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Sports Editor Bob West retires; leaves legacy of service

Published March 8, 2015

It’s hard to imagine empty, stark white walls in Bob West’s office.

Even harder to imagine is The Port Arthur News without Bob West sitting behind his desk, his confident voice booming as he talks on the telephone, reverberating around a small back office decorated with photographs taken during his longtime career as the paper’s sports editor.
Bob and Gov. Richards
For the past few days West has reluctantly started to clear his office, to take those framed memories down, along with a slew of awards and sports memorabilia hung in just about every nook and cranny of the cramped office. He knows the task is at hand because time is very quickly marching toward his last day before he retires from the job he’s held since 1971.

But, he hasn’t quite found the time — or the inclination — to pack them all away.

Each photo has a story to tell. Collectively, those walls could speak volumes about a man who not only rose to the top of his field, but helped many along the way with a love for community, and an illustrious list of contacts he’s amassed over the years.

“My dad taught me to hang around smart people and take notes. Bob is just that. He’s a great guy, a credit to his family, his community and his profession,” said Beaumont city councilman W.L. Pate Jr., who is the president of the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Foundation. “And, it didn’t hurt he married the prettiest girl at Lamar University, who has always been a delight.”

For nearly as long as he can remember, Pate knew Bob West. First, as his father, W.L. Pate Sr.’s friend, and then his friend.

Throughout the years, the three men have worked to promote endowed scholarship funds  for female athletes at Lamar University. The sixth and most recent was a $50,000 endowed scholarship in West’s name. All the scholarships funded by the Foundation, mostly from revenue raised at the annual Babe Didrikson Zaharias Golf Tournament and corresponding silent auction, featured sports memorabilia.

“Bob was always an integral part of the success of the Foundation. He played a key role with his contacts in the sports field, getting people to play, the items to auction off, whether it was rounds of golf at the Woodlands, A.J. Foyt’s driving suit, Joe Louis’s boxing gloves, trips and everything else,” Pate said. “We greatly appreciate Bob and Genie for all they’ve done for the Foundation.”

The ability to pick up the phone and bring sports greats like Bum Phillips, or Dan Pastorini to lend their celebrity to the golf tournament was something West could not have imagined when he first moved with his friend Dave Wilson from Missouri to Texas. Both had partial scholarships to play on Lamar University’s golf team, or Lamar Tech as it was known back then.

Wanting to escape Missouri’s frigid  winters, they had found out about Lamar from a golf pro in Columbia, Mo., named Al Chandler, who had played on Lamar Tech teams in the 1950s. He still had contacts, made a couple of phone calls and Bob and Dave were soon headed to Southeast Texas.

“When we got down here, we found out we were not good enough for the Lamar team, but it got us away from snow and ice,” West recalled.

Though West’s golfing stint at Lamar did not go as hoped, he found the school was a good fit, and so was the area. The year was 1965, and Houston’s Astrodome was about to open — quite an attraction for the sports enthusiast he was.

In short order, he took a part-time job at the Beaumont Enterprise, where he took calls from stringers covering Friday night football games in Louisiana.

“It felt like I had to learn a foreign language when they starting hitting me with names like Boudreaux and Quibodeaux,” he said.

Though a business major, West soon discovered his love of sports coupled with his natural ability to write, made him a natural for a sports reporter. He was also a natural to catch the eye of Genie Montie — a Lamar cheerleader, who in 1968 became his wife.

He changed his major to communications, was hired full time at the Beaumont Journal in 1967 and in 1971 took a job at The Port Arthur News to cover sports in Beaumont.

A year later, he was named sports editor — a position he has held for 43 years. Though West plans to continue writing a golf column, and be involved in another year of the “I Beat Bob West” football contest, today is his last full-time day.

West’s viewpoints at times were as controversial as his writing was good.

From the day he became sports editor, he vowed that all black Lincoln High School was going to get the same sports treatment as other schools the paper covered. Previously, a part-timer with little journalistic training had covered the Bumble Bees and reports on them were all too often not given the play West felt they deserved.

“My resolve was to cover the kids at Lincoln like any other school,” he said.  “It helped that they were going through a period of excellence in both basketball and football.”

Still, breaking racial barriers in the 1970s was not always popular. West still has a drawer full of letters, many of them vicious, written from people who did not want to see racial equality in the newspaper.
Through the years, West says, he was privileged to follow the careers of numerous Southeast Texas star athletes, many of which went on to play professionally.

Two of his favorites bookend West’s storied career. Lincoln’s Little Joe Washington was a high school All-America running back in 1971 who went on to shatter records at Oklahoma, then made a name for himself in the NFL, most notably with the Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins. Thirty plus years later along came  Memorial High School’s Jamaal Charles, who in 2014 became the Kansas City Chief’s all time leading rusher with 6,856 career yards.

“I always said the best high school football player I would ever see was Joe Washington,” West said.  “Well, Jamaal Charles proved me wrong. He broke Joe’s records in Port Arthur, and is still breaking records.  Jamaal is a wonderful young man, just a really classy guy. That’s also a trait he shared with Joe.

