by Rebecca Stephens
I was 7-years-old when I saw the New York Mets play at Shea Stadium. To this day, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The size of the stadium, the lights, the noise, the crowd - it was all so overwhelming. But it was incredible. Our seats were right behind home plate and let me tell you, the view was fantastic! The Mets played a winning game that night against the Miami Marlins. I remember being so mesmerized by it all. Every time the Mets hit a homerun an electrifying energy rose up from the crowd and hung in the air above the field. I remember thinking at one point, “It can’t get much better than this.” I was wrong. After the game, my grandfather went into the locker room while I stood with my mother and my cousins in the parking lot. Several minutes later, he emerged holding my baseball and a grin from ear to ear. Papaw had the ball signed by Bobby Valentine, the manager of the Mets, and one of the players, Mike Piazza. It was one of the best nights of my life.
How was my grandfather able to get those autographs, you ask? By using his press pass. You see, my grandfather was Ernie Salvatore, and above being a sportswriter for the Herald-Dispatch for nearly sixty years, he was a remarkable human being. Growing up in Huntington, I was always aware the power my grandfather’s name carried. I could see it in the reaction of my schoolteachers when I told them I was Ernie’s granddaughter. It was clear when we went out to eat and there would be at least half a dozen people wanting to speak to him. It was blatantly obvious when the press box at the Marshall University football stadium was named in his honor, and a sports journalism scholarship also opened in his name. It would be one thing to tell you of all his accomplishments to explain why he was so remarkable, but that’s not the reason. Papaw is remarkable because he was passionate about his work and his life. Those half a dozen people I mentioned? Some would be old friends, and some were new. Some were just admirers, but he treated them all the same. He never knew a stranger. He always did his best to remember faces, names and facts about the people he met. He was in the business for facts. As a sportswriter, he made a career of sports statistics, records and what have you, but in the end it was much more than that for him. Money never captured his attention, and he had no interest in sport scandals. Papaw’s goal was to always keep the athletes, the game and the heart of it all at the center of his stories, and along the way, breathe distinctive personality into the words he wrote. His columns were unmistakably “Ernie”. With such trademarks as “Down in Front”, “Pardon me for asking” and “onliest”, Papaw created his Salvatore style and left an irremovable mark on the Herald-Dispatch newspaper and the Huntington community.
People often ask me to tell stories about Papaw’s sports writing adventures, or they try to talk to me about sports. I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m not an avid sports fan. I love the Mets, but for sentimental reasons, and I love Marshall, but those are for personal reasons as well. I know my Papaw’s stories from his time out in the field. I know the triumphs, and I know the tragedies. I know covering the Marshall plane crash was the most difficult thing he faced in his long career. I know how I’ve been affected by the crash because of his recollections over the loss of his friends and his colleagues. It’s something I’ll always carry with me just as he did. However, the stories I cherish from Papaw aren’t wrapped up in game scores. They’re family stories. How he met my grandmother. How his parents met. What it was like growing up as the son of two Italian immigrants. And beyond all that, they’re my own personal memories. He was passionate about his work, but he was unbelievably passionate about his life. Family came first for him. He did everything for me as his granddaughter. When I was in the fifth grade he took the time to speak to my class about Italy for our multicultural fair. He sent me flowers with a beautiful note of encouragement when I failed my drivers test. He attended events for all my life’s early milestones such as my first communion and elementary school award ceremonies. He was “never more than a phone call away”, and always supplied me with $2 or $3 for “walking around money”. Ernie Salvatore may have been a sports writer, but ultimately he was my grandfather. He was a grandfather in every sense of the word.
I’ve always loved to write, and I’ve always been encouraged to write. From a young age I enjoyed creating stories. When I was in the third grade I decided I wanted to be a writer just like Papaw. Of course, this made him nothing short of immensely proud, and even though my career aspirations changed throughout the years I never stopped writing or stopped loving it. As I grew older, my teachers saw my potential and worked with me. I took honors and advanced placement English classes in high school. My teachers gave me feedback, but Papaw was there to share his experiences and offer advice. I remember talking with him on more than one occasion about what it’s like to work as a journalist. He’d tell me about the long nights he spent at the paper, and the pressure of the deadlines. He also made no secret about the financial struggles he and my grandmother faced, including a time when they had five kids to feed and $92 in the bank. But I know he wouldn’t of had it any other way. From the time he was in high school he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He came to Marshall from Greenwich, Conn. in the fall of 1940 with his goals set. For him, Marshall was the dream school and Huntington the ideal town. Believe me, he later had his chances to leave. At one point, The New York Times offered him a job, but he turned it down. Papaw knew that this is where he always belonged. I wasn’t like that. I didn’t have set in stone goals, and was undecided about a college major for much of high school. Nevertheless, he would always tell me that as long as I loved to write to keep doing it, to write everyday and to never stop.
It was 9:06 a.m. on July 3, 2009 when the telephone rang. “Hello,” I said, already knowing the caller was my mother. “Papaw’s gone, honey,” she responded. The next minute and a half is a vague memory, but when the phone call ended I stood up and paced the floor repeating to myself, “Papaw’s gone.” His death was sudden. An aneurysm took him from this life that summer night in what I can only hope was a peaceful sleep. I saw him five days earlier for what I didn’t know would be the last time. The image is still vivid in my mind. He stood on his front porch to watch me as I drove away. I honked my horn, and he smiled and waved. How could I have known it was the last time? It was such a simple goodbye. The next few weeks were awful, and the next few months not any better. I was in denial. How could he just be gone? Especially when I felt like I needed him most. My senior year of high school was full of moments he should have been there for. How could he not be there for my choir concerts, senior awards ceremony and graduation? I felt robbed. Perhaps the most stolen moment in my mind was the day in June of 2010 when I officially chose to be a student in the W. Page Pitt School of Journalism at Marshall. The first person I wanted to tell was Papaw. But I couldn’t. And it broke my heart.
It’s been more than three years since his death, and though I still miss him terribly, it’s become easier to cope with the truth. I wish he could be here in a physical sense, but I know he’s here regardless. I see his pictures in the School of Journalism and in the Marvin Stone Library in Smith Hall. I see the picture of my grandmother’s father, Harold Pinckard, in the library as well. He was a journalist and an assistant journalism professor at Marshall under W. Page Pitt in the ’40s. He was also a Pulitzer Prize candidate. I wish I could have had the chance to know him as he died long ago. But nevertheless, when I see their pictures I don’t feel so alone because the truth is I’m scared. I’m a junior public relations major, and I’m not sure what I want to do with my life. I’ve yet to develop any specific life goals. I do feel like I belong here in the School of Journalism. I suppose that’s a good start? I know a lot of my fear comes from not knowing if I’ll be able to live up to all Papaw’s accomplishments. I often wonder how he did it. He made it look so effortless. I’d just want for him to be proud of me, and yes, in the end I know that’s a foolish thought because no matter where I end up or what I do he’d be proud. Still, there’s a part of me that wishes I could hear him say so. There’s a part of me that wishes I could be 7-years-old again standing in the parking lot of Shea Stadium. To have that moment of pure joy all over again when my only job in life was to be happy, but life moves forward whether you want it to or not. Is it hard? Yes, some days it is, but I will forever be inspired by the way my grandfather lived and how irreplaceable he is in the minds and hearts of others. I’m able to smile at his memory, remember all he taught me and know that he still believes in me as a fellow writer, and most importantly, as my Papaw.