Migration — RIP

Friday, October 03, 2008

I had lunch with a friend and former colleague yesterday. Among other topics we were lamenting deaths in journalism. Not the papers themselves, which seem to be committing suicide by dumbing down their content, trying to imitate TV and the Web. We were discussing the journalists we’ve known who died way too young.

The first to go was our former boss, Sally Jo Restivo. She was 59 when she died of cancer in 1995. She had a long career as a reporter and later became the first woman to edit a newspaper in Connecticut. Like many of us, Sally Jo worked at papers big and small all over the state during her career.

Next was our co-worker Kathy O’Connell, a brilliant writer, who died in May last year. She replaced me at the Middletown Press in the 1970s and was still there when I returned to the paper in 1990. She wrote a biting and sometimes hilarious column called El Rancho Video, in which she inveighed against bad movies and television and lauded the good. She considered herself a modern-day H.L. Mencken (without the racism) and often came close to his acerbic commentary.

I learned that she was ill at an exhibit of photographs that Derry D’Oench, our former boss, had purchased and donated to Wesleyan University’s Davidson Art Center. Kathy was supposed to be at the opening because she had written an eloquent piece about the inspiration she received seeing those photographs each day as she stepped off the elevator in the Press office. Instead, Kathy was in intensive care. I went to visit her when she transferred to the medical floor. She was upset because she was trying to write and the pens wouldn’t work as she lay in on her back in bed. I gave her my Space Pen, which I had owned for years and never used because the line was too heavy. (The running joke was that NASA had someone invent a special pen for use in nil gravity; the Russians used a pencil) She transferred to a nursing home no long afterward, and a few days later, Kathy was dead at age 54.

I’ve already mentioned Ken Robinson, my wonderful boss at the Record-Journal, who was only 49. I’m still angry that the world no longer has the benefit of his wit and wisdom.

Next came Hal Levy, who was executive sports editor of Shore Line newspaper chain and a terrific booster of local sports. Though I had met Hal through journalism circles, I got to know him better because he was a high school classmate of Larry’s. The Woodrow Wilson High School class of 1965 (I almost wrote 1865!) is more devoted to each other than any group I’ve ever seen. They have regular reunions and a smaller group also gathers for impromptu celebrations several times a year. It helps, I guess, that a great many of them and their families have never moved far from Middletown.

Hal learned at the beginning of the year that he had liver cancer. By the time it was diagnosed the tumor had metastasized and not much could be done. He requested and received a send-off party – sort of a living wake, combined with a fund-raiser to help defray the costs of his illness. Journalists and coaches came from all over the state to pay tribute to him. A number of his colleagues wrote long columns and articles praising him, even while acknowledging that Hal had a prickly side. He died in July. He was 61.

Less than two weeks later, I happened to glance at the television while Larry was watching the news and saw that Matt Nozzolio had died. He had become the public information officer for the Hartford-area water authority, but before that he had been a reporter and editor at various newspapers in Connecticut and New York. He was also a talented musician, a Dobro player with many awards to his name. He was 53.

I wish these folks were all more like my mentor, Mrs. Morbey. (We didn’t find out until she retired that her first name wasn’t “Mrs.” but Winifred.) She was the Middletown Press’s ferocious copy editor who had worked for Condé Nast publications and would skewer young reporters: “She writes like English is her second language.” Mrs. M. smoked at her desk until it was banned out of consideration for the computers, drank endless cups of coffee all through her shift, and switched to rye after hours. She retired when she was 72 and lived happily to 80. May more journalists be like her, maybe without the nicotine and alcohol – or with if that’s necessary for survival.

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