PEACHTREE CITY – When a life is over, we gather together and remember the good days and the good times, and we toast treasured memories.
When family and friends congregated here last week to say goodbye to Jesse Outlar, longtime sports editor and columnist of the Atlanta Constitution, most of the remembrances were spiced with humor.
Any characterization of Jesse’s life and career was linked, too, with his being a nice man. He was, indeed, a gentleman — truly a nice guy. As a sports writer, Jesse preferred to celebrate, but he would take a coach or a player to task when the situation called for it.
In the fifties, when he became sports editor of the Constitution, he was one of the most popular columnists in the South. Much of that had to do with the fact that those were prime years for the newspaper business. Television was prominent, but it didn’t dominate people’s habits, especially with regard to sports, as it would in subsequent years. Jesse’s popularity also had to do with the fact that he had an easygoing style, usually finding an angle to toast the men of sports and the games they played.
Growing up in the South Georgia town of Omega (“Nine miles from Tifton and a hell of a long way from Alpha,” a fellow journalist once quipped), Jesse was the son of a school teacher and a deputy sheriff, who, like Jesse several years later, faced a gunman whose values for life were greatly skewed.
Because of his mother’s literary influence, Jesse became an avid reader. He would read sports books for pleasure and information but became an expert on Hemingway, for example. When his house in Chamblee burned, Jesse wasn’t frustrated by the loss of any possession of value — what he lamented was the loss of his considerable library.
In recent years when he became a virtual shut-in at his home on Loblolly Circle in Peachtree City, he kept reading books. He had a sharp and inquiring mind right on up to the end.
Jesse was graduated from the University of Georgia with a journalism degree. He got to know Coach Wallace Butts and the Georgia coaching staff when he worked as a waiter in old Memorial Hall, where the athletic association offices were then located.
This was Butts’s heyday. He became known as the “Bowl Master,” winning Georgia’s first championship and taking his team to the Rose Bowl. Those were high times in Athens. Jesse wrote about his favorite coach in the school paper, the Red and Black. Later, he found many opportunities to write about his good friend as a sports columnist in Atlanta. When Butts fell on hard times, nobody supported or defended the Bulldog coach like Jesse did.
Jesse loved a good line, as they say, and authored many himself. One of his best had to do with the length of the professional basketball season. “If the NBA had had anything to do with World War II,” Jesse wrote, “Germany and Japan would still be in it.”
In the fall of 1974, Jesse covered the Atlanta Falcons-San Francisco 49ers game. After writing his column, he left for his car in the parking lot. Shortly thereafter, a young thug reached for Jesse’s brief case, which contained nothing but papers. Jesse was offended and refused to hand over the brief case. The kid shot Jesse in the stomach, but he made a miraculous recovery. When Jesse was unable to pick his assailant out of a police lineup, the kid went free.
In those days, Jesse’s Saturday morning column in the fall was devoted to picking winners of the major college games, a fact which gave me the opportunity to kid him. “After reading your Saturday morning football picks all these years, I’m not surprised you couldn’t pick out the guy who shot you.”
Jesse laughed loudest at that quip and often used it in his speeches across the state. Two significant passions were perhaps what contributed to his longevity. He loved life, and he loved a good laugh.
[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]