Sunday, February 18, 2018

Violation of Team Rules Cause Aggie Women’s Basketball Team Embarrassing Loss to Miss. St.

Today, the No. 17 Texas A&M Women’s Basketball team put on their single-most embarrassing effort this season, as they unfortunately cratered, faded, and tanked, 76-55, against the now-SEC Champions, the No. 2 Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs, playing in Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Mississippi. And that was before the game had even started. Everyone could see the “L” coming home on the plane with the team. Why?

Because without even a media press release sent out to alert beforehand, the TV announcers had only seconds before game time to note for the audience that freshman Chennedy Carter and senior Khaalia Hillsman would not be starting the game today for a “violation of team rules.”

Announcers were quick to say that the players had “been late to an important team event,” just so the audience would know it was “different” than the violations of team rules that members of other Aggie teams have committed, also the most selfish acts of irresponsibility on their parts.

No matter the circumstances, it’s reasonable to say that this irresponsible behavior cost the Aggies the game today. How selfish is that? Immeasurably. In the first few minutes of the game, without the whirling dervish centerpiece around which the Aggie offense must revolve, and the absence of the post player to prevent opponents from easy access to drive to the basket, it was no surprise that Mississippi State jumped out to an early 11–0 lead.

If there was ever a slim chance of staying close in the game, it was already a major fail with this opening move. You have to commend Aggie Head Coach Gary Blair for enforcing team rules, because to do so meant accepting the predictable loss. You can’t begin a championship caliber game with two “star” players on the bench the first three minutes and expect the other team members to be able to run plays around which they were not the original focus. It was a confusion-laden offense, reminiscent of clown cars driving in every direction at Ringling Brothers Circus again.

No, it didn’t have to be this way. All good things considered, with preparation and mental toughness, it would have been just as easy to walk in there, having prepared, and desiring with passion and determination to be the team that turned the Lady Bulldogs into 27-1. Imagine what a victory like that would have done for the No. 17 Aggie women? Tomorrow, that No. 17 will disappear as quickly as the two hours of today’s game.

Four years ago, Mississippi State’s team didn’t execute the plays the way they did today; they didn’t have the physicality that they did today. They didn’t seem like a powerhouse on the court, but off the court, they were a team united by example, by force, and by fierce insistence of the man whose nickname here was the “Secretary of Defense.” On the court, that gentleman is far from warm and fuzzy.

The Lady Bulldogs began building this year’s team four years ago, and four of the five starters are seniors. They couldn’t recruit nationally—they drew from Mississippi, an even more important accomplishment. So, 2018 is their year. Next year, there will be an all-new group of players on their court. And Coach Schaefer’s lawn will be a little less busy, or maybe it won’t be.

But who and what has taken over the Aggie court, and who has changed this team from a group of nationally recruited players to the team on the court today? Last year Danni Williams was the team hero, more so than any other player, and remained humble and felt the respect and regard of her team. This year, Williams has had moments, or games, filled with self-doubt. Or, she’s been double-teamed out of key position, and is trying to fight her way out of that slump, and there’s no pressure like not performing this year as you did last year.

What does it say about Aggie post play when the smallest Lady Bulldog on the court, Morgan William, whose listed 5’5” height is about 5 inches too generous, was able to drive right to the basket, undaunted?

Another good question is why is Anriel Howard always in double-doubles for her shooting and her rebounding? Simple. Anriel fights for that rebound every single time there’s a shot. She winds up getting her own misses and going for second-chance shots, often getting them.

Jasmine Lumpkin’s shooting time has increased the last few games, mostly because she’s worked herself into an open spot on the court and has the guts to shoot, no matter the outcome. She has no reason to be anything but proud of how she played today. Her defensive abilities are exceptional. But she can't do it all by herself out there, though she fights every play of the game. It doesn’t matter about her missed shots—at least she took shots.

If you’re looking for one potential source of the biggest problem in todays’ loss, assuming that the Aggies did well the second quarter and really kept Mississippi State contained well, the stat sheet has the answer. Courtesy of Asst. SID, David Waxman, here’s how today’s game stacked up.

Five Mississippi State players scored in double figures, and Victoria Vivians had 26 on the day, with 2 assists. Vivians also had 12 rebounds and teammate Teaira McCowan had 11 rebounds. The Lady Bulldogs had 10 of 21 three-point shots fall their way, compared to 1 of 12 by the Aggies, the 1 three-pointer going to Chennedy Carter.

Roshunda Johnson scored 16, point guard Morgan William scored 12, Blair Schaefer had 11, and Teaira McCowan had 11 points…a very nice spread. Only five Lady Bulldog players scored. Morgan William, by the way, led the team with 7 assists, and guess how many assists Aggie players had for the game: 3. Just 3 assists. Anriel had one, Jasmine had 1 and Chennedy Carter had 1. There’s your loss. No one was getting the ball to the open person.

To be fair Mississippi State played a swarming defense, yet not every Aggie was covered all the time. Apparently, every time Chennedy Carter had the ball, she shot it. She made 12 of 29 field goals, 1 of 8 three-point attempts, and 6 of 7 free throws. She held the ball 37 times compared to her teammates. The most shots attempted by any other Aggie were 7 by Howard (making 3), 7 by Williams (making 0), 7 by Hillsman (making 2), and 3 by Lumpkin (making 0).

Right as the game began, the announcers spoke glowingly again of the value of having Chennedy Carter in the lineup for the Aggies (noting how they were scoreless without her), and how she’s surely freshman of the year, having shot 46 points in one game and 36 (I think) in another.

That’s too much pressure on one child, and apparently she’s put it on herself to carry this team when she thinks they can’t perform. And yet, shooting 12 of 29 field goals and 1 of 8 three-pointers is hardly freshman of the year material, nor is it anything like shooting lights out. It’s just volume, volume, volume.

Anriel Howard and Jasmine Lumpkin continued to be the MVPs of Aggie team play, as Anriel was perfect on free throws, making 8 of 8. Jasmine made 3 of 4. This duo also led in rebounds (Anriel had 10, Jasmine had 7). One bright new spot is that Caylinne Martin was thrust into starting role and got 2 points and 5 rebounds in 10 minutes of play, compared to 4 points and 8 rebounds in 30 minutes of play by Hillsman. Martin is finding herself more at home when in the game. Still plenty of teaching time ahead.

Carter can be proud, individually, that she is now third place on Texas A&M’s single-season point list, with 605 points this season; her 31 points “tie for the third-most for a Texas A&M freshman in a single game,” and today her fifth 30+ point game of the season. But her team lost, so…so what?

After this game, the team will have a chance to talk to one another and determine how they will play Arkansas, Missouri, and in the SEC Tournament. Change has to begin from the bottom up. The coaches can’t fix this. They’ve done everything they can. They’ve taught the players, supervised them, coached them, encouraged them and even coddled some of them. But their job ended with the end of this game.

Only the players can effect positive change, which begins in their attitudes, their commitment to this team, and their passion for winning. No ball will go unrebounded. No shot will not be followed up, and no opposing team will slip past them every single play in the future--if they choose to win.

Today's attendance was 9933 fans of Mississippi State--that's another record to match as well.

Meanwhile, quoting Vic Schaefer, God bless and Go Dawgs, to Aggie Coach Vic Schaefer, Associate Head Coach Johnnie Harris, Director of Operations, Maryann Baker, and Director of Scouting/Video Coordinator, Skylar Collins, and congratulations to Teaira McCowan, Blair Schaefer, Morgan William, Roshunda Johnson, Victoria Vivians, Jazzmun Holmes, Jordan Danberry, Zion Campbell and Chloe Bibby on being the SEC Champions.

It was indeed the day for Coach Vic Schaefer and all of his staff and team to celebrate their SEC Championship. They earned it. And one thing is clear: they celebrated as a team.

Either this team will return as the fightin’ Texas Aggies that everyone sings the song about, or they won't. One thing is sure: they'll either be united or untied. By Thursday the fans should know for certain. Aggie fans are hoping for the best.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Prognostications and Expectations—How Do They Really Impact Aggie Women’s Basketball?

After watching last night’s Aggie women’s basketball game against Ole Miss, in the clear victory 83-54 over the Rebels, I began reflecting about how the team had developed this year, compared to all of the prognosticators’ opinions and rankings and laudatory platitudes awarded before a single whistle had blown this season.

Back in November, 2017, TAMU women’s basketball was picked 4th in the SEC, and three players were named preseason All-SEC: Khaalia Hillsman (First team), Anriel Howard, and Danni Williams (Second team). Also, in November, the Aggies were ranked 20th in the AP Preseason Poll.

