For 41 years, former Kernersville resident Wilt Browning built a career out of sports, weaving words to tell real-life stories, big and small.
The longest part of Wilt Browning's 41-year journalism career was spent in Greensboro as a writer, editor and columnist for the News & Record. Browning was named North Carolina's sportswriter of the year five times - 1982, '85, '88, '90 and '93. In 2012, he was selected for induction to the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
The Winston-Salem Journal published this story about Browning, upon the occasion of his N.C. Sports Hall recognition, on May 9, 2012:
The night Martin Luther King Jr. died, the news reached the Savannah press box during the fourth inning of an Atlanta Braves exhibition game.
Wilt Browning, the Atlanta Journal's first Braves beat writer, instinctively rushed down to the modest clubhouse at Grayson Stadium in search of Hank Aaron, who had completed his cameo appearance. Browning knew King, the civil rights leader whose home pulpit was just a few blocks from the Braves' home diamond.
More important, Browning knew the depth of Aaron's friendship with King.
He couldn't find Aaron anywhere, though, and contemplated giving up the immediate hunt until he saw Aaron's No. 44 uniform draped across the back of a metal chair. Browning went outside and spotted the team bus parked in the distance, under a stand of tall Georgia pines.
"That's where Henry is," Browning said to himself. He walked over, pulled the heavy door open, stepped up and saw a solitary silhouette about halfway back in the darkness. Aaron.
Browning took a seat across the aisle. They sat in silence for quite some time, until Browning decided to let Aaron grieve privately. He got up and took one step.
"Sit," Aaron said. Browning sat.
Eventually, Aaron spoke again. "Why did they have to do this, Wilt?"
Browning had no answer for an unanswerable assassination question.
Upon further reflection, Aaron confided: "I am keenly aware of what he means to this generation. When Jackie Robinson was breaking into the big leagues, Felix Mantilla and I were being dropped off at the black hotel in Jacksonville and ordering food out of back doors, so it's difficult for me to understand why this man had to die."
They sat some more. When Browning finally left, he glanced back at Aaron.
In the reflection of the dim light from the ballpark poles, Browning could make out a single trail of tears under each of Aaron's eyes.
All these years later, relaxing in the sunroom of the Kernersville home he shares with his high school sweetheart Joyce, Browning recalls the poignant details of that tragic April night as though everything happened last month.
He might not remember the scores of a thousand games he covered for newspapers in his native South Carolina, Kansas, Georgia and North Carolina, but he remembers the human elements, the joys and pains experienced by the characters who have strolled across his wide field of vision.
The natural ability to portray the complex emotions unleashed by simple games made Browning special as the columnist for Greensboro's News & Record from 1977 until 1996 and at every other stop along the way. The N.C. Sports Hall of Fame will recognize his contributions with formal induction as a member Thursday night in Raleigh.
Browning, 74, finds it a bit strange for a sportswriter to enter the Hall of Fame, akin to crossing the sideline with a notepad while the ball's in play. "Writers sometimes play a role in conferring fame, although that's not what we're about," he said.
What Browning is about comes through in his five books and seems clear throughout the 1968 Aaron episode, which illustrated the trust and mutual respect they shared in the often uneasy relationship between reporter and public figure.
Another time, Aaron privately upbraided Browning for failing to criticize him in the paper after his throwing mistake set up the winning Pittsburgh run. "If these records are going to mean anything, you have to hold me accountable," Aaron insisted. "You've got to let me have it. I am fallible."
Growing up in Easley, S.C., Browning hardly expected such nomination as judge of the baseball immortal who would break Babe Ruth's home run record. His parents worked in the textile mill from childhood on -- his mother started at age 12 -- and he joined the Air Force 14 months after graduating high school in 1955.
He married Joyce on Leap Day in 1956 ("I guess we've had only 14 anniversaries") and soon started a family that would grow to five children and 11 grandchildren.
Browning began his newspaper career while stationed in Kansas. He took sportswriting lessons from editor Bob Hurt and others at the Topeka papers. They brought journalism textbooks to the office, and even gave the novice tests.
He passed them all, and Thursday night this gentle prince of a professional storyteller will receive his ultimate graduate degree.