Because Senior Writer Frank Deford and Special Contributor Bil Gilbert have between them written so much of this issue (When All the World Is Young, page 38; A Christmas Gift for Fort Zack, page 62; and Joy in Hard Times, page 100), it seems like a good time to congratulate them on prizes recently awarded for articles past. Deford won two in 1977, the Allison Danzig Award for excellence in tennis writing, presented by the Longwood Cricket Club of Chestnut Hill. Mass., for his two-part series on Bill Tilden, and the Award of Merit from the Religious Public Relations Council, for his Religion in Sport series. Gilbert won the Penney-Missouri Magazine Award for excellence in life-style journalism for his environment/conservation piece, My Country, 'Tis of Thee, which ran in SI's 1976 year-end issue. In 1975 Deford won horse racing's prestigious Eclipse Award, for his story on Jockey Tony DeSpirito. Gilbert's other major prize also came in 1974 when he won the National Magazine Award, presented by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, for his three-part Women in Sport series, which he wrote with Nancy Williamson.
In this, our year-end issue, Deford and Gilbert have written stories with the common themes of Christmas and children. When Deford was assigned to write about the kid, our Sportsman of the Year, Steve Cauthen, he went to Walton, Ky. to take a look at the farm (one is tempted to say manger), where the child was raised, and talk to Cauthen's parents, schoolmates and assorted locals before interviewing Cauthen and his agent, Lenny Goodman, in New York. Then he went home to stare at his typewriter. Asked what kind of story he was going to do, Deford muttered darkly that he did not have the slightest idea what he was going to say about a 17-year-old boy who had been written about by a hundred different people in a hundred different ways. As usual, he found plenty, and we think the 101st version of the story, which begins on page 38, is the best.
As for the piece that begins on page 62, Deford started thinking about Christmas back in September. His 6-year-old daughter, Alexandra, has cystic fibrosis. Frank is a trustee of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and virtually since Alexandra's birth he has spent much of his spare time traveling around the country, giving speeches and working for the cause. He was in the children's ward of the Yale-New Haven Hospital when he got the idea for A Christmas Gift for Fort Zack. It's about this little boy who is stuck in the hospital at Christmastime and a pro basketball player and—well, why don't you just go ahead and read it.
Bil Gilbert also started thinking about Christmas in early fall. One of our editors called him to ask if he would like to write a story on Christmas for us. He said yes, only making the cryptic request that someone find out what mink and muskrat pelts sold for during the Depression. A mystified researcher turned up the information and Gilbert was not heard from for quite a while. This is his standard operating procedure. He spends a great deal of his time outdoors, usually in remote areas, for our purposes or his own. One doesn't want to have to get hold of Bil Gilbert in a hurry, because it will turn out he is living with Eskimos on the Alaskan tundra, or holed up in a prospector's shack near the Mexican border, observing and recording the habits of the coatimundi, as he did for his book Chulo.
December 19, 1977
Gilbert comes from hardy stock—his mother joined the Peace Corps when she was 67 years old and spent two years in India. His father was a botanist and landscape architect, and it was no doubt he who instilled in Bil his great love for nature. We meet them both in the story on page 100 about his childhood and warm memories of a bitterly cold Christmas in southern Michigan during the Great Depression.
This is SPORTS ILLLSTRATED'S final issue for 1977. We will be back on Jan. 2 with coverage of the pro football playoffs—and the first part of another Deford series, this one on tennis' Jack Kramer.