Pillars of the FWAA: Bill Lumpkin (1928-), Birmingham Post-Herald

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 14th installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series. Bill Lumpkin was the 1997 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

By Gene Duffey

Bill Lumpkin learned early in his career that working for a newspaper would not make him rich. He started working for the Birmingham Post at age 15 for $16.50 a week, including overtime. And then, while a student at Alabama and stringing for the Post, he was asked to cover the opening of a rubber plant in Tuscaloosa.

It cost Lumpkin 20 cents to ride the bus to the rubber plant and back, plus 5 cents to buy the newspaper the next day. The Post paid him 5 cents an inch. After he turned in a 15-inch story on the rubber plant, the paper ran only two. He lost money on the deal.

Bill Lumpkin, 1997 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

Bill Lumpkin, 1997 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

Lumpkin’s mother, Clara, worked at the Post, first as a switchboard operator and later in the business office.

“You’re not going to sit on your butt all summer and play softball,” Clara told her son in the spring of 1944. “Get down to the paper. They’re looking for an office boy.”

Bill began as a copy boy. His duties included calling the weather bureau and writing two paragraphs for the front page. “I couldn’t put a sentence together,” he said. Later he started writing a radio column called “Timely Tips for Nightly Dial Twisters,” which amounted to pasting up the releases that the radio stations mailed to the paper. He also filled paste pots, went out for coffee, ran copy to the composing room and did other “go-fer” jobs.

Oddly, Lumpkin also had a paper route, delivering the competition, the Birmingham News. “I don’t know if they knew,” he said of his bosses at the Post. “They probably didn’t care.”

Lumpkin loved sports and spent any free time at work hanging around the sports desk, answering the phone. One day he turned around right into one of Jack Dempsey’s fists. The former heavyweight champion and Post sports editor Naylor Stone were friends. Dempsey was in town to referee a wrestling match.

Stone began sending Lumpkin to cover the high school basketball games on Friday nights at City Auditorium when Lumpkin was only 16 and still a student at Ensley High School. “They made me a cub reporter,” he said.

Eventually Lumpkin began writing a bowling column, titled “Tin, Pan, Alley,” and a fishing column called “Hook, Line and Sinker.”  His favorite was writing a column in the summers on American Legion baseball. He continued working as a correspondent for the paper after enrolling at Alabama.

Lumpkin interviewed every Crimson Tide football coach from Wade Wallace (after he had retired) to Frank Thomas to Mike Shula. Bear Bryant, of course, was the most famous.

“Coach Bryant was tough to deal with for a reporter,” said Lumpkin.  “You couldn’t talk to his players until their senior year at a bowl game. He didn’t open his locker room until 1969. He kept the locker room closed so long, by the time you got in the players would be gone. But he was very accessible.”

A new paper, the Tuscaloosa Sun, debuted in 1950. Lumpkin, while still in college, was hired as sports editor. He had a terrible time making his 8 a.m. journalism class because he worked so late at the paper. Finally, he reached an agreement with his teacher.

“We’ll take the paper and grade you on what you write,” the teacher said. Lumpkin no longer had to attend class.

But the Sun set quickly. The building caught on fire and burned, going out of business after only three months.

Lumpkin, after graduating from Alabama in 1950, served in the Korean War until 1953. After being discharged from the service he took a job as a police reporter at the Augusta Chronicle for three years.

“Mr. Stone called and said I want you to come back,” said Lumpkin.  “When I retire, I’ll recommend you for my job.”

He was the fourth man on a five-man staff in Birmingham (covering county high school football) and didn’t honestly expect to succeed Stone.  Meanwhile, Augusta called and offered him the city editor’s job on the P.M. Herald or managing editor on the morning paper, Chronicle. However, Stone had developed cancer and Lumpkin didn’t want to leave him.

After Stone died, Lumpkin told the boss that he was going to Augusta.

“’We’re going to name you sports editor,’” the editor told Lumpkin. “I was 31.”

That was 1959. Lumpkin began writing a column in 1961. He retired 33 years later in 1994, after winning 80 national and state writing awards. He returned to write a once-a-week column and occasional features until the Post-Herald folded in 2002.

The paper, which once had a circulation of 100,000, was selling only 8,000 a day at the end. “It was like family,” Lumpkin said of the demise of the newspaper. “You knew everybody.”

He served as President of the FWAA in 1993. While President, he pushed for a dues hike that finally made the association solvent and annual trips to the CoSIDA Convention by the association. He helped develop the idea for the FWAA Defensive Player of the Year Award, whose first winner was named in 1993 and two years later assumed Bronko Nagurski, the legendary Minnesota player, as its namesake.