Mel Derrick lived a full life and left a lasting impression

col-tbuzz-2The first time I met Mel Derrick was a like a cross between a visit to grandpa’s and a police interrogation. He knew everything about me before I knew hardly anything about him as he quizzed me on every detail of my life.

It sort of made sense since I was the new guy at The Sun News, but I later learned that’s just Mel. He could strike up a conversation with a total stranger and pick your mental pocket without you realizing it. That’s part of what made him an award-winning sports columnist, first-class storyteller and colorful character who lived a full life. Mel died last week at the age of 83, and a lot of wild tales and memories died along with him.

Mel was at the end of his lengthy career when I was just starting mine when we first crossed paths in 1995. He was born the son of a preacher in Irmo and graduated from Wofford, where he worked in sports information after graduation and served in the US Army as an officer and writer for Stars & Stripes. He got his big break in sportswriting when he was hired by legendary sports columnist Furman Bisher at the then-Atlanta Journal, and Bisher took Derrick under his wing for an on-the-job training session that sparked his career and lasted him a lifetime.

Mel wrote for the Miami Herald, where he worked under another acclaimed tutor in Edwin Pope. During his stint in Florida, Derrick once went to Cuba on a quest to hunt down his hero, Ernest Hemingway, only to find Papa bellied up at a bar and too drunk to interview. He also played in an exhibition baseball game and got a single off Hall of Famer Satchel Paige. The next pitch was under his chin, an honor Mel treasured more than the hit. He knew Arnold Palmer, Muhammad Ali, Johnny Unitas, Dean Smith, Lou Holtz and Frank Howard, just to name a few.

Mel wrote for the Palm Beach Post, the Virginia Pilot, the Winston-Salem Journal and even the National Enquirer, which was still his favorite job when he moved to Surfside Beach for the final years of his storied career. I was fortunate enough to get to pick his brain over the years after he initially picked mine, and I learned more about the craft of writing from him than any other co-worker. “I don’t write about sports,” he once said. “I write about people.” So here’s a little tale about Mel that’s fairly insignificant but makes me laugh to this day.

Despite his long list of accolades, Mel was not above answering the late-night phone calls from coaches reporting their scores. He was great at it too, and could construct a decent story out of very little information. One Friday night a losing coach called with no stats other than a score and some guy named Jones rushing for five touchdowns against his defense. No first name, which was a big no-no in journalism. So Mel decides to nickname the kid “Bronco”, as in “Bronco Jones rushed for five touchdowns in a 42-0 win.” I still wonder whatever happened to ol’ Bronco, and if it became a name that followed him the rest of his life.

But that was Mel – crafty, quick-witted and friendly as can be. He left The Sun News after a prolonged illness and I was left with the task of trying to fill his shoes. I spent the rest of my time there answering questions from readers about how Mel was doing. I also tried to follow his example, and I would feel more than honored to have a fraction of the rich life and career he led. I can hear him quizzing God now – “How’d you do all that in six days/” and “What were you thinking when you made the giraffe?” And I can’t wait to read the column.

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