Paul: Jim Whymer, friend to everyone he met, championed prep sports in Blue Water Area and beyond
"Look her in the eyes."
Those were some of the first words Jim Whymer ever said to me, barely minutes into our first conversation. He was looking for a sports reporter, I was looking for a job. He didn't know me, I didn't know him.
Yet, there he was, giving me the golden-ticket piece of advice for getting the gig.
Whymer told me more than anything — far more than my resume — it was absolutely essential to look the executive editor in the eyes when I was interviewing with her. Do that, he said, and the job would be mine.
He was right. He almost always was.
Eighteen years ago, after I practically stared a hole through the executive editor's forehead, Whymer gave me my first professional journalism job, at the Times Herald in Port Huron. We worked together for three years. I made $27,000 a year, and never had more fun or a more rewarding experience in my life — mostly because of a boss who made it that way. Bosses aren't typically friend material, but Whymer was an instant friend. That didn't make me special. He was that way with everybody. He had friends for days. Not enough days.
Whymer, the longtime sports editor of the Times Herald who worked at the paper from 1978 until his retirement in 2012, died Thursday morning after a lengthy battle with cancer. Damn cancer. He was 64.
No small stories
Whymer was a newspaperman when newspapers meant actual newspapers. Hard copy. Ink stains. Back when hit counts, thank God, weren't a thing. He wouldn't have done well with hit counts.
The biggest thing Whymer taught me — and a legion of other up-and-coming sports journalists, including several of us who ended up at The Detroit News (including our assistant sports editor Daren Tomhave; our former assistant sports editor, Heather Burns, now at ESPN; and Matt Schoch, a former freelance writer here) — was that there's no such thing as a small story. Coming from a pretty big East Coast internship, and before that Michigan State, where we all were trying to break news, win the big awards, and pad our resumes, I was tunnel-visioned. That was lost on me before I met "Whymes."
But he taught me that, and I've never lost that.
As Whymer said, and demonstrated with his own ability to pump out thousands of words a day — a miraculous feat, given his pecking typing skills — every story matters to somebody.
It's called "refrigerator journalism," particularly in the prep-sports community. When you write a story about a kid, or even give a passing mention to a kid's name in an article, then Mom or Dad or Grandma or Grandpa head off to the closest 7-Eleven, scoop up all the hard copies they can carry, with one getting clipped and ending up on the refrigerator. Jim wrote fast, not flowery. Readers cared about names, not adjectives.
Whymer wrote about tens of thousands of kids over the years — and those kids, believe me, knew they were talking to a local legend. Believe me, there was often just a little hint of disappointment on the other end of the line when the reporter was myself, or Daren, or Tom Moor, or Rick Jakacki, now the athletic director at Rochester Hills Stoney Creek.
Kids often are reluctant, shy interviews. But not with Mr. Whymer.
We didn't take it personally. We considered ourselves lucky.
Jim also was Twitter, before Twitter. He knew everything that was going on in Port Huron, or Port Sanilac, or Bad Axe, or Marysville. The gossip, the good news, the bad news, everything. He knew everyone, everywhere, from St. Clair to Marlette to Armada to Sandusky — from the coaches to the kids to the referees to the kids who sold the popcorn. I had no sources when I started in Port Huron, obviously. Didn't matter. If I needed a number, there's a good chance Jim had it scribbled down one of the thousands of pieces of scrap paper that covered his desk. Amazingly, he'd find the number in minutes, if not seconds, faster than you or I could share an iPhone contact. I'm OCD. His desk gave me the jitters. I came to learn, he was effectively disorganized. I was shocked he eventually became an iPhone user.
He was such a people person, he could've been mayor. He pretty much was. When the phone rang in the office and I answered or Daren answered, we might be on the phone for 30 seconds, answering some innocuous reader question. Jim often wouldn't hang up for 10 minutes. Another story idea. Another friend.
