May 29, 2017

Jimmy Breslin: Losing a newspaper icon

Jimmy Breslin in his heyday at New York Newsday

Jimmy Breslin died Sunday at his home in Manhattan at age 88.  He wrote stories with two-finger poundings that quickly wore out many keyboards, skewered those who needed deflating, focused on ordinary people in trials and tribulations, delighted his many readers and was a classic big city newspaper columnist in the nation’s biggest city.

Breslin’s death takes down the last of two reporting idols of my young newspaper career.  He and Mike Royko wrote in ways that I wished I could and covered their cities in ways that all of us in the business could envy.

Both were rugged ideals to be admired.  I was proud to know Royko and had the pleasure of serving with him on panel in Illinois back in the 70s.  He was the one who passed on the advice of classic Chicago newsman Finley Peter Dunne that “it is the job of a newspaperman to comfort the afflicted…and afflict the comfortable.”

Didn’t Jimmy Breslin well.  Wish I had.  Met him a few times.  Interviewed him for magazine and newspaper articles.

Former Floyd Press owner Pete Hallman, who hired me to report for the paper in 1963 gave me a book of Breslin’s columns for Christmas and I read it many times over the years.

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, Breslin was on a plane to Dallas.  While others wrote about the scene of the killing in in Dealy Plaza or the frantic day, Breslin tracked down the doctor who tried to save the President’s life and the emptiness he felt after having to declare Kennedy dead. Then he wrote about Clifton Pollard, who dug the grave at Arlington Cemetary for Kennedy’s casket and burial.

Breslin’s column on Nov. 24, read:

The call bothered Malcolm Perry. “Dr. Tom Shires, STAT,” the girl’s voice said over the page in the doctor’s cafeteria at Parkland Memorial Hospital. The “STAT” meant emergency. Nobody ever called Tom Shires, the hospital’s chief resident in surgery, for an emergency. And Shires, Perry’s superior, was out of town for the day. Malcolm Perry looked at the salmon croquettes on the plate in front of him. Then he put down his fork and went over to a telephone.

“This is Dr. Perry taking Dr. Shires’ page,” he said.

“President Kennedy has been shot. STAT,” the operator said. “They are bringing him into the emergency room now.”

Then, in Washington, Breslin reported:

Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by 11 o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

That was classic Breslin — reporting on the ordinary people called upon to do extraordinary things.

He quit writing his three times a week column in Newsday on Nov. 2, 2004, at age 75.

“I’m right — again. So I quit. Beautiful.  Thanks for the use of the hall.”

Later, he sat in his Upper West Side apartment, sipping coffee, and talked about why he quit:

If I’m in the bar, as in past years, which I can’t do anymore, that would be huge. I can’t make it that big a deal, that’s the problem. Because it isn’t. I’m like a cop. You go after 30 years. You stay any longer, it doesn’t do you a dollar’s worth of good in the pension.

Breslin went to work as a copy boy at 16 for the Long Island Press, starting writing his first columns in the 1960s in the New York Herald Tribune, then The New York Post and finally at Newsday in 1988.  He continued to write, from time to time, when something interested him, almost right up to the time he died from complications of pneumonia.

“It’ll be the same thing, sitting down and writing, just for different stuff. Nothin’s changing..

He wrote several books. Some were complilations of columns.  Others focused on New York.  They were good.  I have read all of them and they fill a honored places in our library.

Donald H. Frost, editor at Newsday, summed up Breslin by noting that he never wanted to be called a “journalist:”

Great newspaperman. He’ll probably like that better. I don’t know of any ballplayer, musician, composer who’s been that good consistently over the years. He based it on one thing. He had a great work ethic, and he knew the heart of what he turned out was reporting.

Which is what all of us who aspire to report the news — be it in newspapers, magazines, the Internet or on broadcast waves — must always try to achieve.

 

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