A Place at the Table - and in History
BY KAY GRISMER
Special to The Pilot
"Fibbing? Fibbing!!" John Derr exclaimed to his sister after she confessed she had gone up to Bing Crosby at a Masters Tournament and asked if he knew Derr.
"Well," she responded, "you're always talking about these people you know, and I never knew if you were fibbing or not."
The number of sports legends, radio and television personalities, and political figures who have called John Derr "my friend" is almost impossible to believe - Richard Tufts, Red Barber, Sam Snead, Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, President Dwight Eisenhower, Arthur Godfrey, Mahatma Gandhi and Bob Jones ("Bobby Jones was known to his friends simply as Bob," Derr says. "If you ever encounter someone who tells you he was a good friend of Bobby Jones, look with askance on that friendship.")
Anyone who has had the pleasure of spending time with 93-year-old Derr has heard some remarkable stories from his days with CBS Sports broadcasting the Masters or during his tenure as the first executive director the World Golf Hall of Fame and executive director the Carolinas PGA.
Encouraged by his daughter, Cricket Gentry, John Derr put some of those legendary moments in his book, "My Place at the Table," which he will share on Thursday, Dec. 2, at 4 p.m. at The Country Bookshop on Broad Street in Southern Pines.
As remarkable as these stories may be, what may be even more remarkable is how Derr went from being the very young sports editor of The Gastonia Gazette to one of broadcasting's most respected sports journalists.
John Derr was born in 1917 in Dallas, in Gaston County. His father was a rural mail carrier who wore out 21 Model T and Model A Fords delivering mail for 26 years on the country roads in the northern part of the county.
"My father was a well-traveled, self-educated man," Derr says. "He read a great deal, and I thought he knew more about more interesting subjects than anyone I ever met. His curiosity for knowledge was well-known in our area."
One day Derr's father introduced his 10-year-old son to three visitors: Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison. Ford had heard that cottonseed oil might have an additional use in the preparation of a lubricant for automobiles. Firestone wanted to know about experiments farmers were making with different strands of cotton replicating Egyptian cotton used in tires. Edison was just along for the ride from Florida back to New Jersey. He didn't mention that Derr's house didn't yet have electricity.
In 1934, 17-year-old Derr, sports editor for The Gastonia Gazette, met O.B. Keeler, the Atlanta sportswriter and friend of Bobby Jones, in the press box at a Duke-Georgia Tech football game.
"We had a tournament at Bobby Jones' course, you ought to come down, it's a great tournament," he said to Derr.
"I didn't think much about it," Derr recalls. "When April rolled around, we had a cotton broker in Gastonia who said he was going down to Augusta for the golf tournament and asked if I wanted to ride down with him. I didn't know there was such a thing as a press badge. I paid my two dollars and bought a ticket."
There Keeler introduced him to Grantland Rice, the best known sports writer of the era, who in turn introduced him to "Mr. Jones."
"Bobby more or less took me under his wing as a friend of O.B.'s from that day."
Derr was on the clubhouse balcony the afternoon of the final round.
"Press used to be up there, and they dropped their stories down on a string to the Western Union operator," Derr explains. "The son of a caddie came running up and told somebody downstairs that 'Mr. Gene had a 2 on 15.' That was my claim to fame: I was there that day and didn't see Gene Sarazen's double-eagle."
That tournament, the second in what came to be called the Masters, was the first of 62 that Derr covered over the next four decades.
Derr didn't have money for college, but he knew he needed more education. With the agreement of The Gazette, he asked the football coach of Belmont Abbey College if, in addition to his job at the paper, he could become sports information director in exchange for classes as a non-enrolled student. For three years, the head of the English department coached Derr.
"All the while I was flooding the area media outlets with stories about Coach Wheeler's Red Crusaders," he says. "Never did I have to sit in class. Never did I have to compete with my peers, and never did I have to worry about term papers or graduating."
In 1938, when Derr was working at The Greensboro Daily News, he became a victim of exhaustion and was ordered to rest. Pinehurst's Richard Tufts noticed his absence from the sports page and called the newspaper to suggest he be brought to the Carolina Hotel for his rehab. Tufts wouldn't let Derr return to work until he had recovered enough to play No. 2.
Derr was 25 years old in 1943 when the Army Air Corps called him to war. He and 2,000 other soldiers sailed on the USS West Point, converted from the SS America, the nation's largest and fastest luxury liner - destination unknown. Twenty-seven days later, the ship arrived in Calcutta. Within hours of their landing, Japanese planes made their one and only raid on the Indian port.
The final leg of Derr's journey took him to New Delhi,ma-India theater commander, Lt. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell. There he wrote a sports column for the CBI Roundup, the weekly theater newspaper, and broadcast a weekly show over All-India Radio, the BBC's Far Eastern outlet for Asia. Fellow North Carolinian Buddy Lewis, a third baseman with the Washington Senators before and after the war, served as a USAAF pilot flying a C-47 transport.
"He was stationed in an airbase in southern China across very high mountains from New Delhi," Derr recalls. "He would get into his plane and fly high enough so he could receive my broadcast each week. Then he would return to base and inform his buddies just what was going on in sports back home."
In the print shop where the CBI Roundup was published, Derr met 40-year-old Devadas Gandhi, a staff member of The Statesman, the only daily in New Delhi printed in English.
"Devadas and I became good friends and one day he asked if I would like to go with him to meet his father," says Derr. "Gandhi is a very common name in India and originally meant shopkeeper or merchant. After three weeks, I was startled to learn that the father of Devadas Gandhi was Mohandas, known affectionately as the Mahatma."
Over the next few years, Derr was welcomed under Gandhi's roof as "a friend of his son, not as an American soldier or a reporter, but as a true and trusted friend of the youngest Gandhi son."
As a morale boost to the troops who felt out of touch with their homeland, Gen. Sitwell sent Derr 16,500 miles back to the States to report the 1944 World Series.
"A wartime series wouldn't be much," Derr acknowledged, "but all around the world the American troops would be interested." Time magazine called it the "longest sports assignment in history - from New Delhi to St. Louis and return."
Because of the Time story, sportscaster Red Barber invited Derr to be interviewed on his pre-game on the Mutual network, broadcast from the press room of the St. Louis Cardinals. Two years later Barber invited the returning vet to write for his "sports magazine of the air," to be broadcast on CBS.
Thus began John Derr's long association with CBS, as did hundreds of friendships.
For information about the Meet the Author event, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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