Gordie Howe reportedly ill, still icon in Detroit as person and hockey legend

Amazingly, Gordie Howe's qualities as a person outweigh even his accomplishments as a hockey player.

Word went around town quickly Thursday when it was reported that Gordie Howe was ill.

You can cite all the machines and methods of the new mass communication that you may wish; twitters and teasers; you-tubes, my-tubes, their-tubes; car phones and ear implants and messages by satellite. But word still travels best as it always has, communication will always be just one person to another. As swiftly as the wind. And when the very few gods of our memories … the knights of our best instincts … are said to be ailing, or in trouble, the words move like lightning. In the fastest ways, as they always have.

Gordie Howe. Sick? Senile? Our champion suffering? John Wayne once said it on film; then Buddy Holly sang it.

That’ll be the day.

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I met Gordie Howe on April 22, 1955. He was seated in his new white Oldsmobile convertible, outside Our Lady of Good Counsel Church on Detroit’s east side, just north of Six Mile Road and east of Hoover. It was around 6:45 pm on a soft and beautiful Friday evening. Beside him in the Olds was his wife Colleen, pregnant with their second child, Mark.

I circled the car a couple of times, keeping a respectful distance, with a gang of kids behind me. I was seven years old, and I had my 1954-55 Topps Hockey Cards in hand, the whole Red Wings team stacked at the top with Howe on top of the top, of course. I used to read the Detroit News and Free Press and Times every day, studying the pictures that went with the sports stories. Yup, that was him all right. The Big Guy. My Dad said he had the best reflexes of any player in any sport, and I was pretty sure I understood what that meant. And I’d heard my Grandfather say Howe could have been the Heavyweight Champion of the World, greater than Rocky Marciano, and I understood that even better.

I approached the car, from the street side. The other guys, about ten or twelve of ‘em I guess, kept about ten feet back. They weren’t as sure as I was. The car was in front of our parish church. This was Detroit in the 1950s, and it was important to show respect. And besides … I could be correct, this might actually be … the great Gordie Howe.

I walked up to his door, and he lowered his window and looked down at me.

“Hi Gordie,” I said.

“How ya doin’?”

“Pretty good. You’re here for Marty Pavelich’s wedding rehearsal?”

“Yeah, we’re supposed to meet Marty and some of the guys here,” he said, looking around, “but I guess we’re early.”

“Yeah, I guess. Well … can I have your autograph?”

My Mom had given me a little blue spiral notebook before I left the house. I handed it to him, and he wrote his beautiful full page autograph with a pen he had in his pocket. By now the other kids, darn it, were pushing in behind me. I felt like saying “Hey, go get your own Red Wing.”

“This is my wife Colleen. What’s your name?” I told him, and after Howe did the introductions, he asked “Are those your hockey cards? Can we look at ‘em?”

“Sure.” I handed them over, and he started flipping through them, stopping at one card. “Honey,” he said to his wife, “there’s Goldham,” referring to a veteran Red Wings defenseman. She nodded. He studied a few more, and then said “Ya know, we’ve got a little boy at home who looks just like you.”

“Oh,” I said. “Wow.” What could I have said? I was surprised, even shocked I guess. Gordie Howe had a kid who looked like ME? It turned out he was talking about their infant son Marty, who was about a year and a half back then. And quite a handsome child, if memory serves.

Other cars began showing up, tentatively slowing, and then parking in front of the church. And holy cow, it was like a reunion of the NHL All-Star team. First Red Kelly, Detroit’s Norris Trophy-winning defenseman. And then Ted Lindsay, captain of the Red Wings and the league’s perennial All-Star left winger. Plus the groom-to-be, Marty Pavelich, said by the News and Times and Free Press to be the best defensive forward in the game, the guy who often shadowed the hated Rocket Richard of the arch-rival Montreal Canadiens. These guys, the great Red Wings of Detroit, had just won their latest Stanley Cup, their fourth in six years, on April 14, only eight days before.