Currently, the Aggies are in a three-way tie with South Carolina and Tennessee at 8-3; leading are Mississippi State (11-0) and Georgia (9-2). That could change a lot before the SEC tournament, then we shall see.

Danni Williams was named to the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award Watch List in November, 2017. Also, Khaalia Hillsman was named to the Lisa Leslie Award Watch List as well. Nice, but, what kind of pressure did that put on those players for their season?

If you’ve attended more than three games this season, you know unquestionably that Anriel Howard is more a first teamer than a second teamer (biased personal opinion aside), and undoubtedly MVP of the year so far.

And right behind her is Jasmine Lumpkin.

These two comparatively unsung heroes are the ones making the best plays, the free throws, the rebounds, and the mid-range jumpers that keep the Aggies alive while opponents try their latest double team dance-off against Khaalia or Danni. You don’t see them, however, on national watch lists, because they’re the best team players who focus on teams.

So, if you’re missing the best players, why the hype of the preseason rankings and awards? It’s all come down to numbers, statistics, and something for the commentators to discuss between plays, I guess. But it doesn’t begin to watch the action on the court when the team goes over to congratulate the unsung heroes for doing their jobs, every single game. The smiles and true regard you see exchanged between teammates are worth more gold than any of the countless number of trophies that will be handed out by season end.

It was perfect Monday night at the radio show at Rudy's BBQ, when Gary Blair pronounced Jasmine Lumpkin as his Fifth Dimension in the wheel that goes ‘round and ‘round on the team. He had to ask the crowd if anyone there remembered the Fifth Dimension, but he picked the right place to ask that question. We all knew the answer.

You can’t have the Fifth Dimension without the harmonies of Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis, Jr., Florence LaRue, Ron Townson, and Lamonte McLemore singing together. And, if you have Anriel, Danni, Khaalia, and Chennedy out there on the court, Jasmine is that perfect fifth.

Now then, there’s the whirling dervish, Chennedy Carter. She was named espnW National Player of the Week in December, 2017, with 46 points in the Aggie 75–74 victory over USC, only the third TAMU player (Courtney Walker in 2015 and Kelsey Bone in 2012) to do that. Carter has also been named SEC Player of the Week several times this season, but how does that help her get more assists than points in her point guard play? It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers.

Fortunately, the past three home games, what statistic has mattered most of all are the smiles on the faces and the affirming high-fives, hand slaps, hugs, and side bumps for each Aggie team player who is playing the best team play. It’s a Danni Williams passing the ball to Khaalia Hillsman, when she just as easily could be shooting it herself, and then smiling when Khaalia gets the bucket. It's the tandem passing between Williams and Carter down the court and then both deciding who should shoot the ball, to a successful conclusion and approving smiles between teammates that measures success better than any stats.

It’s an Anriel Howard who gets that rebound (after rebound) when she’s not the tallest player on the team, because she is doubly determined to play her role on this team and she’s the best junior we have out there, who acts more like a grad student in her maturity.

It’s Jazz Lumpkin who is the one you can count on. She has made believers out of some audience members who had no idea what she was capable of, but she wasn’t listening to doubters or naysayers. Lumpkin was listening second to her coaches but more importantly, she was listening first to her heart that told her she is a valued member of the Texas A&M women’s basketball team and she loves this game. And look what happens when she’s on the court—magic!

Watch game film or live in action, to see that Howard and Lumpkin are always standing up, straightest and tallest on the court. They may be just as wiped out as all the other players, but their stance does not show it. Their shoulders are not slumped. They have backs as straight as lifetime piano students build, and therein stems the attitude of a true warrior. These subtleties are the extra advantage they take into battle for the victory.

And then there is the unselfish smile of admiration these team players show one another. It’s hard, when you’ve had hot shot shooting days on your roster for years, whether high school or college, and it’s up to you to make the shot or pass it to someone with a higher likelihood of making it. Women are natural competitors, but here we are nearing the end of SEC play, and this team has much to be proud of in its solid capacity playing together—united in goals.

You can't overlook the solid coaching and permanent imprint of Associate Head Coach Kelly Bond-White, Assistant Coach Bob Starkey, and Assistant Coach Amy Wright, for each of their contributions to this team, and it takes supervision, coaching, studying, teaching, advice, and a lot of listening to the words of these talented women. Mike "Radar" Ricke has what it takes to keep these teams going strong, and new Sports Performance Coach, Kayln Sticher, is working to build the endurance of each of the players.

Not everyone is on that same page of the hymn book yet, but these kids are coming to A&M being told their entire high school and AAU careers how great they are. Rule number one is “Never believe your own PR.” But they do. They get named to preseason watch lists, to weekly shout-out lists and the accolades can fill the room. Chennedy Carter, though, is one who seems oblivious to the awards and the accolades heaped on her and she's just getting out there and making offense happen, which helps her stay the course of every game. That telescoping focus on the basket at hand is key. Just like the famous scene in "For the Love of the Game": "Clear the mechanism."

Chennedy Carter plays for the love of the game, and ultimately a pro career ahead, but it's one game at a time, one season at a time, one victory at a time. Last night she had 7 assists and 4 steals (fun to watch). Danni Williams had 4 generous assists. Given the nature of the game, it would have been nice to see more assists than the 17 total for the game, where players were in double-digits. Ole Miss had 13 assists and four players in double digits, too.

But, you know what? Kayla Wells wasn’t named to a preseason thing, and she’s brilliantly and quietly making her way into prominence with sure shooting, confidently and smartly. Wells and Jada Walton both had 4 rebounds, and N’dea Jones had 5 rebounds last night, fourth only to Anriel (14) and Khaalia (7), and Jasmine (6). These freshmen are coming on strong, and that's one of the best things to watch and enjoy in person at these games.

Sometimes staring at the jumbotron or stat boards, you can lose focus and miss the eyes and the hearts of the players who are out there executing plays, carrying out strategy, and fighting for victory, or to at least walk out of the arena, holding their heads up. Team play is a victory. Selfish play is demoralizing to the team and the crowd alike. Ole Miss played hard as a team in training. They passed the ball. They looked for openings and in the second half they got the three-point shots we left wide open while learning not to do that. Many shots simply would not fall the Old Miss way, but they kept after it, they kept trying.

Postgame, Ole Miss’s coach, Matt Insell, described his team as “a little scared out there and I really didn’t understand that.” It occurred to me how sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the clipboards with the numbers.

Coach Insell’s statement was profound, and perhaps is the key to beginning the turnaround he will ultimately find as his team gains skills and savvy. After all the Texas Aggie women have appeared exactly that way (cowed playing powerhouses) at times.

But what do victories really mean, and to whom? One thing is sure: It’s fear of failure that drives UConn players, if you listen to the words of Geno Auriemma shared last month.

At UConn, per Geno, “Maybe it’s just the function of this program because there are no easy passes here, no get-out-of-jail cards…You come here, you’re competing against really good players and you compete every minute of every day, every drill, everything we do. And then you get rewarded”…“any player who claims not to be afraid to fail is lying.”

That’s just a portion of his interview, and not to take it out of context, but what basketball coach or team doesn’t want to win? Who doesn’t give everything they have in practice? If they don’t, are they still on the team next year? Maybe, maybe not. what are the stakes, though, among the best of the best teams?

So, Coach Insell likely found his words explaining that he was proud of their effort, their hard work, against a solid SEC contender, and time would show continued improvement, to keep the faith. That’s a life lesson that means something to their future success.

In watching coaches on the sidelines during big ticket games, Texas A&M can be proud of both Gary Blair and Billy Kennedy for their sidelines demeanor compared to others in the SEC. Sometimes I think Bruce Pearl (Auburn men) shouldn’t be wired, or the camera shouldn’t go on LSU’s Nikki Fargas so much. Her glances scare me and I’m just sitting in the arena!

Maryland’s Brenda Frese is cool and collected. The great Pat Summitt, whose "We Back Pat" fundraising effort all SEC schools are backing, was a calm leader. Baylor’s Kim Mulkey is an example of…well, I won't finish that sentence.

What role does fear have in women’s basketball? What and whom should a player be afraid of? Disappointing their parents? Letting their coaches down? At Texas A&M, add to the pressure packer, the challenge of looking good or bad in front of a crowd of virtual strangers who spent thousands of dollars on primo seats. If you're given to pressure, the way things go sometimes, players seem to carry on their backs the way they feel when, and how soon, the crowd leaves Reed Arena--that's not good.

Seeing how many stayed last night, to sing the War Hymn along with the players, an aftergame tradition with a win, was demoralizing to this team. Seeing the game well in hand, I saw several Aggie faithful nick out in the fourth quarter. I guarantee that if we'd won against Mississippi State last night, you would have every single ticket-holder have to be swept out of Reed after refusing to leave the scene of the victory.

