‘He wanted to report the games and the people involved’
By Tom Mattingly
During Ben Byrd’s career at the Knoxville Journal and in his other published works, there were precious few wasted words. He made his point clearly and moved on. He was a tenacious defender of the King’s English.
When Ben was the recipient of the 2016 “Thanks for the Memories” award from the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame, these were the 14 carefully chosen words submitted by his family that established the storyline for his life and career.
Nurturing Father and Grandfather.
Ben now belongs to the ages, having died Sept. 12, 2016, but those words defined his life.
In March 1942, at age 17, he joined the U.S. Navy following Pearl Harbor and spent most of World War II aboard the USS Borum (DE-790), a Buckley-class destroyer escort. The Borum helped protect convoys carrying troops and supplies from Britain to the Normandy beachhead during the D-Day Invasion in June 1944.
“There was no place on earth I would rather have been on that day,” he said.
He piloted the USS Borum as it blockaded the Channel Islands and assisted British forces in their occupation of the Islands.
“The Borum had the distinction of being among the first ships in the invasion area and the last to leave,” he wrote in a June 5, 1984, column. “One by one the others departed, but our ship and our sister ship, the USS Maloy, stayed.
“During the fall and winter of 1944-45, we moved around the Cherbourg peninsula to patrol the Channel Islands of Alderney, Guerney, and Jersey, British territory which remained in German hands until the end of the war. Peace came to Europe May 8, 1945. On June 6, exactly a year after D-Day, we pulled up one last time off the coast of Omaha Beach. With our little three-inch guns, we fired a salute to the men who had gone there with us and had stayed forever.
“And then we turned toward the west, and home.”
He signed on with the Journal in 1947, staying until the paper’s last issue, Dec. 31, 1991. Many Knoxvillians didn’t have their early morning coffee until the Journal arrived, and they found Ben’s daily column, Byrd’s Eye View, or searched for his coverage of a Vol sporting event.
When the Journal became Knoxville’s afternoon paper in 1986, his writings were still anxiously awaited, especially his “Free Thought Association” feature that purported to predict the winners of college football games each Saturday.
He found time to author three books, biographies of Archie Campbell and John Majors, and a history of the University of Tennessee basketball program. He also shared billing with cartoonist Charlie Daniel on a book of Daniel cartoons titled, “UT Football Cartoons by Daniel, with some free thoughts by Ben Byrd.” He won national awards for his writings and was honored by Congressman Jimmy Duncan in the April 15, 2010, Congressional Record.
When Belmont College, coached by Ben’s son, Rick, came to Thompson-Boling Arena for a game against Tennessee, Ben sat on press row, watching intently. The game was still in question down the stretch, and the television people had a camera on Ben as play progressed.
Sitting there with the media, Ben couldn’t cheer or show outward emotion, but the cameras occasionally showed a grimace when things weren’t going so well or a quick smile when things were. Ben had covered a number of exciting finishes, but watching his son coach in a tight game, against Tennessee or anybody else, had to have been something special.
“There were the personal attributes, fairness, decency, humility, more than anything, that I remember,” said Rick. “He never cared about credit or recognition. He wasn’t interested in being a rabble-rouser or stirring things up. He wanted to report the games and the people involved. It was a different world back then.”
He also found time to support events in the community, particularly the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley and its major yearly fundraiser, the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame.
“My work has also brought me into close contact with coaches, players, officials and other citizens of the world of sports,” he wrote in the Journal’s final edition. “Again, they are too numerous to name, but to say that they have enriched my life is an understatement.
“Sports is an enchanted land through which the little boy or girl who lives inside all of us loves to wander, but too many of us too often forget that winning and losing are not life or death.
“Rudyard Kipling told us to meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same, but then old Rudyard never attended a football game at Neyland Stadium.”
“Perhaps the most important lesson he taught was the value of loving other people,” said daughter Kathy Byrd. “He once told his granddaughter that she will learn that the more people who love you and the more people who you love, the better off you are. He taught that in the way he lived and interacted with his family, friends, and even strangers.”
No one knows exactly how many University of Tennessee games Ben Byrd covered at Shields-Watkins Field/Neyland Stadium, Thompson-Boling Arena, and elsewhere, but he told each story as few others could. When the next history of Tennessee athletics is written, his name belongs on page 1 and throughout the narrative.