Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Legends in Our Midst

In new books, Steve Jobs and Jerry West talk about Memphis.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 26, 2011 at 12:08 PM

They were two famous and famously private men with no intention of moving to Memphis until illness and opportunity brought them here from California later in life.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs got a life-saving liver transplant at Methodist University Hospital in 2009. He stayed three months. Walter Isaacson's biography Steve Jobs adds details to the story, including a touching anecdote about Jobs visiting Sun Studio and helping his tour guide get a job at iTunes.

NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West came to Memphis in 2002 as general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies. He stayed five years, during which time the Grizzlies made the NBA Playoffs three times and West was named Executive of the Year in 2004. That was "the proudest moment in my long career as an executive," he says in West By West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, written with Jonathan Coleman. But West was not a happy guy, as this dreary tour de psyche makes clear, and even walked out of his own surprise farewell party.

Two books on two legends, published in the same month. Let's start with Jobs.

As he told the nation on CBS' 60 Minutes Sunday, Isaacson interviewed Jobs 40 times with the understanding that he would write a warts-and-all biography. The subchapter on Memphis is only six pages of the 571-page book, which is scant, considering the medical, ethical, and financial issues in saving Steve Jobs, who would live 30 more productive months.

"There is no legal way for a patient, even one as wealthy as Jobs, to jump the queue, and he didn't," Isaacson writes.

Jobs' wife, Laurene Powell, got him on the organ recipient list in Tennessee and California at the same time.

"Such multiple listing is not discouraged by policy, even though critics say it favors the rich, but it is difficult," Isaacson says.

Jobs flew to Memphis on March 21, 2009. Dr. James Eason transplanted the liver of a man in his mid-20s who was killed in a car crash, but Jobs developed pneumonia and nearly died. Eason took complete charge of his care and recovery. Jobs would eat only fruit smoothies, sampling seven or eight of them at a time.

Before leaving Memphis (and selling his house in Midtown to Eason for $850,000), Jobs and a small group of friends made an after-hours visit to Sun Studio. Their guide did such a good job that Jobs suggested he be hired at iTunes. Friends identified the guide as David Brookings, a musician and songwriter who moved to San Jose in 2009. He declined to be interviewed for this column.

Steve Jobs came to Memphis to save his life. Jerry West came to Memphis to save the Grizzlies. His presence gave the team and its adopted hometown instant and badly needed credibility at a time when FedExForum was still on the drawing board.

West asked owner Michael Heisley "for an amount of money that I was sure he would find unreasonable, but he didn't."

He was "shocked" to find the poverty in Memphis even worse than his native West Virginia or Los Angeles. And he was treated "as if I were Elvis, back from the dead, though people in Memphis are convinced he is still alive."

West By West lost me long before I read this hokum. Like millions of mediocre athletes in the Fifties and Sixties, I dreamed of shooting jump shots like Jerry West or hitting baseballs like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. By the time we were in college, it had dawned on most of us that our heroes screwed around, drank, had egos, and knew despair and discrimination. We were not clueless.

West's demons included depression, a temper, stalkers, and shyness. He made a pact with the volatile Heisley that if the owner raised his voice to him "I will be out the door before it has a chance to shut."

The marriage lasted five years. West lived in the Southwind gated community and has kind words for James Davis clothing store and Ronnie Grisanti's, his favorite watering hole. West watched the home games from his suite, to which, a friend said, he "basically invited the world and made it into America's living room."

What? You say you weren't invited?

West has a way of telegraphing his punches. He "liked Sidney [Lowe] very much" but fired him as head coach. He "always liked Mike [Fratello] personally" but hated his coaching style. He "liked Geoff Calkins personally" but felt he should have been supportive.

He should talk to R.C. Johnson about that.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

From the Mailbox

Good questions from readers about some recent stories.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 19, 2011 at 1:59 PM

Interesting stories usually prompt good questions and comments from Flyer readers. Last week was such a week. Here is a sampling of reader reaction that didn't make it into the letters section of this week's newspaper.

From "Jane Main" on my column last week about Steve Jobs being in Midtown Memphis in 2009 for a liver transplant:

"Just read your article and wonder if you do any fact checking? Like did you contact Carlos Esquivel, MD at Stanford, to find out the real reason why Steve Jobs came to Memphis?"

