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On Deck With: Clyde Bolton

July 7, 2011
By John Battle of Sports and Family Magazine



Clyde Bolton and the Rock of Gibraltar have at least one common trait - they ain't mov'n.  During a forty-year career with The Birmingham News, his one move was to Trussville, Al., and he has been sprouting deep roots ever since.

Growing up, he attended ten schools, including three high schools, lived in twelve locations from South Carolina, to Georgia, to Alabama, and as an adult unpacked his suitcases in LaGrange, Ga., Gadsden, Al. , Montgomery, Birmingham, then Trussville.  To his own admission he has "lived in thirty-four dwellings, ranging from my present spacious nine-room home...to nondescript furnished apartments to a claustrophobic house trailer."

When asked why all the moves his answer was that as a young man he thought it was due to his father being promoted for the railroad he worked for.  Then he found the rest of the truth; his parents evidently enjoyed moving.  Not Clyde Bolton.  "All that confounded moving kept me constantly off balance, kept my emotions in a tangle," he writes.

But as there are silver linings in all dark clouds, he concludes, "Maybe that prepared me to be a writer; I'm not overwhelmed or even surprised when something goes wrong...it better prepared me to deal with disappointments as an adult."

As a sports columnist for The Birmingham News, Bolton did not disappoint his readers as evidenced by his awards, which include Alabama Sports Columnist of the Year in 1988, 1992, and 1999. He was inducted into the Alabama Sports Writers Hall of Fame in 2001.

Though he spent his youth in many small towns, Statham, Ga., was special to Bolton. He explains, "It was like the perfect storm, but the opposite of the perfect storm.  Everything came together.  There were nine of us boys and girls who lived there. It was a small town that was not threatening.  It was the kind of place you could get up in the morning, get on your bicycle, and tell your momma you would see her about dark.  We didn't have television or air conditioning to hold us hostage in the house.  We never had any adults to direct us or to interfere with us."

In reviewing his life, Bolton summarizes, "My life is an example of two old sayings: Life is what happens instead of what you had planned, and the other is; If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans for your life."

While at Alexandria High School, in Calhoun County, Al., he aspired to be a school teacher due to the influence of Rueben Boozer, his science teacher.  Boozer later taught at Jacksonville State University.  Bolton was so enamored with the profession that he formed and was president of the first Future Teachers of America chapter at the high school.

"Then I read one of my mother's books, Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis, that was about a research scientist," Bolton says. "So I decided I wanted to be in the medical field, but I didn't want to be a doctor or a research scientist.  So I decided I would study pharmacy."

He enrolled at Jacksonville State University, eight miles from where his family lived in Wellington.  Traveling back and forth was like still being in high school to Bolton.  And he didn't want any more of that.

"I got to Jacksonville State and for some reason I had to take algebra," he explains. "And I couldn't do algebra, and they told me I had to take some kind of a remedial math course that was ridiculous, and I was spending more time in the pool room than I was in the classroom."

"I hated R.O.T.C., as I spent most of my time washing windows in the R.O.T.C. building and I still have dishpan hands from that.  I wanted to get out in the real world and find a job.  I allowed myself to flunk out of Jacksonville State before I finished my freshman year.  So that's why you don't see me handing out pills at CVS," he says with a smile.

On his parents influence, Bolton relates only one negative:  "I didn't want to be a nomad when I got grown."

He explains.

"My daddy worked for the Seaboard Railroad and he [the family] moved around a lot.  I grew up all over South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, and when I was a kid I assumed all the moves were to elevate him in his chosen profession.  But later, when I acquired the judgment of an adult, I found that he and my mother enjoyed living in different locations."

In a more positive manner, he reflects, "My daddy was a big sports fan and he took me to sporting events.  We would go see the *Atlanta Crackers play baseball, the University of Georgia play football, and the high school games. And even the stock car races back in those days.  I think that helped me grow up with the love of sports." 

Then he adds, "My father never gave me a whipping when I was growing up; we were not only father and son, but we were good buddies."

As to his mother, he observes, "She read a lot and that had a big influence on me. There were always good books and magazines in my house, so I grew up reading. I think that helped me to become a writer."

