Tommy Tomlinson
Nieman Class of 2009

imagesTomlinson spent 23 years as a local columnist at the Charlotte Observer, writing the kind of pieces that readers clipped for their scrapbooks and refrigerators. He published about 1,700 in all: work known for its deeply human observations, lyricism and heart. (One memorable lede, about his late father: “Sometimes I look at pictures of my daddy and I try to make him move.”) Tomlinson was a Pulitzer finalist for Commentary in 2005, a year after The Week named him the country’s best local columnist. He has also written for Sports Illustrated, Garden & Gun,, Southern Living, Reader’s Digest and Our State magazine, and he “believes he is the only journalist in history to cover the Super Bowl, the Bassmaster Classic and the National Spelling Bee in the same year.” His stories have been included in Best American Sports Writing (2012), and in Best Newspaper Writing (2004). His contributions to Nieman Storyboard — including his popular Liner Notes column, on the intersection of songwriting and narrative — have been invaluable. (And don’t miss his “Why’s this so good?” essay on J.R. Moehringer’s “Resurrecting the Champ.”) In May 2012, he left the Observer for the startup Sports on Earth, but recently moved on, and is now deciding what next to do with his writing life. Meanwhile, he’s freelancing and, for pleasure, blogging, often about sports. “Most of us know, in our hearts, that college football is indefensible,” he wrote recently. “We refuse to lift up the corner of the rug because we know what’s under there — academic fraud, financial shenanigans, booster corruption, all dependent on unpaid players who break their necks (sometimes literally) for the game. … But we all make compromises in life, and one of mine is to love college football, not just for how it makes me feel, but BECAUSE it makes me feel.”


—“Portrait of Pride, Prejudice,” a column about a 1957 news photograph of Dorothy Counts, one of four black students who integrated Charlotte public schools. Excerpt:

Ronnie Hall holds the picture in his hands and says: “Oh, God, what a mess that was.”

See that telephone pole, square in the middle of the picture? That’s Ronnie directly in front of it, a dark-haired eighth-grader looking down and away.

Now he’s 64. For years he owned Austin Canvas & Awning Co., and he still keeps an office there. He’s a deacon in his church, teaches Sunday school. But back then he was — his words — a punk. In the picture it looks as if Ronnie is trying to get out of the crowd. But he’ll be in the middle of it, all morning long.

On a typical day there wouldn’t have been a dozen kids out front. But now there were hundreds. Harding had 1,400 students, down to the seventh grade, and it seemed like half the school was out there.

Ronnie and his buddies knew how the world worked. They saw the water fountains marked COLORED, the black men sent around back at restaurants, the black families barred from Freedom Park.

To him, at the time, it made sense. Black people belonged somewhere different. Not at Harding High.

Later that morning he and his friends got in a rock fight with a group of black people who had come to watch. Then they found the car Dorothy had gotten out of. They circled it, rocked it, tried to tip it over.

“We were mean,” he says now. “Just mean boys. No other way to say it.”

—“Something Went Very Wrong at Toomer’s Corner,” from Sports Illustrated, about a die-hard Alabama football fan charged with poisoning the famed oaks at rival Auburn University. Excerpt:

Harvey Updyke wears Alabama colors every day. Last year he had a favorite T-shirt for game days. On the front, Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes pees on the Auburn logo. On the back it says, IF YOU SEE ME IN A TURBAN & SANDALS AU IS PLAYING IRAQ!!

“I saw that on a bumper sticker and told him about it,” says Wayne Barnes, an old high school friend of Updyke’s. “He went on the Internet and found somebody to make it into a shirt. I think he bought two.”

Harvey Updyke didn’t always hate Auburn, but for half a century he has loved Alabama. He was born in 1948 and grew up in Milton, Fla., in the panhandle near Pensacola. A drunk driver killed his dad when Harvey was three. When he was 10, he was watching a TV station out of Mobile one Sunday afternoon when The Bear Bryant Show came on. Bryant had arrived in Tuscaloosa from Texas A&M. Here was a strong man with a deep voice who announced to the world, “I ain’t nothing but a winner.” Harvey latched on.

He played offensive line at Milton High. One year he went to watch the Senior Bowl in Mobile, and the story he later told friends was that he walked right up to the Bear and declared, “I’m going to play for you.” The coach supposedly replied, “I hope so, son.” But Updyke didn’t. After graduating from Milton in 1967, he went to junior college, then headed for Texas believing there were better job opportunities for him there. He went to his first Crimson Tide game in 1970, when Alabama played Oklahoma in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston. He ran onto the field in the third quarter, carrying two rolls of toilet paper on a broom handle and a box of Tide detergent. Roll Tide.

—“A Beautiful Find,” an Observer piece about a Davidson College professor’s quest to solve a long-baffling math problem. Excerpt:

The speaker was boring. Worse yet, he was boring in French. By now it was July 2001. Swallow had come to Lille, France, north of Paris, for a math conference. He knows French. But this guy at the front of the lecture hall was talking so fast that Swallow couldn’t understand half the words, and didn’t care about the rest.

Eventually he gave up. He reached over and pulled out his notes on the problem he and Jack Sonn had been working on.

All of a sudden a fresh thought flashed in his mind. He grabbed a pen and wrote one word.


He followed that word with a string of equations that set new limits on the number fields.

Maybe if he put just a few restrictions on the problem, narrowed the scope just a bit, it would work. He went back to the idea of trying to lay a carpet that’s too small for the room. Maybe the answer was to make the room a little smaller.

—“Harmony of Past, Future,” about New Orleans a year after Katrina. Excerpt:

Sounds defined the day. But let’s start with a quiet one. The soft scratching of a pen on a banner to honor the dead.

The man writes it out then traces back over it so the words won’t fade.

Louise Thecla Jones Casimire. May 25, 1922-September 05, 2005
4:10 a.m.

His name is Omar Casimire and he does custom paint jobs for houses. A year ago, when the storm came, he and his mother got separated.

He evacuated to Arkansas. She was transported to Baton Rouge. It was too much for her. She just stopped eating and seven days later that was it.

Omar wants to build a park in tribute to the victims of Katrina. But that is a long way off. Right now what he has is a pen and a thought.

Mother, my hands is over your heart.

His archive of columns, stories and videos (of him reading work aloud, plus a one-minute snippet of him teaching at Queens University of Charlotte):

The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.

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