Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Farewell to a Mentor: Frank Dolson 1933-2006

(Updated on Oct. 11 with mention of the funeral service and more reaction that was sent to either Frank Fitzpatrick, who wrote the Inquirer obituary, or myself.)

By Mel Greenberg

PHILADELPHIA _ Once upon a time in the world of the old technology bad news traveled not quite so fast.

In an era before cell phones, one had to be in the house or at the office to respond to a traditional ringing tone. That sound, upon pickup, would then be followed by a voice uttering a sentence that would deliver the unfortunate message.

Things are different now.

And so it was on Sunday afternoon as I made my way around the suburbs to make a few stops before heading downtown to work the desk in the Inquirer’s sports department, that that notification of sad news began with a vibration from the Blackberry device on my belt.

In case, I missed that sensation, an alert sounded next.

As I unhooked the unit, all I could see was the sender’s name, Don Casey, a former NBA and Temple University men’s coach who now is involved with clinics, internationally.

On Friday night, Casey was cited for his efforts with a special award from the New England Basketball Hall of Fame and I first thought this transmission was a follow up report.

However, at the next red light, I was able to see the full message, which read:

Subject: Frank Dolson.

“Frank passed away Saturday night in University of Pennsylvania Hospital.”

And that’s how I first learned that a renowned sports columnist who I grew up reading, then later worked alongside, and became someone I could also call a mentor and a friend despite our years apart, was heading to his final resting place after battling cancer for the past year.

It is odd using that phrase about Frank, because "rest" for him was usually traveling somewhere else to stay on top of the sports world for future columns.

In my formative Inquirer years, I once overheard a columnist from a competing newspaper remark, “It’s pretty unnerving on the road after you’ve been out carousing all night that you return to your room at 3 a.m., next door to Frank's hotel room, and as you climb into bed, you suddenly hear from the other side of the wall, the sound of a typewriter's keys being ferociously attacked.”

In ensuing years, as computers entered our lives, we speculated whether Frank could survive that particular keyboard battle without being electrocuted in the process.

But to get serious, personally, I am one of the many who can attest that once Frank took you under his wing, you had a friend for life.

He wasn’t a mentor in the sense of aiding my written work, although he would toss some compliments now and then when we were in the same place

However, what Frank often did was take me on his circuit which enabled me to learn how to develop sources and build relationships with those who might become topics for stories.

And with Frank, one never knew what surprises lay ahead for those who were in his charge.

Once, Frank invited me to drive with him to New York on a weekend road trip when the Phillies were playing the Mets.

The Friday night game was rained out. So what to do?

Frank said some of the Phillies brass were going to a Broadway show and had some extra tickets he could purchase.

So there I was, quite some time before the birth of the Guru era for which you come to this blog, dining and later viewing the hit musical "Pippin" with Frank, then-general manager Paul Owens, who is now deceased, and few other executives of the baseball team.

Although Frank was still around for the first 20 years of my coverage of women’s basketball, it was not a sport that he wrote about. But he did ask me to keep him informed of potential topics and because he was a University of Pennsylvania alumnus, he would occasionally question me about the Quakers’ program at his alma mater.

I’m not going to get into all the great qualities of Frank as a journalist because you can read the commentary and the longer Inquirer obituary at Philly.com. that includes some reaction omitted from the print edition due to space limitations.

All of the praise is true.

A year ago, it was a bit humbling when I was inducted into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, which had previously honored Frank several years earlier.

Frank was recovering at the hospital last year from his first major illness attack involving his heart when I called to give him the news. He was thrilled.

But it was also a bit sobering knowing that I had reached a stage of life that one day I might be involved in a similar role he once performed for me.

In a time sense, it became eerie of sorts Sunday afternoon when I was asked to help collect reaction quotes for the obituary, some of which didn’t make the print edition, as I noted.

Personally, it becomes an interesting experience when suddenly you are involved with chronicling the passing of someone who had been an "elder" in the business and to also interview people for whom you had one time been an underling, although I use that phrase with a sense of endearment.

Several years ago, for example, events pulled me into the coverage of the passing of Hall of Fame coach Harry Litwack, for whom I was a basketball manager at Temple in the late 1960s (yes the Guru has gotten old) and with whom I was part of the National Invitation Tournament championship team in 1969 when the Owls beat Boston College at Madison Square Garden.

