The day after Dick Feagler died in July, I went to the Winking Lizard on Miles Road in Bedford, found a table in a dark corner and had a drink. To lose a friend of 50 years was painful. But there was a deeper emptiness to the passing of the columnist and host of Feagler & Friends, one that made me seek solitude to contemplate it.
His death, I thought over my beer, marked the end of an era in Cleveland journalism, perhaps its golden age.
Feagler was the symbol of those times, when two daily newspapers fought each day for headlines that would make readers feel the pulse of a city on the edge. At the center of this frantic news cycle was Feagler, with his column in the Cleveland Press. He was as much a part of the city’s fabric as the Terminal Tower. Nobody captured the essence of the town better than he did.
Feagler could take you in, transport you into the past in a way no historian could match. His was an extra-sensory touch. He made you smell the grit of the steel mills and feel what real neighbors were like, when no one on the street had money, when a good time was sitting on the porch listening to the radio.
This was when Cleveland was the sixth largest city in America, the age before urban sprawl took its toll on the town. Feagler grew up in that city and never forgot who he was. He would often return to that time in his columns. He channeled that history into an ability to apply common sense to the political machinations that held us back.
Politicians, for the most part, liked him better than the rest of us in the press. While we were trying to find public figures on the take, Feagler would listen to their problems.
I’m not sure how we became friends. In those days, the competition between the papers was fierce. You did not generally drink with the opposition. When we started in the newspaper business — he at the Press and me at The Plain Dealer — the Press dominated Cleveland. It was considered to be among the 10 best newspapers in the country. The reason why was plastered all over A1 every day. All you had to do was look at the type styles. You could see the vibrancy in the Press and stodginess of the PD’s morning paper.
There was little socializing among the reporters. Fearing being scooped, the editors at The Plain Dealer lived in panic with each passing edition of the Press.
The papers didn’t just compete. There was visceral dislike involved. You viewed those guys down the street like they were the Russians or the New York Yankees. To beat the Press with a Page 1 story, above the fold, was better than sex. But like sex, it did not happen that often.
So it was odd that Feagler and I became friends. We met covering those gritty stories that a city generates: robberies and race riots, stabbings and shootings, murders and the usual variety of mayhem that trashes the urban landscape.
Part of the chase was obtaining a snapshot of the subject of an article, a person who, more often than not, was dead. You had to cajole and commiserate with the family for pictures and then somehow make sure there were not any left for the opposition.
Feagler could charm and con his way into those street stories with a voice that had the soft lilt of a priest and then go back to the paper and write like a poet.
I can still see him leaving a house on the East Side, clutching a handful of pictures, waving at me and grinning in triumph.
Once when I was in The Plain Dealer‘s Washington bureau, he stopped in and suggested we have a drink upstairs at the National Press Club.
It was during the Nixon administration. Like President Donald Trump now, Nixon’s administration was constantly at war with the media. Vice President Spiro Agnew had made a speech that day, another all-out
I was introducing Feagler to the bureau chief, John Peter Leacacos, when the desk called and wanted the Ohio congressional delegation reached for comment on Agnew’s salvo. Leacacos must have thought Feagler was from The Plain Dealer, because he ordered him to get on the story with me. “And don’t leave anything for the Press,” Leacacos ordered.
Feagler, the merry prankster, called the congressmen for comment, saying he was representing Michael D. Roberts from The Plain Dealer.
“Hey, the faster we get this done the quicker we can have a drink,” Feagler said.
Leacacos never knew.
After seven years as a reporter, Feagler was, wisely, given space for a column. In short order, he became the best columnist between New York and Chicago. He had offers to leave town. But I would always tell him: “Why leave? You own the place.”
And then in the 1970s things slowly changed for the once mighty Press. The suburbs, marching ever outward, were now too far to make timely deliveries. The six o’clock television news further eroded the paper’s circulation. It vanished entirely in 1982.
Fittingly, Feagler wrote an obituary in the form of his recollections of working there, for Cleveland Magazine. It was republished nationally by Reader’s Digest. Later, he would write for the Akron Beacon Journal and The Plain Dealer, anchor television news and have his own show on public television.
I once urged him to run for mayor in this magazine, going as far as to offer to run his campaign, which would have been fun. “A few weeks ago, the daily newspaper chided a mayoral candidate for knowing little about the city. They can’t say that about Feagler,” I wrote in my totally unauthorized 2005 nomination. “He knows Cleveland so well that he once described it as the one town in the universe where pain is unavoidable.”
Boy, was he right. It’s ironic that in the month he died we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the first newspaper in Cleveland. The era that I write of is gone forever.
Feagler was the symbol of that time, before technology sucked the soul from newspapers. The columnist was king then and, I would argue, in the 200 years that the print media wrought its shining kingdoms of copy here, Feagler was possibly the best there was. Certainly, there will be no one better in the future.
The likelihood of a print newspaper surviving much longer is similarly doubtful. Before the stroke he suffered, Feagler wanted to write a column on Donald Trump for The Plain Dealer. I heard he was turned down because editors were fearful that his views would offend readers. I don’t know about that. But I’m thinking Feagler on Trump would have been one great read.
Back on Miles Road, the Lizard was getting loud now, disconnecting me from the past. For a moment, I thought Feagler was there with me, wide-eyed, his arms in wild animation, regaling me with some outrage he planned to comment upon.
I took a drink for him. Then I left.
You made the town that much better, buddy. -30-