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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tom Loewy- Great Listener

Tom Loewy wrote sports for the Register-Mail when he first came to Galesburg. I didn’t know what to think of him, he was from Peoria. But I realized maybe he could become the opposite of Jane Miller- someone who started in Peoria and finished in Galesburg.

From perspective, Tom is good at what he does because he is a great listener. Some writers have in mind what the story is supposed to be- so they keep asking forms of the same question over and over until they succeed in getting the exact sound bite they want. Often with both players and with coaches after a game, Tom would start by saying one of two things,

A-    “What do you think happened tonight?”
B-    “I don’t know a lot about basketball, but it seems like _______ happened, is that accurate?”

And as a coach, you always had a sense that he just wanted to listen. And after he listened to your answer, there would be a pause, and he would then ask a question that probed your answer. It was obvious he really wanted to make sure he understood the game from your perspective.  It didn’t mean when he was done that he agreed with my analysis, but he understood. In all of the year’s Tom covered girls basketball, he never once misquoted me. Sometimes he might clean up the grammar, and actually made me sound more intelligent- but the bottom line was that I always felt he quoted me accurately.

Besides being a great listener, Tom even back then was interested in people. His game stories were usually more stories about people (players), not just putting together the box score in paragraph form. He recognized the people he was covering were teens, and was appropriate in how he wrote about them.

The other great part about having Tom cover girls basketball is that we shared many common social and political beliefs. So if GHS won, usually I was in good enough mood so that when we got done talking basketball, we could switch roles and I could interview him about a current issue. I quickly came to realize Tom is one of the most well-read and intelligent people I have met.

Today he continues to write about people. Sometimes you read his stories and they make you happy or sad, filled with hope or filled with hopelessness. But in anything Tom writes, I can picture him listening and listening. His writing is not designed to let us be comfortable and reinforce our existing thought. His writing is designed to allow us to "listen" to some voices we may not know exist. I don't think Tom is ever asking us to agree with those voices- just become aware they exist.

Tom is definitely on my Mt. Rushmore of favorite sports writers. It is my hope Tom will sometime before I quit coaching cover one more season for us, or at the least the Register-Mail will assign him to do stories about people in area sports.  

What is your best sports memory from your playing career?

My best sports memory is playing baseball for Richwoods High School during my senior year. Back then, 1986 to be exact, there was a Peoria Tournament held in what was then called Meinen Field. That became Pete Vonachen Stadium - before they built the beautiful new park in downtown Peoria.

Anyway, in the seventh inning of the last tourney game against Manual, I lined a two-run single to tie the game - the hardest ball I ever hit. And I remember I didn’t hear the sound of the ball off the bat. After the hit I stole second, stole third and scored the winning run on a passed ball.

Now that you are an adult and in the “working world” (kind of). Everyone always talks about the sports teaching “life lessons.” What if any, were the “life lessons” you learned from sports?

Here is another sports memory from the same baseball season: In a Midstate 9 Conference game at Springfield I was playing centerfield. I charged a line drive and thought I had played perfectly to field-and-throw. It bad-hopped past me. That crucial play cost us the outright conference championship. The hop wasn’t “my fault,” but it was my responsibility to make that play. I didn’t make it and I cost each and every one of my teammates - guys who had worked very hard.

I learned much from playing sports. How to be a teammate. How to deal with loss and victory. But I think most of all, I learned to take responsibility for my performance. Excuses blow around ballparks forever and they tell you more about the player making them than anything else.

What were 4-5 people (or more) that you really enjoyed covering and interviewing when you were in sports?

This might sound a bit egocentric, but I think I came to Galesburg and Knox County area when sports were at a kind of pinnacle. During my roughly 10 years on the job, I covered small-school football, Galesburg High School girls basketball and a ton of prep and American Legion baseball.

I’ll never forget an interview I did with Megan Pacheco when she played basketball for the Silver Streaks. She really opened up and it was the first time I really felt like I understood what it was I wanted to write about as a prep sports writer - the lives of kids.

I enjoyed interviewing Jenny Zolper and LaToya Wright and Shanell Jackson. They were really articulate kids who opened up and always found a way to talk about their teammates.

Warren, then United, football coach Tim Engebretson was always a very good interview. So, too, were Dale Grawe and Toby Vallas. Graw did as good a job as any coach I ever met when it came time to explain a game in a way that translated to readers.

There were so many other kids. Justin Powers, the incredible back at ROWVA, stands out. Rod Thompson and Joey Range stood out č I interviewed them during their run at state. I found both young men to be really engaging.

Top 3-4 sporting events you ever covered?

The Galesburg girls basketball teams’ run of state appearances at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the previous decade take the cake. For a sports writer, you want to be on deadline with the big game going late and playing close. It’s a chance to take a shot at writing history.

What sports figure, living or dead, would you like to sit down and have an interview with? Why?

Muhammad Ali in his prime, as he refused to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. I don’t think there was ever a more complex, compelling and courageous person in all of sports. And there was probably never a better interview č maybe in the history of American journalism. I really mean that. 

All of us like to brag about something we have seen or someone we have met. What is the biggest sporting event you witnessed (fan or writer), and who is your most famous interview?

I’ve met a fair number of “famous athletes” but I’ll tell you another kind of story.

I was in Fenway Park one afternoon when Red Sox left fielder Jim Rice lined a ball into the stands that hit a small boy in the head. Rice went into the seats and carried the boy to the Sox clubhouse where he was treated until an emergency crew could get to him. It was a singular act of grace and humility.

