The golden oak table in my boyhood Bellingham home figured in the golden years of American magazine journalism, serving as the desk from which my mother composed articles and files for Sports Illustrated.
She spent years trying to convince SI editors at Time/Life New York to cover outdoor activity and not just what she called “sweaty socks sports.” These editors were, however, into skiing and Dolly sent off posts on crowd size on the slopes plus a memorable piece on the since discontinued July 4 Slush Cup at Mt. Baker.
The breakthrough on outdoor coverage came when she covered Sen. Robert Kennedy’s first ascent of the 13,000-foot Yukon peak named for his late brother. Big Jim Whittaker gave RFK a crash climbing course. Kennedy was a quick learner. He took to the sport and succeeded in summiting.
The expedition produced my mother’s finest writing. She climbed to the 11,000 foot level and conveyed Kennedy’s emotions, and later rafted the Yampa and Green Rivers of Dinosaur National Monument with the Kennedy and Whittaker families. Sports Illustrated was home to fine writing and often-spectacular photography.
Alas, the greatness is long gone. SI let go its last photographer in 2015. The magazine’s latest operator laid off much of the staff this past Friday. The Sports Illustrated moniker may live on only as a marketing tool.
The culture was far different in days when SI had more than 3 million subscribers. When the magazine bit on a story idea from my mother, they would fly a photographer out from New York. Dolly, herself an accomplished shooter, seethed at not being entrusted to do the picture taking herself. Expense accounts were a part of life at Time-Life. The visiting shooter would often visit Eddie Bauer for a new outfit, at company expense.
I remember photographer John G. Zimmerman, who had decorated SI with awesome surfing shots, arriving to shoot canoe races off Lummi Island. As well, he arranged to photograph a dance troop of Lummi Reservation girls in native garb. Zimmerman focused, then started laughing; “I can’t shoot this. They’re wearing white pumps”
It was a mark of an athlete’s prestige to be on the cover of SI. But there was also the famous Sports Illustrated cover jinx. Ken Griffey, Jr., was among athletes to suffer injury soon after gracing the cover. Baseball teams were knocked out of postseason play, race car drivers crashed, and NFL teams were defeated in Super Bowls.
Sports Illustrated featured fine investigative work on topics ranging from racism to head injuries to athletes. It also had a feature called “Faces in the Crowd.” A source of great pleasure for my mother was getting a shot of an achieving teenage athlete into a national magazine.
Sports Illustrated covered women’s’ athletics. I recall its compelling shots of the great lithe 1960’s runner Wilma Rudolph. It also uncovered women resulting in massive sales of the annual swimsuit issue. Future First Lady Melania Trump was pictured embracing an inflatable orca whale.
However, weekly magazines were centers of guy culture. The family headed to New York for my mother to receive a correspondent-of-the-year award. She was received by Henry Luce. During the recognition event, however, one editor referred to her as “our little scout” in the far Northwest. My Brooklyn-born father said she should view it as an honor. But I had to talk her down, as a teenager getting a lesson in absorptive listening.
Our family experienced one tasty side benefit. In the pre-email world, Dolly’s files would be sent off “Night Press Rate —Collect” from the Bellingham office of Western Union. Local staff were fascinated by her work. Friendships formed. One Christmas Day, Joe from the office appeared on our doorstep with a gift. He had been fishing on the Skagit that and brought us a steelhead.
Overall, I would agree with writer Rick Reilly’s assessment of Sports Illustrated as told to the New York Times: “I believe it is one of the best magazines ever to exist, with some of the best photographers, editors, and writers that have ever brought to the business.”
Alas, the publications that allow to flourish great writers and great photographers have a limited shelf life these days.