On Jenner; On Waddell

One of the facets of journalism that I’ve always been interested in is the collection of otherwise inconsequential numbers and frivolous facts. We recall difficult-to-spell last names and memorable-sounding hometowns. The stories we tell end up becoming a part of the fabric of our memories, and dot our conversations — when they sway a certain way — with sentences with begin with, “I was talking to someone once who said …”

The point, I guess, is that there are stories, both large and small, that stick with us. Maybe not in their entirety, but points of interest or fascination remain as fragments of some larger portrait of who we are. Sometimes, even the stories we don’t tell remain. All writers have files and files of unpublished material, thousands of words unfiltered, unedited, unorganized, research done for stories we never got to tell.

Sparing the details, I wanted to tell a modernized version of the Tom Waddell story last summer, in the year of his 60th reunion from Springfield College. Waddell’s story is a remarkable tale that Dick Schaap wrote a book about, and that my friend Marty Dobrow masterfully retold for ESPN. Long story short, he beat me to it by a few months. It’s a story I’m happy to have lost to him. Losing it to anyone else would have been heartbreaking.

Dr. Tom Waddell was an Olympian, a paratrooper, a doctor, an outspoken social rights activist. He died of AIDS in 1987.

Dr. Tom Waddell was an Olympian, a paratrooper, a doctor, an outspoken social rights activist. He died of AIDS in 1987.

Having said all of this, Waddell’s story, one that I read in college at our alma mater is a story that has endured in my mind. I said to Marty, during his presentation to Waddell’s classmates at the reunion weekend, “This is a story you must feel so grateful to be able to tell.” Some stories are like that.

And so I couldn’t help but think of Waddell when another decathlete, Bruce Jenner, decided to tell the world on 20/20 Friday night that he was living life as a transgender. That’s what happens in journalism. When something important happens, we immediately seek a precedent. In cases like Jenner’s, where there will undoubtedly be people who are intolerant or confused at what transgender means or just plain old mean, it is important to look back in our files and smile that the stores we have told — or, in this case, almost told — are of the people who’d be incredibly proud of Jenner’s braveness.

Jenner’s story on 20/20 with Diane Sawyer was, as he predicted, an emotional two hour of television. The program was aided greatly by doctors and experts on gender identity who explained the basics of the transgender community; ABC also did a wonderful job adding anecdotes about the difficulties transgender people face on a daily basis from society. Some of these stories were heartbreaking tales of abuse and violence and suicide. Again, I couldn’t help but think about Waddell facing the same ignorance so many years ago; I couldn’t help but feel helpless watching Bruce Jenner explain his inner turmoil the same why I know Waddell did as they succeeded at the very pinnacle of athletic achievement: the Olympics.

Bruce Jenner announced he was transgender in April, 2015.

Bruce Jenner announced he was transgender in April, 2015.

We have a long way to go, of course. We don’t readily accept things we don’t understand. The media doesn’t help sometimes. Sensationalism sells. Intolerance does too. As tolerant and loving as a family can be, I’m sure even that famous family will face some obstacles and discomfort. We’re not perfect, but we are living in a society much more accepting and understanding than when Waddell came out of the closet — also very brave — in the same year Jenner was setting the decathlon record in Montreal. I wonder if these two men ever met. I wonder if Jenner thought of his own struggle when he read of Waddell’s in People in 1976.

I can say with certainty, though, that from what I know about Waddell, wherever he is. He’s proud.

 

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