'Like 100 men have left the room': Sally Jenkins' stirring tribute to her late father Dan
Editor's Note: Dan Jenkins, the Hall of Fame golf writer and Golf Digest Writer-at-Large, died on March 7, 2019. Below is the eulogy written by daughter Sally Jenkins (also an acclaimed sports writer) for his funeral at Christ Chapel Bible Church in his native Fort Worth, Texas.
Looking at the number of people here today, and having seen the flags at half-staff at TCU and Colonial … and Dad’s picture on the front page of the papers, and on the wall of restaurants like his beloved Paris Coffee Shop, I’m reminded of what our friend and fellow sportswriter Bryan Curtis once observed when he walked around Fort Worth with our father: If you didn’t know better, you’d think Dan Jenkins was the dictator of a small banana republic.
I want to begin with some of our Dad’s own words, a sentence that is among my mother’s favorite that he ever wrote. It’s the opening to his novel Baja Oklahoma.
“The sound was born on a summer night at the old Crystal Springs Pavilion in Fort Worth, Texas, when Bob Wills and his string band were entertaining the cowboys and their ladies from 9 til Fist Fight.” … After Bob Wills, of course, along came my father’s friend Willie Nelson. And with Willie, as my father wrote, a new lie slipped into barroom dialogue. That lie was, I’ve always worn boots.”
That was the sound of our father’s writing. It had the effortless vault and jauntiness of the music he loved: classic Texas swing. It’s interesting that our father wrote every bit as well and impressively about music as he did about sports, and so much of that tunefulness slipped into his prose. Here is the beginning of his game story on perhaps the greatest college football game ever played, the 1971 meeting between Nebraska and Oklahoma:
In the land of the pickup truck and cream gravy for breakfast, down where the wind can blow through the walls of a diner and into the grieving lyrics of a country song on a jukebox—down there in dirt-kicking territory they played a football game on Thanksgiving Day that was mainly for the quarterbacks on the field and for self-styled gridiron intellectuals everywhere.
Now, I don’t want to get too grandiose. Dad once said, “I’ve fought a lifelong war against pretension.” I teased him, “I take you seriously, Dad. God knows somebody has to.” But he strove to be an important writer, and he not only became that, but I would argue he was the best and most important sports writer who ever lived—because he was one whose breakthrough style changed the direction of the river. He made the profession more honest, and more descriptive forever after. And he did so for a longer period of time than any other influential writer. He was born in 1928, had his first story published when he was still in high school. And was still tweeting at 90. Our father was a relevant voice for SEVEN decades.
Here he is on Jack Nicklaus at the 1972 British Open:
He stood against one of those sand hills, one foot halfway up the rise, a gloved hand braced on his knee and his head hung downward in monumental despair. He lingered in this pose, with what seemed like all of Scotland surrounding him, with the North Sea gleaming in the background and with the quiet broken only by the awkward, silly, faraway sound of bagpipes rehearsing for the victory ceremony. This was Jack Nicklaus on the next-to-last hole of the British Open after another putt had refused to fall. It was Nicklaus in the moment he knew, after a furious comeback, that he had finally lost the championship and what might have been the grandest slam in golf.
And here he is on Twitter in the current decade:“Only two things can stop Tiger: injury or a bad marriage.”
As Don Meredith once said of him, “What I love about Jenkins is, he takes himself funny but the games serious.” Look again at the writing of Dan Jenkins and ask yourself if it could have been as effortless to write as it is to read.
He took words dead seriously: He was a free-speech absolutist. My brother Marty reminded me of an interesting fact about our dad: He once fought a free-speech case to the steps of the Supreme Court. He had written a hilarious piece about the faded old Bon Air hotel in Augusta, Georgia, which had fallen into a certain amount of disrepair like a “disheveled old lady,” as he put it. The Bon Air sued him and Time Inc., the parent company of Sports Illustrated. Rather than settle, our father proceeded from one set of courthouses to the next. He won the case, and the wording of a decision in his favor in the U.S. Court of Appeals level summed up everything Dan Jenkins believed.
The judge wrote: “Freedom of expression must have the breathing space it needs to survive, regardless of ‘the truth, popularity or social utility’ of the statements.”
Just after our father died, we got a wonderful note from the great Tom Watson, saying something similar. “You dad made me think and laugh at the same time,” Tom said. Tom added: “In this age of political correctness, we need more like him to set our common sense straight.”
