Derr’s New Book Is By Far His Best
John Derr’s memory bank is a cornucopia of delightful, human tales that have spilled forth from his superb lectures and writings delivered over many decades.
There are millions and millions of nonagenarians roaming about who remember way back when. But there is only the one-in-a-billion John Derr, who tells with exquisite clarity those marvelous snippets about persons who touched his life sometime in the last 85 years or so.
John will tell you in minute detail his meeting with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone when he was 10-years-old during Calvin Coolidge’s presidency and tell it as if it happened only yesterday. Derr’s unequaled recall is a joy to behold.
Many folks here in North Carolina have been fortunate enough to attend one of Derr’s pleasurable talks. They always come away much richer for the experience of knowing a little something they never knew before about Albert Einstein, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Mahatma Gandhi, Babe Ruth, Red Barber and Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and, going way back, Hoover.
Derr’s recollections include thoughts of many more world famous athletes as well as world leaders he met and knew while plying each of the three primary forms of journalism. He was a reporter and editor on newspapers here in North Carolina prior to World War II and a sports announcer and producer on CBS radio and CBS television out of New York City following the war.
He began gathering his associations with the famous of politics, science, industry, religion and sports here in Derr’s native North Carolina in the 1920s. This continued in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II and became a lifelong job when he was the director of CBS sports in post-war New York City, where he earned world acclaim as a multi-talented sports reporter, analyst and television producer and announcer.
John Derr has lived in retirement in Pinehurst for a number of years. But, like any writer with a wonderful memory, he could not stop pecking away at the old typewriter or computer. The result has been three books, the latest of which is by far the very best Derr has produced.
“My Place at the Table” is a work of journalistic artistry that takes you back well before World War II with a reporter who first covered the Masters Tournament in 1935, the year of the second Masters and the year Gene Sarazen won because of his double eagle on hole No. 15. This easy reading book of associations made on golf courses and elsewhere is available at Tom Stewart’s Old Sport & Gallery in Pinehurst and will be in other stores and outlets before Labor Day.
Read how John Derr employed the Rev. Billy Graham as a messenger to a Vice President of the United States and how the Galloping Ghost and Mr. Outside made a movie with John Derr called “The Referee,” with Derr playing the title roll. You will also learn something about a kinder and gentler Sammy Snead.
Take a stroll down a lengthy memory lane with John Derr and one meets up with Bobby Jones, the golfer, and Robert Trent Jones, the architect, while also getting to know something more about Jack Dempsey.
I have known John Derr since we began our New York-based careers shortly after World War II. Our paths naturally crossed during assignments covering major league baseball, golf, college and pro football, horse racing and college and pro basketball.
But my favorite story in “My Place at the Table” pre-dates our friendship by a few years as it is John Derr’s rendition of his dangerous voyage from New York City to India in the summer of 1943. I have a special interest in this chapter, because had I been born six or seven months earlier, my friendship with John Derr might have gone back to that treacherous journey through the U boat-infested North and South Atlantic.
Those German submarines and their mad paper hanger dictator were champing at the bit to get our biggest and fastest troop transport, the USS West Point, which took Sgt. John Derr on that journey along with a few thousand other members of the 89th Fighter Squadron of the Army Air Corps.
The USS West Point, painted a camouflage gray and thus known affectionately by its crew and less affectionately by those who chased her as “The Gray Ghost,” was the converted luxury liner, the SS America. Her top speed of 23 knots is the primary reason she kept safe from U-boat attack throughout the war, including the trip John took to an eventual assignment on the personal staff of Gen. Joseph Stilwell. As a result, you will meet Gen. Stilwell in the pages of Derr’s new book.
But it took John Derr to turn the dangers of this voyage to India into a humorous adventure, complete with his stripping naked in order to impersonate an officer.
My special interest in this episode stems from the fact that a year after John’s voyage to India, I joined the Navy crew aboard the USS West Point as a very green, 17-year-old quartermaster and served on The Gray Ghost until she was decommissioned in February of 1946 and eventually reconverted to the magnificent North Atlantic luxury liner, SS America.
One year older and I might have been on the West Point in 1943 and run into John Derr out there on the high seas, the biggest water hazard either one of us ever played over.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
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