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Very Sad News: Al Featherston Has Died

This one hurts.

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Birds in flight Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

I read Al Featherston a long time before I actually met him.

He starting writing for the Durham Sun long before the Herald and the Sun merged. He was an engaging writer and I always looked forward to his columns. They were clear and concise and not a wasted word. He was an outstanding columnist.

Later, when Boswell suggested we should start DBR, which we did in a newsletter before moving it to a Web site in 1996, Al, being an early adopter, was reading me. I didn’t know that for a while yet though and honestly I can’t remember when I first found out. I’m pretty certain though that he dropped me a line to make a kind point or correction. Al was a meticulous writer and a kind critic.

We began to e-mail back and forth and before he began to post stories for DBR, he was posting on our boards as Olympic Fan.

He started posting articles after he was fired by the Herald-Sun: in a truly despicable move, the people who bought the paper before McClatchy did fired a lot of people as soon as the sale went through. Al had a few minutes to gather his belongings and was escorted out of the building by a security guard.

It was outrageous and we posted an article saying as much. It was a bloodbath and while Al was canned Frank Dascenzo was retained. We compared that to the famous final episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show where everyone was fired except for Ted Baxter.

Frank, if you’re still out there, what can we say: we were angry. Sorry for making that comparison.

Al appreciated the defense, I think, and we began to talk more and he started to send articles over.

Typically he’d say something like “I had something I wanted to get off my chest about that” or “I just had a short piece about last night’s game.”

You’d open the e-mail and find a 3-5,000 word article, beautifully written, long but lean and always to the point. It was a revelation because, I realized later, columns really stifled him. The man thought expansively and was forced to write professionally, when you get down to it, in haikus instead of volumes. Newsprint really imposed some limitations in retrospect and it must have killed him to have a limit when he had so very much to say.

I think there were a few things that drew Al to DBR. First, he liked the culture, the fact that unlike a lot of sites, people could disagree without being insane. He felt very at home on the boards and up until a little while ago, posted frequently (we’ll get back to that in a minute).

And second, it was, well, it was a Duke site. When he was put on a State or UNC beat, Al did a great job because Al was a pro. He was always fair to everyone. No one ever had a beef with him about fairness because he was scrupulous about that. But he was a Duke man to his bones.

And third, I never gave Al any limitations or expectations. He was free to write anything he wanted of any length. We’d have taken a haiku if he had written one, but even his “short” pieces were long. He had complete freedom to do whatever he chose.

One of the highlights of talking to Al was that you got a constant history lesson. He’d tell you about Oscar Robertson in the Dixie Classic or Duke playing against Lew Alcindor, or tell you something about Everett Case or the history of Durham High School basketball (which is actually pretty great).

He went to every ACC tournament from the first one up until a year or two ago. He missed one for health reasons and then wasn’t crazy about going to New York if we recall correctly.

His ACC knowledge was encyclopedic. A lot of our conversations were him just saying, “Julian, _____ got that wrong today. Here’s what really happened.”

It reminds me a bit of a great book by a journalist named George Seldes called “Witness To A Century.” Seldes lived to 104 and he came in contact with historical figures from Mark Twain to Lenin to Tito to Hindenburg to Joe McCarthy. He spends a lot of time explaining where historians got things wrong which he could do because he was a first-hand witness. It’s a great book if you’re interested.

Well, Al was like that about the ACC. He knew it like no one else.

He was always a gentleman. He criticized me from time to time but in the kindest possible manner. I came to see him as a mentor since I never studied journalism. He gave me the basics and, indirectly, one of the nicest compliments I’ve gotten here.

When Tamir Goodman, aka The Jewish Jordan, was causing a sensation - Gary Williams told him he passed like he had eyes in his ass - I wrote a piece about him. Al told someone else that it was as good as anything in the papers.

That meant the world coming from him.

He was a gentleman in the finest sense and he was trusted by every sports faction in the Triangle which is no easy task. But the man could get angry.

He was deeply shocked and offended by the UNC academic fraud scandal and made several scathing comments about it in his columns here and in conversations. I think he found it incomprehensible and UNC’s reaction thoroughly disgusting.

At one point too he got angry with the posters on our boards here and stopped posting for a while.

At least I think that was the plan. I don’t think he meant to stop posting forever. He valued the discussion there and enjoyed the companionship he found on the boards. It’s just that his health prevented him from getting back. I’m pretty sure he wanted to, and I imagine as things got more difficult he really missed you guys. I think it would have been a comfort to share with you.

Without getting into the specifics of his decline (posting his health problems now seems like a real betrayal since he had no intention of doing so himself), he had a serious medical issue which caused some secondary complications. He didn’t feel he could live on his own anymore and told me was going to go into assisted living. He assured me that he was getting better and would be ready to write for DBR shortly. In turn I told him that he had a home here for as long as he wanted it. One of my secret perks was getting his columns and reading them before you guys got to. That was really wonderful and talk about easy edits. There were minor things but no major problems and never a factual mistake. Not a single one.

The last few times we talked though, rather than having long, rambling conversations, he would apologize and say that he didn't feel up to talking right then. We’d promise to talk again soon but given how he sounded, I wasn’t sure that we would. I didn’t know that he would die, but he was clearly not well.

So I got a call earlier Monday from a mutual friend who suggested visiting together. He was getting weaker and a much worse problem loomed.

We both wanted to but another call came at about 2:30 and Jason Evans, part of the DBR Podcast Crew, told me he was already gone.

I owe a debt to Al that I could never have paid. He gently mentored me and pointed out when I was being an idiot or incompetent (or both). He helped me more than I could possibly say. He was incredibly generous to me.

I’d like to think that giving him freedom to express himself however he wished was partial payment and I know that having a Duke community to belong to meant a lot to him. It doesn’t seem like a fair deal but he was pretty happy with it so maybe it was.

I’d like to close by just telling you how cool it was to grow up reading someone several times a week and recognizing not just a fine voice but a wonderful spirit - and then having that person treat you as an equal? As a colleague? To share his vast knowledge of not just sports but history and culture?

Al was extraordinary in a number of ways but at the root of all of that he was immensely decent. That might not sound like that much, but he didn’t have to try to be decent. It was innate.

He died on a Monday and I’m sure he would have relished Tuesday for two reasons: first to vote, because he had deep political convictions and would have voted if he could have and maybe he did by absentee. It’s nice to think he might have.

And secondly of course, Duke plays Kentucky Tuesday night. He would have enjoyed that immensely.

Death makes you wonder what happens after we leave of course and who knows? You can’t know until it happens and no one is in a rush to get there.

We like the idea of Al hanging around Cameron though, long enough to see this freshman class and maybe a few more wins over UNC. And maybe tell a few stories while he’s there.

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