My heroes include Dickey Betts and Merriman Smith | Whale’s Tales

I admire these guys for very different reasons.

I want to talk about heroes.

Mine is an eclectic bunch.

What else can one say about a set that numbers Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Carl Jung, Martin Luther King Jr., Dickey Betts and Merriman Smith. The last two names may be a bit unfamiliar to some, so let me help out.

Dickey Betts, guitar player extraordinairre for the Allman Brothers Band, died last week at 80.

I first heard Betts’s work on the band’s “Eat a Peach” album, which included “Little Martha,” his guitar-picking duet with Duane Allman, along with his guitar and vocals on “Ramblin’ Man” and “Blue Sky.”

I read an article if I remember right in Guitar Player magazine where Betts downgraded his skills because he felt he couldn’t measure up to Eric Clapton and other guitar luminaries.

That one touched me. I wanted over the years to write and tell Mr. Betts how much he meant to the budding guitar player I was at that time and doubtless to others up and down the skill scale. Then time ran out.

When Betts was at his best, his solos were beautiful compositions that could stand on their own. I have found that many rock players play to patterns, leaving no lasting trace in the memory. Not so with Dickey Betts — I can sing every note of his solos, no words needed. I imagine I am not alone in that.

Merriman Smith was the veteran UPI wire reporter in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, who broke the news about the Kennedy assassination. Smith was riding in the press pool car three lengths behind the presidential limousine, and he was the first in the vehicle to recognize that the sounds they heard were gunfire, not firecrackers. He was a gun fancier.

Smith, in the front seat, immediately grabbed the only phone in the vehicle and called his UPI office in Dallas to report what had happened.

“Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade…!”

About that time, Jack Bell, the Associated Press wire reporter in the backseat, a fierce rival of Smith’s in that cut-throat world, demanded the phone. But when Smith would not hand it over, Bell began to beat him on the back with his fists, yelling over and over, “give me the g-d—n phone!” To no avail.

The next minutes and hours constitute perhaps the greatest beatdown in the history of television news, giving Smith a 5-minute lead on the AP that only increased over the day. Smith was there on Air Force 1 when LBJ took the oath of office. Bell was not.

For his incredible performance that day, Smith won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964. Bell, well, if Bell is remembered today, it’s for the unforgettable smackdown Smith delivered.

I admire these guys for very different reasons.

Here’s what I would tell them if I had the chance. To Betts, I’d say I never cared a whit for speed, or the glittery, all flash and no substance guitar showmanship we get all too much of these days. What moved me then and moves me today is melody. And I still sing his solos.

Smith was the bad-ass wire reporter who took the bit in his mouth and ran away with it. He did his job with integrity and the skills honed over a lifetime.

In my mind, both of those guys embodied the old Greek ideal of “arete” — the full use of one’s powers along lines of excellence. May the same be said of us as well.

Robert Whale can be reached at