Players are also surrounded by fans who adopt and nurture them as their own, which is a two-edged sword, but mostly good. Players hear many things, mostly affirmations, from these well-meaning loyalists who want to soften the blow of a loss, and yet, the coaches are trying to teach the players to accept losses, examine root causes, correct the behavior or errors, and to keep on fighting for success. The question never seems to come around to whether these players are letting themselves down. They are last on their own list, much of the time. No time to think! A lot of input is what these players get and perhaps that offsets the pain of statistics of missed opportunities or things that should not have happened.

Numbers are cold, emotionless, and constantly changing. The heart of a coach, though, should remain consistently in teaching and encouraging mode, if you’re going to win in life as much as in the game. Aggie coaches are doing their parts, 24/7, and it is their most important priority.

Speaking only for myself, it would help immeasurably if the administrative leadership of TAMU (academics and athletics) would make their physical presence at the games a priority. Longtime fans remember days of old, where students and players were shown the importance of Aggie athletics for both basketball teams, when the President and Vice Presidents attended the games with their families. Season ticket holders know exactly where those prime seats are and it is beyond frustrating to see them wide open vacant, with only an occasional brave student sliding into a seat or two, which is a good thing, so it won't be such a vast blank space.

It’s powerful and important to kids from towns large and small across the state to see “leadership” supporting their event. Case in point: tomorrow night’s men’s game vs. Kentucky has scalping priced tickets available on Flash Seats for the worst seats in the house. It’s Kentucky and the way Calipari’s one-and-done zen masters are playing, the Aggies could very well hand the Big Blue Nation a battle.

It’s beyond ironic when a Kentucky journalist wrote that “Struggles aside, UK’s Hamidou Diallo still projected as first-round NBA Draft pick.” But what kind of education are these highly celebrated athletes getting year-round from the media?

Diallo is a freshman, and until someone stops the crazy bus, Kentucky will always be a school for the pre-pro players to wear blue and white for one year, sort of, and be called a Wildcat and then move on….without a hope in heck for a college education. Kentucky could care less if their players graduate. Texas A&M cares and devotes major financial resources to teaching their student athletes.

However, in stark contrast to our upcoming Kentucky game tomorrow night, an essentially capacity game, last nights’ women’s game was fortunate to have 300 students from the TAMU Corps of Cadets in the student section. They made a major difference in showing school support.

Shelby Metcalf earned his EdD with his dissertation on how “Crowd Behavior at Southwest Conference Games.” No joke…it’s a real thing. Think about it—how does collective approval via crowd noise impact you directly? Likely it impacts the players with adrenaline, joy, and emotions, as they feel good about what they’re doing for their team and this school, and they deserve the best, same as the others. The crowd is vital.

Just as it was easy to make a greater profit by selling more bottles of water at Aggie concession stands at a lower price (volume, volume, volume), fill the stands with kids who deserve it for free. Simply round up the to-be-unused/unsold-because-we-only love-football administration tickets and give them away for free to students who can’t afford a sports pass, or a $15 plus tax ticket for a reserved seat online, or even a $40 single ticket on Flashseats for Kentucky tomorrow night? Fill Reed Arena with people who really want to be there and can’t afford it, and you can even sell some water and popcorn. It’s a win-win.

If you are free Monday night, come to Rudy's BBQ on Harvey Road and enjoy unscripted remarks with Gary Blair and his audience. Young Elizabeth Miller is a very promising broadcaster and she's not only not self-conscious about being on the radio, just like her dad, Steve Miller, she is delightful. Watching Gary and Elizabeth reminds me of George Burns and Gracie Allen, "So how's your brother, Gracie?" and she'd hold forth!

Now, come Thursday night, everyone is encouraged to get up off the couch and stomp on over (with apologies to the Brothers Johnson), to fill Reed Arena for the next (affordable) women’s basketball game, set for Thursday, February 15 against Florida, and it’s the BTHO Breast Cancer game, so wear your pink shirts (this year’s or last), and show this team the love they deserve. Your presence will make all the difference in the world to these young student-athletes. Stay and allow them to come into the stands and say "thank you for coming," the way their coaches inspire them to do.

Last night, TAMU Head Coach Gary Blair notched his 350th win at Texas A&M with this game, but you can rest assured that only Asst. Sports Information Director David Waxman had that on his mind, because Blair was there to play ball and to teach his kids.

It's never too late to begin to root for this team. No one will ask you how long you've been coming. They'll just be glad you came.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Determination, Leadership by Anriel Howard and Jasmine Lumpkin Drive Aggie WBB 69–59 Victory over LSU

Every single practice, every single game of the 2017–2018 season so far, two players have stood head and shoulders above the others in terms of leadership and preparedness for the Texas A&M Women’s Basketball team: Anriel Howard and Jasmine Lumpkin. Last night’s competition with LSU showed just how vital these players are to the Aggies' winning (16-5, 5-2 SEC) record.

The primary reason that Howard and Lumpkin were named Co-players of the game had little to do with the great numbers they put up. Yes, Anriel was high scorer with 21 points and 14 rebounds. And yes, Jasmine had 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists (which is almost a triple double!), but it’s not about those numbers that these two leaders kept the game alive until their teammates could get reset and play ball.

Rather, it was the indefatigable spirit of Anriel Howard, taking care of business, sticking to the plan, not letting humiliating play by teammates who were being outplayed by LSU get her down. That was one of the X-factors. The other was that Jasmine has always been the quiet strength who does things on defense that most people miss. Head Coach Gary Blair has said as much before in weekly radio shows at Rudy’s BBQ on Monday nights, but come next Monday night, he’ll be able to say, “I’ve been telling you all along about Jasmine Lumpkin.” Those fortunate enough to be part of the final attendance of 3506 saw how true it was last night.

It’s not basketball statistics, it’s basketball IQ that has those two key players where they are supposed to be. They’re determined, unflappable, and most of all—generous team players. It’s a win for all the team when they show up to practice and play on the court. It’s their professional office workplace and their attitude shows it.

It’s not taking away a single thing from any other player on the team going out and giving her best and still failing. It’s that Marine on the bottom of the pyramid who gives you a leg up to get over the fence, a back to put your foot on and sturdy foundation on which to carry you until you get your game back.

LSU’s game plan began by assigning two smaller LSU players to stick to Khaalia Hillsman like epoxy, and they did their jobs. Hillsman did a good job of shaking them when she could, but for the most part, LSU had double-teamed her. How this manifested itself was that the plan to get Hillsman the ball was basically taken away.

That left four other players who were responsible for getting the points on the board. But, in the first half, it was a tad shy of Ringling Brothers’ Barnum and Bailey Circus, as the chase to catch up to the turnover balls as LSU ran away down the court with so many balls made you think you were watching all the clowns getting out of the clown car and trip over each other running around the car.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, LSU had two key players who my seatmate called “Jump Shot Girls,” as they didn’t seem to miss. Raigyn Louis and Ayana Mitchell were those jump shot girls, and Mitchell was a leader in rebounding as well. The duo also named 3 steals apiece. The only thing that the Aggie women did consistently through the game was to take away LSU’s chance at the three, leaving them wanting, making only 2-17 attempts. The Aggies, though, didn’t fare much better, posting 1 for 8 stats. Clearly the Tigers took away the Aggie three, that which the Aggies didn’t take away on their own.

Chloe Jackson for the Tigers dealt 38 minutes of pure frustration to the Aggies as she got one of the team’s 2 threes, along with 14 points, an assist and a steal. Turnovers were the biggest dish of the night, with 12 by the Tigers and 14 by the Aggies. Thing is, it seemed like most of the Aggie turnovers happened in the first period of the game, and we were bound on a course to disaster, yet Howard and Lumpkin were determined not to let that happen.

The SEC provides some of the toughest competition and grittiest play, or at least those of us in the SEC fanbase seem to believe that as fact. Prior to the game, LSU came in tied with A&M at 4-2 in SEC play.

But, lately, it seems to be a rerun of “The Chennedy Carter Show,” where Carter would forgo a lot of passing and just try to carry the team on her back to the “W.” It was disconcerting to see the young freshman wearing her emotions outwardly, sitting slumped on the bench at times, towel over her head (until she later put it around her shouders), or appearing collapsed with disinterest against the scoring bench when waiting to get back in the game after a rest.

Yes, she’d battled flu-like symptoms to play and was still in there trying to make things happen, which she definitely did in the second half. Carter was great on free throws, as was Hillsman, and their combined 12 free throws were a reason the Ags won by 10 last night. Coach Bob Starkey noted that Carter did some great things in the second half for sure. She's definitely a major national talent in the making, but she's a maverick who can learn from the upperclassmen. She will, to be sure.