Bolton played several sports growing up, though he enjoyed football the best.  And it was partially due to his coach. At Alexandria High School, he played for Coach Lou Scales, "Who was one of those legendary high school coaches who had the most influence on my life of any adult male next to my father," he explains.

"You hear about those things about football that teach you perseverance and determination and so forth.  I think it is true.  I know it is true!" he emphasizes. "It was true in my case.  What I learned on the football field I was able to apply in life. I still miss it.  I'm 74 years old and when I see a football game I say ‘Man, I wish I could get out there and play again.'"

The conversation shifted to life's wonders.  Bolton responds that his biggest surprise "Was that I woke up one day and found out that I was a nineteen year old sports editor of a daily newspaper, The LaGrange Daily News in Georgia."

"Back then, nineteen was adulthood in 1955," he states. "If you weren't an adult by nineteen, you probably weren't going to become one.  I applied for the job and got it.  I had to grow up early.  I got married when I was eighteen which wasn't all that unusual."

Commenting on life's disappointments, Bolton replies, "I got fired from The Gadsden Times, which was disappointing at the time.  But it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It gave me the impetus to get up and look for something else and it lead me to being with The Birmingham News for forty years."

Bolton's career with The Birmingham News spanned four decades.  And he relates that success to his father who, "... got up every morning and went to work. It didn't matter if he was sick, or if the car didn't start.  He believed you went to work and I believe in the same thing. He taught me that you tried to do your best; anything I wrote that had my name on it, I tried to make it as good as I possibly could. And it goes back to his example." He concludes, "I never lost the feeling that you should do it right; my conviction that I should do it right. "

As to his particular style of writing, he comments, "There were writers I admired and their writing.  I don't mean I tried to copy them, but I tried to see what they were doing and thought that I could do the same thing but in a slightly different way."

One of those was Furman Bisher, sports writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  Bolton says of Fisher, "He was the best daily columnist that has ever been."

Bolton loved Hemingway's style of writing.  Hemingway made him realize that the short, the declarative sentence, was the best way to communicate an idea. He read and loved Faulkner's works.

In the eighth grade he read, The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas.  "I remember being moved so much by that book, and realizing that a book could move you and influence you and your life," he relates.

Without ever taking journalism or a writing class, Bolton says that he could tell the difference between good and bad writing.  And he points that to his love of reading acquired from his mother.

In contrasting a columnist and a novelist, Bolton says, "Being a novelist is where you are constantly inventing.  It's you and your typewriter and your imagination. Being a columnist is inventing only ninety-nine percent of it," he quipped with a sheepish smile.

Bolton explains that a column is not only the relating of facts; it is weaving a story and blending it with humor.  He concludes with this thought: "A column needs to dance on the page.  It needs to be something somebody wants to turn to."

During his career, Bolton wrote of the varied changes in sports. He breaks it down only as a columnist can:  "The number one societal change was integration.  When I began to cover sports for The Birmingham News, Alabama and Auburn were all white.  The number one change from a physical standpoint would be the construction of Talladega Superspeedway. That lifted stock car racing from the short tracks onto the world's biggest track right here in our own back yard.  And it has changed in a physical standpoint; Alabama and Auburn played basketball in gymnasiums that weren't as good as some high school gyms. Then they built coliseums, and they built the Jefferson County Civic Center arena in Birmingham, and basketball was elevated to a whole new level."

Bolton adds, "Abe Lemons, the old Texas coach said, ‘Basketball coaches who play in gymnasiums don't get fired, basketball coaches who play in coliseums get fired.'"

His favorite college coach was Ralph "Shug" Jordan [so named due to his liking sugar cane as a child], of Auburn.  "He had the misfortune of being in the same state as Bryant for all those years," he says.  "He was a great coach and a great man."

"Coach Jordan was a very interesting man," he continues, "he was a historian; he knew all about history.  He went to New York every year for a couple of weeks to go to Broadway plays.  He was the kind of guy who could talk to you about anything. "

Scott Hunter, the former Alabama quarterback under Coach Bryant, became not only a colleague, but a friend.  He was one of Mobile, Alabama's television reporters and he and Bolton would cover some of the same games.