Dear "Jane," Fact checking, yes. Contact the doc at Stanford, no. BTW, glad to chat but what's your real name?

Jane: "Believe me, I would love to tell you but can't. I have first-hand knowledge of this entire situation but cannot share for not wanting to compromise my position."

Welcome to my world, Jane. Apple is notoriously secretive, Jobs was estranged from his father all his life, his presence in Memphis was a secret, and his funeral was private. I have no doubt that the full story on "Saving Steve Jobs" is as fascinating as Saving Private Ryan. From Jobs' transplant to his death, Apple's market capitalization increased $300 billion. I look forward to the Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson coming out October 24th.

From "lifespalette" on Loeb Properties seeking $12 million in public aid to go with its $19 million investment in Overton Square: "When does this city financing of private ventures end? I can see the city financing the flood containment structure ... but the new site for the Hattiloo theater group and a parking garage are private components."

Another reader, "Barf," responds:

"We have a choice. We can try and help create the types of places that will help change the level of play or we can sit idly by and follow the free market which dictates that the quality of life here is doomed to keep sinking."

As a Midtowner, I generally like to see progressive development in and near my neighborhood, and Loeb's plan meets the bill. But I don't like mixing up the debate and the funding for a flood-control project (the retention basin under the parking garage) and redevelopment of Overton Square. One is a classic government responsibility and the other isn't. And I don't like parking garages.

On colleague Louis Goggans' story about the $1,995 per person seven-day Mississippi River cruise from Memphis to New Orleans on The American Queen:

From Joe Spake: "For around $400 for the round trip, a private room, and all excellent meals included, two can do a Memphis-New Orleans round trip on Amtrak."

Right you are, Joe. The cost is $208 per person, or as low as $53 for a standard coach seat without meals. Bring a sandwich and a copy of Huckleberry Finn. Starting next year, the choice is yours.

From Whitney Canale-Gentry on "Ode to Justin Canale: A Gentle Giant is Dead":

"Thank you for the article about my Uncle Justin. He would have been so proud and honored. I would love to have the picture for my little boy."

Welcome, Whitney and Canales everywhere. Justin, 68, and his brother Whit, 69, died three weeks apart. They were among the greatest high school football stars in Memphis history and, along with four other brothers, were featured in Sports Illustrated.

What's a guy gotta do to get a special obit in The Commercial Appeal these days? Justin, one of the nicest guys I ever met, went on to play guard for Mississippi State, where he also kicked field goals and threw the shot put 58 feet. Then he played professionally in the NFL, AFL, CFL, and WFL — in Memphis no less. Not a word of this in the sports section of the CA, where the morgue holds many classic Canale photos.

From John Stewart on colleague Andrew Caldwell's story "Taking a Licking" on the Lick Creek drainage controversy:

"The project seems to be moving on unchallenged by a bureaucracy that does not seem to see and care. ... The proposed solutions to the flooding in the Royster Bayou area of the Evergreen Historic District are flawed and have been met with insensitivity."

Well, John, as a neighbor I know what you are talking about, but I don't think the majority of Memphians do. And I don't think this is another potential Interstate 40 through Overton Park battle. Bureaucrats and Midtowners have long memories. But we will see.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Steve Jobs in Memphis

How the Apple CEO put his life and his privacy in Memphis hands.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 12, 2011 at 12:05 PM

  • Pressureua | Dreamstime

When Steve Jobs came to Memphis in 2009, the first objective was to save his life. The second objective was to protect his privacy. Both operations were successful due to extraordinary efforts.

Jobs died last week at the age of 56. He owed the final two and a half years of his life to a liver transplant he underwent at the UT-Methodist Le Bonheur Liver Transplant Center at Methodist University Hospital. Dr. James Eason, director of the center, performed the surgery and now lives in the house at 36 Morningside Place in Midtown where Jobs and his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, lived during their Memphis stay.

Steve Jobs was a guest among us. Neighbors were aware that someone important was moving in when they saw trucks carrying carpenters, painters, and plumbers suddenly descend on the house that spring. The identity of the new occupants was first a mystery, then a guessing game, and finally a secret that is still protected. People familiar with the story shared it with the Flyer on condition that their names not be used.

The secrecy was due to business considerations as well as personal preference. Rumors about the health of Jobs, who was treated for pancreatic cancer in 2004, moved Apple's stock price up or down, especially after an emaciated Jobs addressed a software conference in 2008.

