ERNIE’S WORDS STILL MAKE A NIGHT MAGIC

The old man stood backstage behind the curtain. He was a little wobbly.

“All set?” I whispered.

“Here we go,” he said.

I hooked his thin arm around my elbow, and we stepped into the spotlight. Instantly, the noise was thunderous, a screaming, loving shower of applause, filling the building from floors to rafters. It roared as we walked gingerly across the stage to a waiting chair, his 91-year-old body taking small steps, because as we near the end of life, we step as slowly as when we began.

Finally, Ernie Harwell sat down.

“Thank you for that vocal hug,” he told the crowd. Someone yelled out, “We love you, Ernie!” and he weakly raised his hand in acknowledgment. The Fox Theatre was sold out, the lower orchestra, the upper balcony, faces everywhere you looked. Some even held up signs, as if at a baseball game. The old man smiled.

Harwell is dying from cancer. His doctors didn’t want him doing this. His wife was worried it might be too much. But the voice of summer, the voice of our childhoods, our companion on long car rides and cheap beach radios and transistor headphones hidden in a schoolchild’s ear, the Tigers’ announcer for almost half a century – and easily the most beloved man in the state of Michigan – wanted to be there.

Because it was helping others.

And because he had something to say. Discovering a higher calling

The occasion was my charity book launch, a book about faith, charities to help the homeless. A once-homeless man opened the night and told of how the mercy of a pastor – who let him sleep in his house for a year – turned his life around.

Now it was Ernie’s turn to talk. I asked him questions about his early career, about his time with legends like Jackie Robinson and Ty Cobb. He told a funny story about Rachel Robinson getting expensive gifts from Jackie after road trips, while Ernie’s wife, Lulu, was lucky to get “a bar of soap from the hotel.”

Then he spoke about an unexpected subject: his ambition. He admitted early on he wanted success, fame, and he chased it from a small newspaper to a major league broadcast booth.

“But none of those things fulfilled me,” he said. One night in 1961, in Florida, he attended a Billy Graham service. And there he gave his life to Jesus. He didn’t announce it on the radio. He didn’t make a big deal to the outside world.

But inside, it was the biggest deal. His ultimate destination

Because of his faith, Ernie is humbler than most, yet humility has made him more beloved than flamboyance ever could. I told him his voice was like “going home” for people from this state, that whenever we hear it, it brings us back. “Well, thank ya,” he answered, the Georgia drawl still a small shadow behind his words.

Finally, he spoke about dying.

“I don’t know how many days I’ve got left … but I praise God because he’s given me this time. … I can really know … whose arms I’m going to end up in, and what a great, great thing heaven is going to be.”

When he said that, a shiver spread from my chest to my fingers. It is one thing to read about belief, but it is another to witness it in the face of death, spoken in a calm, serene voice. “Whose arms I’m going to end up in.” No matter what religion you may or may not follow, when delivered that way, how can faith not be a beautiful thing?

The evening was getting long. Ernie’s strength was ebbing. I could see his lips trembling. I asked for any final thoughts.

“I know that maybe some of you at one time turned the radio on,” he said, self-effacingly, “and the great thing about a radio – you can always cut it off. … Thank you. And God bless you.”

And as thousands rose to their feet, many in tears, Ernie said again, “Here we go,” and arm-in-arm we headed to the curtain, then backstage, where a friend helped him to a waiting car.

As a sportswriter, I have walked alongside greatness, walked alongside skill, walked alongside power, success and fame. But I have never been arm-in-arm with pure goodness and faith the way I was that night. And while I know it looked as if I was boosting Ernie up, it was, and will forever be, the other way around.

Read excerpts from Mitch Albom’s latest book, “Have a Little Faith,” on Page 5J in Entertainment. Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com

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