Harvey Updyke poisoned much more than some trees

The most despicable example of the insanity of college football in Alabama is gone.

Harvey Updyke, 71, died in Louisiana on Thursday. That the announcement was issued by a son he named Bear tells you a lot. That Updyke named his daughter Crimson Tyde tells you even more.

I’ll refrain best I can from speaking ill of the dead, or making reference to all the still-too-soon social media jokes of his passing.

Updyke grew famous through that peculiar ecosystem that is the roster of callers and avid listeners to Paul Finebaum’s radio show.

He reached infamy when, in 2010, he poisoned the magnificent oak trees that shade Toomer’s Corner on the Auburn University campus. Those very trees, Auburn students and fans roll with toilet paper after football victories.

Updyke, who grew up in the Florida panhandle worshipping Bear Bryant but never spent a day in a Tuscaloosa classroom, couldn’t stand to see Auburn celebrating.

Auburn rallied from 24 points down to beat Alabama 28-27 on Nov. 26, 2010, keeping its record perfect.

And Harvey Updyke, who grew up in the Florida panhandle worshipping Bear Bryant but never spent a day in a Tuscaloosa classroom, couldn’t stand to see Auburn celebrating.

So this former Texas state trooper went an killed some old majestic trees on the Auburn campus. And went on the radio to brag about it.

“Well, I’m just a very unhealthy Alabama fan,” he once told a reporter.

My disdain for Harvey Updyke grew when he poisoned something else. He poisoned a man and a family I cared about.

Tommy Lewis played football for the University of Alabama. He was a great player. Despite the rivalry, he had countless Auburn people among his friends. As he grew his family, they learned to respect Auburn.

Tommy had one brief moment of infamy himself. Caught up in the moment during the 1954 Cotton Bowl, he stepped from the sidelines to tackle a Rice player headed for a touchdown.

He was “just too full of Alabama,” Lewis explained.

Lewis became a pillar of the community in Huntsville, generous to a fault. The incident hovered over him, but didn’t define him. Sadly, Tommy suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, which took his life in 2014 at age 83.

He was hospitalized after a series of strokes when Harvey Updyke threw poison on Lewis’s name. In a smug comment on an ESPN documentary, Updyke tried to laugh off his actions by comparing himself to Lewis, saying he, too, was “too full of Alabama.”

This redneck ex-trooper in his 60s tried to justify his hatred and calculated stupidity by comparing it to the passion of a 22-year-old man who respected his opponents and made an innocuous mistake in a football game.

I talked about the comment with Tommy’s wonderful wife, Helen, and wrote this in a column in 2011:

Imagine you’ve been married nearly 60 years and you hear this criminal link himself to your husband. Imagine you’re a son or daughter. If you’re Helen Lewis, who still treasures the 1953 Alabama-Auburn game ball her husband was awarded as the Tide captain, “It breaks my heart.”

Kathy Lewis McCool, Tommy’s daughter, wrote a beautiful letter she sent to me. Here’s part of what she wrote:

“(O)ur family was saddened and disturbed to hear Mr. Updyke invoke the name of our father and grandfather, Tommy Lewis, as his source of inspiration and passion for Alabama football. Dad’s off-the-sideline play in the 1954 Cotton Bowl has been a source of scorn, ridicule, and to many, heroics over the years, but no matter what the reaction, he responded with grace, humility and often, self-deprecating humor.

“Indeed, there is no doubt that he was ‘too full of Bama’ but what most folks do not know is that he was also ‘too full’ of our mother, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchild, nieces, nephews, children-in-law, friends, pets, customers, charities, and everything he touched. He had enough passion and love to go around for everybody.

“Dad had an abundance of beloved Auburn friends. … He was a stranger to the bitterness the rivalry has taken on in recent years, and would have been puzzled and disappointed by it.

“Mr. Updyke’s hateful act perpetrated upon Auburn’s proud old oaks at Toomer’s Corner would have appalled him …”

Tommy Lewis was full of Alabama.

Harvey Updyke was full of hatred and self-importance, with some unhealthy, irrational corner of his soul that seemed to give him pride in what he did. He embarrassed the Alabama fan base. He smeared a good man’s name. He reveled in his actions.

Turns out, killing a tree was one of the least-poisonous things he ever did.

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