Hillsman, on the other hand, was a leader by example last night, and was ready to spring back into action, having played 38 minutes, again, with two Tigers seemingly always by her elbows. She had one technical foul, but oh well. You try playing four quarters with two Tigers on your six and not express a tad of frustration.

Kudos to redshirt junior, Caylinne Martin, whose two minutes showed a lot of promise and great attitude coming off the bench, very refreshing to see. Undoubtedly, Carter’s spirit and will to win are great attributes. The rest will work itself out in time, and that’s a coach’s thing, not a fan’s thing to bother with. What fans can do is to see the value in the unsung heroes and sing about them a bit more, so to speak.

And fans can also get up from their home TV sets and get over to Reed Arena if they are in town, because the difference a crowd makes, to each of these young women, is the true X-factor of how these players feel they contribute to Texas A&M Athletics. No athletes work harder than the Aggie women’s basketball team.

Ticket prices are very affordable; last night was $1 hot dog night. In addition to Coach Blair’s basketball skills, he’s also found a way to get someone to listen, and now water is now only $2/bottle. This makes the difference between bringing a family of four to a game, or not. Free parking for women’s games (but not for men’s games) is also another visible pro in the list of reasons to attend. And then there’s Anriel Howard, always a reason to attend in person.

Last night, everywhere you looked, Anriel was getting the rebounds that others might have retrieved, if only they had Anriel’s relentless ability to focus on her objective. Every ball is important, every play matters, and she can reset after an unfair call without it showing on her face.

Similarly, Jasmine Lumpkin on defense is so fun to watch; she was right in the face of every LSU offensive player, the omnipresent immovable force that was going to make your day perfectly unpleasant if you thought you were going to score. Lumpkin is where she’s supposed to be, guarding, and you don’t always see that if you’re focused on offense all the time. Lulu McKinney is always a dynamic addition to the game, even if her minutes aren’t always long. Her leadership skills contribute where you can’t see them on the court, and they’re important.

Per a recent press release from David Waxman, Asst. Athletics SID, McKinney was just named to the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s 16th annual “So You Want to Be a Coach” program, who will travel to Columbus, Ohio, for a three-day workshop, a very prestigious choice. Selection is based on academics, contributions to women’s basketball on and off the court, resume and written recommendation from their head coach.

Now, for Danni Williams. This young lady has major talent, and no matter what she’s personally able to bring to the game each night, she is 100% team-oriented. As a senior, she’s a leader, and she’s susceptible to being double-teamed as well, as opponents do their best to keep her from her signature three-point shots. Her short shooting last night and one key three-pointer totaled 9 points, but her attitude was far beyond the value of her numbers. Whenever her teammates were shooting second free throws, she worked her way to the basket to be in position for an offensive rebound and she did come up with four defensive rebounds.

Before the season ends, Williams’ consistency will stabilize, once the voices of so many well-meaning people, offering their opinions on how she can regain consistency subsides. Williams does not have a superstar ego, and she has a fierce work ethic and more leadership by example. First in, last out of the gym for practice.

Kayla Wells, a freshman with great promise as a key, calm shooter, played 3 minutes and got 3 key points for the team, and thanks to these two players, there’s 1000W of can-do spirit she brings to the game.

Now, that’s a bunch of numbers tossed about and yes, the Aggies won by 69–59 but it was neither easy nor pretty. At times it was ugly and to a person, three of the Aggie coaches were the most animated, vocal, and well, coaching from the sidelines loud and clear last night. The first period was the Titanic, the second period was a Carnival Cruise (with intermittent power outages), the third period was a Disney Big Red Boat ride of adventure, and the fourth period was a Princess Cruise, with slightly smoother sailing. Overall, the passengers were a tad seasick but happy to reach the dock again.

No one had seen Coach Bob Starkey jump up and down from his chair to the sidelines faster than he did last night. It was, after all, LSU, and he knew exactly what he’d drawn up and exactly what the team wasn’t doing. He “communicated” it with gusto but when the team finally did get it together, it worked smoothly.

Kelly Bond-White was next on the up and down mode; like Starkey she tried to remain calm, but again, when you know the answer and they’re not following what you told them to do, you are going to become very visible on the sidelines. She was. A lot. One can only imagine halftime speeches, but they were reportedly brief and to the point. And effective. That’s a part of the experience 99% of fans don’t get to see unless they are present for the game. TV doesn't focus that much on the sidelines. Blair has his “tells” about how the game is going; there’s trouble if the suit coat comes off before the end of the first quarter.

Generally, but not always, if the coat is placed over a chair, he’s in biz-mode. If he throws it to Mike “Radar” Ricke, he’s perturbed but determined. If he slings or throws it to his right, not caring if it reaches Radar or not, there’s going to be trouble in River City. It wasn’t a few plays before his displeasure with his team’s play revealed itself. But they won and that’s what Hall of Fame Coaches do—they communicate. And they get results.

What was wonderful to see during this game was the presence of many former student athletes who could not attend the formal alumni reunion two weekends ago because they were playing internationally. That’s another thing that Coach Blair excels in, making sure his players leave with an Aggie degree for the future, and he stays in their lives beyond the degree, recommending them for international teams. He’s one who can speak personally to what each would bring to a team, and coaches listen to him.

(Photo credit: TCV Media).

The Jumbotron found Courtney Walker in the stands and on the visitor’s sidelines courtside were Courtney Williams, Achiri Ade, and Danielle Gant, all watching the game together, undoubtedly remembering some of the halftime locker room speeches they’d heard in their years here. They’re all playing overseas right now, and that means good income for them, and they deserve it, without question.

Building champions is far from a smooth, elegant process. It takes four coaches working all the time and the operations team behind them to “make the starmaker machinery behind a popular…” team (with apologies to Joni Mitchell) of winners. Today, the coaches are all on the road, recruiting, and then they get two days off before the Aggies get back to preparing for road contests vs. Vanderbilt (Jan. 28) and Tennessee again (Feb. 1), where we get to hear “Rocky Top” far more times than many can bear, but both games are on SEC-TV so tune in.

And, on Sunday, Feb. 4, at 3 pm, when the Aggies are home to play Auburn, they deserve our attendance. Start your Super Bowl party at Reed Arena, because frankly, this team deserves full Aggie support. Last night if you weren't there, you missed the most adorable children from Rock Prairie Elementary School sing the National Anthem, and the fantastic group of dance students, from cherub to young teens, from local MCM Dance Studio giving their all in robust performances that were treasured by all. This year's team is one to watch, count on that.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Turning on the Lights in Memory of Gene McDaniel Woodell—A Good Man from Grapeland

Friday night I drove to Callaway-Jones Funeral Center to pay respects to a gentleman whom I’ve had the privilege of knowing since 1993, Gene Woodell. It was going to be hard to say goodbye, even if Gene lived 91 wonderful years, because he was so timeless to all who knew him. The welcome smiles of my work colleagues who opened the door for me, Jon Shirley and Morgan Shirley, made my visit comfortable immediately.

As I signed the guest book, Marissa Crouch and Ricky Alderete greeted me as all around me I saw a beautiful display of photographs, awards, certificates, and more. I already knew Gene was legendary in his career—and yet, seeing all the framed accolades reinforced my awareness of what I already knew. We’d lost a legend, on so many levels.

My eyes immediately located a framed photo of Dixie and Gene, from their 50th Wedding Anniversary party at First United Methodist Church, and all of us there (virtually the entire church membership, plus neighbors and friends who’d filed through en masse that day) had signed the now framed matte board surrounding their wedding photo. At the end of his life, Gene and Dixie had marked 63 years of marriage, and all who knew the couple smiled in awe of the joy they showed whenever they were together.

Greeting Gene’s widow, Dixie, and his sons, Gene Martin and John, I knew to expect their strength, but as the beautiful video that Gene Martin had created was showing, it was truly a lifetime of love that was Gene’s greatest legacy to all of us. Even though the light of their lives had been extinguished on January 11th, the Woodells were such gracious hosts to all of Bryan-College Station who came through to share a hug, a tear, and so many memories.

I am continually humbled, when I see the “greatest generation” show up en masse, no matter what kind of impediments might try to dissuade them from paying respects. To be sure, in attendance were several Millenials, including Clayton Cates who came in, who’d known “Mr. Woodell” as the senior usher at First United Methodist Church, the man whose heart was filled with the incandescent countenance of grace and peace. John Woodell had asked Clayton to be an usher for the next day’s service, as Clayton was one whom Mr. Woodell had known from birth.

