The photo I took of the church at St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College in August 2010 speaks to me of more than one time of transition in my life. I pulled it from the archives this month upon learning of the death of longtime Louisiana sportswriter Marty Mulé.
Six summers ago, I accepted a job in Oregon and left Louisiana, which had been my home state since birth. On Aug. 9, 2010, I loaded my car with essentials and set off on a weeklong drive to the West Coast to visit family in California, taking a right turn before reaching the Pacific Ocean and headline up the coastline to my new home. On Aug. 7, I spent some quiet time at St. Joseph — or, as current and former students call it, St. Ben’s. This was a multipurpose visit: fresh air, reflections (the visual and the introspective kind), a reconnecting with a place that had a profound impact on me long ago, and other reasons too complex to revisit here. It was my good fortune that I could end the day having dinner with Marty.
He’d heard I was moving, and he’d wondered if we could get together before I left the state. He reached out to me less than a week before my scheduled departure. No, he wouldn’t be in Baton Rouge before I left, which presented a logistical problem. When I realized he lived close to St. Ben’s, we finalized our plans. I’d spend some time on the grounds at St. Joseph, and we’d meet for dinner at Acme Oyster House on the Northshore. My last Cajun seafood meal would be with Marty.
It was an unexpected last Louisiana supper. Marty and I weren’t especially close. We never worked for the same newspaper, although he wrote columns for Tiger Rag, where I was working when I accepted the job in Oregon. He was not a mentor in the formal sense, but for whatever reason he took an interest in me and in my writing, and we became friendly. He had a way of making people with far less experience than he — and far less talent — feel special.
“I know this is a big deal if Carl Dubois is here,” he’d say if we bumped into each other at an event. It was one of those things you could pretty much count on Marty saying, and it would make you smile and put you at ease every time. You were always glad to see Marty.
Marty had made it onto my radar long before he knew anything about me. At my first job, in Lake Charles, I heard about feature stories he’d written that had impressed my boss and co-workers. His was a name I quickly grew to respect before I’d ever put a face to the name. To me, he was a big-time sportswriter, but upon meeting him, I could not imagine him ever trying to big-time anyone. He was a common man with uncommon storytelling ability, someone who could make magic out of plain language and the facts. He was a genuine guy, good company no matter the place, a man with a passion for reporting and writing.
One day at work, I heard about a story he’d written that referenced the 1958 national championship team at LSU, with a specific mention of the squad known as the “Chinese Bandits.” The nickname came from a comic strip called Terry and the Pirates, which later became a television adventure series. There’s virtually no chance a team would adopt a nickname like that today. Even in the 1980s, when the story came up, there was an uncomfortable edge because of the nickname. Indeed, I listen as my boss and co-workers said the term had been stricken from Marty’s story because it was politically incorrect. That news brought a different kind of discomfort, but it wouldn’t be the last time I’d hear a story like it. Since then, I’ve seen plenty of writers and publications struggle with reporting the details about a point in history and, rather than acknowledge the language of that particular time, completely scrub it, as if it never existed. In the case of Marty’s story, I remember thinking that omitting that piece of history would rob the story of one of its essential pieces, and thus, the richness of full reporting. The discussion in the office made an impression on me, and it resonated as I got to know Marty. The more familiar I became with his work and work ethic, the stronger my realization of his commitment to historical accuracy — the good, the bad, and the ugly. I never asked Marty about it. Now, I wish I had. I’m sure his response would have been more thoughtful and layered than my perspective.
At dinner that August night in 2010, we shared stories from our past, and we shared some laughs. Marty paid for dinner, and he gave me a copy of one of his books. It accompanied me on my drive to Oregon the following week.
When I heard about his death on March 12, I remembered that day of walking around on the grounds at St. Joseph. I recalled the peaceful feeling and the calm place it put me in for my meal with Marty. It sent me to the Internet to look up details, and I discovered that the day before he died, flooding hit the grounds at St. Joseph hard. Looking at its website, I saw that familiar, postcard-like view of the abbey church, the one everyone captures with their camera or phone when they are there. The view I wanted to take with me on that August day.
I dug into my archives and found the photo I took. It took me back to that afternoon, and to the feeling I had retracing long-ago steps on the grounds there. It took me back to the warm feeling I had before having dinner with Marty, and after. I pulled out Marty’s book. I opened it and found the inscription he penned for me before handing the book to me as we parted ways: To Carl, some memories of your roots!
I found our last email exchanges, and our references to my “last supper” in Louisiana. In his email, Marty’s words were in Marty’s voice: “Listen,” he began as he wrote about the meal, starting a sentence in an email the way he often did in speech. I could hear him, and it made me wish I could listen to him again.
Thanks, Marty. For the meal, for the friendship, for everything.
Listen, rest in peace, my friend. If I should bump into you again, I’ll know it’s a big deal, because you will be there.