Monday, May 4, 2015

"A Roast for Coach Dan Spear" BOOK REVIEWS

In 1997 U.R. Bowie (Robert Bowie) published this memoir about growing up in Central Florida in the fifties and playing high school football. Below are several editorial reviews, never before published in the same place.

(1) Richard C. Crepeau review, "Florida, Football and The Russians" (online)

(2) Andrew Doyle review, in "Journal of Sport History," Fall, 1999 (online)

(3) Ercel Eaton review in "Journal-News," Hamilton, Ohio

Ercel Eaton, Journal-News, Hamilton, Ohio, October 7, 1997

It starts out as a roast for a football coach but ends up a book about life in Smalltown, America. Robert Bowie, Hamilton resident and Miami University professor, is author of “A Roast for Coach Dan Spear,” a memoir about life in a small Florida town.

The thread that binds the book is a football game—one in which Bowie played in 1957—a game between rivals Mt. Dora High School and Bishop Moore Catholic of Orlando.

As the game progresses, stories and anecdotes unfold, centering on the life of the people of the 50s, a more innocent time. But the author slips back in time a bit as he relates his family’s story.

The 40s: “In a word, we moved. Right in the middle of the war. Daddy stuffed us into a ’38 Chevy: wife, two kids, huge old radio, two cats. My sister June, who’s a storyteller, swears we couldn’t get a moving van on account of wartime. So we packed our furniture in an army truck carrying explosives and followed the dynamite all the way to Florida.”

“I remember pulling up at the end of that long trip, in front of the house across from the football field. I was three years old, and that is the first memory of my life. Spanish moss on live oak trees. Poinsettias, sandspurs, hibiscus. Palms. Heat.”

In and out of the story come characters like those of any small town. Their stories are entertaining and comfortable. There is tragedy as well—disease and death strike indiscriminately.

Bowie writes the way he remembers: “This is a true story. Of course, when you recall things 37 years later, your memory gets creative. So people who were around then may have different recollections. All I can do is tell it the way I remember it.” Strange thing about memory is that we look at it through our own focus, sometimes fuzzing scenes that others see in sharp outline.

Racial strife ripped at the little town from time to time the same way it was ripping across the country. But the lives here were the ones known to the memory of the author and he tells their stories well.

“Well,” he writes, “everybody’s prejudiced in one way or another—it’s human nature. Biologically we’re haters and lovers both. People who get up on their sanctimonious high horses and start condemning human behavior ought to dismount and take a good deep look into their own insides.” Later in that same chapter he adds, “But no matter how much family, genes and society mess you up, you can still retain some human decency.”

As the book progresses so does the game, the downs, the scores, the hits and hurts. You find out, finally, who won. But it takes reading the entire book. And you’ll be the richer for having done it.

(4) Randy McNutt review in "Cincinnati Enquirer"

Randy McNutt, Cincinnati Enquirer, Dec. 13, 1997


To author Robert Bowie the 1950s and Mt. Dora, Florida, seem as quaint as an old home movie—well, almost. Dr. Bowie—Bobby then, and No.9 on the high school football team—lived in the same small town as L.C. “Larry” Smith, who wore pajama tops to school instead of shirts, as legendary football coach for the Golden Hurricanes, Dan Spear, and other colorful locals: such as Leebo McCree, Sellers Lovelady and John the Jew.

These characters come alive in A Roast for Coach Dan Spear, Bowie’s memoir that takes the reader from a small Florida town all the way into an unstable Russia in the 1990s. Along the way the Miami University professor weaves vivid images: a Russian airliner filled with cigarette smoke and broken safety belts, and a humid Florida football field where foggers spew insecticide on fans and players.

“The book started with a roast for my old coach in April, 1994,” said Bowie. “He is 80 years old now. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go to the roast, but I wrote something to be read there, and later it was duplicated and sent around to residents of Mt. Dora. Eventually it developed into this book.”

His thoughtful look at Southern life in the 1950s is also a history and social commentary. It is his first published work of nonfiction.

“I’ve had a really great reaction,” he said in his Miami office filled with Russian maps and engravings. “The book is not exactly G-rated, but it’s honest. People like that. They call me all the time and leave messages. One guy I hadn’t seen for 40 years.”

“And in the book there’s some frank treatment of the racial problems in my little town.”

He said that Mt. Dora had its share of white civil-rights sympathizers, but it also had the Ku Klux Klan and a quintessential rural sheriff, Lake County sheriff Willis McCall, who became notorious in the fifties.

One night in 1954 somebody burned a cross in front of Mabel Norris Reese’s house. When the liberal newspaperwoman complained that detractors had poisoned her dog with strychnine, authorities determined that the death was from natural causes. “I am glad to learn that the dog was not poisoned,” Sheriff McCall told the newspaper, “as I despise dog poisoners almost as much as I do a Communist.”

From Mt. Dora Prof. Bowie went around the world. He graduated from the University of Florida and Tulane before serving as a Russian translator in the army. He has worked for the Red Cross in Central Asia and as a consultant for large companies doing business in Russia.

In 1970 he came to Miami to teach Russian. Today he teaches Russian folklore and, in his spare time, runs his own small press.

“My literary agent, who couldn’t sell my novels in New York, said I should try writing something that was nonfiction to break in,” he said. “Later I decided to turn the original story—which concentrated only on the football—into a memoir. As each quarter of the football game progresses, there are digressions about growing up in my small town.”

Last summer Prof. Bowie, 57, of Hamilton, decided to publish 3000 paperback copies through his Ogee Zakamora Publications. The name comes from a term in Russian architecture. He hired a West Chester graphic designer to do the cover art and started writing.

“It didn’t take that long to write the book. The hard part came later—promoting it,” he said. “I had to self-publish because my agent said there was not a wide enough market for it. I’ve enjoyed the process, but it’s certainly no way to make money. I did sell $2000 worth of books, though, in Florida alone.”

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