Trying to count the number of ushers who were asked by Mr. Woodell to work with him on Sunday mornings, I gave up—too many to count. He was truly a pillar of the church. In the past year alone, First Methodist has lost many pillars but Gene Woodell was one pillar for which it was almost too hard for me to say goodbye to, and I’m well practiced in saying goodbye bravely. After I’d paid my respects, I saw more of the photographs of the Woodells’ lifetime of love. They brought me to near-tears.

Fortunately, Rose Cates spotted me and we visited and reminisced about what Gene meant to our church, and as others came in, we knew they were from other parts of the Woodell’s lives. Whether it’s visitation or a funeral, we all need closure, we need people to be there with us and for us, which is the most important reason for a visitation, as you are not alone in your grief. Others miss whom you miss. Others remember what you remember, and together there is comfort.

Taking time to see all the names in the visitor registry, I smiled, because the lives that Gene touched in his lifetime were those from Grapeland, Texas, from his career position with Merck, Sharp, and Dohme (now Merck & Co.), within his church, and in an established Bryan neighborhood of longstanding. Everyone smiled as they shared their memories of Gene with his family.

The visitation was just the beginning of the energy and warmth that would surround the celebration of his life. I’d not known before that Gene was a Mason, or a member of the Circle Squares Square Dance Club, and the Knife and Fork Club. We must always remember that as well as we think we know others, we can always learn something new about an old friend, if we take the time to talk and ask questions.

The lights came on early Saturday morning in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in Bryan, at 28th and Houston, as a special event was to take place, with the public arriving for a 11 am funeral to pay final respects to one of the true “pillars of the church.”

It would be the first special occasion in the past 67 years in the life of the church where Gene himself was not present to open the doors. Instead, we the massive group of friends, family, fellow church members, neighbors and Bryan-College Station residents filed in to fill the pews for Gene’s Life Tribute service.

My door was opened by a professional teen usher whom Gene inspired and trained, Clayton Cates. That door was originally Gene’s to open, as he did virtually every Sunday of his 67 years as a member of the church now in its 150th year. Imagine…a man who has been part of a church for almost half of its existence. Truly, this is an awesome achievement. I was one of hundreds who processed through those portals over various years. He took the time to greet everyone by name…he brought a great “Welcome to your church” to visitors and guests alike.

For the funeral, pews held so many of the subsets of the church membership, one pew holding the surviving spouses of former FUMC ministers and their friends, another pew holding members of the 2x2 Sunday School class, of which Dixie and Gene were members, yet another pew with many of the Wesley Sunday School Class, another pew with a beloved former senior pastor and his entire family, on and on, as you then saw pews of others you didn’t know, but you’d come to know as the service proceeded with James Polasek on the organ with the prelude.

After Ricky Alderete led the family in to their reserved pews, Pastor Rick Sitton welcomed everyone and the music began. Young Michael Bettati perfomed a sterling violin solo as the opening then Rev. David Henry led the Sanctuary Choir in “On Eagle’s Wings” and all was right with the world. The FUMC Sanctuary Choir is one of the reasons many people return each week, to hear whatever they’ve worked up next as their gift to the congregation. Gene Woodell was another reason people returned each week.

Jeff Hobbs, Children’s Minister at FUMC, read from the Psalms, and took his rightful place as one who deserved to be part of the final farewell. Gene had watched him become the church leader he is, encouraging him all the way, sometimes good naturedly, but always with a smile. Count on Dr. Tim Scott to share from the lectern and keep everyone’s attention in a positive way. First, Tim read John’s tribute eulogy to their dad, and then it was time for the congregation to sing “Blessed Assurance,” always a favorite. Michael Bettati performed a powerful version of “Long Time Traveler,” and then it was time for the Eulogy.

Tim invited anyone who wished to come forward to share “I am thankful for Gene Woodell because…” and as people filed up there, including Texas State Rep. John Raney (who came down from the choir loft to do so), and wife Elizabeth, to Gene’s neighbors, friends from Grapeland, and other church members, the accolades flowed beautifully and smoothly.

Tim then continued by sharing the contents of a beautiful anonymous note that the Woodells had found in their mailbox one day. For four years a student had ridden his bike down their block, en route to classes at Texas A&M, and every day when Gene was outside, he would wave and smile at the student, neither party knowing the other’s names.

The student was just about to graduate and decided on that occasion that he wanted to thank the “resident” there for his daily encouragement that was, some days, what kept him going in his journey and through his education challenges. Imagine the power of a single wave and smile. That was Woodell Wattage light that flowed through him wherever he was.

Tim reminded so many of us of the truly sainted man who’d grown up in Grapeland, after having lost his dad very early in his life, one reason Tim projected that he’d been such a loving and caring father to their sons. Gene had co-founded “The Better Men of Grapeland” as a young man, vowing not to drink or smoke or swear, or go with girls who did. That’s an achievement to admire…without a father figure in his life, Gene and his friends decided early what kind of men they would be. Who does that anymore? Only special people with special gifts.

He shared how Gene wanted so much to join the Boy Scouts, even at age 13, but he’d learned the age of entry was 14, and the Scoutmaster wouldn’t make an exception. So, he went to the library and read up on the rules, and learned that you could join at 13 years old if there was a board member to sponsor you. One day the scoutmaster was out of town, so Gene sought out a Boy Scout board member to sponsor him. The man was so impressed, he agreed to sponsor him, and he hired him to work in his business. The man was Otto Walling, whose family had been in Grapeland, forever it seemed.

Otto hired Gene and that was the beginning of his interest in drug stores and in pharmaceuticals.

Gene was definitely a people person, so he combined his people skills in a business that made people feel better, a representative of a major pharmaceutical company, one that he devoted 37 years of his work life to serving, Merck & Co. Seeing some of his award plaques at visitation was so as you’d expect…for all the years I knew him, he never once mentioned an award. You just “knew it,” but doctors in town and their office teams always respected him. Gene was like no other in what he did and how he did it. Hard to quantify in words.

The sermon delivered by Pastor Sitton was as you’d expect, hard for him to deliver, as clearly he respected Gene so much, but he made it meaningful to all who heard him. What do you say when a visible pillar of your congregation is no longer there to welcome you each week? Many pastors and their spouses were in attendance on Saturday—they know exactly how Pastor Sitton felt. As Pastor Sitton said in closing, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Amen and amen.

The concluding hymn was “Because He Lives,” and it was almost as though someone was picking favorites out of the old Cokesbury Hymnal, and nothing would have made Gene happier. Well done, Rev. David Henry.

In any church, in any career, and in any community, you come across people who improve your life, and those of all around you, simply by their indefatigable smiles, their optimistic outlook on life, and their ability to be calm in any crisis. It reminds me of what Fred Rogers used to say to young children who were being taught what to do when there’s trouble around them. “Look for the helpers,” he’d say. For most all of his 91 years, in life you could say, “Look for Gene Woodell, he will help you.”

Dr. Fran Kimbrough is responsible for the takeaway remark of the individual eulogies…paraphrasing as closely as I can, she said, “For mumble-something years, I’ve known the entire Woodell family, as a lifetime member of this church, and my two favorite ushers of all time are my uncle, Jim James, and Mr. Woodell. And I know for a fact that one day when I get to Heaven, there will be two ushers standing at the door up there as they always did down here, and that will be my uncle, Jim James and Mr. Woodell.”

And that, of everything I heard and appreciated yesterday, made me smile the most.

The lights of the sanctuary in First United Methodist Church glowed brightly again this morning, and will every day hereafter in which any worship service occurs in the now 150th year of that church.

But the lights in the night skies, when they can be seen, will undoubtedly be stronger and brighter, and light-years away someone has already said, “Hey look, Woodell has arrived!”

Following the benediction, the family paid final respects in passing the casket for the last time en route to the reception in the church’s Fellowship Hall. Larry Whitlock and Zach Johnson had joined Ricky Alderete in folding the U.S. Flag draping Gene's casket, a reminder of his service to country in the U.S. Army. The rest of the congregation followed behind them.

In the Fellowship Hall, at every table you’d find people gathered together in rapt conversation, talking about how they first came to First Church, how Gene had welcomed them, and invariably the statement, “This church will not be the same without him.” A beautiful collective of church women acted as hosts for the reception, providing recognition and regard for all who attended, ambassadors of FUMC as Gene would so have loved.

However, rather than drop into deep depression, you could be uplifted as you’d see only the countenance of calm on Dixie’s face, the active and appreciative way in which both Gene Martin and John engaged in conversation with all who came to speak special words. It would be a long day for their family as the interment would take place at Bethel Cemetery on Hardy Weedon Road, and final goodbyes would be said.

