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Tramel: University of Texas president Jay Hartzell is the son of an Oklahoma sportswriter

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This story originally appeared in The Oklahoman on Oct. 7, 2022 and is posted in its entirety by UT Austin with permission from The Oklahoman.

All these years later, those who attended Bob Hartzell’s funeral remember most the anguish of his 11-year-old son.

A boy shouldn’t lose his father so young.

But funny thing about that memorial service. The now-grown boy remembers most the sad faces of the adults, particularly the sobbing of Tulsa Tribune cartoonist Dayne Dudley. The tears of grown men have a profound effect on kids.

Bob Hartzell was a skilled, popular, aggressive sports columnist. The sports editor of the late, great Tribune, Tulsa’s afternoon paper until its 1992 demise. Hartzell died of a heart attack at age 43 on February 2, 1981, after years of fighting cancer.

Hartzell, a Woodward High School graduate who attended OU, was hired by the Tribune in 1972.

“One of the best hires I ever made,” said Jenk Jones, who helped run the newspaper with his father, 50-year Tribune editor/publisher Jenkins Lloyd Jones. “In addition to being a great sports editor, he was a great friend.”

Jay Hartzell poses with two UT students in front of the UT Tower
University of Texas president Jay Hartzell poses with two UT students during a campus celebration in August. DUSTIN SAFRANEK/Austin American-Statesman Dustin Safranek, Dustin Safranek

Hartzell gave Tulsa a rousing 1-2 punch of sports columnists in the heyday of newspapers. The Tulsa World’s Bill Connors in the morning, the Trib’s Hartzell in the afternoon.

Hartzell left behind a wife, Carolyn, and three children. A few years after Hartzell’s death, his widow remarried. Her new husband became the associate pastor of the Village United Methodist Church, so the family moved to Oklahoma City. That sobbing boy as a teenager became a tennis player and a great student at John Marshall High School.

Hartzell’s son went to Trinity University in San Antonio and took quite well to academic life. He’s never left it. He became a professor at New York University, then moved back to the Southwest.

These days, he’s left the classroom for administrative work. Jay Hartzell is president of the University of Texas.

That’s right. The leader of all things Longhorn is the son of an Oklahoma sportswriter.

The world is nothing if not interesting. Strange how people and places become intertwined. The man who, in partnership with OU, led UT to make the decision to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, while also leading a world-class university in its many endeavors and crises, grew up reading the Tulsa Tribune’s sports page and funnies, with quite a personal tie.

“He’s clearly the reason I grew up with a love of sports,” Jay Hartzell said this week from his Austin office. “As a kid, having your dad as a sportswriter, I think is a pretty cool job.

“To get dragged around from game to game, to find a spot in the stands to sit while he was covering games, was just fantastic.”

Jay Hartzell
University of Texas President Jay Hartzell gives the State of the University Address at UT's Mulva Auditorium on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. Dustin Safranek/Special To American-Statesman

Jay Hartzell was a Kansas City Royals fan. He recalls his dad breaking a principled rule and getting George Brett’s autograph. Remembers sitting in old Driller Park next to a Negro Leagues veteran, hearing stories about Cool Papa Bell.

Basketball intrigued Hartzell as a John Marshall freshman, until Lewis Everly III dunked in a layup drill and Hartzell realized his future wasn’t in hoops. He loved tennis but gave it up to get a job and pay for a 1974 Datsun 260Z.

Jay Hartzell came from a family of artists. His father a writer, his mother a pianist. Hartzell’s brother majored in painting, his sister in piano.

Jay Hartzell himself considered journalism – for two years, he was editor of the John Marshall school paper — but migrated to math. He first considered engineering at Trinity in San Antonio but settled on finance.

“God knows, I’m an oddball in my family,” Hartzell said.

“Because of my dad, that pushed me into high school journalism, which helped me write, helped me write more quickly, more succinctly. It came faster for me. That’s an echo of my dad through my career.

As a kid, having your dad as a sportswriter, I think is a pretty cool job. To get dragged around from game to game, to find a spot in the stands to sit while he was covering game

Jay Hartzell

“Now as a president, I love the sports part of what happens at our university and other universities like ours. The appreciation of what it brings to our university, our people, started with my dad.”

Bob Hartzell was born in Camargo, the Dewey County hamlet 31 miles south of Woodward in northwestern Oklahoma. Hartzell eventually was raised in Woodward, where he met Carolyn and forged the desire to be a sportswriter.

The Oklahoman hired Hartzell while he still was an OU student. He moved on to the Topeka Capital-Journal (Jay Hartzell is Kansas born) and was hired by the Tribune in 1972.

Bob Hartzell smoked cigars and had a raspy voice from the cancer. He was rowdy as a sports columnist – Hartzell and the Tribune were famously sued by a Southwest Conference referee who took exception to a Hartzell zinger from an Arkansas game. The Tribune won the case.

“Impressed me from Day One,” said Jenk Jones. “I had heard a lot of good things about him. Liked the way he talked. Liked the way he was very honest in his writing, wasn’t afraid to tackle big issues.”

The Joneses and Hartzells became good friends. They played bridge together.

“I stayed out of reach of his obnoxious cigars,” Jones said. Jay Hartzell “came from two good parents, I tell you. Carolyn was a great mother, I could tell that. And Bob was just as straight an arrow as you could get.

“Always enjoyed him, and he knew I was watching things closely, because I was a sports fan.”

Mike Sowell, who had been hired by Hartzell, became the Trib’s sports editor and columnist after Hartzell’s death. Sowell went on to help found OSU’s nationally-acclaimed sports media program.

“Just a great person,” Sowell said of Bob Hartzell. “One of the most influential people in my life. Friendly, very outgoing.

“The thing that always amazed me and impressed me, he lived with that cancer the whole time I knew him. He went out and was doing everything the rest of us were doing back then. He didn’t let it interfere with his life.”

The president of the University of Texas recalls a man who left a lasting impression as a loving father, a man who instilled a love of sports in his son, a man who worked hard and loved his job.

Probably the same description fits Jay Hartzell, who is called approachable and likeable by those around the UT campus (and his OU counterparts) and certainly comes across that way in phone interviews.

Afternoon papers required early-morning hours. Bob Hartzell would rise around 4:30 a.m. and be out of the house by the time his son awoke.

But on what Sowell calls “Black Monday,” Hartzell didn’t make it to work. He died while shaving. The call came to the Trib newsroom around 6 a.m.

“Went through the newsroom like a lightning bolt,” Jones said. “Everybody appreciated him.”

A few days later came the funeral, complete with a sobbing boy and more than a few adults whose tears flowed, too.

Forty-one years later that boy is the 53-year-old president of one of America’s greatest universities. Jay Hartzell lost his father far too soon, but not too early to have sent his son on a path to success.