A Conversation with George Lapides

A Conversation with George Lapides


– [Voiceover] This is a
production of WKNO Memphis. Production funding
for this program is made possible in part by
the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like you. Thank you. (piano music) – George, what was
interesting I found out talking before we
started the program was you background in politics and as a journalist you
started in that vein which surprised me
because I thought you’d always done sports
since you’d been doing sports talk radio for 43 years
and was the sports editor and a columnist
at Press-Scimitar, that is was always
the sports background. Like, tell everybody about
the start of your broadcast and journalistic career
in the realm of politics. – I didn’t start in politics. I started off like
every other reporter at the newspaper,
writing obituaries. – [George] – I mean
– [Greg] Oh, obituaries. – [George] I was the last person that Ed Meeman hired when
he was editor of the paper and Ed Meeman was a well known
editor across the country. But I didn’t get
anything special. I mean I wasn’t sought after. – You worked your way up. – I just did the best I could and went out. We had a column that
was in the paper everyday called “In
Your Neighborhood” and all the young reporters
on Saturdays at noon we’d have to leave the, because all the young reporters
had to work on Saturdays. – Right – We’d go out and we were
assigned a city block. Mr. Meeman’s policy was “there’s
a story in every house.” And so we would knock on doors and tell them we were the “In
Your Neighborhood” reporter, and could we come in and talk? And they would let us come in. And I would, you know
we’d ask questions and darn it if there weren’t
stories in every house and we’d right a, probably a 12, 14 paragraph story
about this family. And it ran every single
day in the paper. There’d be four or
five of us out there doing it every single Saturday. So that was grunt work
and that’s how it started. – So how do you
move up the ladder and how do you differentiate
yourselves from other reporters to move into that
political arena? Because that’s what
you wanted to do. You wanted to be in Washington
D.C. covering politics. – My goal when I started work was to be a Washington
correspondent. That’s what I wanted to be. I don’t really
remember how I backed into doing political stuff. At one point they made me
Assistant Mid-South Editor. We had mid-south petitions,
one went to Arkansas. We went to west Tennessee,
north Missisisippi and so we had to
cover those things. So as the Assistant
Mid-South Editor, the Mid-South Editor
would sit there and he would be the inside guy but I would go out and
cover the state houses in Nashville and
go to Little Rock and Jackson and gubernatorial elections and Senate elections
and it just kept rolling and rolling and
became like an avalanche. And pretty soon I
was pretty much on a first name basis with Winthrop
Rockefeller in Little Rock. Never will forget him personally
inviting me to his house when he had as his house
guest George Romney. – Wow. – And then Romney
was making a speech and my wife and I went. It was great. I was doing exactly
what I wanted to do and then there was a big US Senate sub committee investigating welfare
abuses on Native American reservations in Mexico and on primarily, on properties in the Delta in Mississippi that were worked, but
not owned, but worked primarily by African Americans. And the abuses weren’t
by people receiving welfare it was by people
dolling out the welfare. And on this committee
were Senators Joe Clarke from Pennsylvania, George
Murphy from California, and Gaylord Nelson
and Winston Prouty, and Robert F. Kennedy. And there were major
hearings for about two or three days in Jackson. And I was on this, I was
covering this whole story. And Kennedy and Joe Clark pretty
much were the committee. Maybe Jacob Javits was
on that committee too. That would have been unusual. That would have made
two Senators from New York on the same committee but I think he was on
that committee too. But then we left and
not all the Senators, but we’d sit, I would sit
outside the downtown hotel in Jackson with
a glass of scotch and Bobby Kennedy would
have a glass of scotch (laughing) and we’d be sitting in these
