Bob Collins · 1990
The following is Bob Collins’ obituary.
Bob Collins, sports editor for The Indianapolis Star, has died today.
Readers who never looked at the sports pages also knew Collins as the writer of "The Lighter Side," a feature column that, like Collins, was never afraid to take a good, hearty Irish laugh at the world in all its absurdities.
In that column or his sports column, "Sports Over Lightly," Collins may have very well referred to his own death like this: "ITEM: The Indianapolis Star lost a big one today."
Collins joined the Star in 1948 in what was supposed to have been a three-week stint between his junior and senior years as Butler University.
After the three weeks were up, Collins stayed on at the paper.
In a 1978 interview, Collins joked that since he was never officially hired, "They’ll never be able to officially fire me."
And firing him would have been a virtual impossibility – not only would the readers have protested, but the paper would have been a little thinner. He was one of the most prolific writers to ever work at the Star with his weekly workload for decades that included five columns – two humor and three sports, plus covering sports events.
He covered every major sporting event in the United States and traveled to at least a dozen countries writing about athletics in his inimitable style. It was his distinctive coverage of the 1960 Olympics in Rome that led to Collins writing as a humorist.
While in Rome, he pounded out sports stories on a gold medalist Wilma Rudolph, who was later to move to Indianapolis, and the young Louisville heavyweight, Cassius Clay, who Collins would publicly defend. It was not only his sports writing, but his features that led the Star’s editors to ask him to write a humor column on a "trial basis."
That trial lasted nearly three decades.
Though he was prolific, the words never came that easily.
Collins said humor columns were harder to write. "With the sports page, I can quote others. With humor, I’m on my own," he once said in an interview.
The staple of his humor column was a cartoon version of himself – a hapless Irishman who could booze without guilt, smoke without apology, over-eat, then nap upon the nearest couch dreaming befuddled dreams about the comings and goings of the kids.
In his 1984 book, "Thought You’d Never Ask," a compilation of Collins’ best columns, was loaded with his vintage humor:
• "I spent the greater part of my adult life waiting in line to reach the bathroom in my own home. By the times the all clear sounded and I waddled through wet stockings, slips and blow dryers, I was playing for a tie."
• "Anyhow, most of us know by now that the best way to see a specialist is to hook a drive into his fairway some Wednesday afternoon. At least, it worked for me."
• "…. they have not yet invented a male with marriage in mind who could pass a father test."
The depiction was not far from his real life.
Collins is survived by his wife, Kristin; sons, Michael and Kevin Collins; daughters, Kathleen XXXXX, Caroline XXXXX, Cindy XXXXX, Mary Louise, Evelyn XXXXX, and Linda XXXXX.
Linda Collins even became a character for some "Lighter Side" columns that ran in the late 1970s and early 1980s about a daughter’s bemused observations about her father. The columns always depicted Dad as the out-of-style, easily fooled adult that most children know their parents to be.
A typical "Linda line was: "I don’t suppose this makes me unique, but I have a telephone problem.
We have this call-waiting thing and it seems like the only person ever waiting is my dad."
The columns were actually written by Collins and were so popular that readers often wrote to Linda.
His sentimentality swallowed his humor in one of the last Linda columns:
• "The little girl with the freckles and the unfinished nose – the last in a long line of beautiful daughters – no longer is a child. "She’s 17 and will be graduated from high school Saturday. "You live a day at a time. But man, those days travel on their own schedule. All of a sudden a father looks up and not only is the nose finished, the rest is, too. "One day they’re toddling around in diapers, the next they’re walking all over your heart. "This was going to be a Linda Collins column about how Dad told her to quit talking nonsense about being 17, or demanded that she delay her graduation until he was ready – in about 40 years. But I’m not feeling all that funny at the moment."
From his writings, it was obvious that raising children was important to Collins. He once told an interviewer that his greatest accomplishment was "being 7/9ths of the way through rearing eight fine children."
Collins was deprived of family life as a child. His parents separated when he was but 18 months old. He and his mother moved in with his grandmother. When he was nine, his mother died and Collins stayed with the grandmother throughout childhood.
He and his father, Joseph, had a close relationship.
Stern Catholic clerical teachers at Cathedral High School channeled the energies of a rambunctious boy by "sentencing" him to the library. The punishment stimulated an intellectual side of Collins.
