Seven Questions with Blake Sebring

OTTSIn what may be the most goal-oriented installment yet, the Seven Questions series continues with Blake Sebring, Fort Wayne author and longtime sportswriter for The News-Sentinel.

Blake has covered the Fort Wayne Komets for 27 years and authored several books, including the just-released On to the Show: Fort Wayne’s Lasting Impact on the NHL. Blake is also a colleague from my copy desk days at the N-S, one with a particular gift for finding and telling the stories of humor, faith, and perseverance that underscore every game. I don’t remember ever having to bug him about a name spelling or missing information … and you’d have to be an editor working on daily deadlines to fully appreciate that, but on to the show.

Blake’s latest includes stories with people such as Mike Emrick, Bruce Boudreau, Kevin Weekes, Dale Purinton, and others from Fort Wayne who have advanced to the highest level of the sport. Here, find out more about Blake’s laughs with legends, defining moments and what happens when a mild-manned sports reporter has murder in mind:

1. You mentioned this was the most fun you’ve ever had writing a book. Tell me what made it so.
 
SPT 08XX Blake mug3Every former Komet I reached out to called me back within a day, if not sooner. I told them it would take half an hour or so, but we usually ended up talking for two hours. The first hour would be reminiscing or catching up about past teammates and their families. There were always a lot of laughs before we ever got started on the actual reason for the conversation, and then they gave me incredible material to work with. Some of the stories I had never heard before, and that made me want to write the stories right away.
 
2. You’ve covered the Komets for so long, telling their stories on and off the ice. What is it that you wish more people understood about hockey?
 
A couple of things. I’ve never felt the sport has done a good job of selling how much better the game is in person than it is on TV because you can see everything. The other thing is hockey players don’t get enough credit for being such incredible all-around athletes. They aren’t the biggest, fastest or tallest, but they play a game that is almost as physical as football and requires as much aerobic conditioning as basketball, and they do it three or four times per week.
 
3. When someone mentions Bob Chase, the late voice of the Komets for WOWO (and the subject of Live from Radio Rinkside), what’s the first image/memory that springs to mind? 
 
Bob’s humility. When I wrote his obituary column, I talked about how everyone always felt comfortable coming up to say hi or ask him a question at almost any time, and he absolutely loved that. Every time I talked to him about an award he received, he’d always get misty-eyed and wonder why his life was so blessed. And if you asked him about his kids, the water works would really get going. Bob was exactly the same in private as he was in public.
 
4. What’s your favorite sports movie?
Probably “Miracle.” Usually, Hollywood ruins sports movies because the action looks fake (actors are generally horrible athletes) and they change the story by adding conflict and drama, which really ruins it if you followed it as it happened originally. They didn’t have to do any of that with “Miracle.” I’ve talked to former Komets Steve Janaszak and Mark Wells enough over the years to have some insight into the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team and what they experienced. Their stories are in the book.
 
5. Your last book, Lethal Ghost, delves into darker territory than sportswriters (or most police reporters) encounter. What, if any, challenges did you run into in the course of writing it?
 
(Chuckles) I wanted to try something totally unexpected and out of character to challenge myself as a writer. When I write a book, I usually try to experiment with something different, and in this one I wrote the bad guy in first person and the good guy in third person, and maybe the most fun was when they interacted. I had the beginning and the ending figured out in my head before I started writing and just let everything else flow. Every time I’d run out of material, my mom would come up with a new way to murder someone or I’d let it percolate for a few days and a new idea would pop in. I’ve got two sequels planned. Bwa-ha-ha!
 
6. There is a “defining moment” theme in the fictional The Lake Effect, certainly, but also in The Biggest Mistake I Never Made, which talks about Lloy Ball’s decision to play volleyball for his dad at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne instead of Indiana University Bloomington. Can you share one of yours?
 
I was 23 years old and working as a sports editor in Sturgis, Mich., and I left after 18 months because my boss kept lying to me. I didn’t have anything else set up, other than I knew I had to do something different because the environment was so bad. I needed to stand up for myself so I came home and worked part-time at The News-Sentinel and loaded freight at the airport for six months until the paper created a full-time position for me. Loved the freight job, by the way.
 
7. What is one thing you never leave home without?
The expectation that I’m going to find something or someone new that I can tell a story about if I just keep my eyes and ears open. The absolute best part of my job is that every day, every game is unique, and I never know what I’m going to find or see. How many people are lucky enough to say they are never bored with their job? How lucky am I?
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Learn more about Blake’s work at www.blakesebring.com.

