Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Silent Toast to a True Texan

As occurs each Texas Independence Day I drank a silent toast to Sam Malone on March 2. Not the fellow on “Cheers” but the real Sam Malone, as we called him back in the day. Sam was the archetypal country newspaper editor with a bottle of cheap whiskey (Evan Williams preferred) in his desk drawer, a loaded shotgun in the corner of his office, and a foul-smelling cigar constantly lit.

Sam was born on Texas Independence Day in 1920 and died in 2000 just a few weeks short of turning 80. He packed a lot of miles into those 79-plus years, all of it spent in newspapering from West Texas to Deep East Texas. His dad, Big Sam Malone, taught him as a kid how to set type back when a newspaper page was created literally one metal letter at a time placed inside a frame. You see the wooden typecases for sale at antique shops and bazaars. People buy them to hang on the wall and fill with knick-knacks.

He was particularly proud of his birthdate, which he shared with Sam Houston — along with the aforementioned fondness for whiskey. That confluence of events all occurring on March 2 explains Sam’s love for Texas history. He devoted untold hours to reading about it, reprinted a couple dozen arcane titles of Texana in his print shop, and infected me with the same fascination.

I first heard of Sam in the late 1970s, when Texas Monthly writer Richard West featured him in a story about San Augustine, in Deep East Texas, where Sam had founded a feisty weekly called The Rambler. West recounted how Sam took on the entire school board in his paper and managed to get a reform slate of candidates elected. A losing member cold-cocked him with her purse, an event that Sam duly recounted in the following issue.

A few years later I was quickly going insane working as a bureaucrat for the state in Austin. On a whim I called Sam Malone and asked if he needed any help. He told me he had sold the newspaper but the new owners were looking for a managing editor. A few weeks later we were driving a U-Haul to San Augustine. Several months after that I ended up buying the paper and stayed five years. Sam owned the building and still ran the print shop next door. Thus began a friendship that lasted until his death, more than a decade after I had left San Augustine.

For a few years I leased the public access channel from the cable company in vain hopes of making some extra bucks. There were two weekly newspapers in a town of 3,000, so making a living was tough. Sam conjured up the idea of us producing a weekly 30-minute show on Texas history, especially since the state was in 1986 celebrating its sesquicentennial. So every Wednesday afternoon at 3:30 we would sit behind his desk, piled high with papers, cigar ashes everywhere and Ventilator the Cat usually perched on the chairback behind Sam’s skull. We each held coffee cups. I tried to keep mine from clinking since both contained ice cubes, Evan Williams whiskey cut with tap water. Sam didn’t care whether his clinked or not.

Rambler Channel 2 was almost certainly one of the worst-produced cable-access stations in the state’s history. A video camera was propped in the corner, and Sam’s ancient mike was held together with duct tape. (He also did a morning radio show each day for 15 minutes.) We rebroadcast the Wolves’ football games each Saturday morning, using the grainy tape shot by the coaches in the pressbox. Sam would do the play-by-play, and I was the “color” commentator. Sam actually knew what he was doing, having covered football since the Giper suited up for Knute Rockne. On the other hand, I didn’t know a tackle from a guard, a tight end from a wide receiver. I still don’t.

But I learned a lot of Texas history in those weekly shows, enough to actually get a modest book published a few years back on a small slice of East Texas’ past. I wish Sam had been around for that event.

Texas celebrated 175 years since independence on March 2. I toasted a glass of whiskey in Sam’s memory after work, though it wasn’t Evan Williams. I never could develop a taste for that stuff.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), March 3, 2011.

1 comment:

  1. I sure do miss Grandpa Sam. I remember the day I was at the Rambler and crying because I'd lost the sheet of stickers that came with my sticker album. He took me to the big advertising books and let me pick out my favorite images, and he cut them out with an Exacto knife and glued them into my book for me.