As Harris Collingwood wrote in a story in The Atlantic in 2009, "Apple's close-to-the-vest PR policy has opened ample space for rumors to grow. Jobs's instinct for concealment has spread throughout the company; reporters' inquiries into almost any corporate matter are routinely rebuffed. And when Apple does make an official comment about Jobs's health, it manages to undermine its own credibility. In light of subsequent revelations, the company's brush-off remark that Jobs was suffering from a 'common bug' at the June 2008 conference seems disingenuous at best."

The Memphis chapter of the story began in January 2009, when doctors at Stanford University diagnosed Jobs with advanced liver disease. His prognosis was poor. His family, close friends, and eventually the transplant center in Memphis were told that he was terminal.

Except for the distant hope a successful transplant might offer him, his days were numbered. His Stanford medical team searched the world for the best place and the best doctor to give him a transplant. Their choice of the UT-Methodist Le Bonheur Liver Transplant Center and Eason was based on their professional reputation and Memphis logistics. Once it was available, the donor liver had to be shipped to the transplant center and the operation had to be done immediately.

Jobs' doctors considered Eason's liver transplant team the best in the world. Could they take him? Would his fame and wealth help? No, it wouldn't. There are more transplant candidates than suitable donors, and the life-saving selection is governed by a strict protocol based on need relative to others and odds of survival when the liver became available. Eason said months after the operation that the decision was made by an independent medical panel based on a blind record that did not identify the patient.

That meant Jobs needed a place in Memphis to wait as long as he had to and, assuming all went well, recuperate. It had to be quiet, comfortable, and, as much as possible, sanitized from the risk of fatal infections. Green grass and trees were desirable, but above all, it had to be private.

In March, a man in a dark suit and driving a rental car came to Midtown to make the arrangements. It was not Steve Jobs but a close friend, an Apple lawyer named George Riley, who had grown up in Memphis and still had local connections.

The house that he wanted was the residence of the former chancellor of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Riley immediately bought it, titling it to a limited liability corporation or LLC, which gave no clue to the future occupant.

The neighbors knew none of this until one weekday morning, when it became evident that something was up. Workers arrived in force and came back every day, including Saturday and Sunday, for more than a week. And then they were gone as quickly as they had come. Occasionally, the man in the dark suit would come around but never introduce himself.

When the neighbors asked the contractor who owned the house, he said he didn't know. All he knew was that they were from out of town and wanted to fix some things before they moved in. That seemed suspicious, as many of the neighbors had been in the house and knew that it was in fine condition. Why would somebody be doing all of that work just to quiet the nighttime noise of FedEx planes? Why would they want to repaint every square inch? The workmen didn't know and didn't really care.

But the neighbors did. The identity of their new neighbor became a guessing game. Jobs' friends did not discourage this so long as it kept the real story out of the news. One rumor identified the mystery man as actor Robin Williams because he had a brother in Memphis, but a few days later it was learned that Williams had undergone an operation in Cleveland, not Memphis. Others speculated that a rich foreigner with a sick child at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital had bought the house, a red herring that was both logical and helpful as far as keeping the secret.

Jobs, of course, was also mentioned, since his illness and six-month medical sabbatical had been widely reported. A blogger wrote that Jobs' plane had been parked one night at Wilson Air in Memphis. Another blogger identified Jobs but got the house and address wrong. A Memphis television crew cruised the street asking joggers, "Where does Steve Jobs live?" Freelance photographers staked out the neighborhood and the entrance to St. Jude, which was the wrong hospital. But there were no confirmed sightings, and officials at both hospitals who knew the facts would not talk about them, at least not then. With Jobs' permission, Eason would later speak publicly about the transplant operation.

One tantalizing clue was an attractive blond lady who was seen walking early on spring mornings. Strangers walking on the pretty half-circle drive near Overton Park were not unusual, but this one never tarried or introduced herself. At least one neighbor deduced that she was Laurene Powell Jobs. But instead of spilling the beans, neighbors abandoned their guessing game and, wary of television cameras and helicopters, undertook the job of "protect our new neighbor." The house was even blacked out on Google Earth.