One who went before

Helen Deiss - Ky Kernel

Helen Deiss, editor, checked The Kentucky Kernel with head pressman Karl Davis in the old printing plant in 1948. (Photo courtesy University of Kentucky)

This photo in my spouse’s University of Kentucky alumni magazine — celebrating the university’s 150th anniversary —  caught my eye. The young woman, Helen Deiss, was the editor of the campus newspaper in 1948, and here she was checking an issue just off the press. She looks younger than a traditional college student, and yet she exudes calm and confidence at a time when women in editorial positions were few.

Helen Deiss Irvin passed away in 2015 at 86, but according to her obituary, she went on to become a reporter for what was then the Lexington Leader, receive a Ph.D. from UK and teach in Transylvania University’s division of humanities. She later attended Harvard Law School and practiced in Washington, DC, until she was 83. Along the way, she authored a book, Women in Kentucky. “She loved animals, books and sports,” the obit reads.

Helen sounds like a lady who sought and found a variety of outlets for her gifts and interests. It wasn’t “just” journalism, teaching, or law … she did them all. Many, if not most, of the women who followed her in journalism would also weave teaching, law, public relations, nursing, occupational therapy, or any number of other disciplines into their working lives. It’s a pluralism that has become a reality of 21st-century life and a time when journalism is struggling to retain the best of what it was and morph into its future self.

The Kentucky Kernel became an independent newspaper in 1971, operating without university funding, and it’s still going today.

But look at young Helen giving that newspaper the once-over in 1948. She knew what she was doing and would find many more ways to do it. So can we.

A boy and his newspaper

IMG_2370While wandering through our local Hyde Brothers, Booksellers, I came across From Office Boy to Reporter, or the First Step in Journalism (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1907). It’s the first in an early 20th century children’s book series by Howard R. Garis, best known for the Uncle Wiggily books. This particular copy was inscribed “Edward Jackson — From father, Oct. 24, 1912.”

Perhaps Edward was a boy with a dream like 15-year-old Larry Dexter, the hero of this story, who is forced to find work in New York City to support his newly widowed mother and three younger siblings. While pounding the proverbial pavements, boyish curiosity sends him to the scene of a dramatic building fire caused by a lightning strike. There he meets Harvey Newton, a reporter from the Leader — one of several fiercely competing newspapers. In the pouring rain, Larry offers to hold the umbrella so Mr. Newton can take notes.

Impressed with the young man’s initiative, Mr. Newton helps Larry get a job as an office boy, or copy boy, at the newspaper. Larry becomes one of many boys newspapers employed (several for each department) to literally run copy and proofs within the building — reporter to editor, typesetter to composing. A copy boy would also accompany a reporter to a scene or to cover a trial, run copy back to the office, then run back to gather more from the reporter as the story unfolded. Most of the boys, if not all, are supporting themselves or their families; some attend night school, as Larry does when he decides to work toward becoming a reporter. This is a time and place when, for good or ill, teenage boys are expected to function as adults.

Garis, who himself worked for the Newark (New Jersey) Evening News, captures the hiss and thunk of the pneumatic tubes that carry proofs, the blue pencils, the clacking of the typesetting machines, the inky type, and the hustle of a turn-of-the-century city newspaper. He understood the nuances of getting a story on an evening paper’s news cycle and being able to provide details the morning papers would not. Breaking a story first mattered (a ton), but so did getting it right.

Larry, a too-good-to-be-true 15-year-old, is beset by one challenge or danger after another on the job. A jealous fellow office boy has it in for him. He gets kidnapped while helping Mr. Newton cover a strike. He takes it upon himself to keep an eye on suspected counterfeiters living in his apartment building. Always, his good nature, bravery, and dedication save the day. Finally, after a harrowing race against time, the elements, and the aforementioned nemesis to deliver copy while covering an epic flood, he is promoted to reporter.

“There have been written many good stories of newspaper life and experiences,” the author writes in the preface. “I trust I may have added one that will appeal especially to you boys. If I have, I will feel amply repaid for what I have done.”

It would be easy to dismiss this as formulaic juvenile fiction from journalism’s male-dominated dark ages. However, what sings through all the derring-do is an absolute love for news — finding out what’s happening, getting the facts, and delivering them in the most efficient, responsible, and helpful fashion to readers who want the truth. We need people who can and will do this now more than Garis could likely have imagined.

There are several more books in the Larry Dexter series, but these are just a few of the many books Garis authored, both under his own name and under several pseudonyms. He and his wife, Lilian Garis, who was also a reporter for the Newark Evening News, were considered two of the most prolific children’s authors of their time.