Hearst-to-Hearst Talk with Megan Cain ’19 and Curry Kirkpatrick ’65

Megan Cain ’19 is off to San Francisco, one of 29 journalism students from across the country — and one of five from the Hussman School — to compete in the William Randolph Hearst Foundation’s 59th annual National Writing, Photojournalism, Radio, Television and Multimedia Championships June 1–6, 2019. On Tuesday, May 28, she spoke by phone with Hearst awardee Curry Kirkpatrick ’65, while he drove home to Hilton Head, South Carolina, from a Paul McCartney concert in Raleigh. Kirkpatrick, who penned iconic stories for Sports Illustrated for nearly 30 years and was recognized by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with a Curt Gowdy Media Award in 2001, was a Hearst award winner in 1964. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Curry: Congratulations on your Hearst stuff. You’re going to San Francisco what, tomorrow?

Megan: Leaving tomorrow so that I can spend a day or two with my aunt and uncle who live out there. And then we start our reporting on Sunday. And we have part of Tuesday to edit. And then we turn it all in on Wednesday morning. We find out If we won or not — or, how well we did — on Wednesday evening.

Curry: Oh wow. So it’s a competition, and you’re reporting yourself, and then you’re writing a story?

Megan: Yup. They put us through the long competition at school. Then they take the five finalists out there, and they have us compete all over again.

Curry: What do you report on? Do they give you a story? How does that work?

Megan: Yes, they gave us the topic of immigration. I’ve been calling people all day today to try to find someone to interview for my story. Because we only have a day-and-a-half to actually talk to people. I’ve been using the Internet like crazy today. I can’t imagine how I would have done my research and figured out all of these weird connections and people to call otherwise. So when you went out to do the competition: did they make you do something similar?

Curry: Oh, no no. This is a whole different world. You know, I’m like 120 years old. So this was in the mid-60s. I was writing for The Daily Tar Heel. And no, you didn’t know you were competing at all. The J-school asked for stories to send in to Hearst every month. At the end of the school year they decided which story was the best and they awarded first, second and third place in different categories. But you weren’t competing in that you weren’t reporting on site or breaking news, like you’re doing. None of that.

In my junior year [1963–64] I had written an editorial piece that got first place one month. And I got another first place win for the Kennedy assassination story that I did, a feature story on the reaction on campus to the assassination. We did it that day. In those days, The Daily Tar Heel was just four pages. President Kennedy had spoken at University Day the year before. So a year later when he was shot, it was such a shock. We put out a special edition of the paper. And the front page was nothing but a photo of him speaking at that University Day the previous year. There were news stories inside. And I did a full-page story on the back, of the reaction on campus.

And we had another guy named Jim Clotfelter who became a great editorial writer in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. after UNC. He won for another month. So the compilation of our wins made us the number one school at the end of the year. Which was great.

In those days the dean of the journalism school, his name was Norval Neil Luxon, had been dean for a long, long time. Because we were first in the country, Luxon got to go to the White House and was presented the Hearst award. And he got to meet President Johnson. So the first two finishers also got to go on that trip to Washington and got to meet the president. The third finisher — who was ME [laughing] — did not get to go.

Megan: Awwww. That sucks.

Curry: Yeah. The other two students: there was a guy from Tennessee and a girl I think from Ohio State [editor’s note: David Hall from the University of Tennessee and Jean Heller from Ohio State University are listed as 1964’s national first- and second-place writing winners alongside Kirkpatrick in third]. They also went on to terrific journalism careers. I know because I kept track of them. I tried to put the hex on both of them [laughing].

But it was a great time. The DTH ran stories about us winning, and included our pictures. It was quite an honor. We got some money, I remember that. And it really helped. For the last year of college. It wasn’t a lot of money. But you know, it was neat.

Megan: Do you remember how much they gave you all? Because what they give us now is so substantial.

Curry: No, this was not. What is substantial?

Megan: First place for the monthly competition, I got $3,000. And then competing out in San Francisco the grand prize for the finalists is $10,000.

Curry: Oh WOW.

Megan: I know, right? That’s why I’ve been researching all day today [laughing].

Curry: Good luck with that. Is it just one story that you have to do or one story and an editorial or something?

Megan: I do radio. So I’m going to be doing a two-minute piece. And then I have to cut it down to a 45-second-to-1-minute version of the story. So I only have to do one story, and I do two versions of it.

Curry: Are you going to go into radio or TV or what?

Megan: Well, I considered it but I actually have a job with an Australian sports media company in New York [FanHubMedia]. I got connected to them through this fellowship that I did between my sophomore and my junior year. It’s a really exciting opportunity where I get the fun of working for the big organizations like the NBA and Major League Soccer, and I get to work with them but I don’t get the bureaucracy of a big organization. I get to get into whatever I want.

