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Go Chrome!

If it wasn’t for horse racing–and Van Varner–I probably never would have come to Guideposts.

Guideposts Editor-in-Chief Van Varner with Edward Grinnan

I’ll be pulling for California Chrome in the Belmont Stakes tomorrow to be the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Secretariat in 1976.

Wait. This is Guideposts and you’re talking about horse racing?

Well, I didn’t say I was going to put a bet down. But if it wasn’t for horse racing I probably never would have come to Guideposts.

I guess I should explain. When I arrived for my late-morning job interview lo those many years ago, I was ushered in to legendary Editor-in-Chief Van Varner’s office. He was hunched over some papers on his desk. He seemed to be concentrating fiercely, his pencil darting over a page. I sat in respectful silence, not wanting to disturb the great editor. What was the genius in the corner office up to? A prayer? A devotional? Finally I couldn’t resist stealing a peek. It was a betting form and he was picking his horses for the afternoon’s racing at Belmont.

Not what I expected. Not at all. But since I had kind of stumbled into this interview and didn’t know very much about Guideposts or much care about inspirational publishing, it was an interesting surprise.  It reminded me that my prejudices and expectations could not necessarily be trusted. In fact it opened my mind up to the possibility that I might work at an organization like Guideposts… if they would have me, which I doubted they would.

Yet Van saw in me something I had yet to see in myself and hired me. I planned to stick around for a year, no more, just so I could catch my breath and pull my life together–work on my resume, use the postage machine, you know.  Did I mention that was back in 1986? 

Van was full of surprises, probably the most interesting person I’ve ever known, and I grew to love him like a father. His devotion to playing the ponies was pretty harmless. He bet small sums of money derived from various odd sources: the “can fund,” which were the deposits on soda cans he was diligent about returning to be recycled; the “found fund,” which came from cash he found lying around, whether it was a nickel on the street or a forgotten $10 bill in a pair of pants.

It wasn’t a love of betting that animated Van’s interest in the horses, it was his love of the animals and jockeys and trainers. The culture and tradition of racing. Van came from an old Louisville family and he was taken to his first Kentucky Derby while still a baby (he claimed to remember the race and the beautiful hat his mother wore). As he sat at his desk in Manhattan, at the cosmopolitan center of the publishing world, placing a few bets on his lunch hour was his way of staying connected to his past, his roots, his family, the rich green grass of Kentucky.  In fact Van would weep every time he heard “My Old Kentucky Home”… this from a man who never cried.

Van died in 2007. Yesterday was his birthday. How he would have loved the gift of a Triple Crown Winner. I’m not going to put down a bet on California Chrome but I will send up a prayer. For Van.

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