By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
DES MOINES, Iowa, June 15, 2016 — My fellow Vanderbilt University alumnus Andrew Maraniss, of Nashville, who has quickly become one of the best new sports authors working in the U.S., speaks Sunday late afternoon at the fourth “Wonder of Words” literary festival at the Western Gateway Park downtown in Iowa’s capital city.
The story Maraniss will be talking about is his New York Times Best Seller “Strong Inside — Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South.” Wallace, a year behind me at Vanderbilt in the late 1960s, “broke the color line,” as it was said back then, when he signed with Vandy and became the first African American athlete in the vaunted Southeastern Conference. That immediately made him one of the youngest and yet very significant figures in the Civil Rights Movement that was reshaping American life.
Despite horrific treatment in some southern basketball arenas, and despite often feeling social isolation on the campus, Wallace put together an all-conference basketball career while becoming an honors graduate in engineering at Vanderbilt. He had a brief turn in the NBA, then earned a law degree, and has spent the rest of his working life in law and education. Now 68, he is still teaching at the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington, D.C.
It is an inspiring and captivating story that Maraniss has told. He used impressive in-depth reporting, thoughtful context-building, skillful scene-setting, and easy-reading writing. You’re going to be hearing much more about it in the next year, as it is the subject of a movie-length documentary “Triumph” that is being completed now by Emmy-winning sports documentary maker Rich Gentile, of Chicago. That is scheduled for national release next February.
Perry Wallace, who made history as a basketball player at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, is now a law professor in Washington, D.C. His inspiring story is told in the book “Strong Inside,” which author Andrew Maraniss will be discussing in a talk this coming Sunday, June 19, at the “Wonder of Words” literary festival in Des Moines. (Nashville Tennessean photo.)
Full disclosure: I appear in both the book and the documentary, adding the perspective I had on the Perry Wallace story as a reporter and then in 1968 editor-in-chief of the Vanderbilt student newspaper, the Hustler. I’ve already written a very favorable review of the book, and you can get that by clicking here.
Maraniss is the wind-up speaker at the festival in Des Moines on Sunday, scheduled for 4:30 on the Main Stage. Speaking there before him on Saturday and Sunday is an impressive line-up of authors who’ve written on a wide variety of topics, some with local and state followings, and others who are nationally known. Some of the speakers will be in adjacent indoor venues, too.
The “Wonder of Words” festival is produced by the Downtown Community Alliance, with major backing of leading Des Moines-area businesses and institutions. You can get all the details, including schedules of speakers, other literary activities and entertainment by clicking here.
Since this festival honors the craft of storytelling and writing, there are three parts of Andrew Maraniss’ own story I think you need to know.
First, his personal background. His family name Maraniss probably seems familiar. That’s likely because his father David Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author who has spent much of his career with the Washington Post. He has also done acclaimed biographies or profiles of President Bill Clinton, Roberto Clemente, Vince Lombardi, Vice-President Al Gore, President Barack Obama, the 1960 summer Olympics, America’s 1967 war experience in Vietnam, and, most recently, “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story.”
I am probably one of the few people who read son Andrew Maraniss’ work before I started reading that of his dad. Now, as I am reading David’s “Detroit” book, it is like finding the ol’ block that produced the chip, you know? The detailed reporting, the development of the story, the flow of the writing. Maybe it’s been taught. But maybe it’s genetic, too.
“I was born in Madison, Wisconsin,” said Andrew, identifying that city as the home base for the Maraniss clan. “My grandfather Elliott Maraniss was editor of the Capital Times in Madison from the 1960s to the early ’80s, and my grandmother Mary Maraniss was an editor for the University of Wisconsin Press back then. And I guess we can take this back another generation. My great-grandfather Joseph Maraniss, whom I never saw, was a printer in Boston. He was not a writer, as far as we know, but he probably did have ink in his veins.”
Andrew “grew up mostly in Washington, D.C.,” with his father at the Post,” but he spent his high school years in Austin, Texas, when David ran the Post’s southwestern news bureau there in the mid to late 1980s. Andrew developed a love of sportswriting and won Vanderbilt’s full-ride “Grantland Rice-Fred Russell Memorial Scholarship,” one of which is awarded each year to a high school senior who is “a promising sportswriter.” Rice and Russell were both Vandy grads, Rice becoming one of America’s most heralded sportswriters in the first half of the 1900s and Russell gaining regional fame as sports editor of the Nashville Banner for nearly 50 years. That scholarship, by the way, has produced so many professional sportswriters that Vanderbilt has become nicknamed “Sportswriter U.”
Author Andrew Maraniss, of Nashville, who will be speaking this Sunday in Des Moines. (From the Internet site http://andrewmaraniss.com/.)
A second fascinating part of Andrew Maraniss’ own story is how he came to write the book on Perry Wallace. Young Maraniss enrolled at Vanderbilt in the fall of 1988 and, “like almost everybody does, there were times I wondered if the things I was studying in college would make any difference later in my life. In my case, something I did in college wound up completely changing my life later.”
In 1989, his sophomore year, he took a course in African American history. He had to do a term paper and, with his interest in sports, he had learned a little about the Wallace story. But it’d been nearly 20 years since Wallace graduated, in 1970; the former Vanderbilt star had never been back on campus, and his story was fading as most stories eventually do. Maraniss called Wallace, who was living then in Baltimore, Maryland, set up a couple of phone interviews, and did well on his term paper. And Maraniss never got over the story about how Wallace had been such a game-changer for Vanderbilt, for the SEC and for the South.