By the time he got to Memphis, Jobs was so gravely ill that it was feared that he would die before getting a transplant. One of the few people allowed to visit him in Memphis was Al Gore. The former vice president, an Apple board member, arrived at the Memphis airport in jeans, baseball cap, and sunglasses and was either not recognized or not bothered.

Jobs stayed in Memphis for only a few weeks during his recovery. At least one person saw him in a wheelchair in Overton Park and recognized him but did not speak to him. Then in April, the house on Morningside was empty again. The black SUVs and the man in the dark suit didn't come around anymore. In a few days, the announcement came from California: Steve Jobs had been operated on in Memphis. He had survived. He was at home with his family.

A few weeks later, he came out in his signature black pullover to release his new iPad. The Memphis mystery man was back on the job. Apple's stock price, which had fallen below $100 a share in early 2009, began a rally that has carried it to nearly $400 a share this year.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Herenton's Last Hurrah

After years of thinking big, he's think small on schools.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 5, 2011 at 12:02 PM

Willie Herenton has some un-finished business.

Not in politics, but in public schools. Herenton is going back to the future. He has applied to open seven charter schools in Memphis and two more in Shelby County outside of Memphis under the name "W.E.B. DuBois Consortium of Charter Schools."

"This is the last hurrah for me," he said, stopping by the Flyer's offices with a stack of handouts and an old picture of himself standing outside his childhood home next to an alley. "Education is my passion. There is no way I would have come out of this alley had I not been successful in education."

He said he is not making a power play. The federal grants he will seek require a minimum of eight schools. The man who was once superintendent of a system with 170 schools and 120,000 students wants to start over with about 1,400 students and shared space in underused schools, including his alma mater, Booker T. Washington High School, and Manassas High School.

"I want to emphasize that I am not talking about nine stand-alone schools or opening them all at once," he said.

Aside from the fact that it sounds like John Calipari signing on as an assistant to Josh Pastner, Herenton makes a lot of sense. If approved in the next 60 days, some of his charters would open in 2012, but the rest might not be ready for two more years or longer. And, really, how can this application not be approved? Is someone going to say, "Uh, well, sir, these are interesting ideas but you need some real-world experience." I don't think so.

Football coaches talk about players on the other team who are so important that everyone must know where they are on the field all the time. In public education, Herenton, remarkably fit at 71, is such a player. And if the haters in the suburbs look closely, they might find that in a lot of ways Herenton is on their side this time.

The next two years are going to be all about restructuring public schools in Shelby County. The pendulum is going to swing away a bit from serving the underachievers to serving the overachievers. How do you keep them in the new system? How do you keep physics at Ridgeway and Houston, A.P. calculus at Whitehaven and Arlington, National Merit Scholars at White Station?

Herenton answered that, at some risk, 32 years ago when he helped create optional schools. And he made no bones about it; he was doing it to keep white kids in the Memphis City Schools. A white superintendent couldn't have said that. Optional schools survived, and Herenton's granddaughters attend them. But there are only 7,000 whites in the system. Shelby County schools are, effectively, the new optional schools, and they are more racially diverse than city schools.

W.E.B. DuBois was a Harvard-educated intellectual who talked of cultivating the "talented tenth" of the black population. But Herenton's schools would take all comers.

"I've got to look at a kid from the slums differently," he said. "I see that kid as someone who can do what I could do." He is wary of reforms like Teach For America that throw newbies into city schools. "This ain't no laboratory to me," he said.

Charter schools are independent public schools that draw their students from the poor part of the population and their teachers and staff from here, there, and everywhere. They are the darlings of Wall Street Journal Republicans and some Democrats. Herenton said he was all for busting up the school system to innovation way back in 1989 when he was superintendent, and he has the newspaper clippings to prove it.

"I was ahead of my time," he said. "The difference is that now there is funding."

Charter schools get about $7,500 per pupil in state and local funding. Their gain is some other school's loss. Unless they attract outsiders, their growth will reduce funding and create more unused space in a city system already faced with closing schools. Herenton has often said school consolidation was inevitable.

"We lost the opportunity for greatness and efficiency 20 years ago," he said. "This merger will not yield the same results, but it is still a good thing."

He predicts that suburban charter schools will prove more financially feasible than separate municipal school systems. Integrated schools are the result in any case, given the county's population and trends. And he thinks tax-supported vouchers for private schools are coming as early as next year.

This will be a decade of big change, and Willie Herenton wants in.

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