Maybe our favorite story is the time a reader accosted Dad in a bar at a golf tournament. He squinted at him and said, “Aren’t you Dan Jenkins?” He nodded. The guy said: “I’ve read some of your stuff. Man, you’ve got a problem.” Dad said, “No, you’ve got the problem. I’ve got the typewriter."
Our father took enormous pride in becoming an important writer. But he actually had a greater talent, and that was his talent for friendship. He was charm personified, and everyone wanted to know him. Actors befriended him, and so did musicians and politicians and the greatest athletes. As Mike Lupica said, “The seat next to him was the best in the house.” But he preferred the company of his fellow writers, so many of whom are here today. It’s a testament to Dad that so many of them are younger writers, like my friends from the Washington Post and Golf Digest and ESPN. You admired him, but he admired you: talented, dedicated perpetuators of the craft he loved, you kept him young and prolonged his career. You made him feel relevant and gave him a reason to stay interested.
In all of his travels, however, our father never met anyone he found as funny or interesting as his original and closest friends right here in Fort Worth, from Paschal High and TCU and the old Fort Worth Press: Jerre and Melba Todd, Don and Helen Matheson, and Bud Shrake, who were the only people who could make him laugh harder than he made others laugh.
There was one new and prominent friend, however, who did manage to seduce our dad: President George Herbert Walker Bush—41, as he signed the letters that Dad treasured.
They became golfing friends, and their shared wit and sensibility made them good enough friends that the president had our home phone number. One day the phone rang, and the housekeeper answered, and heard, “This is George Bush. Is Dan in?”
The housekeeper said, “No sir, he’s run out to Popeyes for some rice and beans.”
There was a pause, and the president said, “Of course he has.”
On another occasion, our father and President Bush played golf before joining Barbara Bush for lunch, and she began to scold them for playing at a club that didn’t admit women. For the next 45 minutes, Dan Jenkins and George Bush teasingly told Barbara Bush, “It made us very uncomfortable. But we’re trying to change the rules from within the club.”
My father’s favorite people, ultimately, were his wife and children. What’s really most remarkable about his work is the fact that he managed to produce it while lifting the family luggage, shepherding three children onto airplanes, attending school plays, paying orthodontists, and mustering college tuition. All of which he made seem effortless. His fathering style, interestingly, was not much different from his writing style: excellence disguised as ease. A foundational childhood memory my brothers and I have is the steady metallic sound of a Royal typewriter as we fell asleep, and the sound of it again in the morning. He wrote through the night.
He prized each of us equally for different gifts. It obviously gratified him that he’d given me a talent, and he told me that to leave potential unfulfilled was “a kind of sin.” He was just as delighted to see that he had given my younger brother Danny his own independent-minded, reflexive ability to see the funniest side of every event, which after all is a kind of moral philosophy. But I have to say on a serious note that we are all agreed within our family that Marty Jenkins bought my dad an extra decade of life with his devotion to him. I don’t know that there’s a higher form of character than to sensitively care for someone who is older and ailing, and do so with such regard for their dignity. My father died with the priceless knowledge that his oldest son was the best man he knew.
As for my mother, it’s a simple fact that he could have written none of it without her, because he simply wouldn’t have had the heart to. She was the beautiful and elegant collaborator who moved the pen and the keys in unseen ways. She was his most trusted reader and critic. But most importantly she gave him the gift of a deep contentment: He never had to choose between the work that he loved and the woman that he loved. They went together absolutely hand in hand.
Dan Jenkins LOVED his life—and he loved it with a headlong hedonistic pleasure that was impossible to check with a doctor’s advice. His great friend Bill Brendle, a legendary PR man for CBS, summed that up at the end of one night when they were asking for the check and thinking about how to put it on their expense accounts. Brendle told the waitress to put tomorrow’s date on the tab, because, as he said, "I spent today last night."
Dad spent today last night, and yet he managed to live to 90. Think about how much he must have loved his life to do that. As our friend Mike Lupica says, “In the annals of all civilization, back to even before the invention of scotch and Winstons, maybe the most spectacularly and wonderfully improbable 90 years of all were his.”
The only rightful thing to feel about that is gratitude. But we know that you all feel something else too. When a man like our father goes, it’s outsized loss. It’s like 100 men have left the room.