OBITUARY: James Furman Bisher

Furman Bisher, 93, legendary sports editor of The Atlanta Journal and nationally acclaimed sports columnist for the Journal-Constitution, died Sunday, March 18, of a heart attack. Preceded in death by his son Roger, he is survived by his beloved wife, Lynda Landon Bisher, sons Monte Bisher, and James Furman Bisher II, stepdaughters Tixie Fowler and Samantha McKinney, sister Helen Loftin, 6 grandchildren and Norman the cat (who earned more than one dubious mention in Bisher’s annual “Thankful” column.)

A memorial service will be held at Northwest Presbyterian Church on Mt. Paran Road in Atlanta on Saturday, March 24, 2012 at 1pm. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to either the Paul Anderson Youth Home in Vidalia, GA or the Eagle Ranch in Flowery Branch, GA.

James Furman Bisher was born November 4, 1918, in Denton, N.C. to Mamie Minerva Morris and Chisholm Bisher. He attended Furman University for two years and was a 1938 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a manager for the football team, and a proud member of the Chi Psi fraternity. After graduating from UNC he became editor of the Lumbertown Voice at the age of 20. During World War II he served as a naval officer in the Pacific Theatre. After the war he joined the High Point Enterprise in North Carolina, moving to the Charlotte News as sports editor and columnist in 1948.

He wrote his first column as sports editor for the Atlanta Constitution on April 15, 1950 and quickly established a national reputation. He moved to the afternoon Journal in 1957, where he wrote his last column for the Sunday Journal-Constitution on October 10, 2009. After his retirement from the Atlanta newspapers at age 90, he continued to write his annual “I’m Thankful,” Thanksgiving Day column. He also wrote about special events, including the Masters golf tournament. In his 60 year career, he covered 63 Masters, over 50 World Series, Kentucky Derbys, and Georgia-Georgia Tech football games.

For over 73 years, Bisher wrote award-winning newspaper columns and magazine stories covered notables from golfer Bobby Jones and baseball’s Ty Cobb to the death of his family dog; one of his most famous stories was an exclusive late-in-life interview with Shoeless Joe Jackson, accused of throwing a World Series for the Chicago White Sox.

Bisher authored 15 books, and numerous articles for Sports Illustrated, Saturday Evening Post, Sporting News and other national magazines. His columns and stories were anthologized in Best Sports Stories of the Year 23 times. His many awards and accolades include membership in the Atlanta and Georgia Sports Halls of Fame; International Golf Writers Hall of Fame; the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame; The Red Smith Award for contributors to Journalism, The Atlanta Press Club Hall of Fame, and The William D. Richardson Award from the Golf Writers Assn. of America.

In 1961, Time magazine named him one of the nation’s five best sports columnists. Measured over the last half of the 20th Century and the first decade of the 21st, no other American columnist equaled him in putting quality words and sentences on newsprint. It was said in the fraternity that he never in all those years wrote a bad column.

He was president of the Football Writers Assn. of America 1959-1960 and president of the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Assn. 1974-1976. He was a charter member of the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium Authority and through his national contacts and reputation, played a key role in bringing major league sports to the city. He hosted Kansas City baseball owner Charlie Finley for a day-long meeting with Mayor Ivan Allen in Atlanta, which led directly to the site selection and construction of Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium as a home for the Falcons and Braves. Later, he met with NCAA officials to secure a date on the bowl calendar for the Peach Bowl, which later became the Chic-Fil-A Bowl.

While he was sports editor and columnist in Atlanta, Bisher’s reputation and writing ability attracted aspiring young sportswriters from throughout the South and around the nation. Many of them moved onto their own distinguished careers, proud graduates of what they termed “Bisher’s Boot Camp.”

“We appreciated that he demanded that we be the best that we could be,” says Lee Walburn, who retired as editor of Atlanta Magazine after a successful career in newspapering and public relations.

“I think it’s significant that in later life these young sportswriters who earned their spurs under Furman’s tough school of newspapering got together and established a journalism award in his name at the University of North Carolina,” Minter said.

Several years ago a group of his former Journal employees styling themselves as “Bisher’s Boys” began hosting periodic get-togethers in his honor.

Perhaps the friend who knew the personal side of Furman best was Loran Smith, the University of Georgia football broadcaster, author and newspaper columnist. The two often traveled together to sporting events in this country and Europe.

“Furman could be irascible,” Loran says. “But that was part of his charm. He certainly was soft and sentimental about things he cared deeply about. And those things were faith, family and flag. He cared about his church, and he was a church-goer.”

“If any one doubts Furman’s sentimental side the only have read his column written at the time of his son Roger’s death,” Minter said.

In mid-career, Bisher rejected job offers from newspapers and magazines, including Sports Illustrated, in New York and Chicago. The main reason he gave for refusing to leave Atlanta was because he was raising three young boys as a single parent, which he regarded as his most significant and valued accomplishment, above his many awards and honors.