Writer Tony Castro’s wide readership may owe his local second grade teacher, Mrs. Coker, a huge debt of gratitude. Had it not been for her keen eye and sixth sense, he might never have found his life’s work as the respected writer he has become.
Castro has enjoyed a long, illustrious career as a newspaper reporter and columnist and is author of several best-selling books, including “Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son,” a biography of the iconic New York Yankees baseball legend.
During his career he has worked for the Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and the Dallas Morning News. He was also a columnist for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. In recent years, he’s turned more of his attention to writing books and last year penned his critically praised coming-of-age memoir, “The Prince of South Waco: American Dreams and Great Expectations.” This was his story of growing up in Waco in the 1950s and ’60s as a young Latino boy who suffered learning disabilities and spoke only Spanish until he was in second grade.
That was the year Mrs. Coker realized that, despite challenges with the language, he was still performing at a very high level in her class. She sensed that Tony possessed extremely high intelligence and held the possibility of a bright future. She sent him to an after-school program at nearby Baylor University where he received help with his language skills and learning disabilities.
Tony and I met in the 1960s when we were both journalism majors at Baylor. We worked on the school newspaper together and did our internship at the Tribune-Herald on weekends. We were casual acquaintances during college years and then took separate career paths after graduation. While Tony continued his career as a writer, I spent most of my working life in the book-publishing field promoting other writers.
During my time in publishing, I occasionally noticed Tony’s name in newspaper or magazine bylines and, most notably, reviews of his books in Publishers Weekly. I bought his books out of a certain pride of having been his college classmate and found that he possessed not only an immense writing talent but also an uncanny wisdom in his choice of subject matter. Tony has carefully chosen only genres and subjects in which he possesses a working knowledge for his book projects — a lesson that many writers should have learned who published outside their fields of expertise.
This year E.P. Dutton will reissue the 40th anniversary edition of Castro’s landmark book, “Chicano Power: The Emergence of Mexican America.” When the book was initially published, reviewers praised his research and scholarship of this civil rights history; Publishers Weekly called it a “brilliant and valuable contribution to our time.”
In the Mantle biography, Castro succeeded in virtually inhabiting the Yankees star’s essence and spirit, primarily because of his own boyhood admiration of the famed athlete. Castro has this knack of placing himself inside the minds of his subjects as he writes about them. The extensive research of his central character consistently shines through in his work. The Mantle book was lauded by The New York Times as “the best biography written to date on the Hall of Fame legend.”
Tony and I reconnected two years ago via social media after he spotted my piece in the Waco Tribune-Herald about our respected Baylor journalism professor David McHam, who was being honored by the university for his long and distinguished career as a mentor to young writers. (McHam also worked for the Trib.)
At one point, Tony sent me the manuscript of “The Prince of South Waco.” The memoir provided my first insights into the soft-spoken journalism classmate I had worked with on the school newspaper in the late 1960s. At last understanding many of the hurdles he was forced to overcome to successfully assimilate with his peers there, I have since marveled at his drive and perseverance during that period. His college years were not particularly easy for a young man who was one of very few minorities on the Baylor campus during that era.
His honest and powerful memoir captures the essential American story of the struggle for cultural assimilation. The elegant prose of his book is so alive and vital that I often found I was holding my breath for long stretches as I read his words. An old friend once said the very best stories are “written in blood,” and in this finely woven personal narrative, the reader can almost feel the heart beating.
Most of us back then could never have guessed that Tony Castro would one day become a Neiman Fellow at Harvard University and go on to study under Homeric scholar Robert Fitzgerald and Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz.
Castro is presently at work on a book about Ernest Hemingway’s last trip to Spain. After reading his proposal for the book, I again sense that Tony has picked a subject he feels he knows well, in this case an aging protagonist acutely aware of his impending mortality. My guess is Tony will successfully inhabit Hemingway’s persona the way he did that of Mickey Mantle, and that readers will be treated to a unique glimpse into the mind of the master writer they had never quite known before.
We should all be grateful there was once a second grade teacher named Mrs. Coker who had an uncanny perception about a young budding talent in her classroom and had the initiative to take necessary measures to nurture those talents so many years ago. Tony’s loyal readers ultimately have become the lucky recipients of his fine work largely because of her conscientious efforts.
Bob Vickrey is a member of the Trib Board of Contributors. He lives in Pacific Palisades, Calif.