lounge chairs by swimming pools and we would talk
about everything. And this was in the 60s
and the Yankees were bad. This was everything from
the downfall of the Yankees when CBS owned them to Winthrop Rockefeller. He was real interested
in Winthrop Rockefeller and the whole Rockefeller
family politically. And we’d talk about everything and we’d fool
around in the Delta in this little
Martin 4-0-4 plane. For some reason I guess
Kennedy took a liking to me. He always insisted that I
sit with him on the plane. And there were
some great stories. We approached a little shack one day. And this whole tour
in the Delta had been set up by Marian Wright,
now Marian Wright Edelman. And she’s head of the Children’s
Defense Fund which by then, at that time she was
very involved in the
Mississippi NAACP. And we knocked on this door and she had clued
Bobby Kennedy on the name of the people who
lived in the house. And I was, we’re
designated reporters, pool reporters,
because there were’nt enough room from
all of us to go. There only about seven or eight
reporters counting the three networks and the New York Times, the Washington Post and
the New Orleans Times pick and there’s little old
me, didn’t know anything. And Kennedy knocked on the door and this African American
couple answered the door and his eyes got this big (laughing) He said, “Why, why you’re
Mr. Bobby Kennedy” and Kennedy’s response was, “And
you’re Mr. Sam Houston Smith” because Marian Wright
had told him his name. And it was great, the
whole thing was great. I got back in filthy
dirty one afternoon after three or four
days out in the Delta and dirt and everything
else, got in the office around four o’clock and our
editor was Charlie Schneider and he said he’d like
to see me in his office. And I said, “Oh gosh,
I must have messed up on this trip something off.” “Written some terrible.” – He heard about the
scotch with Bobby Kennedy. – Yeah, terrible things And he called me and
he said, “How would you like to go to the Sports
Department next week?” I said, “Mr. Schneider I
really don’t think I wanna go. “I’m really enjoying
what I’m doing. “It’s getting me closer
I think to my goal.” And he said, “I’ll tell
you what I’m gonna do. “If you go to the sports
Department next week, “the following week, we’re
gonna make our sports editor, “he’s gonna become
sports editor at Americas “and I’m gonna name
you sports editor “and here’s what you’re
gonna be making.” Which was significantly
above the poverty wages I was making and I
said, “Mr. Schneider, “you’ve got yourself
a sports editor.” And that was somewhere
in the mid 60s and ever since then – It’s been sports but you’ve
never lost that passion for the political avenue
that you went down. You’ve always had that passion. – No, I’ve always
had that passsion. I know when R.F.K.
was assassinated I was a political dropout for a while. So I like him a lot,
say what you will. I know he was a good guy. I know there are people
probably who will Old Miss fans back in those days who probably couldn’t stand him. – But personally
hadn’t dealt him. – I personally dealt with him and we corresponded
before his assassination. And I saw something on that trip that was unbelievable, Greg. I saw him go out the back
door of one of these shacks and into one of the
shacks next door. It was owned by a
very prominent person in Mississippi, this farm and when I saw that nobody else saw. So I went to the front
door of the shack and I opened the
door and Kennedy was sitting on
this filthy floor. He had on a beautiful
grey, pinstriped suit. He was sitting on the
floor, holding about an 18 month old child
with a distended stomach, who had been eating dried
beans off this filthy floor, and tears were rolling
down Kennedy’s cheeks. And I closed the
door and walked away. I thought that’s very
private and personal. I never wrote about it
until he was assassinated and I wrote an opposite
editorial page column about that whole,
some of those things that I thought I hadn’t
written on that trip, I wrote about them then. Yeah, I miss politics. I still miss covering politics and even by doing my radio show. On 9/11 I was on the air
from the moment it happened. I watched it on our TV monitor while I was on the air
