By Donna Cornelius
According to Rod Stewart, every picture tells a story.
So do some refrigerators.
At a Palmetto Street cottage in Homewood, visitors need only glance at the fridge to see that the house’s owner isn’t your typical 9 to 5 guy. Posted there are a letter from University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban, a handwritten note from Sen. Jeff Sessions and an Air Force Two pass.
The mementos belong to Lars Anderson, a Sports Illustrated writer who moved to Birmingham in 2004.
“I’d become a staff writer at SI covering college football and NASCAR and realized it would be far easier to cover those from here than from Manhattan,” he said.
Lars wrote the article for which he’s perhaps best known in these parts, a gripping story about the tornado that struck Tuscaloosa April 27, 2011, from his Edgewood home, in his bedroom-turned-home office. The letters from Saban and Sessions praise the piece; Saban adds his thanks for Lars’s feature story on the Crimson Tide’s 2011 defense.
And the Air Force Two pass?
“I rode down from D.C. to Daytona with Vice President Cheney,” Lars said.
While the writer has rubbed shoulders with some pretty famous folks, he’s been happy to be part of friendly Edgewood.
“I liked the shops here and being able to walk to Homewood Park,” he said. “It’s one of the few communities around that’s actually a walking community, like New York. I love this neighborhood.”
Even more than Edgewood, however, Lars loves his girlfriend. He’s leaving Palmetto Street for her home in Cahaba Heights.
His Homewood Tudor-style house, now for sale, was built in 1934, he said.
“I think I’m only the fifth owner,” said Lars. “Twin sisters who never married lived here for 65 years. The house had good stewardship, and that’s one of the things that convinced me to live here.”
While the house has retained its original charm — with hardwood floors, glass doorknobs and wooden windows – it has something most neighboring homes can’t claim.
“I’m willing to bet a lot of money that it has the biggest bathroom in Homewood,” Lars said.
Gamblers may want to think twice about taking that bet. The up-to-date master bathroom is almost as big as the master bedroom. It has tile floors, an elevated garden tub and separate shower and an adjoining walk-in closet and laundry room.
While the refrigerator decorations will leave with Lars, future owners of the house will likely enjoy the sunny eating area of the kitchen, where a gas cooktop is built into the countertop.
Besides his office, a favorite writing spot for Lars has been the shady courtyard just outside his bedroom. Separate from the rest of the large fenced-in backyard, the courtyard has been the perfect spot for parties as well as for creative efforts, Lars said.
“It’s intensely private,” he said. “I probably wrote about 100 stories sitting out here. You can’t hear the street traffic.”
The only intrusive noise, he said, came from his Cockapoo, Frenchie.
“Once I was in the courtyard talking to CNN International about the tragic death of Dan Weldon, the British racing driver,” he said. “Frenchie started barking right in the middle of the interview.”
A friend of Lars’s happened to be in a Shanghai airport when the interview aired on TVs there.
“She texted me and said, ‘I think I heard Frenchie barking,’” he said.
Then he adds, “But she didn’t hear any car traffic.”
‘A Great Gig’
During his childhood in Lincoln, Neb., Lars didn’t dream of being a writer.
“My father was a lawyer,” he said. “I grew up wanting to be the next senator of Nebraska.”
The political life lost its appeal after he spent a semester of his junior year in college campaigning door to door in New Hampshire for presidential hopeful Bob Kerrey.
“We had 12 volunteers and thought we were pretty organized,” he said. “Then we saw about 80 Clinton people and thought, uh-oh.”
Back in school at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Lars, an English major, started working for the student newspaper. On a whim, he said, he applied for graduate school at New York’s Columbia University, one of the most respected journalism programs in the U.S.
“That changed the course of my life,” he said. “I’d never even been to New York before. I was straight out of undergrad, and the average age of the students there was 28 or 29. They’d been working as reporters for six or seven years. I was a kid out of the Midwest.”
Then, said Lars, “I got lucky.” He landed a job as a fact checker at Sports Illustrated, a magazine he’d been reading since he was 6 years old.
“I was able to work my way onto the masthead,” he said.
Since joining SI, Lars has written highly-regarded cover stories and five books.
He calls his job “a dream experience – a great gig.”
“It’s so wonderful to be surrounded by so many talented people,” he said. “My job has taken me to places I never could have dreamed of.
“Also, I’ve gotten to have lunch with supermodels,” he added, smiling.
As a college football writer, Lars loves not only the action of the game but its environment.
“I’ve been to probably 60 different campuses, and there’s nothing like the game day experience in Tuscaloosa – walking through the Quad, the sense of anticipation, the excitement,” he said. “USC, Texas, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Florida – nothing compares to the atmosphere in T-town.”
Lars has another connection with UA; he teaches a sports journalism course there. When the tornado hit last April, his first priority was making sure his students were safe. His next was convincing his editors at Sports Illustrated to let him tell the stories of those affected by the storm.
“From a writer’s perspective, it had all the elements of an amazing story,” he said. “I’d never been confronted with so many compelling anecdotes – uplifting, happy, sad, stories about perseverance.
“As a writer, it was like having a big pot, and all these things are swirling inside.”
On a tight deadline, Lars enlisted the help of former student Allyson Angle, a UA swimmer.
“She had access to all these different athletes,” he said.
No one who’s read the piece is likely to forget how Lars wrote about people like the Tide’s long snapper, Carson Tinker, who was severely hurt and whose girlfriend Ashley Harrison died of injuries caused when the winds tore her from Tinker’s arms. Or gymnast Kayla Hoffman, alone when the winds hit.
Lars told readers how pitcher Nathan Kilcrease and his fellow baseball team members searched for and found a white dress. The dress belonged to a girl killed in the storm; her mother wanted to bury her daughter in it.
“The fact that there were all these different anecdotes of horror – that’s how a tornado operates,” Lars said.
After five days of reporting, Lars had to work quickly to put the story together.
“It’s Wednesday night, and my first draft is due Thursday morning,” he said. “I stayed up all night and managed to give the editors something.”
After the article was published, Lars heard not only from people affected by the tornado but from readers as far away as Japan and Germany.
”It’s the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done,” he said.