Curry: Are you a senior?

Megan: I’ve graduated. I start in September. They gave me a grace period because I’m going to San Francisco. And then I’m going to report on an archaeological dig in Israel. And then I’m going to London to work for Major League Baseball.

Curry: For that Yankees/Red Sox game? That’s amazing.

Megan: Yes, I’m so excited. It’ll be so much fun. I’m happy. It will be cool.

[conversation turns to sports] Funny story. Coming into college, I knew that I was good at math. I knew that I was good at science. And I knew that I could write well. I thought I wanted to do some sort of science journalism. But in my very first week of college, I went to this presentation by a guy named Ricky May who runs the fellowship [Carolina Blue Honors Fellowship] that sent me to Australia after my sophomore year. He was basically talking about how he had this awesome career in sports. And I thought, “Oh my gosh. I can make a career out of sports? What?” So ever since then, I’ve been chasing a career in sports.

Curry: I grew up in St. Louis and then Niagara Falls, New York. My family moved when I was in high school. So I came to Chapel Hill because I wanted to get out of the cold weather. I was going to go to Duke. After we visited Duke, my Dad suggested we drive over to Chapel Hill. And I just loved the campus. I loved the town. I had it in the back of my mind to do journalism and Duke didn’t have a journalism school. So that’s how I ended up in Chapel Hill. They didn’t have much in the way of radio and TV at the time at all, Megan. So I didn’t do any of that. But if I was to do it over again, that’s what I would do.

Megan: Really? Why is that?

Curry: Sports Illustrated is about half of what it was. ESPN magazine folded completely, the website is the only thing they have in the writing field. It’s a sad affair, but that’s the way it is. The money has always been in TV.

I didn’t do any of that. We just had the journalism school.  It wasn’t connected to radio and TV. In my senior year I was a stringer for state newspapers in Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston- Salem in sports. Some of the football coaches for example would have weekly news conferences that had to be covered by those papers. They had me do those. I covered a few games. I wrote very short stories for those newspapers. And I still worked at The Daily Tar Heel my senior year. So then I went right to Sports Illustrated. I was there for about 30 years. That was it. And I loved it.

I left after the Barcelona Olympics. I went to work for Newsweek. I covered sports and entertainment. Did that for a couple of years. Then ESPN started their magazine. They called me and wanted me to work for their magazine, which I then did. It wasn’t like Sports Illustrated at all. It was very different. I wasn’t very happy.

So I started doing a lot of TV for ESPN. I’d go out and do feature stories, 5 to 10 minutes on a certain subject. You’d do a stand up. Go out and report it. That was so much fun. Because it was a collaboration. It was such a stark difference. At Sports Illustrated, you’d go out to do a story. Spend three or four days out on the road. Then I’d go back to the hotel and write a deadline story on Saturday night. It was such a lonely existence. You know, writing is lonesome. You’re out there all by yourself.

When we started doing the TV features, it was me and a producer and an audio guy and a cameraman. We all contributed to the stories as we worked them, and I kind of loved that collaboration. Then I’d go back and write the script. And writing a TV script is so much easier than doing a magazine story [laughing]. I mean. I just found it very easy to do.

If I had to do it over, I would go into TV rather than become a writer. But you know at the time, I didn’t really think about it. I got this job at Sports Illustrated, and it was just thrilling to go up there right out of college, live in New York and do the whole New York thing. And that was great. So that’s my life… I’m going on and on here.

But the collaboration was what was fun for me. Megan, you probably know this too with the radio gig. You know how that works.

Megan: I do the collaboration stuff. I think that’s why I enjoy it so much is because of the collaboration aspect of it. So I definitely know what you’re talking about.

This past semester, I took a feature writing print course because I knew the instructor would kick my butt into shape. And make me a better writer. I knew that my print skills were really rusty. So I totally get what you mean about the TV script being easier to write. Because you have video to write to. People are paying more attention to the video so you can play with it a little bit more. When you’re writing, all you have is your words. I feel like you have more tools in your toolkit when it comes to TV and radio. I’ve done both. I think radio is more fun for me. It’s a fun balance because you get to be a little bit more creative with radio because you’re not constrained by the pictures that you have. But that’s just me.

Curry: Yes, and I think that there is a huge difference in the disciplines. Because you have to be so much more concise for TV and radio. Quicker, get to the point. You can’t just ramble along as you can sometimes when you’re writing a piece. When I started doing [TV], it made me a better writer obviously. You had to be really well disciplined.

Curry: [asked about memorable stories] Well, at Sports Illustrated I did a story with the first President Bush at Kennebunkport about his love of sports. I got to go up and spend three or four days with him. We played golf and tennis and horseshoes. They took me out on the boat, and I met the family. That was quite an experience.

