the great author Roger Angell died last year at the age of 101, I was reminded of a November 2003 piece he wrote in which our family made an appearance precisely because I was no longer covering baseball:
“At two-thirty-seven in the morning, Steve Wulf, a Red Sox fan who is also the executive editor of ESPN: The Magazine, was alone in the living room of his house in Larchmont watching on television the first game of the Sox-Athletics American League divisional playoff from Oakland. The A’s had loaded the bases in the bottom of the twelfth inning when catcher Ramon Hernandez dropped down a killer bunt, to bring home the winning run. ‘Fuck,’ Wulf said to himself, turning off the set — and heard the same summarizing blurt softly repeated from above by his wife, Bambi, who had long since gone to bed, and, still more faintly, by their seventeen-year-old son, Bo, on the top floor.”
I was — still am — tremendously proud to be in Angell’s story, in part because it was the first time “Fuck” ever appeared in The New Yorker.
When our children were no longer kids, I went back to writing for both The Magazine and ESPN.com. Among my first assignments, in late summer of 2007, was to profile the Virginia Tech marching band in the wake of the tragic shooting of 32 people there on April 16. Photographer David Burnett and I went down to Blacksburg for the first week of band training camp, but it wasn’t our story — it was theirs. Titled “330 Strong,” the piece was about the task facing these amazing student musicians and their band director, David McKee. They had to help heal a community and pay tribute to Ryan Stack, a beloved band member who was one of the victims.
I had spent most of my career in the “toy department,” but with the Marching Virginians story, and over the next few years, I came to realize that sports had a higher purpose. I was asked to write about both the Sandy Hook horror in December of 2012 and the Parkland shooting on Valentine’s Day, 2018. So when the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, unfolded on May 24 of last year, the pain reverberated.
Nothing, though, can prepare you for the death of a loved one. On June 10, 2017, Bambi passed away of pancreatic cancer. It was first detected after Bo’s wedding to Rachel Davis-Johnson, and she lived long enough to see John marry his Hamilton sweetheart, Abigail Seadler ’11.
Though my wife and parents are gone, I am truly blessed with the love of my children and my sister Karen. Bo and Rachel now have two children, Casey and Jane, and in between visits to Philadelphia, I took pleasure and pride in Bo’s stories and podcasts about the Eagles as they came up just short in Super Bowl LVII. John, who has a World Series ring from the Nationals’ 2018 championship, is giving his best so that they can get better. Eve is making sports films for Meadowlark Media and my old boss, John Skipper. And Elizabeth just completed her second year with the UConn women’s hockey team.
As for me, I retired from ESPN in September of 2019, shortly before the pandemic. As I was cleaning out my papers, I came across a letter that the great relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry, a good friend, had written to Bambi and me in 1996, a few years after he had retired. He told us that he had taken to writing poetry and attached a poem titled “Ode To My Children.” The first stanza reads:
can I teach you?
to say goodbye
to laugh and to cry
to live with the light
and the dark
And it ends with:
I love you forever
I pray night and day
In my heart I’m glad
you’ll make your own way
Sigh. Dan passed away of brain cancer at the age of 45 on Sept. 30, 1998, the bottom of the ninth month.
When I’m not living vicariously through my children and grandchildren, I write stories for the publications of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. One of them was on baseball players who were accomplished musicians, including Bud Fowler, a 19th-century Black player. Fowler was a songwriter, and the Hall of Fame has the original sheet music for a song of his about a famous Negro League team, the Royal Giants. There was no recording, so out of curiosity I took a copy of the music to the Larchmont Music Academy to see if I could find anyone to play it. After explaining my mission to the receptionist, Bianca Barragan, she replied, “Oh, I’m a singer. I’ll see if I can have something for you by next week.”
True to her word, she did just that. Upon hearing her beautiful, light operatic voice for the first time, and the skillful ragtime piano, I expressed my gratitude and amazement and asked who was on the piano. She replied that it was Douglas Kostner, the organist for the Larchmont Avenue Church. Another sigh. He had played the organ at my wife’s memorial service.
As 2022 rolled over into 2023, I decided the time was right to turn the boat around and row back to the shore, i.e. Norwich. After all, it was the evening sun of my career.