My favorite interview with a famous person came about because then-Peoria Chiefs general manager Rocky Vonachen and Peoria Journal Star beat writer Dave Reynolds let me sit in on an interview with Bob Gibson. I asked him a number of questions about race relations on the 1960s-era Cardinals. When it was over, Gibson shook my hand and asked what paper I was with. I told him I was writing for the Chiefs monthly fan magazine. He told me I should be a sports journalist.

I owe Vonachen and Reynolds a lot for that chance.  

What things bother you the most about sports on any level today?

On the professional and college levels, I detest the utter commercialization of the games and athletes. It’s especially repugnant on the collegiate level. And I realize media has engendered much of the commercialization.

On the high school level, I grew tired of the “next level” attitude. Too many high school athletes are judged on their ability to go to some college and play. It’s great to go on and play at any collegiate level - an experience I enjoyed - but all kids on prep teams should be valued for their commitment, hard work and willingness to sacrifice some of their personal stuff for the good of a team.
The point of high school sports is to learn and grow. The kid who becomes an dedicated defender on the basketball court, an undersized-but-determined blocker on a football team, or can lay down a bunt in any situation - in other words, a kid who maximizes his or her potential on the playing field - is as much a “success” as a kid who goes on to a college because they have the physical tools necessary to make that transition. 

What advice would you give to coaches if you put a clinic on for them?

As a journalist, I would try to get across to coaches that win or lose, you should speak with the media. Questions are one of things coaches get after games.
When Ron Zook walked into a press room and announced he wasn’t going to answer questions about his job status, I wouldn’t have given him a chance to walk out. I would have left before he reached the podium. No one tells me how I’m going to do my job.

High school sports should not be covered with the intensity college programs, but prep coaches should realize that even prep sports writers are not public relations officials. Win or lose, coaches should answer questions to best of their ability.

What advice would you give to players if you put a clinic on for them?

Questions are hard after losses. Do the best you can to be open and honest.
Prep sports writers don’t make college recruits and the things we write, in the end, should have no impact on how a team performs.

I would tell kids to be themselves. That’s a hard thing for a 16-, 17- or 18-year-old to do, because they are just starting to learn who they are.

What advice would you give parents if you put a clinic on for them?

College recruiters don’t read press clippings to determine if a prep athlete can play at any collegiate level. Prep writers aren’t here to make your kids look good or bad č they attend games to write about games, coaches and athletes.
The ultimate validation of an athlete is not if the athlete gets his or her name in the paper. Furthermore, an athlete doesn’t just get his or name in the paper only when they accomplish something. Sometimes it’s because they fail. And a parent or parents should know the value of a kid failing on a playing field. That same kid will be a better player and person in the long run - as long as success and failure are recognized as outcomes that can be learned from and applied to all facets of life.

What advice would you give a young sports writer?

If you’re covering prep sports, always remember you are writing about teenagers. They shouldn’t be evaluated on some notion of what a “great” high school athlete may be.

Have fun with it and let the athletes and coaches speak for themselves. Coaches and athletes are funny, poignant, happy, sad and, above all, engaging.

I enjoy reading your work, but obviously some people may not like your “liberal” tendencies. To your critics who think you write too many stories about negative situations, how do you respond?

First of all, I take a second to delineate what it is I do as a columnist.
I write an “Everyday People” column every Wednesday and a Page2 column every Friday. Those appear in print and online. I also blog and contribute to the editorial page.

Blogs are editorial columns are pure opinion pieces. I am certainly considered “liberal” by many readers - a label that is perfectly acceptable. I am not, however, a supporter of any political party. I do hold very reasoned opinions on social, economic and policy issues. I think I’m primarily critical of the willingness of some - a growing number, it seems - in this country to dismiss the public institutions and shared responsibilities that are the foundation of this country.

In my work on “Everyday People” and Page2 columns, I strive to show readers aspects of Galesburg we don’t see or care to examine. The work is aimed squarely at telling stories about people who might make us uncomfortable or challenge some of our own perceptions.

I’m interested in history from the bottom up č how everyday people live, die, love, work, play, raise children, battle dependency and feel about their own lives.

In those “Everyday People” and Page2 columns, I write about plenty of people who I don’t agree with and situations that make me uncomfortable. I set the same standard for myself as I do for readers.

Lastly, what is your Mt. Rushmore of stories. I think that would mean 5 stories you would most want people to read.

Tough question.

I chose five columns from over the years that stayed on my mind after I wrote them - all for very different, specific reasons. The blog about my father’s death was chosen because I had never written about my own life in such detail. I still don’t think it was as good as it could be, but many readers contacted me to say it was the best work I’ve ever done.

I think readers like to feel a connection to columnists and this gave them a look into my life I had never previously revealed.

There’s a few award-winners in here and a couple I personally liked.

Will you ever cover sports again?

I miss writing about coaches and athletes.

I don’t miss covering games. I spent a lot of my life on the road as a player and then as a journalist. It was a joy, but it was also a grind as I got older. The guy who could steal a base has been gone for 20 years and the guy who could cover a Supersectional, write until 1 a.m. and get up five hours later to grind out five stories for a state tournament tab has been gone for about six.

If I was presented with the opportunity to write columns about local and area coaches and athletes, I would jump at the chance. I loved doing that and always will. Just as playing sports was great preparation for life, being a sports columnist profoundly influenced my work as a news and opinion columnist.

Thanks for answering the question- I don't think I have looked forward to anyone's responses more than Tom's. Thanks alot!!

1 comment:

  1. Great column on the best pure writer, and one of the nicest and most misunderstood guys I've ever worked with.
    Here's my question for Tom. "Is there video of you stealing second and third base?" Because I'm not sure I believe you.