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A Walk with Faith

MitchThe old gentleman stood backstage, behind the curtain. He was a little wobbly, and he leaned against a friend.

"All set?" I whispered.

"Here we go," he said.

I hooked his thin arm around my elbow and we stepped into a spotlight. Instantly, the noise was thunderous, a screaming, loving shower of applause, filling the building from floors to rafters. It roared on as he walked gingerly across the stage to a waiting chair, his 91-year-old body taking small steps, as if savoring the moment, or being alive.

Finally, Ernie Harwell sat down.

"Thank you for that vocal hug," he told the crowd. Someone yelled out, "We love you, Ernie!" and he chuckled and weakly raised his hand in acknowledgment. The Fox Theatre was sold out. The lower orchestra seats. The balcony. The entire upper level. Faces everywhere you looked.

But when he spoke, you didn't hear a breath.

Harwell is dying from inoperable cancer. His doctors didn't want him doing this. His wife was worried it might be too much. But the voice of summer, the voice of our childhoods, the voice of warm nights and long car rides and beach radios and hidden transistor headphones in a schoolchild's ear, the Tigers' announcer for almost half a century and easily the most beloved man in the state of Michigan, wanted to be there.

Because it was helping others.

And because he had something to say.

Nothing but faith

The occasion was my charity book launch, a book about faith, charities to help the homeless. A once-homeless man opened the night, and told of how the kindness of one poor pastor -- who let him sleep in his home for a year -- turned his life around.

Now it was Ernie's turn to talk. I asked him questions, about his early career, about his time with legends like Jackie Robinson and Ty Cobb. He told a funny story about Rachel Robinson getting expensive gifts from Jackie after road trips, while Ernie's wife, Lulu, was lucky to get "a bar of soap from the hotel."

Then he spoke about an unexpected subject: his ambition. He said early on he wanted success, notoriety, and he chased it from a small newspaper to a major league broadcast booth.

"But none of those things fulfilled me," he said. One night in 1961, in Florida, something inside him said to go to a Billy Graham service. And there he gave his life to Jesus. He didn't announce it on the radio. He didn't make a big deal to the outside world.

But inside, it was the biggest deal.

The ultimate destination

Because of his faith, Ernie is more humble than most, yet humility made him more beloved than flamboyance ever could. I told him his voice was like "going home" for people from this state. "Well, thank ya," he said softly, the Georgia drawl still a small shadow behind his words.

Finally, he spoke about dying.

"I don't know how many days I've got left ... but I praise God because he's given me this time. ... I can really know ... whose arms I'm going to end up in, and what a great, great thing heaven is going to be."

When he said that, a shiver shot from my chest to my fingers. It is one thing to read about belief, but it is another thing to witness belief in the face of death, and hear it spoken in a calm, serene voice. "Whose arms I'm going to end up in." No matter what religion you may or may not follow, when delivered that way, how can faith not be a beautiful thing?

The evening was getting long and Ernie's strength was ebbing, I could see his lips trembling. I asked for any final thoughts.

"Folks, I'd like to say that one of the greatest honors I could have bestowed upon me is to be here and to look in the faces that I've talked to and never seen before, but I know that maybe some of you at one time turned the radio on. And the great thing about a radio -- you can always cut it off. ... Thank you and God bless you."

And as the people rose to their feet, many in tears, Ernie rose to his and said to me again, "Here we go," and arm-in-arm we headed to the curtain. I had to ask him to stop two times simply to acknowledge the deafening crowd.

Finally, we reached the curtain, where a friend helped him to a waiting car, which drove him back to his modest home, his loving wife, his familiar bed.

As a sportswriter, I have walked alongside greatness, walked alongside skill, walked alongside power, success and fame. But I have never been arm-in-arm with pure goodness and faith the way I was that night. And while I know it looked as if I was boosting Ernie up, it was, and will forever be, the other way around.

(C) 2009 BY THE DETROIT FREE PRESS DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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