Through writing and golf, Furman Bisher taught about life and death
By Michelle Hiskey
When Furman Bisher came into my life in 1986, I was fresh out of college, a whippersnapper sportswriter in awe of the legendary Atlanta Journal columnist. Aged 68, he seemed positively ancient.
Over the next quarter century, I studied the way he worked and wrote, and we became friends through our shared interest in golf – a sport that connects people of diverse ages and abilities.
When “The Bish” died a week ago, to me he was a young 93, because he changed my view of what it meant to grow old. He did this by example — by living and writing the way he played golf.
Three lessons from The Bish, on golf and growing old, follow.
Furman kept moving. Golfers get penalized when they play slowly; Furman believed the game is best enjoyed at a brisk pace. He didn’t lollygag when he played golf, and he never turned sedentary as a writer, either.
Furman covered events all over the world – the Olympics, British Open — along with the Masters and tons of local events.
Not only did he travel to the events, he pushed himself close to the action. He could have remained planted in front of the screens that many sports writers depend on. Instead, Furman always had his fishing hat and walking shoes handy, and a game attitude.
At the BellSouth Classic in Duluth, he put us all to shame by walking nine hilly holes of Sugarloaf in high humidity while we sat in the comfy press tent — but how else would readers get the true flavor of the course?
Back in front of his laptop, he would mop his perspiring brow with a handkerchief, one of the lingering Southern mannerisms that made him such a gentleman.
Furman paced himself. He was a short hitter; he swung “within himself,” a term used to describe a golfer who accepts limitations and maximizes what he does well. You could count on him to keep it in the fairway – Furman was steady.
Furman was great at putting and chipping, the deft touch around the green that make the biggest difference in score. He was like that as a writer as well — he wrote what he knew best, in pro and college sports in the South, horse racing and of course, golf. His touch as a writer made his columns look seamless, like Jack Nicklaus sinking another winning 3-foot putt. Effortless? The great ones make it look that way.
At the Masters, Furman usually finished his column before the final player came in. He picked his topic early, and after 50+ Masters, he didn’t have to wait for the score to know what he needed to say.
As a writer and a person, Furman had a great respect for, and economy of, time. He began each morning in the press box poring over a fresh AJC for stock prices and obituaries. Often this was followed by a phone call to make plans to attend this or that funeral, in a matter-of-fact tone – a courageous shrug to the loneliness of outliving so many of his contemporaries.
Furman played his own game. He came up in an age of golf where left-handers were often forced, by lack of equipment or bully instructors, to play right-handed. Furman would have none of that. He was a southpaw on the course and proud of it.
Furman saw rapid changes in technology, but from typewriter to computer, he tackled the keyboard the same way. He used just two index fingers. Those digits filled an empty screen thousands of times, tapping out his own unique view and voice.
“Ye gods, how many of these have I written?” he wrote in his 2009 AJC farewell column, the end of 59 years as sports editor.
“So many that many of the keys on this old Royal typing machine are worn thin… How many continents has it been, how many nations, how many flights, how many airports, how many sagging beds in bawdy rooming houses, and how many languages, with or without translation? Oh, and yes, and how many fellow travelers, wonderful friends on all those continents, and on the streets in this town and in my own land?”
The lasting impact of The Bish is his approach not to sports but to life.
As a single dad, he raised three sons with “the help,” and when son Roger died in 2000, Furman wrote a poignant farewell.
“Old men like me should be going first, not one who had so much to give to the world as he,” Furman wrote. “I saw him take his first breath in life and I saw him take his last.”
For his annual thanksgiving columns, he assembled a seemingly random collection of observations: a handy parking space, warm water, Eastern Standard Time. Longtime readers could see his lens widen as the days ahead dwindled.
I liked how he mentioned the absence of buttermilk on restaurant menus. When some sports radio guys mocked him, I bristled. We all hold onto something now that one day will judge us as old; the longer that Furman bore witness to what he saw and felt and cared about, the more boldness that required.
No wonder most people retire.
Yet Furman kept writing, posting his final column three days before his massive heart attack.
This end took me back to our beginning: Not long after my arrival in this city, Furman invited me to play Atlanta Country Club. My round was going well until the water-lined 18th hole, a par-5. One bad shot begat another, and missing a short putt scarred an otherwise fine outing.
Furman took this hard, harder than I did. He insisted on a mulligan – for the entire hole.
We headed back to the tee, Groundhog Day with The Bish. Furman counted my ensuing par as the official score, my first inkling of his strong grip of keeping a record of life on his own terms.
I am fortunate to have known James Furman Bisher, and blessed to learn from his example — of living fully, with grace and spit.
Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer based in Decatur. She can be reached at email@example.com