Don Casey, whom I mentioned at the opening, was then an assistant Temple coach, who was one of the many sports personalities befriended by Frank over the years.

"Frank was a purist who treasured the sport and the athlete,” Casey commented Sunday from his home in San Diego, Calif.

“He appreciated the diligences that went into training by an individual and a team and how hard coaches worked to make a sport what it could be.

“However if someone tainted or tarnished a particular sport, Frank would attack the individual and defend the sport to the fullest and not allow anyone to damage what had been achieved over the years. He was a protector and an innovator,” Casey continued.

“Once he got involved with a sport, there was nothing he couldn't cover, reveal or understand, be it from his beloved track and field, his beloved New York Yankees, baseball in general, basketball or Penn football."

Some of the other reaction came from brief interviews Sunday with persons who at one time had been in charge of either sports or other departments, including the overall newsroom.

A phone call to Amanda Bennett, the head of our newsroom, enabled me to get the home number of Tim Kelly, the president and publisher of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader.

He was Amanda’s boss when she worked there and he was also one of my early bosses in sports here when he took over the department of a major newspaper at the ripe young age of 25.

Tim, who was the assistant executive sports editors in 1971-73, and then the executive sports editor from 1973-75, asked for a few minutes to compose his thoughts and then emailed a note saying,

“As the sports editor who both lost Frank to the Bulletin and convinced him to come back, I had great respect for the passion he brought to whatever he covered.

“Frank Dolson was a sports journalist. Most great columnists are also great reporters.

“The reported columns as opposed to pure opinion are among Frank's finest work.

“ Some may have forgotten that it was Frank who uncovered the phony paid attendance figures of the Philadelphia Bell that led to the collapse of the World Football League in the 1970s.”

Gene Roberts, who ran the newsroom from the early 1970s through 1990, commented from his home in New York City where he is recovering from recent major surgery:

“Frank needs no praise in Philadelphia,” Roberts said. “Everyone knew how authoritative and absorbing his columns were. He was one of the nation’s most important columnists.”

Gene Foreman, the former managing editor under Roberts, Max King and Bob Rosenthal, was reached at Penn State where he teaches journalism.

"Frank was a true gentleman who cared passionately about Philadelphia sports and its fans," Foreman said. "One of the things we realy admired about him was the way he went out and broke stories in his column."

Tim Dwyer, who wrote alongside Frank here and later became a sports editor after Frank retired, commented from Washington, where he now writes for the Washington Post:

"Frank Dolson was a wonderful writer who produced columns with unusual depth and perception because he was, above all, an insatiable reporter," Dwyer said. "He was a true gentleman with an unfailing sense of right and wrong and, boy, when you were wrong he'd put you on the canvass with such conviction that you'd couldn't help but thank him for knocking some sense into you."

Phillies VP Larry Shenk, a longtime associate, wrote, ``Frank was a real dedicated journalist, somebody who loved baseball. You had to admire his love for the game and all sports, really."

Al Solomon, a former sports slot on the copy desk here complimented Fitzpatrick on the obituary and added of Dolson, "The guy was one of the more enigmatic people I've ever known in our business."

Two other former newsroom executives also sent comments.

Jim Naughton, who also headed the Poynter Institute, said of Frank, "He was the straightest guy in sports."

Added John Bull, another retired Inquirer newsroom executive, " He was a great columnist.

"Even I, who could care less about sports, enjoyed reading his column and sharing his outrage at things. He was a terrific columnist and a wonderful fixture for The Inquirer."

The memorial service was Wednesday (Oct. 11) at Roosevelt Memorial Park in Trevose, just outside the city limits of Northeast Philadelphia.

The service was attended by representatives of the city's collegiate and professional teams, as well as representatives from the New York Yankees, and many past and present former Inquirer staffers, who worked with Frank.

As I close this note and begin to get ready for the opening of collegiate basketball practice this weekend, I would inject my own additional comment on Frank’s passing, which is:

“Wherever Frank lands in that big sports scene in the sky, they better have the house in order upon Frank’s arrival or they are going to have one big adversary on their hands.”

-- Mel


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