Remembering Pal and Mentor Tommy West

Tommy West, a friend and inspiration — the reason I went into journalism, other than that I wanted to one day meet and interview Audrey Hepburn — was stationed while in the army at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated and posted these observations about those times.

When it comes to reporters I have known, one stands above all others. To use those immortal words of Pulitzer Prize laureate Bernard Malamud from The Natural, journalist Tommy West was ‘The the best there is, the best there was, the best there ever will be.”

 

IT HAS HAPPENED SO MANY TIMES,

AMERICA FINDS IT EASY TO BELIEVE

By Tommy West

FT. HUACHUCA, AZ (June 7, 1968) — We awoke here this morning to learn that last night, less than 600 miles away, Don Drysdale had pitched his sixth shutout in a row and  Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been shot twice in the head.

Because even Dodger fans owe their first loyalty to the country that made their sport great, there was little to smile about this morning in the chilly darkness of the barracks.

Texas Newsman Tommy West

Texas Newsman Tommy West while at Baylor University (Paul Currier Photo)

There was once a time, not so very long ago, when the news that a major political figure of this country had been shot would have come as a resounding shock.

THERE WAS a time when America would have had to sit down in the fury of the moment and struggle to pull herself together.

It was that way five years ago, on that autumn afternoon in downtown Dallas.

“No,” everyone said. “Things like that do not happen in this country. I do not believe it.”

Then came Sunday morning outside the Dallas police station, and it seemed the world stopped for a moment and held its breath to wait fearfully for what would come next.

Calm eventually returned, and America groped for and found her reason. And the world turned once again.

IF WE LEARNED anything from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it seemed we learned we were not immune to the terrible, swift act of deranged social misfits and that even at this time, we too, can settle great issues with a sudden murder.

And so we began to talk of cure, because we had not talked soon enough of prevention. We talked about the Secret Service, and police protection, and about maniacs in our society. And most of all we talked about the quick and easy gun.

While we talked, cities burned. Would-be assassination plots were uncovered and young men committed unexplainable mass murders from beauty shops and university towers. We read about it all in the newspapers, and we shook our heads grimly.

THEN SWIFTLY and without warning, another assassin killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Even as the nation quivered at the news, the talking began anew.

Now it has happened again. The airwaves crackled with the news this morning, and all over the nation giant newspaper presses rumbled about their gruesome business.

But somewhere along the way the shock has almost disappeared. In its void is an almost nauseating bewilderment, born of frustration and kindled by helplessness.

Your friend shakes you gently awake. “Bobby Kennedy has been shot,” he says.

THERE IS no disbelief, because if he had said instead that Washington was on fire and nuclear bombers were winging toward America, you know you probably would have believed it just as easily.

It is almost as if you went to sleep, and when you awoke, the quiet, unquestioned confidence you once had in the American scheme of things has gone.

What is there to do?

Talk? But everything has been said. Campaign for gun laws and a society more sensitive to street corner peddlers of salvation? That too has been done.

So you rise, slowly, put on your clothes, slip into your slot in the great society, the society of a country that seems somehow strangely different from the one you used to think about in the third grade.

And when darkness comes, you almost catch yourself wondering who will be next. Because with faith rapidly falling, you must resign yourself to the cold fact that apparently the lunatics and the guns in this country outnumber the great men.

 

Tommy West was a prominent Texas newspaper reporter and columnist who died in 1998 at the age of 55. West graduated from Baylor University — where he was editor of The Baylor Lariat — in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born in nearby Bosqueville and began his career at 16 as a copy boy for the Waco Tribune-HeraldOver the years he wrote for newspapers in Philadelphia, Ft. Worth, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, Cincinnati, Houston, Stephenville, and San Antonio. West worked as a reporter, columnist and editor for the San Antonio Express-News from 1980-1996. He penned well-read columns for the Express-News such as “Trails West” and “South Texas Spirit.” He was known affectionately there by his colleagues as “the Colonel.”