doing my morning talkshow. And I stayed on radio
for the rest of that day doing not sports but
9/11 related things. – Right. – I talked to people
at the Memphis Airport about how it affected them,
interviewed them on the air. I talked with people at Fed Ex
about how it affected Fed Ex. Because nothing
was fine anywhere. I talked to the National
Guard people here because they were
put on the alert. – Just using your
journalistic skills in the news. – I was on all day till
at least 5:00 or 5:30, maybe 6:00 or 6:30 from
that early in the morning. I didn’t know we were under
attack when the first plane hit. Jeff Moore, the former
pro football player, was on with me and were,
it was on a Tuesday. And he was on with
me on Tuesdays and we were talking about
NFL games from the past week and the one’s upcoming, and
I saw the first plane hit, and I said, “Gosh, something
terrible has happened. “An awful accident.” And then I saw the second plane
hit and I said, “Oh my God, “We’re under attack.” – Well I was the one who lagged
listening to the station. People know that you and I
work at the same radio station. And it did become
politics, not politics, it became news because that was so much more important
than what we do in sports. – I’ve had some interesting
experiences out of sports. I mean I was heavily
involved in the coverage of Martin Luther King’s
assassination. I was heavily involved
in the coverage in Memphis of J.F.K.’s
assassination. That day I went
around to churches all over the city
and covered what was happening in the churches. They were all having
special services. I’ve been blessed. I’ve had a wonderful career. I know I’m in the
twilight of it now. That’s okay, I’ve got an, an illness that’s
probably gonna get me but that’s, I can’t, I can’t complain because I’ve had a wonderful career. – Is there a story that you were working on
that you knew would be very devastating
to an individual, to a program, to
a city, who knows, and you couldn’t finish
it for some reason? You couldn’t complete
it or maybe you didn’t have the information but you
knew something was there. We talked about you knew of coaches who bought players. You’ve probably known
a lot about scandals and things that you’ve seen
throughout your career. Was there ever one that you
were holding onto and you just – There was more than one. – Give me an example. Obviously if you’re
holding on to it you probably can’t tell me but – We’ll I’ve never
told anybody because I think that would be
violating some confidence, even some things people told me who are no long alive, I’ve never said. Anything that we couldn’t write that I knew about but
I couldn’t prove it, I just have, I’ve not talked
about that nor am I gonna. – What was your, when you
went out to cover a story, how many sources did you need – Two. – To go with? – Two, two. And an embarrassing
moment for me is we broke a story at Channel
3 that was incorrect. And I took the hit for it. I went on the air and
said, “It’s my fault. “I’m sports editor
here, it’s my fault.” – Do you remember the story? – Yeah, it had to
with (unitelligible) the basketball player. And we said that he
had left the team. Our reporter who got that story, he had left the
team and didn’t get on the bus to go to a game
in Little Rock I believe, but he did get the bus
before it got out of Memphis. Which we didn’t, our
reporter didn’t know. But he hadn’t
checked two sources. And my rule always would
be you’d better get it from two
unimpeachable sources before we broke it. – I don’t know if
you remember this but I’ve done a lot
of play but play for Memphis and I
was in Fayetteville doing the game versus Arkansas and that’s when I heard
the story came back from my station because I
was, as people know, at 24 and heard about that. And Paris was right on the bus because I was on
the bus with him. So I do remember that and I
agree with you wholeheartedly. It has to be multiple sources. There are a lot of people
today that go with one source. – Can’t do it. – They go with speculation. – Can’t do it. – And I don’t think
they’re held responsible. It has really, the game
has really changed, hasn’t it George over the years? – Greg, I’d like
to change slightly, if you don’t mind, the subject. – One of the things in my career that a lot of people watching
