The Scripture says “It is appointed unto man once to die,” but — forgive me, Lord — I always wondered if there might be an exemption for Furman Bisher.
“Bisher here,” is how he always greeted you on the phone, and it was as much an introductory as a figurative fact. Literally, of course, Bisher wasn’t always here; it only seemed that way because he seemed to precede everything Atlanta that I’d come to know: The Falcons, the Hawks, both Atlanta NHL entries, Atlanta Braves, Fulton County Stadium. He knew guys from eras from which time seemed to have forever cut us off — Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Bobby Jones.
He was everywhere. I could get on a Delta jet in Kingston, Jamaica, pick up the inflight magazine and there his work was.
It was hard to get my head around the fact that not only had he been writing longer than the fortysomething years I’d been alive, but that he’d been writing longer than my dad has been alive. That’s some longevity for you.
And it wasn’t longevity for the sake of longevity. It was good longevity. Long after some who might have been called his journalistic peers (by age, though certainly not by talent) had obviously mailed it in, I marveled at how he wrote guys half his age under the table — poetically, passionately, painting pictures with prose.
He was an Anglophile, in love with all things from the United Kingdom — particularly, golf. That was his specialty. He could write about anything, and probably did in 93-plus years, but golf really got his juices flowing.
You didn’t have to edit Bisher much, and back at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, many times you couldn’t. There was an unwritten hands-off rule concerning Bisher’s copy, but it was enforced as if descended from stone tablets. Even when there was the occasional misstatement of fact, it seemed, you still had to move Heaven and Earth through eight different channels to get it corrected before it hit the newsstands.
And if by chance anything was changed, Bisher didn’t miss it. Somebody could count on a phone call the next day, and when he was angry, he avoided taking the Lord’s name in vain by exclaiming “Judas Priest!” instead.
Some of my colleagues warned me that Bisher didn’t like my kind of people, but if he didn’t he hid it well. I watched for it and never saw it. On those occasions he ventured into the office back at 72 Marietta Street, before he got to his door with the “GUS ZERNIAL LIVES” bumper sticker on it, he greeted me cheerfully. When we shared the same press box, covering the Braves or Georgia Tech, he was friendly, not just cordial.
Bisher was past retirement age when I wrote my first story for the AJC. Those who were the old guys when I came into the business used to tell stories of how he could be a tough boss. When the old guys were young, one turned in a story, and before it hit newsprint, in a legendary fit of gruffness, Bisher reportedly told him, “I have a new assignment for you: Find another job!”
I may have encountered the mellowed Bisher, but as a sports writer sometimes assigned to the same event, it still made good common sense to figure out what Bisher wanted to write. Mellow hardly meant milquetoast. His writing was sharp and you didn’t want to cover the exact same angle and have him send you whimpering into pathetic redundancy.
You could ask him what angle he was taking, and his answer always let you know it would be grand and panoramic enough that, in all likelihood, nobody was going to read what you wrote anyway. Just make deadline with whatever was going to fill Page 7C and that would have to be enough.
When you’ve been around as long as Bisher had been around, the loss of friends and colleagues is inevitable. He was always writing somebody’s obituary, it seemed, and educating us in the process. You weren’t really dead until Bisher had written you into eternity.
I worried that Bisher would go quickly after retiring from the AJC in 2009. As Bear Bryant and most recently Joe Paterno died without a team to coach, so I thought Bisher would die without a column to write. But he kept on hammering at that old typewriter — wrote both of their obits as a matter of fact.
You often learned somebody’s full given name from one of his columns. And now, little more than a year apart, both the old outfielder Gus Edward Zernial and James Furman Bisher have been committed to the ages and an era has ended. If ever I doubted we all have to go sometime, the last doubt thusly has been erased.
Darryl Maxie is Assistant Managing Editor of the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.