Earnest Reese’s funeral was attended by a man who’d never met Earnest Reese but who, having met the son he raised and heard the son speak of the father, got on a plane in Los Angeles and wound up in McDonough, Ga., at 11 a.m. Wednesday. The traveler was J. Michael Ortiz, and he’s the president of Cal Poly Pomona.
“I got the e-mail [regarding Reese's death last week] from Renford,” Ortiz said, “and I thought, ‘I need to be there.’ ”
(According to Renford Reese, the e-mail included a link to our obit and the message: “This is the man who molded me.”)
Dr. Renford R. Reese, distinguished professor of political science, was Cal Poly Pomona’s faculty member of the year in 2011. He played football and took his undergrad degree and his Masters at Vanderbilt; he earned his Ph.D from Southern Cal; he’s an author and a playwright. He’s also Earnest Reese’s son, and here I’m going to stop referring to him as Earnest. Because none of us at the AJC ever called him that.
To us, he was “E.” (Sometimes “Ernie,” but mostly just “E.”) We saw him as a colleague, but we knew him as a prince. When he arrived at the paper in 1974, he became the first black sportswriter at a major Southeastern daily, so automatically that made him a Big Deal. Thing was, E never acted like a big deal. The word “humility” was invoked at his funeral, and it was apt.
At his retirement ceremony in 2003, E claimed he’d never been a superstar among sportswriters — there were thousands of folks who followed the smaller colleges in this state who’d have disputed the point — but then gave the best description of what we do that this correspondent has ever heard. E loved getting up and coming to work, he said, because “we get to create something new every day.” (And we do: Tomorrow’s paper is never like yesterday’s.)
Sportswriters tend to tick people off: Write something nice about one school and the rival school hates your guts. No one ever said an unkind word or held an unkind thought about E, and that includes the folks in the newsroom. Owing to our skeptical-by-training nature, we tend to nitpick everybody. Once in a great while there comes a person who transcends office pettiness. In our little shop, E was that person.
He was everything you’d want in a colleague — worked hard, knew his beat from stem to stern, took the job seriously but himself much less seriously — but there was far more to this man than ballgames and the coverage thereof. He had a full life away from work. From the testimonials offered Wednesday at Shiloh Baptist Church, you’d have thought E was the benevolent emperor of Henry County. From all accounts, he raised not just Renford and his sister Regina but half the kids of McDonough. He was mentor, coach, taskmaster, role model, big buddy.
It was another trailblazer who said he longed for the day when the content of one’s character would be all that mattered. The content of E’s character was such that he’d have become a pillar of any community on God’s green Earth. His character was such that a busy man from the West Coast took time to come here — Renford was stunned to see him sitting in the back of the church — because he knew, just from knowing the son, that this was a life worth celebrating.
Mike Ortiz felt impelled to fly cross-country to learn a little more about the man. We at the AJC were luckier. We got to see Earnest Reese every working day. By knowing E, we were ennobled.
By Mark Bradley