right now are gonna say its been way too
long, (Greg laughing) that stands out in
my mind the most is I had an unusual
relationship with Mohamed Ali. I wrote a number of
columns when he had his boxing license taken away, that it was unconstitutional. That he still hadn’t been
proven guitly of anything. – Right. – And I always say in this
country you’re innocent until proven guilty,
I’ve always been taught. And he hadn’t been
proven guilty of a thing. Eventually he was
proven not guilty, okay. – [Greg] Right. – But I wrote numerous columns. He finally got his license back and he was fighting
his first fight. It was against Jerry
Quarry in Atlanta And I went to cover it
and it was a spectacle. I mean every celebrity
star Hollywood was there wearing, Diana Ross
had on more diamonds than anybody I’d ever seen. But I went into the locker
room after the fight. He really cut up
Quarry pretty good. And you couldn’t get near Ali. But I saw Mrs. Clay sitting
off in a corner by herself and I went over and
introduced myself to her. And she said “Oh, You’re
that young man whose been “writing those pieces
about my son saying “that he should be
allowed to fight.” And I said, “How
would you know that?” And she said, “I have
a friend in Memphis “who’s been sending them to me.” And she stood up
and there were all, there must have been a
hundred reporters around Ali. I couldn’t get close. I was gonna have to wait until more people cleared out. And she called him,
I never will forget, she called him
Cassius even though he was Mohamed Ali. She called him, ”
Cassius, come over here.” And he came and she
introduced him to me and told him about it. He had read the columns too and we became really good friends. There was a Parkinson’s
disease doctor where I was doing a lot
of work at the time in business in Hilton Head and I got to, he road in a golf cart with me while Michael Jordan,
Charles Barkley and I played golf at Mohmed’s. We met at Michael’s
house at Hilton Head, played at Wexford Plantation. Boy did they bet a lot of money. (Greg laughing) And Barkley had a better
swing then than he does. – So did they ask you
to get into the betting? – No, no, not at
that kind of money. But I knew I was right on Ali. But I can remember
we got close enough where he was fighting Bob Foster and he was the light heavy
weight Champion in Las Vegas and he had a suite at Caesar’s. And went up, he
said, “Come on up.” So I went up to the
suite and he ended up plopped down on
one king sized bed and I was plopped
down on the other and we were just
shooting the bull and every once in
awhile there’d be a knock on the door and
it would be his bro, who was playing
blackjack or dice, shooting the dice. And Brotman wanted more money and Mohamed would
reach into his pocket and give him three four – [George] hundred dollars.
– [Greg] He was an enabler. (Greg laughing) But my relationship
with him was special. – What does it say about you? Here you are this journalist, this broadcaster and you have the people at Rose feeling
that you have enough experience somehow to run
an athletic department. You have Avron Fogelman
saying you enough to run a AA professional
baseball team. – Even more. Even more after the
three years of running it Fogelman was in the
process of buying some huge amount of
properties, golf resort and other properties. – Right, did know the
royals at this point? – (unintelligible) Yes. In South Carolina,
in Hilton Head. – Okay. – And somebody told
Abmerman, his organization, “You need somebody who can
go over there and run it.” That person was me. So I ended up with an
apartment in Hilton Head. I’d do my radio show
from Hilton Head at night, I mean in the day. – Are you serious? – Because they were an
hour ahead of us, see? So I’d still do that but I was, I had 455 employees. – Tell me about Trump before
I make the transition to – [Greg] your work at
– [George} Trump had – [George] a 292 foot yacht. Our biggest slip
was 100 feet, okay. He comes down and he
wants in our Marina and our Harbor Master tells him, “You can’t come in. “That’s too big a boat.
We can’t handle it.” – Right. And Trump’s yelling at
him, screaming at him. His captain apparently
called him up. And so they call me and
I go racing down there. And I say, “Mr.
