TigerBlog attended a surprise 80th birthday party for Harvey Yavener this past Sunday. As an aside, why surprise an 80-year-old?
Yav, for those who don't know, was a longtime sportswriter in Mercer County, first at the Trentonian and later for about 40 years at the Trenton Times. It is TigerBlog's contention that nobody ever has written more about Princeton athletics in a newspaper - and maybe anywhere - than Yav.
His actual 80th birthday is today. It comes less than a year since he formally retired.
TigerBlog wrote about Yav a year ago, when he turned 79, and TB won't repeat much of what was said then, other than giving another nod to Polly, with whom Yav has lived since 1959. There is, of course, a special place in heaven all picked out for Polly.
Yav's party was a mini-Trenton Times reunion of sorts. Jim Gauger, the sports editor at the paper from 1982 or so until his retirement last year, was there, as was Jed Weisberger, an assistant sports editor. Jim and Jed sat opposite Rick Freeman and his wife, Mary Ann Tarr, both longtime veterans at the paper who are still there. In many ways, it was like any number of nights in the newsroom, with the back-and-forth across the table.
TigerBlog sat next to Rider athletic director Don Harnum (whose brother Mike played basketball at Princeton under Pete Carril); TB and Don go back to his days as an assistant coach first at Trenton State and then at Rider.
Don was texting with Greg Busch, a Rider associate athletic director and former assistant compliance director (and soccer player) at Princeton.
It was a nice party, with a huge turnout of family members. The highlight, though, was when Yav began to speak.
"I always thought about 80 as just a number," he started. "Barring something unforeseen in the next 48 hours, I'll reach that number."
Then he talked about his grandfather and how he hadn't visited him much when he was a kid, but he did remember one time when his grandfather told him "never live to be 80." Yav went on to talk about how wrong his grandfather was and what it gift it is for him to be 80.
He poignantly talked about an old tradition in his days at the Trentonian of having the sports staff appear in a holiday card on Christmas Day in the paper. It was a small staff, he said, maybe five or six writers in most years. When Joe Logue, long the Trentonian sports editor, passed away a few years ago, it left Yav as the last remaining person from those pictures.
Why, Yav asked, did he get to be the last one? Then he said that it didn't matter why, that this is how it turned out, and it was his responsibility to treat each day as a "joy." And then, he went on to say that each day is a joy for him. He also said that there's no way he'd ever want to know how much more time he has, whether it be one more day or "30 more years; you're all invited to my 110th party," because each day itself is a joy.
It was an incredibly moving thing to say, one of the most genuine moments TigerBlog has ever heard from anywhere. TB has known Yav for 26 years and seen that side of him a few times, but for the most part it's been the gruffer side of Yav that has shown through.
Before Yav spoke, Polly's niece asked if there was anyone who had anything to say. The newspaper types all spoke, as did TigerBlog, who could have told about a thousand Yav stories. TB chose the one about the time when Yav had recently had surgery and he called TB up, which led to this exchange:
Yav: "Are you eating??"
Yav: "Good. I need you to get over here and take Polly to the supermarket."
TB went on to talk about a day when he and Yav were setting the schedule for the next two weeks, as we always did. Yav suggested going to this game on this day and be in the office on this day and then "if you want, not a big deal, you can go to Rider women's basketball at Lehigh Wednesday night." TB replied that he'd pass, because he'd worked about 25 days in a row at that point.
"You're about 2,000 off the record," was his reply.
TB finished his talk by saying that here at TigerBlog HQ, our philosophies are a mix of those of the Princeton athletic department coupled with Yav's. Work hard. Have a sense of humor. Remember that what you're doing is first and foremost for the athletes and coaches (for a newspaper person, that wasn't always the standard line to take).
It was Yav who always believed that all sports should be treated equally, with no favoritism to "larger" sports. It was Yav who taught TB that the biggest squash match or crew race is just as big as the biggest football game.
It was Yav who always stressed the importance of telling the story of the athlete, of individualizing the athlete. Yav was so far ahead of the curve in terms of publicizing women's athletics that it often drew him chuckles from other writers who scoffed at him for those beliefs.
And yet in many ways, his beliefs are what goprincetontigers.com and goprincetontigers.tv are today. Yav liked to get to know the athletes (and coaches) and then tell their stories. TigerBlog has seen dozens of Princeton athletes spend 20, 30, 40 minutes talking to Yav and come away from the experience with an understanding that this hadn't been anything like a normal interview with an average sportswriter.
And Yav? He loved talking to Princeton athletes probably more than any other. He'd always come back to TB when he was done, shaking his head, marveling at what the athletes here were doing, how they carried themselves, how special they were. From the very first Princeton athletes TB saw Yav talk to (basketball players in the ’80s, probably, or possibly lacrosse player Justin Tortolani) all the way through the last one he would interview here, swimmer Alicia Aemisegger.
Yav mixed all of this in with an incredible work ethic, one that saw him work seven days a week for decades (always followed by a huge meal at one of his favorite restaurants; TB's birthday gift for Yav was a gift certificate to one them).
TigerBlog concluded by thanking Yav for being as important a professional influence and inspiration as anyone else has been. TB should have added "and friend" to that.
Happy 80th, Yav. Thanks for everything, and hopefully you have many days of joy in front of you.