Early in my journalism career, friends and acquaintances would occasionally ask me which columnists I thought were the best in the business.
They no doubt expected to hear national names, such as Mike Royko, Jimmy Breslin, George Will or Jim Murray.
My first answer would always be, “Dick Feagler.”
In his prime, nobody was better.
The Cleveland native was never nationally syndicated, but he certainly could have been. He didn’t go national simply because he preferred to write about local topics, stuff that wouldn’t necessarily translate well to folks who lived outside of Northeast Ohio.
Over the years, our paths crossed often, and I got to know him well. He is a good man, a kind, thoughtful man with a remarkable spirit.
I have been a guest on his PBS talk show, Feagler & Friends, probably 50 times, dating back to the days when it was staged at the old, decrepit WVIZ (Channel 25) studios on Brookpark Road, right next to an adult video store.
The show’s last hurrah was taped Monday night at the bright and shiny Idea Center at PlayhouseSquare. It will air Friday night at 8:30.
If you miss the finale, never fear: It will be given more replays than footage of the Hindenburg disaster. (Which, for the record, is not even close to the number of installments Channel 8 devoted to the retirement of Wilma Smith.)
Friday’s program brings down the curtain on a career that spanned 50 years, a run of excellence unparalleled in the history of Northeast Ohio journalism. Feagler has been the rarest of birds: a first-class writer who was also a first-class broadcaster.
As with most columnists, Feagler’s best work came when he was constantly pounding the pavement, always trolling for new information and insight. As he grew older — and couldn’t go anywhere in Northeast Ohio without being recognized, thanks to his TV exposure — he was less likely to wade into the thick of things, preferring to opine from a distance.
If the column lost half a step, it still was near the top of the heap, held aloft by his remarkable wit, writing style and institutional knowledge.
You could never pigeonhole the man. Just when you thought you had him figured out, he would surprise you.
An Army veteran, Feagler, now 75, was one of about three people in America who publicly opposed the Persian Gulf War even after the shooting began. Whenever he didn’t believe the stakes were high enough to justify sending his own son or daughter to a war, he figured nobody’s son or daughter should be sent to that war.
But if you think he was a flaming liberal, far from it. He much preferred the term “bum” to the term “homeless.” He had spent time talking with the street people of Cleveland, and he was convinced few of them were truly homeless.
Feagler put each topic under a microscope, analyzed what he saw and only then took a stand.
What a concept.
After establishing himself as a premier newspaperman at the late, great Cleveland Press, and shortly before his column had a decade-long run in the Beacon Journal, he branched out into TV. His best work in that medium involved short commentaries he delivered during newscasts at WEWS (Channel 5) and, later, at WKYC (Channel 3).
So much time has passed that many folks probably don’t remember just how good those commentaries were.
In 1991, when I interviewed him at his Gold Coast condo, which featured a fabulous view of the Cleveland skyline, he was about to fly to New York to collect the single most prestigious award in broadcasting: the Peabody. His den already contained the second-biggest honor, the DuPont.
Not bad for a self-proclaimed dumpy guy who pretended to know nothing about television. To hear him tell it, he was just an old-fashioned newspaper wretch struggling to get a handle on this newfangled medium.
When Channel 3 installed him as a co-anchor with Connie Dieken — hey, kids, can you say “unconventional”? — Feagler jokingly claimed he wasn’t qualified because he lacked “anchor hair.”
Methinks he protested too much, because he loved that medium, too, and his unique personality jumped through the screen.
By the time I started writing general-interest columns, I knew him pretty well. I was accustomed to writing 2,500-word feature stories, and the switch to column-writing required an adjustment. So one day I asked him for a few words of wisdom.
He told me a full-fledged idea can’t be fully examined in a column because there simply isn’t enough space; what you have to do is choose one narrow path and go down it.
In other words, he declared, his best columns came when he had “a half-assed idea.”
Not exactly the standard recipe for excellence in the workplace. But nothing was ever standard when it came to Feagler.
He has been a remarkable communicator, a man who respected his audience enough to rely on subtlety and humor to make his points. You might not have agreed with all of those points — what fun would that have been? — but you had to love the way he presented them.
Like all great performers, Richard Feagler is exiting, Stage Left, with his audience still wanting more.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.