Remembering Charley McDowell: “The Washington Monument was partly hidden, but it was there and it seemed peaceful and eternal.”

Charley McDowell, a great reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was a much-admired writer and panelist on the PBS  television show “Washington Week in Review.” Charley died 10 years ago—here’s the eulogy offered at his November 2010 memorial service by longtime Baltimore Sun writer Ernest “Pat” Furgurson:

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 President Nixon had told Vice President Ford he would resign.

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.”

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