James Alexander Thom – Lifetime Achiever

James Alexander Thom has been given The Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Lifetime Achievement Award. It is difficult to imagine a more deserving recipient. Many fine newspapermen say they will someday write a great novel, but Jim Thom is one of the few who really did it. After a distinguished service as a reporter for The Star, Thom warmed up with a novel based on the Indy 500, but then he really got serious with the heart-stopping story of a woman whose only strategy was to Follow The River and make her way over seemingly impenetrable mountains and forests to her home and freedom.

Since that triumph of a book, Thom has written a series of powerful historical novels native to our land and culture, from Native American and Civil War tales that are not only great story-telling but also impeccable history. My own favorites are Panther in the Sky, based on the life of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and The Red Heart, a dramatic retelling of a true story of a young girl’s kidnapping by the Delawares. In the course of his research for the Tecumseh novel, Thom met and married the beautiful Shawnee woman Dark Rain, and collaborated with her on the novel Warrior Woman and a book on writing historical fiction.

Many of his fans will arm-wrestle you to the ground proclaiming that his best works are those set in the Civil War era (Saint Patrick’s Battalion, Fire in the Water), but all will agree that no one delves into our American past and comes up with fictional pearls to match those of Jim Thom. He not only does his research by means of books and interviews, he puts himself through the ordeals of his characters to verify their deeds. He once filled his bathtub and sank below the water to breathe through a straw in order to test if a character in his novel could have done that when his paddle wheeler sank in the Mississippi river.

Jim and Dark Rain live in a log cabin in the woods in Southern Indiana – I am not talking about an architect’s version of an updated luxury imitation of a historical fantasy, I am speaking of a “real,” genuine cabin in the woods, made of logs, built by hand – or hands, both of them belonging to Jim.  From his porch you do not see a highway, or a building, or a paved road. You see the forest primeval. Where he lives is simply an expression of who is – “the real thing.” So is his wife, Dark Rain, the storybook companion such a man deserves. They both look the part – Jim, his Marine-tested body in good shape, his white beard glowing; Dark Rain’s black hair cascading down her back in full glory.

They not only “look the part” of genuine flesh and blood incarnations of the best of the American spirit, they live its ideals. I know. When I first moved back to Indianapolis after sixty-one years away, I had the good fortune to meet them early in my re-settlement days. In those first shaky months I was told I might need a surgery, and when Jim and Dark Rain heard of this, they volunteered to come and be with me during the ordeal. Fortunately, the surgery was not required, but I will never forget the offer of aid and comfort from two new friends who proved to be as genuine as their image of hardy frontiers people, the Americans we always hope are still here among us.

This is what I would have said had I been given the opportunity to present Jim Thom with his lifetime achievement award.

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Dan Wakefield was given the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.



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.

You can win a signed book by me or tickets to the next Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam this October 31, 2018. To enter, tell me about your mentor. Get full details on submissions here. Hurry, the deadline ends October 29, 2018! 


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