Today is Charlie Austin’s Memorial Service.
I first met Charlie Austin at a pickup basketball game in Boston. It was September evening in Boston, 1970.
I was the new TV news reporter guy in town and I was meeting people, on and off the job. One of the people on my “must meet” list was Charlie Austin. He had the reputation – even back then – as one of Boston’s finest reporters.
I’d seen Charlie on television, doing a sports piece as “Chuck” Austin. I liked his laid back style and deep voice.
I was already jealous of that voice.
“Hi, Chuck”, I said brightly as the pick up teams chose players. I was on the bench. Charlie was one of the FIRST picked to play. My envy grew.
Charlie just stared at me. The poker face, I would learn, was his trademark. I didn’t know and thought I’d committed a social blunder. I was a little confused. It was a very long moment before Charlie came over and smiled.
“You a 6th man? Instant offense off the bench,” he asked with a mischievous grin. I looked at the floor and told him I was the last man sitting. He patted me on the shoulder and headed off for some serious hoops.
I sat for most of the first half until the coach/assistant news director signalled me to go in. Charlie Austin grinned slyly as I ran on the court.
I made my first three 20-footers to everyone’s surprise, especially mine. Hey, no one was guarding me. Half-time and everyone gathered for coke and pizza. “Nice shot,” Charlie said to me, wolfing down 2 slices in seconds.
I smiled and said, “Thanks, Chuck.” His smile turned into a deep frown.
“Don’t call me Chuck,” Charlie said tersely. I was confused, which he picked up. “They call me Chuck when I do sports. I hate that name. Hate it! Okay?”
I nodded and told him I heard Henry Aaron hated being called “Hank” but dealt with it because it was a media thing about which you don’t argue. Charlie nodded with one of his signature crooked smiles. It was back to the bench for me for most of the 2nd half until we hit “Garbage” time and my on court presence didn’t matter.
I cornered Charlie for a post game snack. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The next time I saw Charlie Austin it was business. A too familiar scene for us in the coming years. A shooting in “The Bury” as Roxbury was known in the media. Roxbury, a predominantly Black Boston neighborhood, had been the focal point of simmering tension and violence for several years since the assassination of Martin Luther king sparked protests in many minority communities across the country. I’d seen it before during my network tenure.
This was different for me. New city, new community, new faces. I was very anxious as my crew and I arrived, the last news unit on the scene. I surveyed the crowd, taking in all the faces. Local residents, police units, clergy, and lots of politicians. I didn’t know anyone.
Charlie Austin spotted me. He walked over and the eyes of the crowd followed him. Charlie stopped in front of me, small smile and embraced me with a “How ya doing, Garry?” I was startled and grateful.
Charlie’s welcome gesture was my entrée to Roxbury and all gathered for the story. We shook hands and Charlie rejoined his TV crew. I knew, from previous experience, not to roll film on the initial speakers. Politicians with “Kumbaya spins” to the violence, the victims, and the suspects. I glanced at Charlie. His crew wasn’t filming either.
We exchanged knowing smiles. I essentially followed Charlie’s pursuit of interviews. It was clear he knew all “the players”. It was a strategy I’d follow for a long time until I became familiar with the city.
I learned on many stories that I’d been successful because I knew Charlie Austin. He opened doors that were shut to other reporters. When I tried to thank him, Charlie shrugged it off with that crooked grin.
Charlie knew about my hearing problems. He often would take me aside to make sure I had the correct spelling and pronunciation of people and places. He did this as we both faced similar deadlines.
Charlie and I saw a lot of each other during the volatile Forced Busing School Desegregation years in Boston. It was a period that tested the mettle of many reporters. Only a handful of journalists had full access to both white and minority communities as Boston found itself under an international spotlight. The 6th largest TV market in the country had very few minority reporters. You could count us on the fingers of one hand.
A few months ago, former Mayor Ray Flynn noted, in an email exchange, how much he appreciated the efforts of some reporters during that volatile period. Charlie Austin topped Mayor Flynn’s list. I remember how Charlie handled the most difficult, potentially explosive situations.
Poker faced, with a small smile and a gesture that said, “I’m listening to you.”
Charlie’s humanity defused anger and bitterness on both sides of the issue. He didn’t play “the race card” in his reports. He saw the frustration on the faces of families and understood there was a common quest — regardless of skin color — for quality education. Charlie Austin’s reports, delivered in firm manner minus attitude or political agenda, set the tone for local reporters. It helped me and others do our jobs.
We gritted our teeth when network reporters swept in, leaned on street optics, did often biased and inaccurate reports and swept out-of-town. Charlie and the rest of us had to repeatedly clean up the messes. Charlie led the way with his non theatrical, honest reports. He set the bar for the rest of us.
It was a very high bar.
Charlie’s friendship extended beyond work. He knew I needed something more than the job. He was instrumental in getting me involved with the legendary Elma Lewis and her “Black Nativity” production which now is part of the fabric of Boston’s Arts and Culture community. I played one of the three Wise Men for several years. A short time on stage but it was a wonderful experience for me. It made me feel like I was part of the community, thanks to Charlie Austin.
Charlie rarely talked about his many health issues. Others thought of him as heroic but Charlie would not have any of such talk. He did proudly show off pictures of his wife, Linda and daughter, Danielle. Danielle was the bright light in Charlie’s eyes. His face always swelled with pride and love.
I wish I’d seen Charlie more often in recent years. He played such a large part in my life and I never got to thank him properly.
He’s probably listening right now with that crooked grin lighting his face.