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Billy Reed: He was a giant of Ky. journalism, but there was a lot more behind David Hawpe’s public persona

When I first got to know David Hawpe, I thought he was just a little crazy. I say that lovingly, not to detract from any of the accolades cited by obit writers after his death last weekend at 78.

To explain what I mean we must go back to the fall of 1965. I was soon to be named assistant sports editor of The Herald, and David, fresh out of the UK School of Journalism, had been hired by the Associated Press to be Bob Cooper’s assistant at its Lexington bureau.

While working for UK’s student newspaper, The Kernel, David had written several editorials critical of Coach Charlie Bradshaw’s football program. His brutality upon arrival in 1962 had led so many players to quit that the team that remained was known as “The Thin Thirty.”

When Herald sports editor Billy Thompson, an unabashed UK fan, heard that the AP had hired David, he told our staff to give him the cold shoulder and do whatever we could to make his job as difficult as possible.

David Hawpe

But we quickly found out it was impossible to dislike David. He was funny and friendly. He also was down to earth, as befits a guy who spent some of his formative years in Louisville’s blue-color South End, which I had also done.

So David won over everyone, including Billy Thompson, who got a kick out of David’s escapades. This was where the crazy part came in.

The AP office was on the third floor of the old Herald-Leader building on Short Street, the sports department on floor 3 ½. What happened was that the third-floor newsroom had a very high ceiling, so when more space was needed, the owners created a large metal platform that hung from the ceiling on heavy chains.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Had those chains ever broken, the entire editorial staff would have been squashed. Sometimes you could feel the platform sway when a heavy person walked across it.

So up and down we went, often to play gin-rummy in the AP office. We eventually had a tournament with the agreement that the runner-up had to light a victory cigar for the winner.

I won, but Hawpe grabbed the cigar and went roaring down the stairwell, cackling with mischief. I and a couple of others – probably Mike Ruehling and David “Butch” Thompson – took after him in hot pursuit.

Once outside, we captured Hawpe and made him give up the cigar. If I remember correctly, I lit it and blew some smoke in his face.

And then there was the time we got off work about 1 a.m. and decided to go to a drive-in movie. The problem was, we didn’t have enough money to cover everyone’s admission and concessions. So we stuffed Hawpe in the trunk of my car and got in that way.

Once inside, we might have taken a little extra time letting him out, but I had nothing – well, almost nothing – to do with that.

What nobody knew until we got to know David was that he loved UK basketball more that he disliked UK football. So it was serendipitous that he joined the AP just in time to cover the beloved “Rupp’s Runts” team that lost to Texas Western in the 1966 NCAA championship year.

At the time, I covered state colleges for the Herald and became so enamored with Western Kentucky’s team that I believed the Hilltoppers were as good, maybe better, as the “Runts.”

The matchups would have been Western’s Clem “The Gem” Haskins against UK’s Pat Riley, Western’s Dwight Smith against UK’s Tommy Kron, Western’s 6-foot-5 Wayne Chapman against UK’s 6-0 Louie Dampier, Western’s Greg Smith against UK’s Larry Conley, and Western’s Steve Cunningham against UK’s Thad Jaracz.

All winter, Hawpe and I argued about which was the better team. When Western beat No.6 Loyola of Chicago, I covered the game, which was in Dayton. As I turned down my street as dawn was breaking, I was shocked to find my house wrapped in toilet paper.

To her dying day, my mother was convinced David was crazy.

We almost got the UK-Western game we wanted in the Iowa City Regional of the NCAA tournament. What spoiled it was a horrible call against Western’s Greg Smith against Michigan’s Cazzie Russell. Cazzie made the free throws, and it was Michigan, not Western, that played UK in the next round.

I went to work for The Courier-Journal immediately upon my graduation from Transylvania in 1966. David moved to the AP office in St. Petersburg, Fla., and joined the C-J in 1969 as Hazard bureau chief. At the time, I was in New York, working for Sports Illustrated.

When I returned to the C-J in 1972, David clearly was on his way up the ladder. A fine writer, David had decided he wanted the power to find and hire young people who had a little poetry in their souls and words.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

To this day, I’ve never met anyone who loved the language as much as David. He loved the way words rolled off the tongue. He treated them like fine wine, sniffing and tasting until he found what he liked.

When he became the C-J’s managing editor in the early 1980s, he inherited me as his sports editor. It was a good situation for both of us, marred only by two situations that tested our friendship to the limit.

The first involved our horse-racing beat writer. When the paper needed one in the early ‘80s, both Sports Administrator Stan Slusher and I agreed we should give Jennie Rees a shot at it.

She was young, eager, enthusiastic, hard-working, friendly, and smart. We were sure her sponge of a mind would quickly soak up all the knowledge about the sport that she needed.

Well, she exceeded beyond our expectations and quickly became a fixture at all Kentucky tracks. But one day, Hawpe roared into the sports department with what he thought was a sensational idea.

He had a friend whose writing David admired greatly. So he proposed replacing Jennie with this wordsmith. The only problem was that the guy had lost his previous job at the C-J due to plagiarism. So when David said, “He’ll give us Damon Runyon stuff,” I had to laugh when copy editor Earl Vance said, “Yeah, verbatim.”

When David persisted, I was forced to do something I had never done before. I told him how unfair he was being to Jennie and said, “If she goes, I go with her.” He backed off, but didn’t much like it until Jennie proved conclusively that Slusher and I were right.

The other incident was entirely my fault. When Gannett bought the Bingham newspapers in the summer of 1986, I lasted six months before leaving. I had never worked for anyone who cared only about the bottom line and saw no reason to start then.

But David decided to stay and do what he could to preserve the Bingham brand. That rankled me, because I was sure he felt the same way I did, and I gave him the cold shoulder for awhile.

That was wrong. We all had families to raise, and many couldn’t afford to leave. Plus, most didn’t have the options I did. My friend Jim Host set me up with my own company, which became sort of a subsidiary of his company, and I got contracts with the Herald-Leader, which had become a very good newspaper under gifted editor John Carroll, and some radio and TV stations.

If there is a point here, I guess it’s that David and I both valued our friendship and didn’t want to lose it, no matter what.

Since David’s retirement from the C-J, we usually saw each other once a year at a gathering that included Ruehling, Thompson, Tommy Preston of Cynthiana, and sometimes Russ Shain, one of our colleagues from the old Herald-Leader days who became head of the journalism school at Arkansas State.

I’m not sure why, but David always went out of his way to be complimentary of me. He cited things I had written years earlier. He was proud that I had turned to writing about politics and shared his views about the disgusting Trumpism and other issues.

Everything said about him in the obits was true. He did become a giant of Kentucky journalism. He did hire writers who did the prize-winning work he wanted. He did do more than anybody to advocate the two things he loved most: Journalism and the Courier-Journal.

But the obits didn’t really tell us much about the man behind the public work. They didn’t tell us about the unique individual I met in 1965. He wasn’t quite crazy, but he definitely was different from anyone I’ve ever met.

So RIP, my friend. Hold a place in the gin rummy tournament for me. I’ll bring the cigar.

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One Comment

  1. Gary W Graff says:

    Bill praises a life well lived that was dedicated to informing people with a conscientious regard for language. Few reporters can match or do better.

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