“I am so proud of Jamaal and so thankful to have had the opportunity to watch him go from being a really great high school player, to a star at the University of Texas, to become one of the NFL’s very best running backs.”

Many of the athletes he’s come to know have shared West’s wall space through the years with the people headlining The Port Arthur News Homecoming Roasts. That major fundraising initiative raised money for the Museum of the Gulf Coast, and helped keep Port Arthur on the national map.

Houston Oilers coach and Mid-County native Bum Phillips; Dallas Cowboys coach and Port Arthur native Jimmy Johnson; Lamar and Oklahoma basketball  coach Billy Tubbs and former Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars owner Thomas O. Hicks were among the sports legends who agreed to come to Port Arthur for the homecoming roasts.

Add to that political heavyweights like Texas Gov. Ann Richards, Southeast Texas’ own U.S. Congressman Jack Brooks and State Senator Carl Parker, along with renowned local attorney Walter Umphrey — all big names West was able to pull in to raise money for the museum.

To this day, West remembers the year Richards agreed to come and be roasted. At the same time, she lured presidential hopeful Bill Clinton by telling him she’d give her endorsement if he participated in her roast  in Port Arthur.

Clinton came and so did all the national media covering his campaign. When Richards announced her endorsement of him from Umphrey’s airplane hanger at Jack Brooks Airport, it was beamed live on all the major networks and cable outlets.

“Because of their presence, C-SPAN televised our roast. It put Port Arthur on the map,” West said.
The roasts also played a big part in putting the museum in its current Procter Street location.
“We needed about $2 million and about $700,000 was raised by the roasts,” said Sam Monroe, a museum board member who was instrumental in its creation.

“Bob is an excellent writer, and most writers of his stature are not willing to use their influence in the community the way Bob does,” Monroe said. “I think he really likes being here in Port Arthur and supports the community. The museum is a good example of that.”

Ask West and he’ll describe his first encounter with the late Ann Richards —whose razor-sharp wit propelled her to a national spotlight. As good natured as she was funny, Richards wound up being part of five homecoming roasts.

Of all the sports legends he’s come to know along the way, perhaps none is dearer to West than Bum Phillips.

When the  “Luv Ya Blue,” movement was sweeping Houston, West was there covering the Oilers, and even traveling with them, during a run of success led by Phillips. West remembers the time as a highlight of his career — a time that provided opportunity to get to know Phillips, who would become a good, and admired, friend.

In Phillips’ honor, The Port Arthur News, led by West, introduced the Bum Phillips Bowl trophy. Awarded to the winner of Mid-County Madness, the unique trophy features a football with Phillips’ signature cowboy hat on top.

While West said the highlight of his career was being with Bum Phillips during the “Luv Ya Blue” era, there is another time he will never forget.

Of all the awards he’s won — and there have been many, including two for Texas Sports Writer of the Year  — he’s most proud of The Good Samaritan Award presented by the Beaumont Texas Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

West was recognized by the group for going above the call of duty to make a young man’s life brighter.
David Hanchett, a Lincoln High School football player, had suffered a paralyzing injury late in a 1975 game that left him a quadriplegic. With the family desperately needing money for mounting medical bills, West penned a column about the young man’s plight.

It got the attention of area school districts, who pitched in with a series of fundraisers to benefit Hanchett. West also got Phillips’ attention.

“Bum had the best heart. He made his players aware of David’s plight and the fact he was being cared for in Houston. Bum and many of the players would go by and visit him at the Texas Institute of Research and  Rehabilitation.”

When Phillips discovered Hanchett’s favorite football team was the Cleveland Browns, he took it upon himself to give the youngster a day he would never forget. Bum called Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell to get his blessing, then arranged for Hanchett to be brought to the Oilers season finale against the Browns and taken to midfield to call the coin toss.

“David’s smile that day lit up the Astrodome,” said West, who still gets emotional when recalling the scene. “Of all the writing awards and everything else I have been a part of, bringing happiness to this kid’s life was a special deal. That made me aware of the things you can do with the platform of being a writer who has influential  contacts.”

A sad footnote to the story is that Hanchett would die two years later.

Though West is slowing down, he’s not finished helping the community he loves, and he’s not ready to quit sports completely.

On June 13, after a 13-year hiatus, West will be front and center at another Port Arthur News Homecoming Roast — this one for Jamaal Charles. He’ll celebrate his 71st birthday three days later and feels it’s time to slow down.

“Retiring was a very difficult decision. I still love writing. The business is changing, especially from a technological standpoint. It’s time for me to pass the torch,” West said.

And, while he plans to continue on a part-time basis, time may be in short supply between the added golf games he plans to get in, and the honey-dos Genie is planning.

“I’ve already got my assignment to help get things ready for a big garage sale. So folks, be watching, the sale is coming soon,” West said.

Just don’t look for there to be any of his treasured memorabilia in the sale. West plans on keeping his  collection at home, although he said some of it will probably end up in the Museum of the Gulf Coast. One item that won’t be there at the museum any time soon, however, is the signed photo from Ann Richards that referenced his persistence in getting her to keep returning for the roasts.

“To my good friend Bob West who can get most of us to do anything,” Richards wrote.
Email: sherry.koonce@panews.com
Twitter: skooncePANews