And so, I touched base with Tom Rowe, my old friend and softball manager. Back when I worked in Norwich, Rowe sold clothing at Winan’s Men’s Shop, but in 1980, he became sports editor for The Evening Sun and served there with passion and distinction until 1994. Now he oversees the Norwich High School Sports Hall of Fame. I asked him if there might be a good upcoming spot on the athletic schedule.
“Too bad you didn’t go to the Norwich-Binghamton basketball game the other night,” he told me.
“They won?” I asked.
“No, they lost, 91-21.”
“Yeah, Norwich was playing over its head to begin with, and some kids were out sick, and then their best player got hurt just before the game.”
Still, what kind of coach would allow a team to run up the score like that? And could this really happen in Norwich, a town with a proud history of sports excellence? After all Ed Ackley, Norwich High Class of ’54, nearly beat out Jimmy Brown for a starting spot in the Syracuse backfield. Indeed, back in 1992, Peter Carry sent me back to Norwich for a feature (“My Kind of Town”) because the Purple Tornado was in between winning the state basketball championship and playing for the state football championship. Back then, 20 years seemed like a long time. Now it was 50.
The man credited with forging the extraordinary collection of athletes in ’92 was Mickey James, a telephone installer for GTE when he wasn’t coaching his son and his friends in youth sports. In that story, I quoted Judge Sullivan as saying, “Mickey instilled in those kids not just a work ethic, but a sportsmanship ethic.” As it happens, James’ grandson, Steven Dowdall, is the best player on the current basketball team. Under his photo in the Norwich High basketball program, he answered the prompt “Your Hero & Why” like this: “My grandpa because he is always pushing me to be my best.”
The next home game on the schedule was Jan. 20, a Friday night, against Owego Apalachin. Two days beforehand, I took the scenic route back in time. Not all roads lead to Norwich, but a surprising number of them do, and one of the pleasures of returning is to feel the familiar curves and see the beautiful farmland nestled in the hills again. Because of my fondness for his late father, I made it a point to put Tim McGraw’s “Everywhere,” a song about the town he left behind, on my playlist — “... you’re on every highway, just beyond the high-beams ...”
One thing that is new to Chenango County is Chobani Yogurt. Founded by Kurdish businessman Hamdi Ulukaya in 2011, Chobani has its corporate headquarters in Norwich and a huge plant on the eastern edge of the county in New Berlin. Chobani literally means “shepherd” in Kurdish, and Ulukaya has been just that for the area, providing much-needed jobs and giving the workforce a stake in his success.
I chose to drive into Norwich going south from Utica on Route 8, past the plant in New Berlin, marveling at the towers that produce the yogurt that fills our supermarket cases from the cows in the surrounding fields. After that brief stop, I continued down Route 8 and hung a right on Route 23 in South New Berlin. As I approached the heart of Norwich, another new addition on Rexford St. caught my eye: The Northeast Classic Car Museum.
This automotive wonderland was unveiled in 1997, seeded by the amazing collection of George Staley, a native of Lincklaen, a small town northwest of Norwich. It now houses over 170 vehicles from 1899 through the 1980s in five adjoining buildings. Naturally, I had to see if one of them might be a 1968 Chevelle Malibu. Alas, it was not there, but the array of cars was spellbinding. And right across the street was a hobby shop with all kinds of miniature cars. One of the Hot Wheels was a replica of the vehicle that had first taken me to Norwich. Naturally, I bought it. In fact, I took it for a spin around the desk just before I asked myself this question, “How old am I again?”
As for the newspaper building on Hale Street of the same blue hue, it is now brown and called the Hale Street Medical Arts Building, which is heartening because the building now has a higher purpose than journalism. Besides, The Evening Sun still has a place in the community — 29 Lackawanna Ave., not far from the car museum and the new YMCA.
The publisher of the paper is Richard Snyder, who bought the operation in 1991 and moved it to its current location in 2001. “The area has changed dramatically since I first came here in 1973,” he says. “I can’t sugarcoat it — we lost a lot when the big corporations moved out. But we still have a lot to be proud of. It’s a beautiful part of the state and a great place to raise kids — we had five. There’s the car museum, the Blues Festival every summer, Cooperstown to the east, wine country to the west. And I have to say, we’ve had a good run with The Evening Sun and the advertising circulars we print.”
