My late and great friend Willie Morris once confided, “Rickey, you know, we all write best about what we care about most.”
In that case, what follows should be a doozy.
Bobby Cleveland – Robert Hayes Cleveland, Jr. – was my younger brother by 21 months. Our daddy, a sports writer before us, often instructed us both: “Make sure you get the news in first.” So, I will: Bobby died Thursday of injuries suffered in an automobile accident. He was 67, and he had lived every day of his time on this planet to the absolute fullest – and then maybe to overflowing.
He was a big man with a huge appetite for life. I was older but Bobby was always larger. My big little brother, I called him. He was an expert fisherman and hunter – and a gourmet chef. Let’s put it this way, a lot of seafood and a whole lot of love went into his gumbo. It was always rich and spicy.
He loved the Saints, the Braves and his alma mater, Southern Miss. A quick story, when Sid Bream slid safely into home plate to send the Atlanta Braves into the 1992 World Series, Bobby leaped from his chair and let out a roar – and then a howl. He wore a bandage on his hand for weeks to protect a wound from the ceiling fan. I can also report that until his dying breath he never forgave the officials who robbed the Saints of a second Super Bowl with the worst no-call in football history.
Some other things Bobby loved: sunrise, his sweet Mama, dogs, Bloody Marys, anything John Prine wrote and sang, pranks, The Big Lebowski, anchovies, Pink Floyd, olympic curling, Thai food (Thai hot), puzzles of any kind, tequila, oysters, telling stories, sunset and good friends of which he had so many.
Some things he hated: bullies, racists, light beer, yard work, dress shoes, closing time, long stories that should have been shorter, dull headlines and anything overcooked.
Bobby was the younger brother but he was the one named after our daddy. And that was appropriate because he was Ace Cleveland made over. As Bobby aged, he looked more and more like our pop. Acted like him, too. Ace had a quick and often devilish wit. Bobby took that to another level. Both Robert Hayes Clevelands could seem gruff to a new acquaintance. But both had tender hearts. Both were smart enough to have been successful in any profession they tried. Both did what they loved. Both had personalities that filled a room.
Many long-time Clarion Ledger readers will remember Bobby’s splendid outdoors writing. My column ran on the front page of the sports sections, Bobby’s on the back cover. And I can’t tell you how many times people would come up and say they enjoyed reading my columns but they always read Bobby’s first. He wrote stories the way he told them, filled with wit and expertise. Often, in his fishing and hunting stories, he was the butt of his own jokes.
Bobby once told me, “I figure by the time people get to the back page of the sports section, they are tired of reading about wars and murders in the news section and reading about how their teams lost in the rest of the sports section. When they got to me, they are ready to be entertained.”
They were. I also can’t tell you how many times people told me they neither fished or hunted, but they always read what Bobby wrote.
What many readers didn’t know was that Bobby for years was the editor and designer of the CL’s Sunday sports sections, which were annually judged among the nation’s best. During football seasons, Bobby often produced sports sections as hefty as 28 pages that were the equal of sports sections in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. He had a knack for page design, and he was hands-down the best headline writer I ever worked with.
After leaving the CL, Bobby continued as a free-lance outdoors writer and went to work for the Barnett Reservoir and Pearl River Supply District doing public relations work and putting on the various events that make The Rez a special place. He took particular pride in the branding – “The Rez.” Those handsome car tags you see – The Rez – were his idea.
We thought we had lost Bobby 27 years ago. At age 40, he suffered a heart attack that very nearly killed him. His Widow Maker artery clogged and a vein turned into an artery and saved him. Bobby changed the way he cooked and the way he ate – and added some exercise into his daily schedule.Those of us who love him are so thankful for all that. My big little brother made good use of that 27-year bonus. He met Pam, the love of his life, appropriately in a bait shop. We are thankful for the way they loved one another. We are thankful for how he loved his grandchildren, and a niece and nephew who adored him as the second father he became.
And I am thankful to have shared 67 years of playing, working, cooking, laughing and loving with my brother, my best friend.
A memorial service will be held Thursday morning at 10:30 at Lakeshore Park on the shores of The Rez. A reception will follow immediately at Kathryn’s Steakhouse and Seafood Restaurant on Old Canton Road in nearby Ridgeland. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Ace and Carrie Cleveland Endowment at Southern Miss (PO Box 15458, Hattiesburg, MS), the Barnett Reservoir Foundation (P.O. Box 2180 Ridgeland, MS 39158), or the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum (1152 Lakeland Drive, Jackson MS 39216).