The Kind of Profile That’s Something Extraordinary

By Jack Limpert

Sometimes events string together and give you a new way of looking at things.

On June 17 I wrote “Three Ways an Editor Looks at Profiles”—the main point being that writing a good profile is a lot harder than it looks, and I added a P.S.: “It’s amazing that most newspapers don’t see the potential in the ultimate profile, the obituary. What’s better to read in these jangly digital times than a good story about a life well-lived?”

On June 20, I put up a post, “The Years Before Howie: When Easy Money Began to Change Journalism,” that described how a great Washington reporter, Charley McDowell, discovered that getting  paid a little for appearing on TV talk shows could lead to lucrative speaking fees, making it easier to talk than to report and write. Charley was an example of a reporter who handled it well, in contrast to Howie Kurtz, once a great reporter who became more a television talker than reporter.

On June 25, Ernest B. “Pat” Furgurson,  a longtime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, wrote a post, “Mencken’s Ghost,” about going to work at the Sun on January 29, 1956, the day H.L. Mencken died, and how Mencken’s spirit still hovered over the Sun.

Pat then mentioned the Charley piece from June 17 and reminded me that he had given one of the eulogies at Charley’s memorial service in November 2010. Here is Pat’s eulogy.
Sixty-plus years ago, I was ready to go off to college, and one of the places I considered was Washington & Lee. Problem was, I had no money. I wrote to Lea Booth, who had played first base on the Danville Register & Bee softball team, of which my father was manager and I was batboy. By then Lea, whom we called Whacker, was handling sports publicity at Washington  & Lee, and I hoped he would have a part-time job for me. But he wrote back and said he was sorry, he had only one such job to offer, and it was filled.

I learned later that it was filled by Charley McDowell. That wasn’t surprising, as it turns out—in fact, the whole town of Lexington had been pretty much filled by Charley for years before that.  His father was a beloved professor and he was the campus mascot, everybody’s favorite kid, batboy of the baseball  team. He told the story about how they were playing an important game and somebody hit an apparent foul down the first-base line and Charley picked it up and tossed it aside. A great rhubarb ensued over interference with the game, over whether it was a foul or not.  The visiting manager was sputtering and waving his arms, and he pointed to Charley and said, “Is that kid your batboy or not?” And the W&L coach looked down and said, “I never saw the little sonovabitch before in my life.”

Because Charley already had the sports assistant job at Washington & Lee, I went elsewhere. A few years later I arrived at the Richmond News Leader, where we had to live with Jack Kilpatrick’s obsessive  harangues against Brown v. Board.  But there was compensation for that suffering; just across the hall, on the Times-Dispatch, there was Charley McDowell, already making life more fun for everyone around him, and all over Virginia.  He was great to have a beer with, and great to read.  That’s something too few people realize—most of America knows Charley as a wise and wonderful aw-shucks presence among the stuffed shirts on television. But first of all he was a marvelous newspaperman; he had such a light touch that in his column he could dance right down the political middle without upsetting the super-conservative owners of those Richmond papers. Yet, if you were as good a reader as he was a writer, you had no doubt where he was coming from.

One of his nicest pieces was about driving from Lexington to Washington the day Dick Nixon was about to resign.

“The Shenandoah Valley was rainy, peaceful and eternal,” he wrote. “The voice on the radio was unduly excited.”

After talking to a restaurant manager in Lexington, Charley headed east up the Blue Ridge.

“The fields looked shiny green and fog hid the tops of mountains….

“In a Texaco station, the radio was on a shelf above the little cans of gas and oil additives. A large man in blue coveralls and a wiry man in farmer’s clothes and a straw hat were sitting in the station talking. When the one o’clock news came on, they stopped talking and listened.

Ronald L. Ziegler said in a choked voice that the President would speak to the nation at 9 p.m. An announcer said the President had told Vice President Ford he would resign.

“When that was over, the wiry man sat silent for a moment and said:

“‘Cecil….Whatever happened to that little truck Albert Straub had?’”

“‘He traded it in on anothern.”

And so it went, across Afton Mountain, past Waynesboro and Charlottesville and down the Rockfish Valley past Gordonsville, conversations in a Gulf station and a Holiday Inn, a weekly newspaper office, a sandwich shop.  On a Richmond station, a sports announcer disclosed that he almost had a great interview with Billy Kilmer, but he forgot to push the button on his tape recorder. Every few miles there was another announcement that the president was resigning.

When Charley got to Washington, there was a huge traffic jam.  Still, he wrote,  “Everything looked oddly normal. There was some fog. The Washington Monument was partly hidden, but it was there and it seemed peaceful and eternal.”

He always left us feeling good—friends, readers. One of his favorite descriptions about anything a friend had done was “awesome.” And we all regret that, except in loving memory, we will never him say again, “Bless your heart.”
Pat’s warm and affectionate words about Charley shows how the eulogy can be a wonderful kind of profile writing, something that captures the most important qualities of someone’s life.

I’ve given two eulogies in recent years, each at about 700 words, and I worked many, many times harder on those 700 words than on anything else I’ve ever written. What I  tried to do in both eulogies—as Pat did with Charley—was to not go on at length about how great the person was but to tell stories, showing how the person lived. The best eulogies always are about a life well-lived, bringing some smiles and laughter to go with all the tears.

If there’s a eulogy about a journalist that moved you, let me know at [email protected] and I’ll try to post it as an example of an extraordinary profile any writer can learn from.

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