I never called him Chick or Chicky and am still surprised at how many people did. John Watson was always John to me.
When I first heard someone use his nickname — which was probably close to ten years after I first met him — it seemed to make sense. Everyone, incuding John’s mother, called his father by his nickname, Pidge. And what else, I figured, would you call the offspring of a pigeon but chick?
Turned out my reasoning was way off. John’s nickname started when he contracted chickenpox as a kid. His friends started calling him Chick and it stuck.
I am about six years older than John. When he was a Little Leaguer, I was an assistant coach of an opposing team. I distinctly remembering him hitting a home run to win an all star game but mostly remember his slick fielding. He was a vacuum cleaner at shortstop.
I wrote local sports for close to 15 years and covered a lot of great athletes but few more talented than John Watson. He played only basketball and golf in high school but I always believed he could have quarterbacked the football team and led the baseball team in hitting. John wasn’t very big physically, but if a sport involved hand-eye coordination, he excelled at it. He once cleaned my clock on a tennis court when he hardly ever played tennis. It just came naturally to him.
So did writing. They say some people are born with ink in their veins and it certainly was true of John Watson.
I was already at the Dispatch several years when John came on board. One of the first stories he tackled the two of us reported and wrote together and I could tell immediately what kind of a newsman he was going to be. We wrote about a couple of local guys who were suffering from the effects of Agent Orange to which they were exposed in Vietnam. Man, did John sink his teeth into the story. You could tell right then and there he would be a champion of the downtrodden.
It’s said people go into the news business to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. That was John Watson. He would go after a public official just as doggedly as he threw a spotlight on the plight of the Agent Orange victims.
It was spring of 1984 when John, then Dispatch editor, suggested that he and I, serving as managing editor, begin writing weekly columns. Our first ones appeared in the April 15 issue. “This is a good time to start this column,” John wrote, pointing out that a primary election had just ended. He said he and I would appear on the op-ed page adding, “We have decided to offer these personal columns not to be hot shots, but so you can better understand the people who put out your local paper.”
He then added, “Such a column affords me a vehicle for expressing the more brazen opinions that I would not express while speaking for the Dispatch as a whole. I’m the political animal on the staff, for which my brother and Eddie are extremely grateful, so you can expect political comments from time to time.”
What an understatement that was. Both about his commenting “from time to time” and about his brother and I being grateful.
In that very first column, John made it clear he was a Walter “Fritz” Mondale man and then took to task all three Wilkes-Barre papers — the Sunday Independent, The Times Leader and the Citizens Voice — for their political stances. As mad as he was for the Republican leanings of the Indy and Leader, he was even madder at the wishy-washiness of the Voice. “The Voice must get off its butt and take a stand on politics,” he wrote.
John took a stand on everything. I always admired his complete lack of self-doubt. Nobody studied an issue more than he, and when he made up his mind, he apologized to no one.
Once, when MTV had a campaign called “Rock the Vote” trying to get young people to register, John wrote a column saying that was a horrible idea. He said he didn’t want some snot-nosed 18-year-old who knew nothing about what was going on in the country to potentially cancel out his vote, which was forged from a lifetime of paying attention.
I believe it was that lack of self-doubt that made John such an outstanding golfer. He is the only person to win the club championship at both Fox Hill and Glenmaura. Funny thing is, John thought nothing of playing the championship round of a tournament hung-over. The party the night before was as important to him as the winning the next day. Those who knew him know I’m not kidding.
Don’t get me wrong, John was a competitor, but a winning golf championship never seemed that big of a deal to him. I always thought his father was prouder of those accomplishments that he was, and maybe that’s the way it should be.
I always thought John got more pleasure out of his garden than his golfing. He deserved to be called a horticulturist. He studied gardening with the same passion as he did politics. At his home at Lake Winola, he grew Black-eyed Susans worthy of a blue ribbon at any state fair.
I’ve been thinking about John and talking about him almost constantly since learning of his death via a text message last Saturday night. In the old days, the news would have made the next day’s paper. But today we are long gone to bed by 11 o’clock Saturday night. Heck, some subscribers already have a paper on their front porch by then.
John Watson was one of the most gifted people I have ever encountered. He could have been a star. He chose instead to be a shooting star. They move faster and shine brighter and burn out sooner than other stars. But if you are lucky enough to experience one, you never forget it.