The sad part of this story was, we understood he was going to be on the cover. Great cover. We shot it there, he with some golf clubs. The cover billing was “The President at Play.” Someone from Sports Illustrated calls me at home and says “We’re not going with the Bush cover.” Because of John Daly, the fat hillbilly golfer from Arkansas who won the PGA that weekend: they put him on the cover instead of President Bush. With a little picture of Bush on the right corner. But I have the original cover. Nobody else has that. I have it. It’s framed and signed.

I also did a story on the star of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. An animal trainer named Gunther Gebel-Williams. He was a German. A longtime star of the circus. He was quite a character. He had these elephants and tigers and lions. In his closing act, he had three rings. He’d be in the middle ring. His wife was in right ring. And in the left ring he had his ex-wife.

So it turns out the memorable stories didn’t have much to do with sports. The president, and Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Megan: I was reading your story about the basketball player from LSU, Pistol Pete [Maravich], and I wanted to ask you. I was reading through and reading your style. Do you think print writing style has changed since you wrote that? I think it was published in 1968. What do you think has changed about print style and writing?

Curry: Are you talking about the first one I did on him? Because I did a number of stories about him.

Megan: It was the first one, about when he was in college at LSU.

Curry: Well, all of us had different styles at Sports Illustrated. And that’s what was so great about the magazine. At that time, it was such a writer’s magazine. Not any more: it’s really a photographer’s magazine now. We had great people writing there when I was there. And a couple of them were mentors to me. Dan Jenkins had come out of Fort Worth, Texas, to be a great golf and football writer. And a guy named Frank Deford — he lived in Westport, Connecticut, at the time that I lived in Connecticut — he became a great friend to me and was a real mentor. Both of them have died in the last year, which is really sad.

Frank was one of the great writers of anything—sports, news, whatever you want to write about. They were very close friends of mine, and I probably kind of copied both of their styles. I’m sure I did. They were such a great influence on me and on many other writers.

Megan: I was reading through it and I thought. Wow. Your voice is just so distinct, your writing has such a voice. And I was kind of envious. It does seem like they’re trying to make us a little more the same lately.

Curry: Frank Deford became quite known for NPR. He did radio. Megan you should listen to some of those, you can probably get them online. They were just terrific. Not long before he died, he recorded his last NPR editorial. It was about him retiring. He wanted it played at his funeral in Westport. So you heard his voice booming throughout the church. He was also on the sports documentary show on HBO with Bryant Gumble. He tried to get me on there. But they had their fill of reporters. I would’ve loved to do that.

I mean, if I’m starting now Megan, you know what my goal would be? To be on 60 Minutes. That would be the greatest job I could imagine.

As a matter of fact, the executive editor of Sports Illustrated now. A really great guy, a friend of mine. His name is John Wertheim. He now does pieces for 60 Minutes. He writes a ton of stories for Sports Illustrated. And he’s the executive editor. I don’t know how he finds the time. He’s just so prolific. He’s a voice.

When I go back and I look at that ’68 [Maravich] piece, I kind of cringe. I got so much better years later. My stuff is so much better than that. I did a story on Pete Maravich when he was in the pros. Towards the end of his career. He had terrible injuries early in his pro career. He never reached the heights that he had in college, because of the injuries. He first believed there were space creatures that were going to come down. Then he left that and became very religious. He died very young. He had a stroke shooting baskets with a church group in California. I wrote a page, kind of an obituary of him, after that. I got the greatest note in the mail after that piece ran, saying how much he loved the piece. It was from George Will, the political columnist. I was thrilled with that.

Pete’s story. Go look that up. I can’t remember when it was. That was one of the nicest stories I wrote, I thought. I really liked it. It was so much better than the first one.

Megan: I enjoyed the first one. I really did. So I’ll definitely go look up the other ones.

Curry: [back to Hearst Award] I don’t think the Hearst thing… I don’t even remember that being on my resume. Of course, remember, Sports Illustrated wanted me because I was a sports guy. I don’t even remember them mentioning that [Hearst Award]. Although I still think of it as a nice honor. They gave a little tiny desk — a clay thing — with an image of William Randolph Hearst. I still have it. It’s very small [laugher].

But if you get the $10,000, you gotta let me know.

Megan: Oh, I will. But I’m really hoping that I can produce a good solid story. That’s the main thing that I’m hoping for.

Curry: When I was in school, if I’d gotten a trip [to San Francisco] from the Hearst competition, I would have been just out of my shoes. I had never been to California when I was in college. The first trip I made was after getting into Sports Illustrated. I’d never been to California, I’d never been to a lot of places like that. You’re way ahead of the game.

Megan: College did the same thing for me. I’d never been anywhere out of the country. I think maybe I had been on a plane twice. That [Carolina Blue Honors] fellowship sent me all the way across the world to Australia.

Curry: Have a great time. Let me know what happens. Good luck, Megan.