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A fond memory, a man who offered a hand up, and modern-day bullying

by Tim McGuire, McGuire on Media

wrote this piece for my hometown newspaper, The Mt Pleasant Morning Sun. It appeared Sunday, May 13. I reprint it here for my regular followers. Read this to understand the controversy to which I refer.

I have followed the recent controversy at my alma mater, Sacred Heart Academy, with keen interest.

I have passionate feelings about the decision not to let Dominic Sheahan speak at the 2012 graduation ceremonies, but for many, those opinions would distract from the point of this commentary. I wouldn’t want to do that.

While I have empathy for everyone caught in this crossfire, my prayers and emotional connection have largely been with a man who I am quite certain has been saddened and hurt by events of the last month, Dominic’s grandpa, Jerry Sheahan.

Jerry Sheahan is one of the most pivotal figures in my blessed life. I have never publicly told him that. In this very difficult month for Jerry, and before either of us pass; it strikes me as important to tell him and the world. I also think the tale carries larger lessons for all of us.

I was born in Mt. Pleasant in 1949 with Arthrogriposis Multicongenita, a congenital birth defect that deformed my limbs. I required braces and almost annual surgeries.

One spring day in 1956 Jerry Sheahan called my dad, Jim McGuire, and asked if Tim could be batboy for Sheahan’s highly successful Little League baseball team. Sheahan and his co-coach (the late) Bob Wohlscheid were both parishioners at Sacred Heart. They had known my parents, Jim and Anita, for years.

Without much notice, a uniform appeared at the house and that evening I was in the Roosevelt Oil team’s dugout. I arrived at the West Side stadium that night more than a little confused. Jerry briefed me on my duties and I tentatively followed his instructions. I vaguely knew only a couple of the players. The game had barely begun when a photographer from the local newspaper, the Mt Pleasant Daily Times-News, showed up at the game.

The photographer took one picture of my back looking onto the field. My omnipresent braces are prominent in the photo. The second picture the paper published showed me handing a bat to a player well more than a head taller than me (Joe Feldman) and the caption said I told him to hit a homerun.

Both captions took considerable liberties describing me as a “gallant sparkplug’ and decreeing I “handled the bats like diamonds.” At the time I was no gallant sparkplug and I don’t think I had the good sense to tell anyone to hit a home run.

There would come a day, however, when I did handle those bats like diamonds and all those characterizations would become more or less true. Roosevelt Oil (later Leonard Refinery) and Little League became an integral part of my springs and summers for the next five years. Usually the season was close to complete by the time I headed for my annual summer surgeries and casts. I still remember minute details of games, seasons and players.

If the players regarded me as an oddity I never felt it for a moment. My sense of team and self-esteem was as strong as the fastball of the star pitcher, John Schade. I fondly remember team picnics at amusement parks and other team outings. I was always front and center in team photos and celebrations. To this day, my good friend Mick Natzel, talks about when we “played” Little League together.

Sheahan and Wohlscheid accomplished their probable goal. The sports-crazed little kid who would never play baseball felt like he belonged to a team. I never felt like the lonely, handicapped boy. Sheahan, Wohlscheid and the players made me feel as if I had a real role with a championship team.

These days I read a lot about the dramatic increase of shameful bullying in schools. It angers me and saddens me that some youngsters are harassed to the point of suicide.

News stories like that make me reflect on two things. First, I reflect on the two young girls I remember in school that were unmercifully teased. Every time I read one of those stories I have a major pang of regret that I never helped them.

Yet, I know why I didn’t. I was just so bloomin’ grateful that I wasn’t the one the other kids were teasing.

That’s when I marvel at how little I was picked on as a young kid even though I “walked funny.” I am convinced much of that was due to my young friends in the community. Practically every kid under 12 knew the batboy for Roosevelt Oil and they knew his team liked him. With the frequent help of my young friends from my Little League team, Mike Hackett, Bill McDonald and my brother Marty I survived those prepubescent years in fine shape. I knew there were always people there to help me.

Jerry Sheahan and Bob Wohlscheid with one big act of kindness offered me a hand up. It changed my young life. I salute Jerry and Bob and I salute all my friends who saved me from bullying.

At the same time I wonder if there is a youngster each of us could save from bullying by caring as much as Jerry and Bob did. And, I wonder if we’re coaching our kids enough to stand up for those youngsters around them who are getting the short end of the stick.

Tim McGuire is a Mt Pleasant native who retired as Editor of The Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2002. He is now The Frank Russell Chair for the Business of Journalism at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.