Trump, in Savannah, “in front of the
Hyatt Regency there’s “a 300 foot parking
place for your boat. “You have to go park it
down there. I’m sorry.” Then he started screaming at me and I said, “Well we
can’t accommodate you. “You’re liable to get
stuck in our marina “and can’t get out.” And reluctantly
after a bunch of, a stream of four letter words, off he chugged to Savannah. – I told you this story
before we started taping. Sunday night I’m in
my apartment, first
week I’m in Memphis. I pop on the
channel and there is George Lapides on
Channel 3 with his show. How did that happen? – Bob Eoff was the General
Manager at Channel 3. He had just come back to
Memphis, Memphis was home. – [Greg] Okay. – He grew up in White
Haven but he had been General Manager, these were New York time zone stations. – [Greg] Right. He had been General
Manager of the station in Fort Smith, Arkansas which also had a
station in Fayetteville. It’s a combination station. – [Greg] Right, right. – And he came back and
he called two people: Norm Brewer, used to be
the anchor at Channel 5 and an editorial writer
at The Commercial Appeal and he called me, met
with us separately. And he said to me, “I’d like for you to join us “to run our sports department. “We need somebody to run it. “It needs direction.” And by that time I had left Fogelman. I was doing gold course studies on whether
a golf course should be built in certain
locations around the country and my radio show. And radio show was a constant. – [Greg] Just chugs along. – I wasn’t gonna give
up that radio show. And I still would
go to football games and kept up my contacts
with coaches and all that. Would go to SCC
media days every year till this year when I got sick. Bob Eoff asked me to do that. We agreed on conditions
and I didn’t have to appear on camera very much,
because like I said, I’ve got a face for radio. I didn’t appear much. I did that Sunday night TV show for 10 years at 10:30 and
I’d get home at 11:30, 12. I’d be sleepy the
next morning on radio. I can tell you – [Greg] Quick turn around. – Yeah, it was a
quick turn around. Cause I couldn’t
go right to sleep. You’re still wired
and geared up. – Well your juices are flowing because you love to break
stories as a journalist and you were doing
that on television. – We were getting
some great interviews on that show and my time, I just got to the point where I didn’t love TV. I still don’t love
TV news anyway at least local TV news. I’m just not a fan of it. So I just had enough
after 10 years and I said, by then I
was in my middle 60s and I said it’s time to retire. So I did. But I didn’t retire from radio. – No, you did not. And I remember your last night. The lights went
out, you walked out, and out the door and
I do remember that. I think a lot of
people remember it. – I didn’t remember that. – Oh, I do remember
that very vividly. – I remember that
both Reggie Barnes and Keith Ingram
were there that night just in the studio watching my
last show, two good friends. – So here we are 2013. You’ve cut down to
three days a week at Sports Fitness Ex. – I had to because
of this long illness. – People know about
the, and real briefly for people who don’t
know, maybe they read. Geoff Calkins did a very
nice story about that and you talked about
it on your show. But for those who
don’t know, George, just a little bit – I just have this lung
disease that’s not really uncommon but most
people don’t know anything about it
for some reason, called Idiopathic
Pulmonary Fibrosis. Nobody knows how you get it and
nobody knows how to cure it. It is fatal. I don’t know how much time, I
may be gone in three months. – [George] I may be gone
– [Greg] I sure hope not. – I don’t wanna be. I may be gone in three years. I don’t really know. It’s got some symptoms
and side effects that I don’t like and
I have to wear oxygen most of the time – Right. – Because it is
difficult to breath. I managed to get through this without oxygen but I’m
gonna need to get it as soon as we get off because
my tanks right over there. But I’m gonna work until I no longer can work. And I’m gonna lead my life and enjoy my wines
and my good food and my family and
my friends until I, until I’m gone. I mean, and like I
told you, I’ve had a wonderful career and
I have zero complaints. I’ve made a good living,
I think I’ve been reasonably successful,
I have fabulous friends, both professional and
long time friends from preschool as I said earlier. And an incredible family,
an incredible family. The only thing I
feel I’m sorry about it I’m not gonna be
able, I don’t think, I’m sure, to see my
grand children grow up to be young adults. I’m gonna miss that a whole lot. But Greg, we all
gotta go sometime and as I’ve said it
before, there’s not a person on this
planet that I know of who’s not terminally ill. Everybody I know is gonna die. I would like to be
the one exception but I’m not gonna be
and it is what it is. – With all the
success you’ve had in your career
who knows, George, maybe it will be you
to become that oddity. This has been a pleasure for me. I’ve learned a
lot more about you and I thought I already
knew a lot about you. But I wanna leave you with this. I wanna ask you this question and I know you’re humble, what is George Lapides’s legacy? When you pass, George,
when you go on to Heaven and people look back
at George Lapides what do you want to be
remembered for most? As a good husband, as a good father, as a good grandfather,
and loyal to my friends. – Well said. – That’s it. – George thanks again so
much for being with us. We really enjoyed it. – I did too. – Absolute pleasure. (piano music)

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