This may well come across as a big chunk of self-aggrandizement, but it is my hope you’ll discover my true intent before we are done. Several weeks ago I was piddling in my office, with the Alabama-Auburn football game playing to my side, and the ‘old man’ in me creeped out. I’ve been to dozens of Tide-Tiger games and back when the two played at Birmingham’s Legion Field there has never been anything as fine wearing a football helmet.
There came one particular year, this in the late ‘70s, when Bill Lumpkin, a dear friend who was the sports editor of the Birmingham Post-Herald before it merged with the News after its demise, had a big crowd of the Southern writers out for a brunch before the 2:30 whistle. I’ll testify boldly that no one could match the four-cheese omelet, the long-forgotten vow that the only beverage drinks were iced tea, iced coffee, or iced water. And, oh, at every table would be a platter of sliced tomatoes and Vidalia onions that had been refrigerated all night long. My oh my!
I guess I wasn’t the first to go for seconds but I was in the top three. Our hostess would take the perfect spices, and it was delightful. She’d cook biscuits, halving then and flipping the tops upside down so she could fill the shells with maybe 15 different kinds of her homemade preserves.
On this day I’d slipped back to the big table for seconds, more grits and Lord have mercy her preserves, when Clyde Bolton followed me and got me in a corner. Clyde, who won more writing awards than the Birmingham News ever had pages, told me that a handful of the Alabama writers wanted me to do them a favor. Well, I was suspecting Candid Camera to jump out from under the table or something, but Clyde was all business.
He told me that John Croyle, a big, rangy defensive end under Bear Bryant, had forsaken a chance in the NFL to open a boy’s home, Big Oak Ranch, and while story after story would melt your heart, John needed a little push. My Alabama writers wanted me to write a story, and then send it around to our sports-writing brethren all over the South, with the idea all of them would then try mighty to talk it into their Sunday editions.
I asked him, ‘Have you fallen and hit your head?’ and Clyde said I was the one amongst us who could tug heart strings. “This ain’t to give you the big head … it is just what needs to be done.” I told him I’d never been as flattered or humbled in my life and, yessir, I’d give it a twirl. “But if every editor turns the story down, you still owe me two beers somewhere down our road.”
I guess it was a couple of weeks later when I left home before sun up to meet John and visit the Big Oak Ranch for the first time. I saw it, I felt it, and I loved it. I am also proud that on that day I started crying only 43 times because some men have to wander off for 30 minutes or more to regain their grip. Like I say, I stayed the day and got back to Chattanooga around 10 that night. I remember I was so moved I didn’t even listen to the radio driving back up I-59 towards home.
Instead of going to the house, I went to the paper’s office that night and with all quiet and still, I wrote my heart out for the boys at Big Oak Ranch. I switched paragraphs, which at the time you did with a pair of scissors and a glue pot. I put something funny between two tragedies. I made up quotes for Croyle, and I combed that story time and time again.
Finally, I took it to our composing room, and told Mr. Ralph I needed 50 copies. We sent it out Special Delivery and then it was like waiting in labor and delivery. Golly, what if I laid an egg? That Sunday the story of Big Oak Ranch was told across the South and let me just say a bunch of hairy-legged sports writers had us a time.
It gets better. Several weeks go by and, ‘boom!’, I get a call from Reader’s Digest, wondering if I would consider allowing them to reprint it. Is a pig’s ear pork? You mighty right, I told the lady and, I can admit it now … not a one of us knew what we were getting into. First, I just thought they wanted to use it – no problem – but then they sent a contract, buying the story rights for a wad of cash by the inch. Whoo-wee!
Soon a fact-checker called then-Alabama football coach Ray Perkins to validate a quote and ‘Perk’ asked who wrote it. “Roy Exum,” came the reply and Ray said, “Yes ma’am, I said it.” Excuse me sir, don’t you want to know what it says? “If Roy wrote it I said it,” Ray answered. Well the story reads … and she read the quote … and Perkins was trying hard not to guffaw. “This is the fourth time I am telling you I said it … if you need any more quotes just call Roy.” (The Reader’s Digest people still laugh about it … and I do, too.)
Soon we were getting close to the press date. Imagine, 9 million copies in almost 50 languages. At the last minute I get a call that informs me the weak ones on the issue team are demanding Big Oak Ranch’s address and whereabouts be struck from the international public domain or some such nonsense. rural Alabama and that something wonderful is happening. If you can’t realize what that means to some great people, strike the story, and fill the pages with pictures of big trees, bowling tips, or whatever,” I told the lady in my plea. Lordy, my lordy … biggest gamble ever but Reader’s Digest had worked so hard … I couldn’t imagine them tossing the story in the can.
Ten or 12 days of silence was duly noted until I received a “Rush At All Cost.” It was more than a minute or two before I could open. Inside was the newest edition of the monthly magazine, which included the Big Oak address.
Not only was there a magazine with my story as its feature, there was a fistful of other Reader’s Digest magazines in foreign languages with my story. But the biggest fall on your knees and praise a living Christ? In the 12 months that followed the publication date, the boys at Big Oak Ranch received, in mostly $5 to $10 donations from every corner of the world, over $1 million dollars. France, Yugoslavia, the Ukraine, China, Lisbon – you name it. Eventually it would become over two million and, believe it or not, it still trickles in.
It has now been 40 years since that Alabama-Auburn game and there has been a lot of water flowing downstream. As I sat in my office the other day, the TV sound muted so I could listen to my longtime buddy Eli Gold call the play-by-play, and I came to the conclusion that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world who was “guided” yes please, to go back for seconds one Saturday at the Lumpkins’ table.
Better put, I know it was a God thing. There is no other explanation.
* * *
To send Christmas donations address your envelope to: Christmas 2018, Big Oak Ranch, 6000 Shelley Drive, Springville, AL 35146. For further information, call 205/467-6266.