May 5, 2010

Ernie Harwell, Rest in Peace

Yesterday, long-time broadcaster Ernie Harwell passed away at the age of 92 after losing a bout with cancer. The sports world has buzzed a bit, and it's nice to see one of the true good guys in the industry get some applause. Seeing his face on television and hearing his voice again brings back a world of memories.

My dad was a career Air Force pilot, and I grew up on various Air Force bases around the country. Most summers, though, and every Christmas, we traveled "home" to Michigan, where my folks were born and raised. These roots-- and repeated exposure-- were the source of my love for the Detroit Tigers, and in the late 60's and 70's (and into the 21st century), the voice of the Tigers was Ernie Harwell. On the best kid days of my life-- Michigan summer days with nothing better to do than hang out with my grandpa on the screened-in porch, watching old guys play softball across the street after a day at the park or hitting the wiffle ball-- Ernie Harwell's raspy, musical, beautiful voice was the background music. Compared to most Tiger fans my age, I didn't hear him call that many games, but his voice still moves me.

Yesterday, I heard his voice in the room-- it was the first news story on his death and they were replaying his farewell address at Comerica Park-- and I stopped what I was doing and listened. I would recognize it anywhere.

I never knew him, of course, though all the fans who welcomed him into their homes every night for 50 years surely think they do, and lots of folks who did know him are saying great stuff about him today, and I'm going to try to read it all. But I won't add to it, since I have nothing new to add, except to say this:

Ernie Harwell knew his calling as was faithful to it. His personal virtue infected everything he did, and no one seems ever to have had anything bad to say about him. Denny McClain-- no slouch when it comes to foul language-- even claims that the man never used a curse word of any kind in his life.

When asked how he would like folks to remember him, Mr. Harwell said this:

I'd like to be remembered as someone who showed up for the job. I consider myself a worker. I love what I do. If I had my time over again, I'd probably do it for nothing.

There is something great about that. We are all workers, made in the image of the True God who works. We were created to "show up" and to flourish, and I will certainly remember him for that. But all the more I will remember those sweet summer evenings when he'd quip that "the man from Lansing will take that ball home with him" and call a home run "loooooong gone." He did his job. He did it well. And he cared about the folks he served. He and has wife have been married for 68 years. He was loved by everybody who knew him. That is a life well lived.

One last Harwell quote that speaks volumes about his view of his work:
Radio is such a great medium. It makes you use one of the most important things God gave you — imagination. The listener can picture what the announcer is telling you.
Note his focus in this simple description of radio. "God's gift" of imagination and "the listener." In his job, his main focus was not on himself, what made him tick, what satisfaction he gained, or what fulfillment he sought-- though I am sure all of that was there. His focus was on what others were getting from him-- how his gifts were beneficial. He saw himself as one who nurtured the good gift of imagination in other people. Wonderful.

I am grateful for the life's work of Mr. Harwell, which I experienced only for a few weeks at a time, long ago, while I was just young boy. When I read about him today and think about his approach to work, to people, and to life, it causes me to marvel, even in my middle age, at the way that God uses ordinary folks to stir in us a love of beauty and goodness, even reflected dimly in the simple, eloquent call of a baseball game.

May we all be as faithful to our callings as Ernie Harwell was to his. May he rest in peace.

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