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Dick Feagler’s gift, to cherish the past and foretell the future: Brent Larkin

July 6, 2018

Dick Feagler’s gift, to cherish the past and foretell the future: Brent Larkin

CLEVELAND -- It didn’t take long for Dick Feagler’s new bosses at The Cleveland Press to figure out they’d hired someone special.  

“Early on, we could see he was rare talent,” recalled 93-year-old Bill Tanner, an assistant that day when Feagler first walked into the Press newsroom.

“Dick was a man for all seasons. He could relate to the bellman or the banker. Louie spotted it right away.”

Louie Clifford was the legendary Press city editor his young protégé came to idolize.

In 1968, Clifford suffered a heart attack and died in Feagler’s arms outside the Press building at 901 Lakeside.

Feagler died July 1, just four weeks shy of his 80th birthday. His body of work, which includes a 40-year career of success in television news, secures Feagler’s place as a giant of Cleveland journalism.

In his prime, no one in the country crafted more magnificent columns. “Feagler’s Cleveland,” the first of three books featuring his best columns, offers a compelling historical portrait of Cleveland in the 20th century’s second half.

Feagler was already a star when, in January 1970, I first walked into a Press newsroom filled with living legends.

By then, his sister Linda already knew big brother was different. “He understood everyday Clevelanders,” she said. “He wrote things they all thought.”

Indeed, Feagler’s great gift was to give voice to the people who lived here. He spoke for them through the voice of Mrs. Figment, “who lives in the old neighborhood behind Republic Steel where the fallout from the steel mills turns the laundry orange on the clothes lines.”

He listened to them through the voice of his longtime friend Carl Stokes on the nights they hung out at one of Pat Joyce’s two downtown pubs, “saloons side by side run by Igy McIntryre, who figured if you were going to go pub crawling, you might as well crawl between two of his cash registers.”

There was nothing Feagler couldn’t cover. War in a faraway land, a Cleveland Orchestra tour of Japan, mayors, murders (lots of them), riots, elections, political conventions. He and I covered three of them together.

During the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York, I sat one morning in the lobby of the Americana hotel on Seventh Avenue when in strolled Carl Stokes.  

“Larkin, find me Feagler,” barked the former mayor, since 1972 an anchor and reporter for WNBC television there.

That night, Feagler and Stokes met at the former mayor’s Manhattan apartment. Atop page one of the next day’s Press screamed a headline, “Carl Stokes says he’s coming home.”

When the Press closed in 1982, Feagler spent his wilderness years at The Akron Beacon Journal. It was a fine paper, with first-rate talent. But Akron wasn’t where he belonged. Feagler knew that. So in 1993 we were able to lure him home.

He came to The Plain Dealer with some reluctance, as Press people historically viewed 1801 Superior as enemy territory.

In that first column here, on Oct. 18, 1993, Feagler worried what ghosts from the Press would think of him. “No wonder they are haunting me. I can’t see if they are smiling at the irony or frowning at the treason.

“They never leave me, those good people who taught me what I know. Who never went to college but knew this is no profession for Ph.D.s but a working-class craft. They carved their stories into copy paper with typewriter keys and sent the paper back in a tube to be turned into hot metal type. Words poured from presses and were bundled and tossed out into this good, plain, no-nonsense city of craftsmen who want an honest story honestly told.

“So, I’ve accepted The PD’s generous offer, but the ghosts are going with me.”

And things worked out just fine.

Feagler never made a secret of his political favorites: Stokes, Howard Metzenbaum, Mike White and Dennis Kucinich.

Writing to Kucinich a few days before he would lose the 1979 mayoral race to George Voinovich, Feagler lectured, “The town is out of breath. The town can’t keep up with you. The town wants a rest .... You never learned humility but you’ll get a lesson in it Tuesday night. When it comes, treat it like a gift. When you come back, bring it with you.”

Some thought Feagler spent too much time dwelling on the past. Those criticisms conveniently ignored that on the major issues of his day – civil rights and gay rights – he was a man far ahead of his time. Besides, no one did nostalgia better than Feagler.

Dick’s life was no less complicated than most. But “Christmas at Aunt Ida’s,” his signature Plain Dealer piece, told the moving story of life at a simpler time. It was a piece about a child surrounded by people who loved him. And it ended in what today seems the most fitting of ways:

“Most of the people you see there are gone now. But they haven’t gone far, and on Christmas they are very close. They are just the other side of the windowpane.

“We can’t see through the windowpane. But they are out there, those simple people who loved us and took care of us. And left us blessings we rarely count. “But if we let them, they come back at Christmas. With gifts of everlasting life.”

Brent Larkin was The Plain Dealer’s editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.

To reach Brent Larkin: blarkin@cleveland.com

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