Farewell to the man who gave me my start

Fred died.

It happened this past week. He was my first boss. And I still don’t believe it.

Wasn’t it just a blink ago that he called me, out of the blue, from a newspaper in Florida where I’d applied to be a magazine writer?

“You know that job you applied for?” he said.

“Yes?”

“You didn’t get it.”

“You’re calling to tell me I didn’t get a job?”

“Well, I read your clips. They’re not bad. If you want to try sports, I might have something for ya.”

Died? How could he have died? Didn’t that just happen? Wasn’t it just a blink ago I showed up in his newsroom at the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, wearing a shirt and tie, and was given my first assignment, to write about the retirement of Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski?

“Don’t mess this up,” Fred barked. “Yaz is my guy. The Sox are my team.”

Great, I figured. The man grew up around Boston, went to college in Boston, had been a sports editor near Boston – pronounced every word as if it had been invented in Boston – and I was being sent there for my first piece? I wondered if I’d still have a desk a week later.

Luckily, I did. Fred even said I’d done a “decent” job. Which was a golden nugget coming from a crusty, grumbling, chain-smoker like Fred. And I cherished it.

Wasn’t that last week?

Writing, editing and music

Wasn’t it just the other day that I was peeking into Fred’s office, where he moved around his desk, staring at pages, his hands dug in his front pockets? He seemed in constant motion, a former baseball player ready for a sudden ground ball.

“Yah, Albom, what do YOU want?”

He’d say it smiling. So I cherished that, too.

Fred was the kind of guy you used to find all the time in newspapers but is now an endangered species. He had a thick moustache and deep-set eyes that left him a gum-chomping cross between LeRoy Neiman and Lech Walesa. He loved deadlines, loved reporting, loved breaking news – yet he adored sports. “Wasn’t that the greatest?” he’d crow after a special game or a highlight play.

We used to share a love of oldies music. As I grew more comfortable with him, I’d occasionally pop my head in his door and croon, “He rocks in the treetops all day long…” and he’d grin and respond, “Hoppin’ and a-boppin’ and a-singin’ his song…”

Then he’d laugh and say, “Wasn’t that the greatest?”

You got pushed by Fred Turner, backslapped by Fred Turner – and you got better by Fred Turner. He was great at bringing young talent along, but then, because Ft. Lauderdale was not the end of many rainbows, the young talent moved on. Fred never resented it. He just found somebody else.

I left after a few years for the Free Press.

Wasn’t that a few years ago?

The curse of getting old

Over time, I heard that Fred had been sick. He didn’t want people knowing about it. Details were like pulling teeth. I called him now and then, saw him once or twice. He looked pale and terribly thin. I eventually learned he suffered from esophageal achalasia, a rare throat disorder that makes it hard to swallow or eat. The disease is characterized by regurgitation and chest pain, and the temptation is to say it was brought by bad writing or a missed deadline.

But this was serious. More than many of us knew. Fred retired in 2005, after 25 years as sports editor of the Sun-Sentinel. And last Monday, after reportedly watching his Red Sox beat the hated Yankees, he died in his sleep.

He died? How can your first boss die? Doesn’t that mean you’re getting old? Doesn’t that mean you’ve lost the only person who can confirm the opening hours of your career? Wasn’t it just yesterday that he represented a new world of respect, the feeling that someone who had an important job thought enough of you to give you one, too?

It wasn’t yesterday. It was 28 years ago. I am older than he was. Old enough to kick myself for not staying more in touch. Fred was 67, too young to go, but too indelible to forget. I owe him my career, because, as with all first bosses, who knows where life would have taken us if they hadn’t?

“Wasn’t that the greatest?”

Yeah, Fred, it was. You were, too.

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