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Acclaimed writer draws from deep North Texas roots

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 8, 2014 at 7:00 pm •  Published: April 8, 2014
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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — When Dan Jenkins was growing up on Fort Worth's South Side, an aunt gave him an old typewriter. He taught himself to type by copying stories out of the local newspaper. It wasn't long before he was retooling those stories in an effort to improve them.

Those were early footsteps in a decades-long journey that would ultimately see Jenkins become one of America's best known sports writers and novelists. Along the way, he applied a timeless literary mantra: Write what you know.

Among other things, Jenkins knows golf. He knows football. And he knows Fort Worth.

As his daughter, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, once wrote in a forward to one of his novels, her father's "love for and preoccupation with his birthplace exceeds even that of Faulkner's with his Mississippi or Shakespeare's with his England."

Starting with his best-selling first novel, "Semi-Tough," Jenkins has presented millions of readers with imagery richly drawn from his hometown and a parade of composite characters with names such as Billy Clyde Puckett, Shake Tiller and Jim Tom Pinch. Now, in his latest work, Jenkins has cast himself as the lead protagonist.

In "Dan Jenkins: His Ownself," the 84-year-old sports journalist retraces a six-decade career that took him from two now-defunct Texas newspapers — the Fort Worth Press and The Dallas Times Herald — to Sports Illustrated in New York and on to literary celebrity as a prolific novelist who saw three of his books transformed into movies.

Across 266 pages in what he calls "a semi-memoir," he tells of his friendship with legendary Fort Worth golfer Ben Hogan and replays vignettes of other sports greats such as Texas Christian University's back-to-back quarterbacks Slingin' Sammy Baugh and Davey O'Brien, Southern Methodist University's Doak Walker and the University of Texas' Bobby Layne.

Jenkins also sounds off on political correctness, tuneless modern music, "editors with tin ears," and funny-colored health drinks that "could pass for A-Rod's specimen." There is a pervasive suggestion that he longs for an earlier era of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, good manners and stiff backbones.

At his home in Fort Worth's River Crest neighborhood and later over lunch at Colonial Country Club, the white-haired octogenarian readily displays plenty of his trademark prickly humor and shows no interest in retiring.

He has another book coming out next year — a collection of humorous golf vignettes — and covers all the major tournaments for Golf Digest. He is also the official historian for national college football.

"A lot of it's my temperament," he said in explaining his nonstop work ethic. "I'd rather be doing something than not doing something."

Jenkins works out of a home office filled with awards, Hall of Fame citations and photographs of old friends and sports figures, many of whom happen to be both.

Other hallmarks from his career, including cover jackets of his novels and a gray typewriter spattered with residue from Wite-Out correction fluid, are on display in a window exhibit at the Colonial.

In 2013, Jenkins won the highest honor in sports writing, the Red Smith Award, named after the late New York Times sports writer who has served as one of Jenkins' role models. Jenkins also received the PEN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing and, in 2012, was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, becoming one of only three writers to receive the honor.

Jenkins says it took a year and a half to write "His Ownself," which a mostly favorable New York Times review described as a "casual and sly sportswriter's memoir" that displays the author's ability to capture a personality "in a few comic strokes."

"I resisted it forever," said Jenkins, explaining that he originally didn't want to inject himself into a book. "Publishers kept asking me to do it. I couldn't think of an idea for another novel, so I said OK."

Early chapters detail Jenkins' youth and teenage years in the Depression-era 1930s and wartime 1940s. His parents divorced and he was raised by his grandparents, but Jenkins stayed on good terms with his mother and father. He recalls a happy childhood in what he called the family compound. "A baby Lab couldn't have had it better," he writes.

He went to R.L. Paschal High School and TCU and became an avid golfer in his teens, a pursuit that would help forge his friendship with Hogan. He was 18 when he landed his first newspaper job on the Fort Worth Press, the feisty and now-extinct rival of the larger Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

No one knew it at the time but the seedy, smoke-filled newsroom at Fifth and Jones streets was the launching pad for a cadre of distinguished Texas writers that included Jenkins, Gary Cartwright, Bud Shrake (who died in 2009) and Blackie Sherrod, who was then sports editor of the Press. Their collective body of work over the years has included at least 54 books and countless awards.

Jenkins was still in Paschal when Press staffer Julian Read spotted his work in the high school newspaper and insisted that Sherrod give him a job. "As I reflect back on it," recalled Read, who went on to become a prominent public relations executive, "we didn't realize what we had when I was there. We had enough talent to put out The New York Times."

At the center of that '50s-era talent pool was Sherrod, whose later columns and sports coverage in the Dallas Times Herald and Dallas Morning News made him one of the most celebrated sports writers in the country.

After Sherrod left the Press for the Times Herald, he recruited Jenkins to join his team on the other side of the Metroplex. They have remained close friends.

"Blackie was my guru and godfather, and when he wasn't leading by example, he was pointing me toward the masters of our craft to study and learn from," Jenkins writes in his book.

Sherrod, who is now 94 and lives in North Dallas, has lost his hearing and no longer gives interviews, said his wife, Joyce. But she speaks on his behalf about her husband's continuing devotion to Jenkins and others from those days on the Press.

"They were just kids when they started with him, but Blackie has always had the greatest respect for these guys," she said by phone. "He's as proud of Dan as if he would have been a son."

Jenkins began his love affair with golf as a boy when he built a three-par course on the side lawn of his grandparents' house, with soup cans for the holes and flagsticks made from limbs with handkerchiefs tied to them. He honed his skills at courses around town, and when he was assigned to cover golf for the Press, his prowess with a club became his entree to Ben Hogan.

Jenkins said he spotted Hogan alone on the Colonial course and worked up the nerve to introduce himself. He was surprised when Hogan told him he recognized his byline.

Jenkins went on to cover most of Hogan's major tournament championships and played "30 or 40" rounds with the golfing great, once beating Hogan to win $6. He was one of the few writers, if not the only one, who became friends with the sometimes aloof golfer. Hogan sent Jenkins thank-you notes for his coverage and penned a foreword in Jenkins' first book, about the country's 18 best holes of golf.

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