BY BILL BRANYON
Most people will probably remember Wally Bowen for MAIN and WPVM radio, but my deepest contact with him was through the un-PC realm of the sports fanatic. Circa 1990, he introduced himself to me in his warmly inclusive, backslapping way at UNC Asheville’s old basketball court, and we were soon winning as the team of Green Line — a newspaper that became Mountain Xpress — in a Bele Chere basketball tourney.
Though obviously brave on the athletic fields, Wally’s heroism emerged even more clearly after a late evening of newspaper editing when we decided to walk up Battery Park Avenue for a drink. Fifty yards ahead was a purse snatching in progress. Wally took out after the snatcher with his great speed, and I trotted along behind, not sure I wanted to be involved.
Three guys were talking excitedly about the chase near the Federal Building, and I shouted: “That’s my friend! Come with me.” So they did, and we discovered Wally prowling in the middle of Patton Avenue. Our presence flushed the perp from his hiding place, and he tried to bolt across Patton. Wally made what they call “an impressive open-field tackle,” and my posse helped him hold the snatcher down. Soon the police arrived, and as the prisoner was cuffed, he swore to Wally, “I’ll kill you.”
Wally was just as brave in basketball, shooting his strange, curled whip of a jump shot with audacious confidence and accuracy (much too often, in my opinion). Soon I was playing with him and his talented son, Connor, at a big Edisto Beach house he rented every year for two weeks. I went several times and met many of Asheville’s progressive movers and shakers, including Leni and Hara Sitnick, Carolyn Wallace, Clark Tibbits, Richard Harrison, Betty Clark, Lorrie Streifel and many others.
When he parted ways with his UNC Asheville publicity job, Wally quickly landed on his feet by convincing the late Julian Price to fund his media literacy idea, the Mountain Area Information Network. I never knew which side to be on in his WPVM radio station controversy, but I do know the anxiety upset him much more than his ALS.
Stirring progressive pots
Wally’s power and charisma were evident when he got about 300 people to Jubilee! church on a freezing November night to listen to his telecommunications history because he was “strangely energized” by George W. Bush’s defeat of Al Gore. Then there was his progressive spectacular at the U.S. Cellular Center, starring Dr. Patch Adams and John Hightower; his Amy Goodman fundraiser at A-B Tech; and his packed 60th birthday party at his charming Kenilworth home, three years into his Lou Gehrig’s disease horror.
But it was our endless pingpong games at Wally’s (he won), occasional tennis games (I won) and even a couple of golf outings with Julian Price (split decision) that defined our competitive/nurturing relationship. We even dated the same woman, though at different times. She wanted to marry him and dumped me, so I guess Wally, that handsome devil, won that competition too.
Living — and living on
We were playing softball for Barley’s Taproom when the first signs of Lou Gehrig’s disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, appeared as a dead feeling in his usually cannon-like right arm. ALS attacks motor neurons, the cells that control muscles, causing them to break down and die. He began losing stamina in our jogs together, and soon his brilliant arms were all but useless.
Several times I hired on as caretaker, and we drove to Charlotte to be part of an ALS experiment. On the long drives, I found out more about his early life in blue-collar Jacksonville, Fla., the pride of being the first in his family to go to college and the wild and sad stories of working on a small-town newspaper in Georgia.
Despite Charlotte’s car-lot-like traffic jams, Wally insisted on eating at the hippest restaurants, and while searching for them, I often probed his feelings. He never — and I do mean never ever — complained of his plight. His joie de vivre remained intense, and our talks about sports, literature and politics passionate.
The last time I saw him was a month ago watching the Carolina Panthers beat the Seattle Seahawks. The incredibly patient and attentive Connor and one of Wally’s many marvelous caregivers constantly cleared his malfunctioning throat, but that didn’t dim Wally’s enthusiasm for the game. As the disease progressed, only Connor could understand what he said, but by then Wally’s elegant voice was silenced. Instead he used the Stephen Hawking communication method of a computer that could recognize when his eyes pointed to a letter on the screen, transfer that letter to sentences, then read it out loud in scratchy Hawking talk.
Wally had been a quarterback at Presbyterian College, and we were joking about whether the Panthers’ incredible Cam Newton had a better arm than Wally in his prime. During commercials, Wally got his computer to play YouTube clips of Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher and others making fun of the recent Republican debates. I felt like he was telling me that his sense of irony was still razor sharp.
And my last minutes with Wally ticked away, and I didn’t know it. Now he’s physically all gone but lives in the minds of thousands of Ashevilleans, Americans, Europeans and Asians whom he met on many of his far-reaching trips. And lives in the big lump in my chest as I stared through Wednesday’s ghostly mist at Julian Price’s Public Service Building where MAIN had its office for a while. Realizing that this — all of Asheville’s progressive glory and regressive sorrow — will surely pass.
I could never pin down your religious beliefs, Wally, but I hope they are outrageously magical, and that they’re all coming true. Hopefully, some epitaphs will call you the more dignified Wallace. But no, “Wally” embodied the perfect blend of macho and goofy that made us love you — and compete with you, too.
Bill Branyon is an Asheville-based writer whose work can be found at LiberatingLiberals.com.