When you think of Gene Woodell in the daytime, just look for the brightest light in the sky around you, and he’ll be there.

To read the full, beautiful life tribute that John Woodell wrote, and to watch the exquisite video of Gene's life that Gene Martin created, visit Gene's tribute page on the Callaway-Jones web site at

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Remembering Cindy Johnson Burgess ~ March 17, 1960 – December 27, 2017

On a Saturday morning in Bryan, Texas, within the peace and serenity of Rest-Ever Cemetery, a group of family and friends gathered to remember and honor the life Lucinda Johnson Burgess, a woman who’d touched many with her spirit and optimism throughout her lifetime.

An occasion of saying goodbye to Cindy, in the presence of her family, presented voices united in prayers and affirmations that her life on Earth had truly made a difference to so many, there and those she’d reached in all of her lifetime.

She’d entered the world on St. Patrick’s Day, and so her birth made a special day even more special. She and her brother Craig grew up here in Bryan and in her lifetime, she met and made so many friends that this was definitely one home base for her.

Over 20 years ago, I first met Cindy through her parents, Lee Roy and Carolyn, when she’d moved back to Bryan, after having raised her children in Austin. I’d learned that she had battled the impact of brain cancer and knew that her family had kept vigil by her bedside throughout each step of the way. Those were the bad times. No one wants to remember the bad times, and yet, they reveal the very character of the person and those who love them.

Brain cancer meant a tumor, which meant radiation, which meant that she had been cancer free, according to her daughter Victoria, for ten years. Still, the radiation had done quite a bit to alter Cindy’s balance when walking, and yet, her smile was so bright all the time that you only remember her smile and her amazing attitude. She wanted to be brave for Victoria, and for her son Michael. Their growth and progress as young adults was key to her, and she was always so proud of each milestone they achieved.

Yet, it took more to be there for her kids than it did the average person. A serious medical episode and tough experiences in your lifetime, as minister Charlie Ray pointed out this morning, are like the notches along the stem of a rose, marking those times with a bump. Before and after, though, are the signs of life lived more smoothly.

Church was a relevant part of Cindy’s lifetime commitment of faith, key in Cindy’s life. When she originally lived in Austin, she was church secretary and a faithful member at Oak Hill UMC there.

When Cindy located back in Bryan, she became active at First United Methodist Church as well as attending many Bible studies and other church activities there. She also attended other churches’ Bible studies and found multi-ecumenical faith journeys refreshing.

When her health permitted, Cindy became active in local area politics, much like the apple not falling far from the tree. Cindy was a key volunteer in a local race for state representative and was truly appreciated and valued for her contributions. Her battle with cancer behind her, the side effects of radiation had slowed her down, but didn’t take her out of participating in things she loved.

In Bryan, unquestionably, Cindy loved being with her brother, Craig, sister-in-law, Kathy, and nephew Christopher, and there was usually good music or bbq involved in gatherings. Cindy and music are two words that go so naturally together in a sentence. She was a fan of classic rock, of solid country music, and there’s no question that her favorite performer, of whom she had become fond as a teenager, was Barry Manilow.

Cindy and a friend had a chance to see Barry Manilow’s concert in person at The Woodlands several years ago, and she was so excited to know that Vince Gill had recently joined forces with The Eagles for a 2018 tour. That was Cindy, always looking ahead, while looking back at what was good. She maintained a vital interest in the world around her always, and she was faithful in keeping up with what her friends and family were doing, as best she could.

Cindy was a faithful member of the Beta Sigma Phi Sorority and made lifelong friends there as well. As word has spread of her passing, memories and tributes will continue to be shared on her Callaway-Jones tribute page and in cards that are shared in the days ahead.

In her final days, she achieved what every Mother prays to do in her lifetime, to see her children grown and happy, so she can transition into the next life in peace. With God’s blessings, that happened. Two years ago, Cindy’s son Michael was accepted into the Honors College program at the University of South Florida studying for his IT degree. That same day she shared that daughter Victoria had won Employee of the Year for her company. Cindy loved sharing good news with those who loved her.

Michael and Victoria often teamed up to honor their mother, whether Mother’s Day or other special occasion. Cindy, the mother, knew she was loved and beloved by her children, who also enjoy a close relationship with their dad.

Present day, Michael is now married to the lovely Kayleigh Dunna, and Victoria has become recently engaged to Cody Esser, who made a tremendously romantic journey to find Victoria’s engagement ring, the kind of journey that every mother hopes her daughter will find, in praying for a son-in-law who will treat her like a princess.

As parents, Carolyn and Lee Roy Johnson have lived the hardest day of their lives today, in giving Cindy back to God. It’s not a matter of faith; they know where she is and that she is entirely free of the Earthly illness that caused Cindy to fall earlier this month, and her system tried to battle back, and could not. In the interim, sister-in-law Kathy and brother Craig asked for prayers for her in the interim period.

Whether or not a person has a strong faith construct, you could be sure that knowing that “this life” is not all there is in the world makes the distinctive difference in our lives that reassures us what pastor Charlie Ray said to the local group of family and friends assembled to pay their respects to Cindy and her family: “This was God’s time, and today she hurts no more.” Love flowed throughout Cindy’s life and as the impact of that love remains with all those whose lives she has touched.

The service concluded by reminding us of the assurances offered by scripture of life eternal, including the gospel of John, the Psalms, and the promises of Ecclesiastes.

Next Saturday, January 6, there will be a memorial service in Austin and Oak Hill United Methodist Church in Austin so that her Austin family can pay their respects.

I’m not going to end this on a sad note. She wouldn’t like that, not one bit. Instead, every day of our lives is a chance to offer one voice to be heard. Cindy used her voice and we are all the better for hearing her.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Z is for Zenith: Author Sue Grafton Dies at Age 77

The final case of fictional detective Kinsey Millhone’s career has been closed, one book shy of the complete alphabet murder series so brilliantly crafted by author Sue Grafton. Grafton, 77, died in Santa Barbara, California, today after a lengthy battle with cancer. Her husband, Steven Humphrey, told the Associated Press that “Grafton had been struggling to find an idea for ‘Z’ while undergoing treatment (for cancer) and losing weight.”

Sue Grafton intrigued mystery lovers around the world with her capable, calm, methodical detective Kinsey Millhone. Millhone had no attachments to people, places or things, although she headquartered in Santa Teresa, a fictional town in California, where Kinsey supplemented her big cases by working on resolving small matters for an insurance company.

Kinsey was a loner, quite the opposite of Sue Grafton, happily married, plus mother to two daughters and a son, in the world she spanned between Louisville, Kentucky, and Montecito, California. She was just a few miles away from Santa Barbara, which surely had to be total inspiration for Kinsey’s “Santa Teresa” headquarters.

Grafton was an alumnus of both the University of Louisville and Western Kentucky University, both proudly claiming her, but she earned her B.A. in English Literature from Louisville in 1961. Naturally, Louisville named her a Distinguished Alumnus in 1993, after she was well into her alphabet mysteries. She amassed numerous other awards of course, but there’s something special when your alma mater pays heed to your career accomplishments.

We first met Kinsey, err, Sue, in 1982 with “A” is for Alibi, and it didn’t take long before readers were clamoring for “B,” then “C,” and so forth. Just four months ago, on August 22, 2017, to be exact, Marian Wood Books/Putnam released “Y” is for Yesterday as she progressed near her intended series conclusion.

Different from the overarching upbeat narrative usually related by Kinsey Millhone, the plot and numerous twists within “Y” is for Yesterday almost gave readers, or at least just speaking for myself, the feeling that something was not quite right about the feel to the story. It was so dark, so painful, and more intricate than the usually more lighthearted tone of her stories.

Not that murder is in any way lighthearted in fiction or in real life, but ever before, even on Kinsey’s tougher cases, her outlook remained determined and optimistic, to solve the unsolvable, and this time, in “Y,” it just seemed like we were dragged into quicksand and the plot didn’t advance in its usual way. I’d already pronounced that opinion, if only to myself, when I read it a few months ago, and wondered what “Z” would be like.

It’s understandable, too, that if you’d been battling cancer for two years, your outlook wouldn’t be Kinsey’s usual style as well. She did, however, resolve her case, and only “Z” remained before she’d gone from A to Z, truly.

I remember reading on Amazon Smile, when I’d ordered my copy of “Y,” what was said of that volume:

“Of #1 New York Times-bestselling author Sue Grafton, NPR's Maureen Corrigan said, “Makes me wish there were more than 26 letters.” With only one letter left, Grafton's many devoted readers will share that sentiment.”

