Bud Kennedy

Dan Jenkins: From Paschal High School to the originator of modern sports journalism

Services are Friday for writer and storyteller Dan Jenkins, known to the world as the greatest sports journalist of his era and locally for his passion for Colonial golf, the TCU Horned Frogs and all things Fort Worth.

Jenkins, 90, died Thursday night in Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center in Fort Worth, barely a mile from the old Paschal High School campus where he and late novelist Bud Shrake wrote spoof columns in the high school newspaper, the Pantherette.

A memorial service is planned at 11 a.m. Friday at Christ Chapel Bible Church, 3701 Birchman Ave. Arrangements will be handled by Greenwood Funeral Home.

In a 70-year career that took him from manual typewriters to Twitter, he wrote more than 20 books about sports, life and often, Fort Worth.

His 1972 pro football novel “Semi-Tough” launched his fiction and screenwriting career and became a Burt Reynolds movie. Jenkins’ novels “Dead Solid Perfect” and “Baja Oklahoma” also became 1980s movies, the latter premiering at the Ridglea Theater and starring a teenage Julia Roberts.

He is remembered at TCU with a journalism scholarship and in the name of the football stadium press box, and at the University of Texas at Austin with the Dan Jenkins Medal for Excellence in Sportswriting..

“All I do is show up and give somebody some medals,” Jenkins joked.

“It’s the best of all possible worlds,” he said — “a degree from TCU and an honor from UT!”

He made the Jenkins Medal sound as easy as a tap-in putt at Worth Hills, the old Fort Worth public golf course he dubbed “Goat Hills.”

UT produced a video biograohy, “By Dan Jenkins.”

Jenkins’ storytelling days began on the Pantherette and the old Fort Worth Press, an evening newspaper at 501 Jones St. that also produced Shrake, the late writer Gary Cartwright and sports columnist Blackie Sherrod.

When sports fandom was growing in the 1960s, Jenkins wrote his way up to New York and Sports Illustrated.

“I think he’s the most important college football writer ever, and I think he’s the most important golf writer ever,” said Michael MacCambridge, the Austin-based author of “The Franchise,” a history of the magazine’s 1960s rise and influence on America.

Since 1985, Jenkins had delivered one-liners for Golf Digest, first in print and, since 2009, on Twitter.

“Here you have somebody who was at the 1935 TCU-SMU game … who is now tweeting from golf tournaments.” MacCambridge said, referring to what was then considered college football’s greatest game.

“He’s reinvented himself for the 21st century.”

In a 2018 interview with Star-Telegram columnist Mac Engel, Jenkins said: “I haven’t done anything other than type and know people. I spent a lifetime, six or seven decades, not only typing for a living but cultivating sources.”

At the time, he was working on another book.

“I can still type, and the reason I still write is because I don’t want to lose this,” he said, tapping his head. “I want to keep my mind active. I don’t believe in retirement. Everybody who retires too early dies too early.”

As reaction rolled in Friday, golfer J.J. Henry of Fort Worth wrote on Twitter: “His professionalism, humility, personality, humor, and above all his love of people and the world of sports will be dearly missed.”

In earlier interviews, Jenkins has talked about everything from food (“I hate fajitas!”) to Fort Worth (“Where else can you find a cowboy in a museum?”).

Jenkins’ mother sold antique furniture in her shop at 2526 Hemphill St., but he mostly grew up with his grandparents in the 3600 block of Travis Avenue near West Biddison Street. He learned golf at the old Katy Lake course where the La Gran Plaza shopping center is now.

His grandfather, E.L. Jenkins, was a 1930s federal marshal at the U.S. courthouse downtown, and had been a barber who cut Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter’s hair.

“Everybody in the family played golf,” he said.

“To me, there were three major sports in Texas — high school football, college football and golf.”

‘Never had a bad day’

He grew up in an oil-rich 1930s Fort Worth that must have felt like the center of the universe. Carter’s newspaper-radio empire (WBAP) and friendship with humorist Will Rogers drew national celebrities leading up to the 1936 Frontier Centennial fair celebrating Texas’ centennial, and the Horned Frogs won two national championships.

Fort Worth was the home of superstars. Ginger Rogers had gotten her start by winning a 1925 Charleston dance contest at the old Majestic Theater downtown. The runner-up was Weatherford teenager and future Broadway star Mary Martin.

In 1927, teenage golfer Byron Nelson had sunk an 18-foot putt on the ninth hole of a playoff to beat the younger Hogan in the caddies’ championship at Glen Garden Country Club, now the golf course for Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co.’s new Whiskey Ranch events center and TX Whiskey distillery.

“I lived in the sports capital of the world,” Jenkins said in 2018.

“ … Everything keeps pulling me back to the ’30s and ’40s, being a teenager. I’m so glad I didn’t miss that part of history.”

When an aunt put a typewriter on the kitchen table, little Dan began retyping newspaper sports stories out of the Star-Telegram and Press.

At Paschal, he and Shrake wrote a spoof column in the Pantherette making fun of a Star-Telegram sports writer. Then-Press sports writer Julian Read says he showed it to sports editor Sherrod, who hired Jenkins out of high school for $25 a week.

“The Press was the essence of old-time newspapering, like the movies,” said Read, who went on to become the press secretary to Gov. John B. Connally and a political consultant in Austin.

“The Star-Telegram carried the scores. So that created the climate for The Press to offer something different. It became an incubator for creative writing. … Dan was as funny in person as he was in print.”

Jenkins was a friend and golf partner to six U.S. presidents, particularly George H.W. Bush.

When Bush died Nov. 30, Jenkins said: “He was one of the truly great Americans, and not just because he read my books and became my friend. He served in more capacities than almost anyone ever, from WWII hero to president … but mostly the guy I knew was a kind, sweet person with a wonderful gift of humor.”

Jenkins talked with young sportswriters and journalists often, and his advice was consistent:

“Don’t get in it for the money,” he said — “Get in it for the love.

“Do a job you love your whole life. Most people hate their jobs. … I’ve never had a bad day. I’ve never had a day when I didn’t want to go to work.”

Jenkins is survived by his wife June, sons Danny and Marty, and daughter Sally, an award-winning sports columnist for The Washington Post.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy.

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