Though Collins inhabited a world where academics often sit the bench, he read widely, could speak smatterings of four foreign languages, and often injected classical and historical images into his writings. Before he became a writer of history-in-the-making, he had planned to become a history teacher. He quit college with some 13 hours remaining for a degree, deciding it was "a bit foolish" to continue learning how to become what he was already being paid to do.
Collins, in an observation that sounded much like Will Rogers or Ernie Pyle, had a distinctive idea about what he was paid to do, explaining his work and his morning contract with readers.
"Writing a newspaper column is an imprecise art; a craft, really. We are exterior decorators; we wander in an idiomatic junkyard called the English language, fitting spare parts into prose."
"He is an analyst, a satirist, a humorist, and a philosopher bound together with an extraordinary ability of expression."
"His columns take us far beyond the cloistered walls of the sports world – in politics, travel, world affairs, and life itself," Knight wrote.
Probably the most well-known news stories were those Collins sent from Chicago in 1968 during the riot-marred Democratic Convention.
In one front-page story following that brutal melee between Chicago police and youthful anti-war protesters, Collins wrote:
• "…. you could see the residue of the battle. There were shoes, bits of clothing, some sleeping blankets, and even a pair of broken eye-glasses.
• "Mechanical street sweepers were moving up and down the street. And it seemed as though the drivers, by sweeping away the debris, were hoping they could destroy the memory of the nightmare."
Collins also used his writing skills and the sports world to make larger stands on issues – particularly racism.
In the 1960s, he was one of a few sportswriters to publicly defend the heavyweight boxing champion that he met in 1960 – Cassius Clay. Clay, who is known as Muhammad Ali, sparked national outrage in the height of the Vietnam War with his decision to serve time in jail rather than serve in the U.S. Army. Collins received loads of hate mail for his support of Ali; he also received hate mail for also supporting Ali’s decision to fight title bouts in foreign countries.
Collins reasoned: "After all, they call it the World Championship."
In a state that is defined by basketball, Collins was thoroughly immersed in the sport.
He covered every state basketball finals tournament since 1949 and is a founder of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame as well as the Indiana Pacers.
He once said his greatest thrills were covering Milan’s 1954 state basketball championship, and the titles won by Crispus Attucks High School in 1955 and 1956.
In March 1954, Collins was made the honorary mayor of Milan for his unabashed support of the Cinderella team from Ripley County that defeated Muncie Central. In a front page article, he described riding alone in a 13-mile victory caravan that rolled out from Indianapolis to Milan.
"The ‘Mighty Men of Milan’ came home yesterday.
"And man, what a celebration! Indiana probably never has seen anything like it…. The traffic was bumper to bumper on both sides of the road.
His support extended to Crispus Attucks, too, in an era of the mid-1950s when it took courage to take a public stand for an all-black high school.
He even ventured beyond editorial support and participation in athletics; in 1967, he helped bring together a group of investors who founded a professional basketball franchise team that debuted in the American Basketball League in October that same year as the Pacers.
Through it all, Collins was always at his best when he was at his typewriter. Though he rose from reporter to the sports editor, the top job was a spot he never sought. In fact, he was on the verge of quitting sports writing when he took the job in 1964.
In an interview, Collins said he was getting burned out on sports. Even by then, he had already covered almost every major sporting event and traveled thousands of miles. He said that he was going to ask to leave the sports department when he was asked instead to be the sports editor.
At first, Collins said no and continued to refuse the job until managing editors threatened to go outside the building to fill the position.
As a reporter and editor, Collins is the source of many newsroom legends – both in Indianapolis and in the nation.
In one scenario, he and Jim Murray, the sports columnist for the "Los Angeles Times," were reportedly together in a cathedral when Collins asked to borrow $20 from Murray. When Murray forked the bill over, Collins held it only until the collection basket was passed.
Though Collins left hundreds of friends that he knew, his death left behind thousands more friends that he never had a chance to meet – his readers.
Here is how he thought about people he actually served – the people that buy the paper.
"… I’m invited into your home five mornings a week. I try not to wake the baby or distract you so long you burn the bacon. If I can make you smile or reflect on the mores of everyday living, I’ve had a good day. "This semipublic affair between you and me has continued for 30 years. Perhaps we’re too old now to change partners. Nonetheless, I’m delighted that so many of you have helped me on this odyssey through a world I’ll never quite understand."