Random fans were suggesting Grafton could begin with “1,” and go forward in numerical series, or whatever else she dreamed up as a new series. Grafton’s writing was not limited to the Kinsey Millhone mysteries. Her official Web site, is well worth visiting to get to know better a woman who kept us all entertained for 35 years.

One additional important component of enjoying Sue Grafton novels are the audio versions available from, as well as the other usual Web sources. Audiobook narrator Judy Kaye has been the single, consistent “voice” of Kinsey Millhone, on all of Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. Speaking personally, there is no other “voice of the voice,” than Judy Kaye. For those who share my love of the audible version of Grafton’s books, you’ll enjoy this transcript of a 2010 interview conducted by writer Mary Frances Wilkens as she talks with both Grafton and Kaye.

Any author is typically happy when their book is published in one language, but Sue Grafton achieved the penultimate accomplishment: “…published in 28 countries and 26 languages—including Estonian, Bulgarian, and Indonesian.” With millions of readers whose lives she touched, it won’t be long before everyone relocates their copies of their old hardbacks and starts all over again with “A.”

To recap, in case you’d forgotten:

A is for Alibi

B is for Burglar

C is for Corpse

D is for Deadbeat

E is for Evidence

F is for Fugitive

G is for Gumshoe

H is for Homicide

I is for Innocent

J is for Judgment

K is for Killer

L is for Lawless

M is for Malice

N is for Noose

O is for Outlaw

P is for Peril

Q is for Quarry

R is for Richochet

S is for Silence

T is for Trespass

U is for Undertow

V is for Vengeance

X is …just X

Y is for Yesterday

And Z….was meant to be “Z" is for Zero, according to Grafton’s husband, Steven Humphrey.

I propose instead, with all presumptive nerve I have in me, that “Z” instead should be titled as “Z" is for Zenith, because once you’ve reached the top of your profession, there is no additional place to go, once you’ve achieved your zenith.

Sue had said and done all that she needed to say, really, and those of us who’d become so attached to Kinsey are left with the infinite possibilities of devising our own stories and creating our own plots that we think might have made for an exciting “Z.”

This beautiful photo of the author was captured by Gino Domenico (for AP), taken on Oct. 15, 2002 in New York. Original can be found here. Sue Grafton left the writers in each of us with…inspiration.

Thank you so much, Sue Grafton, for 35 years of quality writing, brilliant plots, quirky characters, and for sharing with all women that if you choose to rush through lunch (or dinner) on a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese, Fries, and a Coke, you can begin your morning with a three-mile run on the beach, shower, and still fit into that all-purpose little black dress and make it in time to your next formal event…safely. Godspeed and God bless you, Sue Grafton.

Case closed.

Respectfully submitted,

Dawn Lee Wakefield (for Kinsey Millhone)

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Finding an Angel on Christmas Day

This story begins as many have in years past, with my friend Mildred, but it has a far different ending than you’d expect, if you’ve been following this Christmas tradition for a few years. This Christmas, I was actually planning on mixing up my usual routine, determined to begin some new traditions while ending others I’d outgrown. I’d saved all my holiday cards to open for this day, and started a lovely pile (which as yet remain unopened) and placed presents off to the right so I’d have something special to see today.

As a child, Mom would always allow me to open one of her gifts to me on Christmas Eve, so my wait for Santa wouldn’t be so tough. I don’t know how she managed to do it, but she created magic every year. Her sense of pageantry, ceremony, stories, songs we played on my record player, and her retelling of her rituals as a child was part of our grand tradition. I’m lucky that I’m now the repository of all her generation’s stories, as nothing was written down (who had time?). Today, only two of her generation are left to recall life, but only from where their memories begin. Lesson to others: share your stories with those who care!

Christmas Eve decorations included a small chapel, a nativity scene surrounding it, and an angel statuette she added from the what-not shelf, deciding it belonged there. It was fun to assemble the setting and my earliest learned duties were the “mechanical things” (now this meant assembling the color wheel to shine on an aluminum tree), which meant I got the box out of the closet, pulled out the motor platform, located the wingnut and secured it atop the color wheel.

I realize that’s not brain surgery, but when your mom spends time affirming your skills when you even know what a wingnut is, you just tend to feel good about yourself, albeit modestly so. Before anyone says “aww,” that aluminum was not a “real” tree, bottom line was that I had a major childhood severe allergy to cedar, pine, and fir trees. Flocked trees were fine, but those had faded from easy availability. The aluminum tree was the preferred medium for celebration and you really should have seen that color wheel at work! Stop laughing. It was pretty! I’ve outgrown those allergies, fortunately.

Today it was time for another tradition, the annual visit with Mildred, my 102.5-year-old friend, over at one of the local nursing facilities. It’s been exceedingly hard this year because I feared what condition I might find her in, and as much as I adore her, she used to say quite adamantly, “When I can’t be myself, I don’t want to be here!” And the last time I saw her with a mutual friend, she was sleeping through most of the day and neither of us expected it to be that much longer. We were both wrong.

Expecting to see what I’d seen before, I’d written out a simple note on a small greeting card that had two angels on it. Her quarters include a corkboard where special items can be pinned, so this was the first year I showed up without an angel gift. My intention was to pin her card to her corkboard in the suite where triangularly placed curtains turned one suite into three private sleeping areas, and then just sit quietly by her bedside, not expecting her to know whether I was there. I was wrong, which pleased me greatly.

When I arrived on her floor, I asked the LVN in the hall which room she might be resting in, the LVN smiled readily and said, “Oh no, she’s down in the dining room, eating dinner.” I said “What? In the dining room? Sitting up?” With my two-word sentences, the LVN was so polite when she could easily have dismissed my astonishment as ignorance. Eagerly, I bounded down the hallway and saw her propped up in a rolling chair almost as big as she was, bigger perhaps.

She spotted me quickly and seemed pleased for a moment, but the joy turned just as quickly to displeasure. Her face grimaced a little, but I didn’t take it personally because when I can’t figure something out right away either, I’m told I look unhappy, disappointed, or something else when I’m working through a puzzle in my mind, until I understand it. So, that’s where she was in the process. A kind LVN had charge of feeding Mildred, another lady who enjoyed a nap between bites and a sweet gentleman I’ve seen before who’d cleared his plate. This is a unique arrangement around a semicircular table, but it works well.

I didn’t say much as Mildred was gradually taking the forks of food that the LVN was silently counting that each patient took. She’d look over now and then, and all I’d do is smile reassuringly. Some of the words she said rapidly didn’t make sense but then she got into a flow of some and they weren’t directed at me. Her handsome LVN probably had more of her attention, understandably.

Eventually, I opened her card for her and she saw the angel, and didn’t seem pleased either. I asked her, “Do you like it? It’s an angel!” And her answer was direct, “No!!” Hmm. Okay. Granted it wasn’t the clearest angel drawing, but it was pretty and colorful, old-fashioned card. I stayed consistently calm and just smiled. Mildred’s table’s LVN was pretty patient, all things notwithstanding and I thought about the fortitude it takes to find victories in every bite when they’re not supposed to be emotionally attached to the patients. The compassion of LVNs in general and especially those who are away from their families on Christmas seems endless.

Realizing that I was not going to see Mildred break through and recognize me this visit, I didn’t feel like I’d failed to generate the awareness. Instead, I had already made peace with my joy just to see her upright in a chair when she surprised me. Her right arm reached out for the iced tea cup that was on her tray and she grasped it expertly and slowly drew it to her, taking a good sip, and then replaced it on the table without spilling. I was blown away. At 102.5 years old, I wasn’t expecting a lot in muscle coordination or spatial cognition, to be frank. Then again, she’s a lady who always does the unexpected, her signature, if only to defy preconceptions, ha.

The LVN said, “You can take her down the hall to the table in front of the nurse’s station.” I looked at Mildred and said, “Would it be okay with you if I took you down the hall?” She looked at me and nodded “yes,” with just one nod. The LVN quizzed me and I said, “She’s not remembering me yet and I want to make sure she trusts me first before I take her anywhere.” He absorbed my delay and started down the hall with Lady 20Winks. I followed and gently tried to guide the challenging rolling chair down the hallway, locating her in front of the TV.

Over the next 30 minutes, together we watched the Hallmark movie, “Coming Home for Christmas,” (2017), where brothers portrayed by Neal Bledsoe and Andrew Francis (I know, Who? It’s okay they’re Hallmarkers) fall in love with Danica McKellar over her two-week stint as a house manager, because that’s the storyboard (see photo). I’m not mocking; I’m admitting the fact that I’d already “heard” this one more than once. Scoff if you wish, but it helps to keep blood pressure low to have the Hallmark Channel on in the background vs. the news channels, trust me. During the commercials, I’d placed the angel card on the table, to her right, not too close.

