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!