I was a young reporter at the Free Press in 1978 when one of my many bosses, Neal Shine, said he had a story for me.
Shine said something about a guy training for a charity event who was working out every night at the Pershing High track, just circling the oval repeatedly.
I told him I didn’t really see the story in a guy running around a track.
Shine said: He’s walking around the track. Backwards.
That’s how I met Ted Talbert.
Talbert, the journalist, filmmaker and historian who died Tuesday and whose life will be celebrated at a funeral Monday, was driving a Free Press delivery truck in those days. He was in his mid-30s.
The charity event Ted was training for was a walk from Detroit to Lansing, about 90 miles. Ted walked it backward, with his back to Lansing and his face to Detroit. It was a goofy stunt, but Ted did it with such natural good humor that it was difficult to poke fun at.
While he was driving a truck, Ted had dreams. He wanted to write, and he wanted to write about black Detroit. He was the first person who made it clear to me that one person’s history is not everyone’s history, and that the African American story in Detroit had never really been told in the white media. He was right.
Ted became a writer. He helped Free Press sportswriters tell the story about baseball in the black community before the integration of the major leagues after World War II. Today, the exploits of Turkey Stearnes and other Negro League stars are well known. Stearnes has a plaque at Comerica Park, and he is in the Hall of Fame. But few white baseball fans in Detroit knew much about Stearnes 30 years ago.
Ted also had a nose for news. He knew how to find a story. He once wrote a feature piece for the Free Press about junkyard dogs. He went from yard to yard, interviewing owners about their guard dogs. The story turned out to be memorable and hilarious because Ted found one Detroit junkyard that was guarded by a monkey. What a scoop: Detroit had a junkyard monkey! Ted laughed about that for years.
In 1988, Ted wrote about spending an evening with Mayor Coleman Young and two of Young’s friends.
Ted’s first paragraph: “My night on the town with Mayor Coleman Young was prompted by a story about Chinese chitterlings that I wrote last month for the Free Press' food section.”
The first stop was the family hour at a funeral home for Carolyn Franklin, Aretha’s sister. Ted's description made it seem like the scene out of “The Last Hurrah,” in which the longtime mayor attends a wake.
Afterward, Young wanted to go to the Windsor Chinese restaurant that made chitterlings, but the tunnel and bridge were backed up that night. So Young asked Ted to take them to another place for spicy food.
Wrote Ted: “I recalled that during an earlier conversation with the mayor he had mentioned his fondness for Szechuan-style Chinese food after he had sampled it in San Francisco.
“The problem with suggesting a restaurant was that my favorite Szechuan on the Detroit side of the river is not in Detroit; it's in Warren. I wondered if I should suggest it to the mayor? Would he go to Warren? Admittedly, my hesitation was based on things I had read, nothing the mayor had ever told me. I decided to go for it.”
Ted’s instincts were correct: The party went to a Warren restaurant where the food was delicious and hot and the staff and diners treated Young like royalty. The night ended with the mayor's limo pulling up in front of Ted's house so he could run in and get a photo he had of Young and Joe Louis.
Ted became a documentary filmmaker, and he told both black and white Detroiters stories that they didn’t know. He was an expert on Detroit’s biggest ghost neighborhood, Black Bottom, the African American community that was bulldozed 50 years ago for the Medical Center and the Chrysler Freeway.
Everyone knows the story of the Tuskegee Airmen today; George Lucas has even done a Hollywood movie about them. But Ted was one of the first to put the World War II fliers in the spotlight. I’m willing to bet no one knew more about African-American bowlers than Ted. He once told me the first professional black bowler in America was Fuller Gordy, the brother of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. Who knew?
And it was Ted who kept alive the memory of Louis, probably the greatest athlete in Detroit history when you consider his achievements and his place in American culture. He maintained the Joe Louis Video Memorial Room at the Cobo Convention Center, and gave away “Brown Bomber jackets” to people whom he believed carried on the Louis legacy.
Ted was a great storyteller and a fine person and an artist who made a tremendous contribution to Detroit. It’s a shame he lived for only 70 years.