Pillars of the FWAA: Tom Siler (1909-88), Knoxville News-Sentinel

ffaw_redesignThe Football Writers Association of America is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2015. Founded in 1941, the FWAA has served the writing profession and college football during a time when the world has changed greatly and the sport of football has along with it. In an effort to tell the stories of the members of the organization, we will publish each week a sketch on one of the FWAA’s  most important  leaders — all Bert McGrane Award winners.

The Bert McGrane Award, symbolic of the association’s Hall of Fame, is presented to an FWAA member who has performed great service to the organization and/or the writing profession. It is named after McGrane, a Des Moines, Iowa, writer who was the executive secretary of the FWAA from the early 1940s until 1973. The McGrane Award was first bestowed on an FWAA member in 1974.

For a list of all the winners go to:  http://www.sportswriters.net/fwaa/awards/mcgrane/index.html.

The following is the 10th installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series. Tom Siler was the 1979 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

By Gene Duffey

Tom Siler probably liked Jack Webb on the old “Dragnet” television show. Webb’s trademark line “Just the facts, Mam. Nothing but the facts.” personified the low-key way Siler approached his newspaper reporting.

Tom Siler, 1979 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

Tom Siler, 1979 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

“He wrote in plain English,” said Marvin West, who worked for Siler for 20 years and succeeded him as sports editor at the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “By today’s standards, he was rather a vanilla writer. He was an excellent reporter and good interviewer. He got the story told very nicely.”

“He was organized,” said Roland Julian, another veteran of the News-Sentinel sports department. “He made sure he had his facts right. Tom was always objective. Some people didn’t like it when he criticized the University of Tennessee, but sometimes it was needed.”

“He wasn’t a cheerleader,” said West. “He was a patient teacher.”

In those days sports editors would run the department as well as write columns. Siler knew how to get along with people.

“He delegated and let you do (your job),” said West. “He would have been a great editor of the newspaper. He had a great feel for news and how to deal with people. He could talk to bank presidents or the guy who swept the field. He could go with kings or commoners.”

Siler had a knack for being there when momentous events occurred in the sports world.

He covered Don Larsen’s perfect game for the New York Yankees in the World Series. He was there for Hank Aaron’s record 715th home run. He interviewed New York Yankees star Lou Gehrig changing trains in Chicago after returning from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Siler was working for the Associated Press in Chicago at the time. Gehrig’s consecutive game streak of 2,130 had ended in 1939. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which would become known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. “He broke the story on Lou Gehrig’s disease,” Julian said of Siler.

Siler covered Tennessee State sprinter Wilma Rudolph at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He regularly covered the Kentucky Derby, Joe Louis’ championship fights and major bowl games.

“Tom liked to give the local view instead of running the wire services,” said Julian. “He had contacts all over the country. He could pick up the phone and talk to anybody.”

Siler grew up in a tiny town on the Kentucky border and went to the University of Tennessee. He started at the News-Sentinel in 1931.

He left Knoxville in 1935 to work for the Associated Press in Nashville and then moved on to the AP in Chicago in 1938. He became a baseball writer for the Chicago Sun in 1941.

When World War II started, Siler wasn’t eligible for the draft because he was blind in one eye. “He lost an eye as a kid, at 9 or 10,” said Julian. “A kid threw a cornstalk and hit him in the eye. He wore a big, magnifying glass on a visor.”

Siler couldn’t drive, but he wouldn’t allow the handicap to keep him out of the war. He joined the Army as a reporter and worked with a couple of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, Ernie Pyle and Don Whitehead.

After the war Siler returned to the Chicago Sun-Times. He then moved back to Knoxville in 1949 as a columnist and became sports editor in 1957.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, kids from the Tennessee School for the Deaf qualified for the World Deaf Olympics. “Tom went and raised money for those kids,” said Julian. “He would tell people (in his column) how much the kids needed and he would come up with it. Tom had a way of getting things done. He had a lot of influence on what happened at the University of Tennessee and in town.”

Siler organized a bunch of local businessmen to buy a hockey team in 1961, moving the New Jersey Larks of the Eastern Hockey League to Knoxville. He ran a contest in the paper to name the team, which became known as the Knoxville Knights. The team lasted until 1968.

In the mid-1950s he started doing a radio show on Saturdays during college football season, long before the days when sports writers became more concerned with their radio shows than their newspaper job. He served as president of the FWAA in 1954.

Siler also wrote occasional pieces for the Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated and Look magazine, plus three books on Tennessee football. His favorite book was probably the one outside of sports that he did in his retirement titled, “Tennessee Cities and Towns Adamsville to Yorktown,” the story of small town life in the state.

The University of Tennessee’s College of Communications instituted the Tom Siler Scholarship in his memory.