Prep sports coverage is a lost art in newspapers today, which is a damn shame. Jim covered preps with the importance of the pros. We covered 26 schools, and used to put out hundred-plus-page football previews. We had volleyball special sections, and printed Marysville volleyball trading cards. He would keep tabs on those who went on to play in college, and afterward as they got jobs, got married and had kids. You were never done to him. Jim also knew the local rec softball, bowling and volleyball communities. The local college. The minor-league hockey team. Silver Stick. He knew it all and covered it all. Port Huron had five in the sports department when I was there; now, amid the depressing declining state of newspapers, it has only one. You can't cover an entire community with just one person, but Jim could've come close.
Whymer won a bunch of writing awards over the years. But those never mattered. He didn't display them, best I can remember. When one of us would write a big story that made the next day's 1A or sports cover, we'd sometimes stay late to meet the first copy of paper off the printing press — which was in the basement of our building, back before consolidation and newspaper hubs became a rotten thing. Whymer never did that. For him, it was on to the next day, on to the next story, err, stories.
Oh, the stories. He had a million of them. And every day when you walked in — he always beat you to the office, and usually left later than you, too — he had a story for you, usually short, usually funny. His face got red when he was telling a funny story. It also got red when he was mad. We didn't see him mad very often. Usually only when he didn't get this kid or that kid on an all-state team. Port Huron wasn't Detroit, or Grand Rapids, or Lansing. But Whymer fought like hell to get the Blue Water kids, his kids, their due recognition. Every school thought he loved them most, and they were right. I once put a non-local story on the sports cover. That mortified him, too.
But mostly, he was jolly. That's probably the best word to describe him. He loved little laughs, and had a distinctive high-pitch chuckle. He thought it was the funniest thing when he once used a horse's mugshot in the paper. I think it was around Kentucky Derby time. Once, during the great blackout of 2003 — one night after we put out the paper with candles, stuffed in Styrofoam cups filled with popcorn kernels, our only light — we sat on Tom's deck and drank well into the night. He told one story after another. We should've paid admission. I'd share some of them, but again, drinking.
Us younger reporters drank a lot those days. At Military Street. Or the HAC. One time, I remember telling Jim I was going to try out Skidgies, the dive bar on 12th. Don't swear, he said. They'll kick you out. Jim liked to kid. Turns out, he wasn't kidding.
Fighting for 'Whymes'
Jim grew up in Grand Rapids and attended West Catholic High School, then Aquinas, before joining the Port Huron sports department in 1978 — so many of us came and went, but he never did, because he was the foundation, we were his roots. But Whymer did far more than write.
Whymer also was a longtime sports official, softball, baseball, basketball, you name it. Oftentimes, he'd be coming to the office from a game, or leaving the office for a game — always to return later that night. He's in the Basketball Coaches of Michigan Hall of Honor, won the American Volleyball Coaches Association media award, and in 2014 was inducted into the Port Huron Sports Hall of Fame. He should be in the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. I'll make it my passion to make that happen.
That was a good night for Whymer, that induction ceremony in 2014, alongside so many other inductees he'd covered over the years. It was around that time he was diagnosed with cancer, and the community immediately got to work, with their prayers and benefits. In February 2015, at Central Middle School in Port Huron, a "Game On, Cancer" fundraiser was held. They raised good money. The stands were practically packed. And it was the first time I ever saw Whymer emotional.
Whymer fought the dreaded disease, and made some progress along the way, as he continued to work at St. Clair County Community College, and as a freelance writer — and in the most important role of his life, a husband to Patty, and a father to Traci, Kyle and Joel, the latter who was unfairly denied press clippings as a basketball star at Port Huron Northern, then Lake Superior State, then Grand Valley, because his dad didn't want to be seen as biased in our coverage. Whymer's face lit up a lot, but never more than when he talked about Patty, Traci, Kyle and Joel.
In April, Whymer sent me a text message, wishing me a "belated" happy birthday. It wasn't belated.
I asked how he was feeling.
"Getting stronger and feeling better each day," he said. "Going to be a slow process, but I will get there."
That was Whymer. The eternal optimist. And a friend until the end.
I am hardly alone there.