When action occurred that Bolton didn't understand, he would ask, "What did I just see, Scott?"' Hunter would explain to him what just happened from a technical standpoint.  "When I used it I sounded like I knew what I was talking about, "he notes.

Thom Gossom, Jr., the movie and television actor is one of his favorite Auburn players. "He was one of the first black guys to play at Auburn; he walked on at Auburn, which I thought took a lot of guts back in those days, " Bolton voices with admiration.

Commenting on who he looked up to growing up, Bolton says there was one in particular.  A minor league center fielder who played with the Atlanta Crackers, whose name was Ralph Brown.  His nickname was Country Brown.

"He was from Summerville, Georgia," Bolton relates.  "When he was in the Army, he told some soldier where he was from and the guy said, ‘Boy, you must really be country.  I've never heard of that Summerville,' and the name stuck."

Brown was a slim guy; a left handed centerfielder that could run like a deer, but, "If he threw a ball at you from five seats from where we are sitting, the ball may not get to you," he explains.  "He had an awful arm and that kept him out of the Major Leagues."

"But he was a master of the drag bunt," he continues. "Being left handed, he would start running with the pitch going towards first base, and he could place the ball where neither the pitcher, nor the second baseman, nor the first baseman, could get to it in time.  He would be safe on first base."

Bolton had determined that he was going to be a great drag bunter someday.

There was a problem though: he was a right handed batter.

"But somehow," Bolton says, "I was going to overcome that obstacle."

His football coach at Alexandria High School, Lou Scales, was also his hero.  "He was a great coach and played on one of Alabama's Rose Bowl teams," Bolton reflects. "He taught you the fundamentals of the game.  I never heard him use profanity; he never raised his voice, except when he complimented you on a good play.  He was exactly what I thought a man ought to be."

Asked what he would trade his right arm for, "Well," he mused, "I don't want to be young again."

He pauses to formulate an answer.

Then he says, with a slight quiver in his voice, "To see my grandchildren, my four grandchildren, to have peaceful, productive, rewarding lives with good marriages in a world that is becoming increasingly difficult for good people to live in."

In describing himself, he answers, "That I am somebody that any decent person would be comfortable around."  He then adds, "Someone asked me what I would like to hear in heaven. I would like to hear, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.'"  Without hesitation he appends, "But I am afraid it will be modified some."

He wished he were better at hitting the green while playing golf on the second shot; "It's why I have a five instead of a four," he utters with a hint of disappointment.

If he had not been a columnist, he claims he would be the CEO of Godiva Chocolates. "The first job I ever had as a teenager in the summer was cooking candy at Saxon's Candy Kitchen," he relates.  "It was a small chain of candy stores and I stirred pralines.   The place was not air conditioned and I'd lean over the pralines and drop sweat and even now when I eat a praline I wonder whose sweat I'm eating."

Bolton has a new book published:  Hadacol Days:  A Southern Boyhood.

In summation, he explains, "A lot of people don't know what Hadacol was. It was cure-all elixir with 12% alcohol content which led to its popularity in the old days of dry counties in the South.  When I was going to Statham High School, the first of my three high schools, Statham didn't have a football team but they had a basketball team.  And the cheerleaders' favorite yell was, ‘Statham Wildcats On the Ball, They've Been Drinking Hadacol.'  And the coach stopped the cheer for he didn't want the idea that alcohol was fueling his basketball team.  The book tells of life in my youth back in the 1940's and 50's."

When we finished with the interview, Mr. Bolton invited me to his sanctuary - his writing room.  Up almost vertical steps to the A-part of their A-frame home where only the brave climb, we casually discussed the issues of life and I finally called him, Clyde.  After all, friends call each other by their first name.


*The Atlanta Crackers were one of professional baseball's most successful minor league franchises, winning seventeen league championships from 1901 until 1965.  They totaled more wins than any other team in organized baseball except the New York Yankees. National Baseball Hall of Fame inductees Eddie Mathews and Luke Appling started their careers with the franchise, as well as Tommie Aaron, Tim McCarver, and Chuck Tanner.  Announcers Skip Carey and Ernie Harwell also began their careers with the Atlanta Crackers.

Photography by Hod Berman

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