I pointed out each arriving player to the guys in our autograph-seeking entourage … “there’s Lindsay” … “that’s Kelly,” I said, pointing. “Get him.” And they’d take off running, leaving me to hang outside the driver’s door with my new pal, Gordie Howe. I wanted them gone. I mean, Gordie was talking to me – he even had a kid at home who looked just like me! Something was in the works here. And, besides, he had my hockey cards. Heck, friendships, even marriages, have sometimes resulted from less than that.

My suspicions were just about proved the next day, when the Pavelich marriage spilled out onto the large concrete apron in front of our church, and Red Wings like legendary goaltender Terry Sawchuk and Tony Leswick and Sid Abel and Marcel Pronovost and Johnny Wilson and Glen Skov – cripes, just about the whole team! – milled around, eventually coming up to talk to Gordie; and be introduced to ME. Yup, that’s correct.

Just as on rehearsal night, I’d been about the first kid at the wedding that next morning. And when groomsman Howe came out of the church after the ceremony, I tugged at his coat and said “Hey Gordie … remember me?”

Well, not only did he recall me, he swung me up with his powerful hands, flipping me around and seating me on his shoulders. And it was from that perch, looking out at the world from over Gordie Howe’s head, that I was introduced to guys like Sawchuk and team general manager Jack Adams and coach Jimmy Skinner. What a ride. ME … on Gordie Howe’s shoulders, feeling like the luckiest kid in Detroit. Because that is surely what I was, on that glorious and warm April Saturday morning. April 23, 1955. A day when all seemed well with the world.

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That was a while, seemingly several lifetimes, ago. Nearly everything has changed in the wash of time since that day. One thing that has not, and which will stay etched in the minds of Detroiters as long as hockey is remembered in our city, is the pristine quality of the reputation and character of Gordie Howe. Not just because he is hockey’s greatest player of all time (the back of the hockey card I showed him that day, on the rear of his own card, it said “Regarded by many experts as the greatest hockey player of all-time,” after only eight seasons and 26 years of age), but Howe – our legendary village champion – eventually came to mean more to us in a hundred splendid ways over the current 84 years of his life.

His personal quality has exceeded his athletic talent; an almost impossible task.

Yes, Gordie Howe was sick Thursday. Word of creeping dementia, the horror of old age, was made known to the general public. Any illness, just as any injury to him as a player, always seemed a shock when it involved Howe. Someday, sometime soon, his marvelous earth journey will end … and that — in the screen words of John Wayne — will be the day. He will join his beloved Colleen, who succumbed to a similar disease just a few years ago. But we needn’t mourn his eventual passage, because the last thing he said to me back then was that his newest goal is to rejoin the love of his life on that beckoning Other Side. He still lives his life for others, but now he wishes to go.

And for the many who cherish Gordie, we can hold him in our hearts as always; our city’s forever hero. We can celebrate that flicker of brilliance and goodness that shine from his soul.

For Thursday only proved what we longtime Detroiters have come to know, and to hold close, over the days and decades he has – thank God – been among us.

Because what is true in February, 2012, is as true as it was in April of 1955. A special athlete and golden man has graced our times, our place. And when Gordie Howe is sick, our city catches its breath.

We are thankful, and we remember.

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About Tom DeLisle

Tom DeLisle is a native Detroiter. The east side resident was a city desk reporter for the Detroit Free Press from 1967 to '71, and a member of the Free Press staff that won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for reporting the Detroit Riot. After serving as an Executive Assistant and speechwriter to Detroit Mayor Roman Gribbs from 1971-74, he worked as a television writer and producer in New York and Los Angeles, including a variety of bad sitcoms and comedy specials. He wrote monologues for guest host Richard Dawson for "The Tonight Show" from 1978 to '81. Returning to Detroit, he worked in television and radio with Dick Purtan and Tom Ryan, winning five Emmy Awards for local documentaries and comedies, including the 1981 primetime "Dick Purtan Comedy Special" and 1990's "Sparky Anderson Special" (with guest Pres. Richard Nixon) for WDIV-TV. He wrote for a variety of Tigers and Red Wings specials for Channel 50 in the 1990s and 2000s, including the "Stanley Celebrations," while appearing as "The Nervous Person" for three years on the '"Ray (Lane) and Mickey (Redmond) On Ice" specials at WKBD. He is currently completing a novel, and generally slowing down, because he's fairly tired.