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Thursday, January 17 , 2019, 10:34 am | Overcast 59º


Tim Durnin: Memorable Voices from the Morning Newspaper

Wit and wisdom of columnists Jack Smith and Jim Murray remind us of better times

I no longer read a daily newspaper, at least not the kind that is thrown carelessly on the driveway to absorb excess water from the irrigation system. It has been awhile since I’ve heard the pleasant slap of paper on concrete, my signal to stumble outside, disheveled and half awake, to be the first to crack the newsprint. Morning papers, a fresh cup of coffee and first light bring back fond memories.

I was never a cover-to-cover guy. I always read the front-page section, the local section, sports and the editorials. Through college and my early career, the Los Angeles Times was my paper of choice, and two columnists had my loyalties — Jack Smith and Jim Murray. It was their words, more than any others, that held my attention and respect. I still miss them both.

Murray was the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the L.A. Times who brought poetry and wittiness to his reporting of the sports world. He could turn a sporting phrase like no other before him or since. I was awed by his uncanny ability to capture the essence of his subjects with humor and insight.

I was a sophomore in college when Murray wrote what I consider to be his finest column. It was a tribute to his wife of 38 years, Geraldine. I can still remember the opening line, “This is the column I never wanted to write, the story I never wanted to tell.”

Murray concluded the column: “It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was supposed to die first. ... I had my speech all ready. I was going to look into her brown eyes and tell her something I should have long ago. I was going to tell her: ‘It was a privilege just to have known you.’ I never got to say it. But it was too true.”

I kept a clipping of that column in my wallet for years. It served as a guide for the kind of marriage I wanted to have, the kind of husband I wanted to be. The yellowed and weathered cutting is still tucked away in one of the boxes holding my previous lives. It served me well.

Smith was another sort altogether. His prose were simple and refined, touching subjects far from the glamour of Hollywood or Chavez Ravine. Smith wrote about the mundane, but he brought it to life in a manner that had you standing right next to him relishing his view of the world.

It was Smith’s life, framed in a delicate and painstakingly accurate use of language, that was the center of his work. For millions of readers, Smith was a welcome guest, a friend whose daily visits put some perspective on the harsh urban landscape of Los Angeles. He even made it beautiful.

The Internet has been identified as the primary villain in the demise of the daily paper, and I do not disagree. But it occurs to me the speed of life has contributed some, too. The frenetic pace of our lives today does not easily lend itself to those glorious, selfish hours pouring over the newspaper, coffee in hand, the whispered commentary punctuating breakfast.

That is a great shame. Surely there are many Smiths and Murrays waiting to be heard, waiting to have their unique and measured voices help define a city and its people. But these voices, these kinds of voices are, I suspect, a thing of the past.

We live in a culture where shouting and shocking writers are those who get attention. Sadly, they also garner blind loyalty to positions often so absurd they defy any kind of reason. I like to think both Murray and Smith would be saddened by the change in landscape. We need their voices back, if only for a time, to remind us that life is beautiful, funny and poetic, and that it is often best lived outside the boundaries of dogma and intolerance.

Murray and Smith were neither dogmatic nor intolerant, except perhaps when it came to their love of a city. That is the kind of dogmatism and intolerance we can all live with, even celebrate. And so I raise a literary glass to Jack and Jim. May your wit and wisdom never be forgotten.

— Tim Durnin is a father and husband. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) for comments, discussion, criticism, suggestions and story ideas.

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