Broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell was happy to meet an entirely new audience, first- and second-grade students at Alexander Elementary School in Grand Rapids, during a Tigers Caravan visit. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)
It began on a Friday night at Tiger Stadium. The date is documented: June 11, 1971.
That was the evening I first met Ernie Harwell.
I and some baseball-loving college buddies -- Rod Nichols, Pat Coppens, Jerry and Johnny Pecora, Jim Corlett --were sitting in lower-deck boxes behind the plate, taking in batting practice an hour or so before the Tigers and Minnesota Twins clashed.
A baseball announcer we had known from the time baseball became our lifelong companion and passion saw us sitting behind the screen and strolled by to say hello.
We shook hands and chatted a bit, the six of us thrilled to meet and talk with a man who even then was an icon.
I never knew this chance meeting would be followed by nearly 40 years of personal friendship.
It was an initial dose of Ernie, whose personal example came to mean as much to me as his friendship.
The example, the lesson taken from meeting this hero/celebrity on a warm June evening in Detroit, was one to be repeated during all the years I knew him and watched him interact with a world he loved.
Ernie's abiding virtue, to me, is that he always had time for people. The lower in profile they were, the more simple their stories or lives might be, the more he seemed drawn to them. He understood fundamentally that every human being had dignity and individual value.
He was an expert in human nature. He knew that he would be viewed by others, due to his celebrity, as someone special. And because of that reality he made even greater efforts to remind others they were the ones who were exceptional. He was simply fortunate. He had been blessed to be a baseball announcer.
He thought it amusing, the idea that because of God's gifts he should somehow enjoy an exalted place in life.
What a joke, Ernie had long ago said to himself.
He knew better, so much better, although too many people who are similarly bathed in celebrity cannot easily suffer thoughts that they don't deserve the adulation, the admiration, the reverence.
Harwell had a different response: I got lucky in life. I'm here to do God's work in the best way I can. You need me? Not as much as I need you.
There was much humility in his personal creed. He was here on Earth to serve. That he was able to assist in a way that brought ongoing pleasure and fulfillment to his life, which was the gift of baseball, merely spurred him to do even more to give back, to say thanks, to bring to the lives of others as much happiness as possible.
Oh, he was human. I always knew Ernie needed the attention -- needed it to fill a place in his life that otherwise could have been hollow. That, also, was something he had to have understood, introspectively. He understood that everyone craved validation. He himself craved it.
It only led him to further embrace his Christianity and to try to be of humble consolation and inspiration to as many people as he could during his long and extraordinary life.
The greatest thing that can be said about any person when they have gone to their eternal peace is that they made the lives of others better, fuller, more verdant.
There was Ernie Harwell's noble achievement. He managed it not only in the broad expanse of his lifetime, but in the singular moments of a remarkable man's daily life.