Darren Hellwege, sports commentator
On this side of my 45th birthday, it seems a little odd to talk about “heroes.” When you’re a kid, you have them, of course. A favorite ballplayer, or singer, someone you really look up to.
You sort of leave behind the idea of a hero outside your circle of family and close associates as you grow up. But I never forgot a hero from when I was a kid. He’s as responsible for my being in sports journalism as anyone could be, and his encouragement is a voice that will never stop echoing for me.
His name was Bob Barry. If you are from Oklahoma and care even the slightest about sports, you know the name. Bob was the voice of the Oklahoma Sooners, then the Oklahoma State Cowboys, then the Sooners again. He was also the news director for Oklahoma City’s NBC affiliate, KFOR-TV, for many years. From the radio play-by-play exploits of greats like Terry Miller to a nightly update on what was important to me, Bob Barry’s voice was the soundtrack. I heard an excitement in his voice, saw a smile on his face, and knew he had to be having the best time doing this, and I knew it was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be Bob Barry.
But there was a lot more to Bob. than just having a great job and doing it well, and it’s why I was so heart-broken to learn Sunday that Bob Barry had died at the age of 80 this weekend. The example of Bob Barry led me to a great deal more than just wanting to watch and tell people like you about basketball and football games. When I finally had the opportunity to meet him in person, I found out that I could learn a lot more about how to treat people than about how to tell them about a first down or full court press.
I was in ninth grade and speech was my favorite class. One day, the teacher told us that we’d have a special guest the next day, Bob Barry from Channel Four would come talk to us. I wouldn’t have been more impressed if we were going to be visited by Joe Namath or President Carter or Santa. I started planning immediately, how could I get a few minutes alone to talk with Bob Barry about what I needed to do to get where he was? How to earn a living watching ballgames and telling people about them?
I got lucky. A guy named David Sammons (who gets honorable mention hero status in this story) was the teacher of the class I’d have the following hour. It was Oklahoma History and since I had an A in the class, and Mr. Sammons was my cross-country coach, he gave me permission to stay with Bob as long as he’d allow. I hoped he’d stay for an extra 10 minutes and give me some advice, some encouragement.
So, the next day he came and spoke to our speech class. As it wrapped up and the bell rang, I eased up and asked if he would stay around for a few minutes, that I had a couple more questions and had permission to stay there with him. He said, “sure!” and sat down…and for the next 55 minutes, in the library at Edmond Mid-High, Bob Barry gave me advice, told me funny stories, and basically stoked the fire I had to go into sports journalism.
Since I’m now friends with guys like Mike Kelly and Chris Gervino, I understand how incredibly valuable his time was, how full his day must have been. What a generous gift he offered. It was gracious of him to come to the school and address the class at all, to give another hour to just one kid was a great deal to ask and he didn’t even glance at his watch. I’ve never forgotten it.
My pathway took some odd detours along the way. I discovered public radio, and some of the friends I mentioned before. Then, a few years back, I had the chance to have the best of both worlds, I get to do both public radio and sports journalism. And after dreaming of it for 40 years, I’m now spending my time on press row.
A few years back I sat next to another Oklahoma broadcasting great, Bob’s son, Bob Barry Jr. I shared with him my story, and he was very excited to hear it. He said “Please, if you ever get the chance, share that with my dad. I know he’d love it.” I wasn’t sure I’d get the chance, so I made sure to tell the tale to Bob Jr.
But I got the chance to tell the man all Oklahoma knew as “Big Bob” my story of our first meeting this year in February, before the Sooners and Tigers played at Mizzou Arena. I told him about the speech class, about his time spent with me and how much it meant to me, and that after some other work I was now working in sports reporting. I told him that it meant as much fun to me as I’d dreamed it would be when I was a kid listening to him. He smiled throughout the story, asked me for a business card, shook my hand. Later in the week, I got the nicest email from Bob, thanking me for telling him the story and congratulating me for the success I was having in my career.
Later in the spring, I’d see Big Bob again. At the Big 12 basketball tournament, I was seated on press row. He came over and said hello and we visited for a minute. When Texas beat Oklahoma 74-54 in the second round, a career of some 50 years came to an end. In a sight I’ve never seen, before or since, the reporters on press row stood and applauded as he walked away from the mic for the final time. As he walked past my spot, he reached out his hand and I shook it, a small part of an unforgettable moment.
Yes, Bob Sr. set me on a great path. What you read on this website or hear on the radio isn’t all I do. I might not even view it as the most important work I have. I also help teach a class through the MU Journalism School, Multimedia Sports Journalism. This group of extraordinary young reporters is my pride and joy. I pay back the moments Bob Barry Sr. spent with me in that library in 1979 by spending a little time with these students.
Recently, our class spent a few moments talking about dreams. At the direction of Professor Karen Mitchell, each student described where they want their career to take them. Some dreamed of working for a newspaper in a major market. Others, working for a team in producing website content. After they each told their dreams, one turned and asked me my dream. I told them my dream was to see each of them reach their dream.
I hope in both the work I do in journalism and the time I spend with these young students, I’m carrying forward the legacy of Bob Barry Sr. I know I will never, ever, forget that hour he spent with me. And I hope that this line will continue, that some of my students will find their way to their dreams. I hope that they’ll be big-time reporters and be the heroes of some.
Someday, they’ll address a group of students in a classroom. And a young person will ask them for a few extra moments.
And I’ll be there. Big Bob will, too.