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Canzano: Giving thanks to a long, lost mentor
It's been eight years since Charlie Waters died.
It’s been eight years since Charlie Waters died. I think of the guy all the time and occasionally run into someone in this business who knew him like I did.
Charlie was my mentor.
Lung cancer killed him.
He was 66.
Charlie adored his wife, Linda, and raved about his children and grandchildren. He loved sports, cigarettes and journalism. He worked as the executive editor of Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, The Fresno Bee, The Reno Gazette-Journal and the Las Vegas Review Journal during his career. At his core, though, he was a writing coach.
When I met Charlie in the summer of 1999 I was done with the newspaper business. I was burned out after a year spent driving through the snow in small midwestern towns, covering Indiana University basketball and Notre Dame football as a beat reporter.
I quit and cleaned out my apartment. I couldn’t get far enough away, fast enough. I climbed into my car in the middle of the night and drove non-stop, 14 hours, to Tallahassee. I applied to graduate school at Florida State and took a minimum-wage job working the magazine rack at a Barnes & Noble bookstore.
That’s where Charlie Waters discovered me.
Blame him if you loathe my work. Credit him if you love it. Because he summoned me from across the country and roped me back into this business with a single conversation one afternoon.
“You don’t know it,” Charlie said, “but you’re a columnist.”
It’s his voice I still hear after I’ve finished writing a column, wondering what I could have done better. I hear it right now, in fact.
John Rich, the legendary sports editor of The Fresno Bee, gets an assist. I’d sent him a resume and some examples of my work a year earlier. He didn’t have an opening. He could have tossed it. Instead, Rich tucked the folder in his desk drawer, and showed it to Waters one day.
The Bee was a mid-major newspaper in the 1990s, with a circulation above 100,000. It punched above its weight, sort of like Gonzaga basketball. Adrian Wojnarowski was my predecessor as the lead sports columnist, for example. Pulitzer winner John Branch was my successor.
Andy Katz covered the basketball beat when I signed on to write columns. When he left for ESPN, Charlie found Eric Prisbell, then hired Jeff Passan. He mentored Marek Warszawski, David White and Anthony Witrado, too. The copy editors at The Bee were outstanding. The product was terrific. I feel so fortunate to have been plucked from a mall bookstore in Florida — drowning in 5x7 magazine inserts — and pulled onto Charlie’s life boat.
Charlie enjoyed finding talent, then coaching and cultivating it. Branch, now at The New York Times, was a late bloomer in the business who worked at Costco. Prisbell was a youthful New Jerseyan, consumed with reporting. So much so, that he’d park, hop out of his car on the way to a big interview, engine still running, and accidentally lock the doors with the keys still in the ignition.
I saw him do that very thing — twice.
It’s Thanksgiving morning. I was struggling with what to write. I typically like to tell a heartfelt story on a big holiday. I always have a few good columns in the works. My wife came into the room as I was mulling topics, and wondering what my old friend Charlie might have advised, and she said “You should write about Charlie.”
Without him, I wouldn’t be posting here. I wouldn’t have worked at six newspapers. I’d never have been hired to cover the NFL and MLB at The San Jose Mercury News or encountered the talented Peter Bhatia, another wonderful leader, mentor and friend, who gave me a platform at The Oregonian.
I wouldn’t have moved to Oregon without Charlie and started covering the Pac-12. I wouldn’t have met my wife, Anna. I wouldn’t have the three daughters who light up my days. It’s basically the “Butterfly Effect.”
Charlie Waters flapped his wings and here I am.
I worked three-plus years for Charlie. When I arrived at the office, I’d often find him standing on the steps of the loading dock behind the newspaper building, dragging on a cigarette. He loved to talk. I’d stand there and absorb his wisdom. He’d challenge me to be better, to take calculated risks, and to develop more than one pitch.
“Sometimes,” he reminded me, “a game is just a game. Everyone tries to make so f**cking much out of everything.”
Have you laughed at something I wrote? Learned something? Felt something? That’s Charlie’s influence. He encouraged me to write humor one day, then bang my shoe on the table the next. Then, make you cry. Then, dive into an investigative piece.
Charlie called me: “Ace.”
He taught me all the pitches.
In 2009, when the Associated Press Sports Editors selected me as the No. 1 sports columnist in the country, Charlie was my first phone call. When I thanked him, he said “You don’t owe me anything, I had very little to do with it.”
He was wrong.
He had everything to do with it.
Charlie Waters has been dead for eight years. I still hear his voice. Maybe you have — or had — a mentor like him. Someone who believed in you before you did. Someone who recognized your talent and invested in it. Today is a good day to pick up the phone, or shoot a text or, like me, just spend a few minutes telling others how fortunate you were to know them.
We had the best talks on that newspaper loading dock.
Charlie told me once: “Your job doesn't love you. Your job won't kiss you, it won’t hug you. But your family will.”
I’m so thankful we crossed paths.
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