Out of what she thought was my gaze, she extended her hand and brought the card closer to her but not too close. Expressing interest was a big win for me. Actually, her still being here to visit with in person was the biggest gift of all. As much as I try not to think of “the last,” at this point it became clear that she was safe, warm, and comfortable, except when another LVN attempted to take her blood pressure. She wasn’t having any of it and the LVN had to come back. Gently, sweetly and determined, the LVN was victorious, but Mildred had to give up her “other arm” to get a good reading. Her vitals were vital alright.

At the movie’s end, I decided that Mildred still didn’t know me, so I prepared to leave. As I put on my scarf and jacket, her face grew displeased, and I just kept smiling. I said, “Merry Christmas, Mildred” and she didn’t respond. That was okay. I understand. I said it again and did not attempt to hug or kiss her as I usually did. She didn’t know me and it would not have been safe for her. I did gently touch her shoulder briefly as I walked down the hallway. I paused, looked back, and she was following me with her eyes. I smiled again, waved, and blew her a kiss, saying “Merry Christmas” as I left.

The visit was a gift she gives me each year at this time. I am the recipient of her love each time I see her, sometimes specifically, other times indirectly. For years when she lived in her apartment on 29th Street, and in the adult residential community that has changed names three times but maintains its original beauty, it had simply become a joy to call her about 8 pm on Christmas night. It was after we’d both done our things, and I’d greet her with, “Is it still Christmas where you are?” and she’d reply, “It sure is, come on over!”

That’s when we would exchange our gifts for each other and have a cup of something I’d bring in from Starbucks or McDonald's (whichever was open), and she’d show me all the things she’d received that year and the cards were legendary. When I got back home each time, I felt like it had truly been Christmas for me.

But that’s not the end of the story.

As I prepared to exit the front door of the Adult Assisted Living Center, a happy lady came in first, carrying a plastic laundry basket of folded (warm) blankets. I imagined she was going to visit a relative with her favorite blankets all cleaned. As I made my way to my car out front, I saw a woman with white hair, walking strongly enough while using a walker, and she was making regular forward progress down the sloped driveway. I sensed immediately that this wasn’t a 'good thing.'

Just the fact that it was now a few minutes after 7 p.m. and dark outside, and the lady was going off into the cold (53°F) with a mid-length coat and no headwear bothered me. My first thought, sadly, was “She’s a runner!” There’s no one that I’m aware of in this facility who is under medical watch in terms of their worrying the patient might “up and leave,” as we say here in the south. I called out, gently, “Merry Christmas,” but she didn’t hear me.

Now, ask yourself what your thoughts would have been had you seen this woman on a walker, in the dark, on Christmas evening in bitter cold, oh yes, in a highly trafficked hospital section of Bryan with lots of dark places where miscreants can wreak havoc. The first thing I did was use my phone to look up the number of the main line inside the building. After 10 rings, I told the operator that I feared seeing “a runner” from their facility. She said I had the “Other side” of the facility and needed to call so-and-so phone number. I dialed. Let it ring 25 times, and it went into fail mode with the recording, “This wireless caller isn’t available.” Dad gum it.

I googled another number and called it. Woman answered and I explained I was concerned about the welfare of someone who might be one of their patients. She said, “You’ve reached the hospital, you need to call over there.” I explained that I’d already made two unanswered phone calls and she gave me two more numbers to try, both one digit apart from the other. No answer on either. Arrgh.

Watching to see whether the lady was going to try and cross 29th Street, my heart was in my mouth and I said out loud, “Lord, please don’t let her try to cross the street, please don’t let her cross the street.” The way the diminished traffic was scooting down the slick streets scared me. No answer at the now fourth and fifth phone numbers. I took off out of the parking lot, determined to see where she was heading so I could then reach out and get Bryan PD, because I was concerned for her safety, truly. I had punched up 911 in the phone but before I could push the button, I recalled that I should use the nonemergency number.

I saw the driveway of the nearby dialysis center and miraculously, there was no traffic coming toward me, so I gently glided into the driveway before she could reach that intersection. I didn’t proceed very far up the driveway and put the car in park, opened the door and waited a second for her. She didn’t seem scared at all and I kept smiling the whole time, the way I had with the unresponsive Mildred just moments earlier.

When she saw me, she smiled an angelic smile back my way and I said, “Good evening, Ma’am; Merry Christmas!” and she said, “To you, too.” I said, “My name is,,,,” introducing myself. “Do you live over at ***" (name of the place withheld)? And she said, “No, but I just came from there,” smiling. I asked, “Where do you live?” and she told me. I smiled and said, “I have many friends who’ve lived there, and would you please allow me to drive you the rest of the way home? It’s so cold out right now.”

And she smiled like an angel, I promise you! She said, “That would be so nice. Thank you very much.” And, so I said, “Wonderful, we’ll go now.” And she trusted me enough to get in my vehicle. I knew she had more trust in me than I could have ever hoped for. Had she continued to walk home, she’d have had to cross one of the single biggest intersections in town, and there were lights to cross at, to be sure, but they would only illuminate her visibility as a target for someone who might not have good intentions. She didn’t have a purse on her that I saw, but I’ll also suggest that unkind folks don’t always use good judgment in picking a target for harm, either.

All I could think of was that it was probably a year ago that I learned that a 95+-year-old woman was mugged right outside of our church, on a Sunday morning in broad daylight, for her purse. She was walking across the street from her parking spot near church to come in to worship service and…well, she wound up in the hospital and we were only four blocks away from the Bryan Police Station, too. Maybe now my excessive concern for her safety and well-being makes more sense. Even though I call this community “Mayberry,” times are when it is not.

I just felt like I wanted to reassure this angel that she was okay, but she actually seemed so tranquil and at peace that it was only for my sense of wanting her to know that no harm would come her way. I told her my name (again) and asked hers. She told me and immediately it sounded familiar. I said, “I was a little worried when I saw you walking home in the dark and it was so cold.” She said, “Well, ordinarily it wouldn’t be this late when I came home but I have a friend over there and I just HAD to get her Christmas present to her. I’d thought about it earlier today but decided it was Christmas, after all, and she had to have her gift. It's Christmas!”

She told me her friend’s name and said how she was just temporarily in the PT/rehab area of the residence but that she lived back in her community. As I noodled my way around the dialysis parking lot I thought there might be a back way out. There wasn’t. I said, “Well, I don’t know this parking lot!” cheerfully, and just as cheerfully she said, “Oh that’s okay, we’ll go back the way we came.”

I said, “Your name sounds so familiar to me,” and she explained she was retired A&M faculty. I then asked the department and all at once it hit me…she was one of the earliest female full professors at A&M in a technical area. Turns out, further, that I knew one of her (late) colleagues well, and as we talked she was great friends with my major professor in chemistry and knew his entire family. She was sharp as a tack mentally and even knew the latest sad news about the loss of one of our mutual friends. She regaled me with a cute description of the great sense of humor “the boss” had.

The return trip home took less than four minutes in the car, but even with direct path and lights, walking would have consumed probably fifteen or twenty more minutes in the elements. When we pulled up in front, I opened her door and then got the walker back out. She said, “If you’re ever around on the 4th Thursday of the month, please let me treat you to dinner here. It’s 'Friends and Family night' here and sometimes they even have entertainment. Sometimes it's good; other times it's not."

I was very familiar with the night and the entertainment aspect because I’d been to those several times with Mildred over the years and an adoptive grandmother before Mildred had ever moved in. I thanked her but didn’t give her a card with my name on it, as I didn’t plan to follow up and accept her offer, just wanted to get her safely home.

As I opened the door to the front of the residential center, I nodded at the receptionist by the door before taking leave. I was so grateful that she was home safely, that she would be warm, and I had a chance driving home to reflect on the gift of love that this woman had shown to her friend in the rehab/PT hospital. She asked for no help from anyone. She didn’t seem to be the type of person who had a dependent bone in her body. She just wanted to make sure her dear friend was remembered on Christmas. She was a living angel in a human body.

My heart was full and at peace because I knew she was safe and that was all I could ask for. I feared first that she was a runaway and I feared next that she’d be hit in traffic and I feared further of someone knocking her on the head. So, there she forged forward without fear and I was wallowing in fear for her. Which one of us was the wiser? Clearly, she was.

Today, thanks to a few other search tools to which I have access, I saw it. She’s 88 years old, and her only concern in the world was to make sure her friend didn’t miss Christmas. In actual fact, she was the angel who made certain I didn’t miss Christmas either. I am forever grateful for that random happenstance. It was, truly, a very Merry Christmas.