The time-worn phrase that life has come full circle may seem trite, that is until it happens to you!
My first was in the classroom at Rose Hill, Fall ‘11, when a young lady volleyball player named Randi Ewing walked through the door. Yes, the daughter of Knicks great Patrick Ewing; we spent a dozen memorable years together with the Knicks. Recognizing her immediately, I said: “Ms. Ewing, you may not realize that you’ve met me before, but by the time this morning’s class is over, you will!”
This full circle thing happened again in recent days with two media announcements we handled: WFUV’s Vin Scully Award recipient, harkening back to my college years at the station; and then the return of the International Trot to Yonkers, calling to mind the early years of the global classic at Roosevelt. The harness tracks were launching pads for this writer’s career.
This full circle moment called to mind mentors from years ago that had taken young me under vast wings, soaking in advice and actions that have served me well.
A mentor doesn’t necessarily wrap his arm around the protege’s shoulder and say: Here’s how to do it kid! It’s someone who cares enough to offer advice but more importantly shares wisdom unabashedly, or sometimes unknowingly.
I rolled a “Lucky 7,” and how fortunate this neophyte was! They were “mah-velous,” as Billy Crystal would say, and they were Mike Cohen, Tim Rooney , Warner Fusselle, Nat Lipack, Gerry Mastellone, Lew Barasch, and Joey Goldstein, men from varied backgrounds with a common threat: a steadfast passion for sports and pursuit of excellence. Here were the lessons learned from these guiding lights in order of cast appearance:
- Treat EVERYONE – big or small – the same: with respect! As a student broadcaster at WFUV, I ambitiously applied for a credential to the Cane Pace, the signature race of Yonkers Raceway, where Mike Cohen was the PR director. Soon after, I received a letter in the mail, enclosed is your credential for the Cane Pace. It was like hitting the lottery! On the night of the race, I make my way to the press box in search of my seat. I scan the back row, nothing; the middle row, nothing; the front row, NY Times, NY Daily News, NY Post, WCBS Radio…WFUV Radio. Next, “Inky” as he was known for all the press he generated, but I thought of him as the “Big Bear,” extends his big right paw and says: I’m Mike Cohen, here’s your notes and program. If you need anything, I’ll be standing in the back.Ironically, just three years later, I am in Mike Cohen’s tattered, leather chair as Yonkers Raceway’s PR man. A huge seat to fill. The phone rings, the first call on the first day: Kid, it’s Mike Cohen, good luck! If you need anything, here’s my number.
- Answer every letter, and call; do things first class: A few years before Tim Rooney hired me as editor-columnist for Yonkers and Roosevelt Raceway’s racing programs, and later as Yonkers PR man, we became pen pals, well sort of. I was incessant in my letter-writing to the track CEO, whether asking for a job, suggesting an idea, or even telling him I could do a better job hosting the WOR TV show than former Steeler John Dockery, who would fill in on occasion. How audacious! But Tim answered every letter politely, but sometimes firmly. I still have them. A few years later, I called his office for a recommendation for a job at Hollywood Park. His office called back and said: Tim said: why would you want to go to Hollywood when we have a job for you here in New York. Years later, we entertained the media with aplomb at the Water Club and Winged Foot, our two big race bashes. Scotches with AP’s Dickie Joyce and wife Bea, and a slew of others, couldn’t possibly be considered work? First class all the way. Today at Empire City Casino, and it’s always a joy seeing and working with Tim.
- Strive for perfection; help young people trying to get ahead: Legendary, brillo-haired broadcasterWarner Fusselle was a perfectionist, whether writing a script for Mel Allen’s This Week in Baseball or preparing for the broadcasts of the Seton Hall Pirates and Brooklyn Cyclones. Fuse also showed me the art of using chopsticks. Old Warner was relentless in is efforts to help this aspiring baseball broadcaster land minor league gig. We almost had one in Durham, yes those Durham Bulls, but we’ll save that story for another day.
- Pay no heed to people of limited ability: A printer by trade in the days of black ink and hard type, Nat Lipack might be more remembered by harness fans for his nightly delivery of the race results on WCBS Radio:From Roosevelt Raceway, this is Nat Lipack (oh yeah, I got to fill in for him on a rare night off). Back to the print shop, where my offices as editor in chief of the Harness Line were located in the bowls of Roosevelt Raceway. As a youngster, I’d get infuriated when others didn’t take their jobs seriously or lack the work ethic necessary to do a great job. He’d say: Just keep doing what you’re doing – a great job. These are people of limited ability, don’t let them get to you. Nat, whose son Michael is the former photo editor of the Daily News and is a chip off the old block, was a calming influence. He was street smart.
- Service with a smile; poise under pressure: I never saw affable Lew Barasch flustered, in spite of handling the media from a half dozen different countries not to mention a demanding New York press corps for the Roosevelt International Trot, and other major stakes at Roosevelt. These were during the days that harness racing’s big events could be on the back pages of the tabloids; the crowds in the eighties had “dwindled” to 25,000 from the 50,000 during the hey-day, but were still big. “Tootie” had an effervescent smile and genuineness that could diffuse any situation and charm the toughest media. Lew wasn’t flashy, but he was so efficient. Three decades later, Lew showed up at my office at the Garden the week we were returning boxing to the Garden with Oscar de la Hoya. He was beaming with pride, and of course was invited to the fights. It’s a fond memory of Lew and Bunny, and the good, old days.
- Give credit where it’s due; Praise success, love is not jealous: One of the great harness handicappers of his generation, Gerry Mastellone, who was officed in that old Roosevelt print shop, and I became fast friends because of our love of the trotters and the pacers. Seeing that I knew my stuff, he gave me a shot as a public handicapper in the Green Sheet and Orange Trotter as The Railbird. Whenever I was successful, he would say, very nice, how do you do it? Rather thanyou got lucky. Gerry would blast my winners over his in the headline for all to see: Cirillo Picks Seven Winners or $535 Cold Triple Selected by Cirillo.
- Be relentless; multi-task; think outside the box: Press agent extraordinaire Joey Goldstein was always going a mile a minute, and I am talking about a New York minute. That’s fast. All in an effort to maximize coverage. My first stakes race at Yonkers was the Sheppard Pace, for a half million, in the summer of ’81. Joey, the track’s consultant, was barking out commands after the press conference. Fax the story to the AP – they couldn’t be here but will be at the race (he taught me the AP style in seconds), is the messenger ready with Cipriani’s pictures of Haughton, etc. etc. Flash forward to 1996, Goldstein again the consultant. Buster Douglas, Jr. fell out of a fight against Lou Savarese, and was replaced by Tim “The Hebrew Hammer” Puller. With just days to go before the fight, we scrambled to put together a rare SUNDAY press conference, at the Carnegie Deli, of course, and Joey arrived equipped with a type-written history of Jewish professional boxers. Monday’s papers had major coverage. Until Joey passed in 2009, I was sure he was a New Yorker; I found out that he was from Conway, South Carolina.
These gentleman helped to mold me, and I will forever owe a debt of gratitude. I hope that on occasion I live up to their lofty ideals and continue to serve as a mentor, too.