My Next Mentor – Bob Collins

I told you about my first mentor – Corky Lamm, the sportswriter of The Indianapolis News. I realize now that he passed me on to my next mentor, Bob Collins, a sportswriter (and later sports editor) of The Star. Corky got me a job on The Star sports desk for the summer after my junior year in college, and Collins was my “boss.” He was a young guy, probably in his late twenties then (1953), but he seemed older to me, already a professional, and a good one. He was a classy writer and a classy guy – sharp, funny, helpful and full of information, not just about sports, but about books, writers, the world.

Collins loaned me novels that summer – What Makes Sammy Run, by Budd Schulberg, about the cut-throat world of Hollywood, A Rabble in Arms, by Kenneth Roberts, about The American Revolution (a British General had called Washington’s army “a rabble in arms, flushed with success and ignorance”) and  The Disenchanted, another one by Schulberg, this one about a burnt-out writer going to Hollywood to make a buck, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald, who Schulberg had met as a young man when he was working for his movie-producer father.

Collins didn’t just loan me the books, he gave me what amounted to a seminar on each one – telling me about the writer, the larger world of the book’s setting, why the book had made an impression on him – all of this fascinating info delivered over beers after work.

To crown my summer on the sports desk, Collins assigned me to cover the championship game of the local Industrial Baseball League. I don’t remember the outcome, but I still remember the game was between The Link-Belt Warriors and The Allison Jets. What I remember most of all was coming back to the office, writing up my notes and handing my story in to Collins. He picked up his black editorial pencil and before reading a word of the story he wrote across the top: by Dan Wakefield.

My first byline.
Bestowed by Bob Collins.

If there was a definition of “mentor,” Collins would fill it. We became friends for life, and one of my great pleasures was hosting him when he came to New York and I was living in The Village and writing for magazines. For once, I could recommend a novel to him, and I gave Collins a copy of John Updike’s newly published Rabbit, Run, a novel I loved about a former high school basketball player trying to deal with adult life. I took Collins to Louis’ Tavern on Sheridan Square and now I could buy him a beer.

When I came back to visit Indy during my years in New York and Boston, I would look up Collins. I remember him taking me to a Sectionals game after they had hacked up our legendary Hoosiers tournament into classes according to size of the student body. The crowd that once packed Butler Fieldhouse to the rafters for any tournament game was now shrunk to about a third of the seats. The cheers echoed like a dirge. We left early and wept in our beer. There was no one better to weep with (or, much more likely) to laugh with, than Bob Collins – mentor, friend, and man for all seasons.

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My First Mentor

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I started reading the Sports Pages when I was able to read, and my heroes were not only the athletes I read about, but also the newspaper reporters who wrote about them. One of my favorites was Corky Lamm of The Indianapolis News. Corky not only wrote about the sports stars, he drew caricatures of them as well. When I wrote a sports column for The Shortridge Daily Echo , Miss Jean Grubb, the faculty sponsor, gave me the chance to be our high school’s correspondent for The News and Star. I was thrilled to know that my first “boss” would be Corky Lamm. My job was to call in scores of games when he couldn’t be there, but even better, I got to be his assistant when he came to a game at our school’s field or gym. During football games at Shortridge, I got to run up and down the sidelines with Corky, carrying a clipboard and paper and writing down the yards made or lost on the plays and who the players were. I felt “official,” like a kind of junior Pro.

Corky took the time to talk with me before and after games, and let me ask questions about his craft, and what it was like to be a sportswriter. As I got to know him, I felt comfortable asking him about more than sports writing. In those days I felt awkward with my father, and didn’t feel I could easily talk with him about “life” – but I felt I could ask Corky anything. I realized later he in fact was kind of an “adopted father” and sometimes he invited me to his house and I met his wife Martha and his two sons.

In those teenage years I felt “scared and scarred” (a bad case of the teenage acne curse) and knowing I was accepted and befriended by a man like Corky was a real blessing. He inspired me to learn more about the business (I thought I might someday be a sportswriter) and I read books about it. Once he told me of his own frustrations with the sports editor, who assigned himself to go to a game that Corky had hoped to cover.

“But I thought the sports editor was supposed to run the office,” I said, “and assign the reporters to go to the games.”

At that moment Corky was driving me home from a game and he slapped his hand on the steering wheel and said “Out of the mouths of babes!”

I was not bothered by being cast as a kid, I was proud that I had said something Corky thought was true, and it pleased him. Those moments stay with you – moments that meant you were accepted by someone you admired and stood out as a kind of marker or signpost in your growing. That’s what mentors can do for you – help you grow and give you confidence. No matter how old I get to be (and I am already older than I ever imagined I would be) I will always be grateful to Corky – and I will always remember that moment.

Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield