Dan Jenkins – great character, great writer, great book

Dan Jenkins, Fort Worth’s most famous author and one of America’s greatest sportswriters ever, has a screw loose.

So misguided was he as a youth he’s the only Texas boy who never wanted a pony.

Wait. The story gets worse. His first real love affair was with a Royal typewriter, which he chose over a golf club in order to chip and putt his way toward a career in journalism.

These stories are documented in his latest book, His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir, the title a nod to his best selling 1972 novel Semi-Tough, which was made into a hit movie.

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Readers of Jenkins’ work – the new book is his 21st – expect to laugh over and over again on every page. His Ownself is no exception, but it is different from the others in one respect: Dan Jenkins personally inhabits every page, a situation that is unavoidable when writing about oneself. Jenkins, who has always made a point of keeping himself out of his stories, is fond of wryly telling interviewers these days that he found it difficult to keep himself out of the story of his life.

He unavoidably landed himself a starring role in this one and so he lets you know how one day he was living on Travis Avenue with his grandparents who raised him and the next he was living the high life in a penthouse in Manhattan – just like that. Well, sort of …

Jenkins had a secret weapon for success and here it is.

He became famous and made some dough along the way and he did it the old-fashioned way, with hard work and ambition. It helped that he had an ear for well-turned, even wacky Texas phrases, the memory to catalogue them, and the ability to get them down on paper.

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It also helped that he was a little wacky in his own right and knew how to appreciate the absurd. He saw the world and its strange characters through prose-colored glasses, in 3-D.

You do have to wonder about the mental state of a TCU golfer who turned down an offer from the great Ben Hogan to personally help him sharpen his game and perhaps reach a nationally competitive level by studying at the elbow of the man many consider the best ever to pick up a club – because he wanted to be a sportswriter!

Jenkins loved golf, loved it so much, if you want to hear another crazy story, that he listened to golf tournaments on the radio. This dude’s nuts.

But Jenkins had ambition and a plan to become a journalist. The old fashioned, wisecracking and hard-bitten newspapermen he saw in movies were intriguing figures to him. They were the stars.

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He combined his dreams and goals with a work ethic that was hard to match, threw them all in his golf bag, slung it over his shoulder and marched his way to the pinnacle of journalism and writing success.

He had a plan and when opportunity knocked he answered the door and walked on in. He first did it in high school, going to work as a teenager for the Fort Worth Press. After working there through college he became the paper’s sports editor before he was 30. Then he followed his mentor and an idol, Blackie Sherrod, to the Dallas Times Herald. Even though Jenkins was part of a group at the Fort Worth Press that was perhaps the greatest collection of writers ever assembled in one sports department, you have to pause while pondering his success: Every paper he worked for went broke.

Eventually, Sports Illustrated beckoned and he moved his wife, June, and three young children to New York. He wrote for Playboy along the way and still writes for Golf Digest, where he’s been for 28 years.

He recently told the editor of Texas Monthly that while at Sports Illustrated his colleagues, many of them Ivy League men, wrote a story or two a year. He wrote 30 to 40.

Someone should have told him that those ol’ Ivy League boys were an easy mark. They waste a lot of time. Most get out of the shower to pee.

Jenkins and June traveled the world, stayed in posh hotels, had the big company expense accounts and hung out with celebrities in famous New York bars and restaurants such as P.J. Clarke’s, Elaine’s and Toots Shor’s.

Flying high like this, Jenkins could have become lost in the clouds of illusion about fame and success but he didn’t. His feet remained firmly planted in his Travis Avenue roots and he kept his head on high and straight, as opposed to backwards and up his … well, down near his back pockets.

He’s the real deal, all hat and all cattle. Red beans and rice. Hold the foie gras.

Being humble, approachable, funny and loyal, and taking his work but not himself seriously, he became friends and a golfing partner with the likes of George H. W. Bush, 41st president of the United States. He was a guest at Camp David twice and played golf with Bush at his summer retreat in Maine.

Jerks don’t get to do that nor do they get to become best friends with Broadway and Hollywood producers such as the irascible David Merrick, who liked Jenkins so much he offered to pay the tuition for Dan’s daughter Sally at Stanford University. Jenkins declined.

Sally Jenkins is now a sports columnist for The Washington Post and her work often appears in the Business Press. She is a first class writer and reporter. And what better honor can a parent receive, what better validation of a life’s work, than to have a child follow in his professional footsteps?

None. Not best-selling books, movie deals, or even the occasional Hall of Fame induction.

Every schoolchild in Fort Worth should be given a copy of His Ownself to learn how to succeed in life, as a professional and as a person. The young folks will learn Fort Worth history along the way. The mayor should give every visiting dignitary a copy of the book. An endowed chair in journalism should be established in Jenkins’ name.

TCU’s journalistic guru Bob Schieffer is a fine person and an excellent newsman and interviewer but the best journalist to ever come out of Fort Worth is Dan Jenkins.

If the schoolkids and others don’t read this book they won’t be able to laugh nonstop for 29 chapters and they will miss out on important insights into the meaning of life to be found in the words and wisdom His Ownself serves up – such as the eternal question posed to Jenkins by Hubert of West Texas as he sat idly at the TCU Drug:

“Whur old boy gone git at?”

Decipher that one and you’ll be richer than six feet up a …..

And you will find out that you don’t have to travel far from Fort Worth to find palm trees …

And …

Well, just read the book.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at rconnor@bizpress.net