The newspaper staff is down to three: managing editor Tyler Murphy, staff writer Zachary Meseck, and sports reporter Morgan Golliver. A graduate of Norwich High and Utica University, Golliver joined the staff last spring and clearly takes after her bread-baking grandfather — in 10 months she has 626 bylines. That’s a lot of typing and a lot of driving, and she does it while raising her 2-year-old son, Jacob, whom she named after her favorite Mets player, Jacob deGrom.
“I’ve loved the job,” she says. “It could be girls’ volleyball in Sherburne one night, wrestling in Oxford the next, bowling in Norwich the next. I never get tired of it. I was a cheerleader in high school, and I sort of see myself serving that role for all the athletes in the county. They work hard, and they deserve to get some recognition.”
Morgan didn’t write about Norwich’s 91-21 loss to Binghamton because she wasn’t there, and besides, she surmised that nobody wanted to read about it. She’s probably right. Had it happened on my brief, bell-bottomed watch, I would have been ripping the Binghamton coach (David Springer) for not taking his foot off the gas pedal simply by passing the ball around on each possession. Rowe, for his part, appreciated the historic aspect of the loss. He pointed out that it broke the Norwich High School all-time record for largest margin of defeat in a basketball game set in 1905 in a 72-7 loss to Cazenovia.
While first-year coach Phil Curley, who has lived in Norwich for 28 years, took no pride in the record, he didn’t take umbrage at the Binghamton coach. “It wasn’t Coach Springer’s fault,” Curley says. “We were in over our heads to begin with, some of our players were sick, and then Steven went down with a sprained ankle. We’ve been playing better since then, so maybe that long, painful bus ride back to Norwich did us some good.”
The night before the Owego game, I had drinks at the Norwich VFW with Rowe and Rich Turnbull, a social studies teacher at Norwich High and the school’s athletic coordinator. “I grew up in Edmeston, a small town about 30 minutes from here,” Turnbull would tell me later. “I came here 21 years ago, right out of college, and I’ve never regretted it. It’s a little like Cheers, where everybody knows your name, but it’s more than that. It’s the bustle of the YMCA, and the school district giving us a half day off to attend the services of a longtime faculty member, and the local assemblyman plowing out my driveway after a major snowstorm.
“Yes, we have our problems, but don’t we all? At the end of the day, we all know each other and care for one another.”
The gym was packed for the Owego game. Golliver and Rowe, my successors, were there, and so was Mickey James. He walks with a limp from a work-related accident and he’s hard of hearing, but he loved talking about his grandson. “He’s only a sophomore, you know,” he says. “He already has a nice game. Just wait until he’s a senior.”
Owego, clearly the better team, jumped out to a 17-2 lead, but before visions of another record loss could take hold, Norwich fought back thanks to some key shots by Dowdall. Still, the Indians — who will have to change their name at the end of the school year — held a 50-25 lead over the Purple Tornado at the half.
Very few fans left, however, and they saw Norwich draw to within 18 and keep that margin. Final score: Owego 74, Norwich 58. Dowdall led the Purple in scoring with 15. At one point, Rowe looked down at my steno notebook and laughed. “That’s exactly the way I kept score,” he said.
As the crowd dispersed, I couldn’t help but notice the smiles that come from a shared community. Norwich is smaller than it was 50 years ago, but its spirit hasn’t diminished. Howie Sullivan once told me, “Norwich has a way of holding on to you.”
I may not be that same long-haired kid getting pushed over to a typewriter, but I will forever ask myself: What if I hadn’t gone to Hamilton? What if I hadn’t started in Norwich and learned from Barry Abisch? What if I hadn’t caught the eye of Bernie Lincicome or won the heart of Bambi Bachman? What if I hadn’t learned the hard way about the value of sports?
Now, in the evening sun of my own life, I can look back with a smile, a tear in my eye, and a profound sense of gratitude. Judge Sullivan is right — what you give is never equal to what you receive.
His bread is delicious, by the way.