“I was 19 years old when I wrote that term paper about Perry Wallace,” he said. “Now I’m 46 years old, and I’m still writing about Perry Wallace.”
Wallace had grown up in Nashville, was an All-American basketball player and valedictorian of his graduating class at all-black Pearl High School, and chose Vanderbilt from a big field of universities that wanted to sign him — including Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Purdue in the Big Ten. In the book, he tells of visiting the University of Iowa in the 1965-’66 school year with two prized other recruits — one a football player and the other another basketball player. They were welcomed by the Hawkeye pep band, paraded around Iowa City and had their photo taken with Iowa Governor Harold Hughes.
“Perry liked Iowa, but of all the Big Ten schools he visited, the one he came closest to attending was Purdue and that was because of its engineering program,” Maraniss said.
The third part of Maraniss’ story that is intriguing is how he eventually came back to the Wallace story, wrote “Strong Inside” and where that’s now leading him.
After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1992, Maraniss worked five years in media relations for the university’s athletics department, joined the new Tampa Bay Rays baseball team as information director for a year, then in 1998 took a job with the Nashville public relations firm McNeely Pigott & Fox. In 18 years there, he became a partner.
Along life’s way, he still carried a love of sportswriting, particularly long-form, and he began thinking about writing a book. In a kitchen table conversation at the home of his future in-laws in 2006, he was talking about that, saying he was unsettled on a topic. His father-in-law to-be Doug Williams said, “What about Perry Wallace?”
Within days, Maraniss started making phone calls, setting up interviews, and eventually he did dozens of them. Eight long years later, the book was released, in December, 2014.
This photo was taken when the book “Strong Inside” was introduced to Vanderbilt fans in Memorial Gymnasium. Standing in the center are David Williams, Vanderbilt’s director of athletics; Perry Wallace, whose Vanderbilt jersey hangs from the rafters, and Andrew Maraniss, author of the book. (Vanderbilt University photo.)
How soon did the first-time author realize that his new book was a hit?
“The first clue that I had was when I got a phone call from Karl Dean, who was then the mayor of Nashville,” said Maraniss. “He said he’d already read the book and he wanted to do a Q&A with me about the book at the launch party at Parnassus Books, which is an independent bookstore in Nashville that is very popular. That gave the book some instant credibility on the local level. Then fairly quickly, I got an invitation from Keith Olbermann at ESPN and from Chuck Todd at ‘Meet the Press’ to talk about the book on their national shows. That told me that people were recognizing Perry Wallace as a legitimate figure in the history of the Civil Rights Movement in this country.”
Book chats, lectures and signings have now taken Maraniss — and sometimes Wallace, too — to 15 states, from Tennessee to New York, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Wisconsin, Illinois and this weekend Iowa.
Has the relatively sudden recognition of, and appreciation for, his experience and story had much of an impact on Perry Wallace?
“I wouldn’t say it’s changed Perry,” Maraniss said. “He’s such an incredible person. He is who he is, and he’s very comfortable with that. But I do know he is extremely pleased with the book because he’s a teacher, remember. He loves seeing how the book is helping people learn about the Civil Rights Movement, and about how that impacted sports in the South.”
The impact of the book’s success on Maraniss himself has been significant, too.
“Beginning this past February, I left the public relations firm, despite the fact that I was always happy there and they treated me really well,” he said. “But going through the process of writing the book, seeing it published and having some success with it, all that made me realize that writing is what I truly love to do. You always hear when you’re going through career counseling that you should do what you love to do, so that’s what I am doing now.”
He has signed on as a regular contributor to “The Undefeated,” an ESPN website focused on news and commentary about sports, race and culture in the U.S. And he has also become a writer and commentator for the Nashville Tennessean media company.
“I do some work from home, but more of it either on the road or at a public library about two miles from our house,” Maraniss said. “With the little kids we have, about the time I start working seriously on a story at home, I’m liable to have a bowl of cereal spilled on my laptop.”
Author Andrew Maraniss with a video clip from a late 1960s Vanderbilt basketball game featuring Perry Wallace. (From the Internet site http://andrewmaraniss.com/.)
In my view, as an old alumnus, one of the neatest things that has happened with the book is that this summer, all members of the entering freshman class at Vanderbilt are being required to read “Strong Inside” before they arrive on campus. Their Vandy careers will begin in a couple months with discussions of the Perry Wallace story and how it changed life at the university — and well beyond it.
“I’m incredibly proud of that,” said Maraniss. “I’m thrilled that the new students are going to learn about Perry Wallace. He is a figure that anyone associated with Vanderbilt or Nashville should know about, and yet his story was almost unknown for so long.
“But from a personal standpoint, it is kind of a weird feeling, thinking that Vanderbilt freshmen are going to be reading my book and have discussions about it. I say that because I remember so well what I was like when I was a freshman. I mean, the first article I wrote for the Hustler that fall was a round-up of all the crazy things that people up and down my freshman dorm’s hallway were doing.
“We ran a slip-and-slide the full length of the hallway, soaked it with water and were running and diving on it,” Maraniss continued. “We were also playing wiffle ball in that hallway. And we went out and bought one of those inflatable movie screens and watched movies all night long. Our Resident Advisor in the dorm finally rounded us all up, took us into a TV lounge and said, ‘O.K., boys, this crap has got to stop, now!’ I thought for a moment I might be getting kicked out of Vanderbilt before I’d attended my first class.
“That’s what I was doing as a freshman. And now the freshmen are reading a book by me? That’s crazy! But I’m sure glad they are.”
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.