Tom Dowling RIP: A Wonderful Writer Who Surprised Readers and Was Fun to be Around

The Washington Post ran a short obit today on Tom Dowling, one of the best writers ever published in The Washingtonian:

Thomas Dowling, 85, a columnist for the old Washington Star newspaper who also wrote for Washingtonian magazine and was author of a book on Vince Lombardi’s year of coaching the NFL team then known as the Washington Redskins, died May 13 at his home in Washington.

Mr. Dowling, a Cleveland native, was a Foreign Service officer and director of Pakistani services at Voice of America early in his career. In 1970 he wrote “Coach: A Season with Lombardi,” about Washington’s 1969 season.

He was a Star columnist — writing about sports and national affairs, among other issues — until the newspaper folded in 1981. He later was book editor for the San Francisco Examiner and lived on an ice breaker boat in the San Francisco Bay while also keeping his home in Washington.

Tom’s first piece for The Washingtonian, in August 1969, was a cover story headlined “The Legend of St. Vincent.” It opened with:

“Vince Lombardi is an Old Testament believer in sin and virtue, the unforgivability of failure and the exaltation of success. It is a harsh code, which recognizes no middle ground.

“Accordingly, Lombardi himself has been pictured largely in sinister blacks and new improved whiter than whites, as a sadist or a molder of men, as a fanatic or a superman.

“Among those with a rosier view of Lombardi is the management of the Washington Redskins….”

An Editor’s Note that month said, “Tom Dowling saw what a coach can do for a city when he visited Green Bay, Wisconsin, to gather material for this months’ profile of Vince Lombardi. Dowling grew up in another Midwest community where football was king–West Lafayette, Indiana, home of the Purdue Boilermakers. As a boy he saw coaches hung in effigy after Purdue victories over unbeaten Notre Dame and Michigan State. Dowling has done public affairs writing for the Office of Economic Opportunity for the past year. Before that he was a foreign service officers for USIA, serving in Pakistan and Iran.”

In September 1970, Tom did another story about Lombardi’s first year with the Redskins. The story intro said, “Lombardi brought with him a reputation as the biggest winner and the poorest loser in sports. His credo was excellence. He pushed himself and his players to the limit. “Goddammit, don’t quit on me,” echoed across the Redskins practice field. He often said, Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

The story added, “Tom spent all of last season with Lombardi and the Redskins and his book, ‘Coach: A Season With Lombardi,’ will be published this fall.”

An editor’s note that month said, “When Tom Dowling wrote a profile of new Redskin coach Vince Lombardi in our August 1969 issue, he has no idea that Lombardi and the Redskins would dominate the next year of his life. But the article led to a book contract to cover the entire football season, and Dowling took a leave from his job as a public affairs officer at the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity to spend seven days a week with the Redskins. His book, “Coach: A Season With the Redskins,” will be published this month.

In the March 1970 Washingtonian, Tom wrote another cover story, “The Uncensored Ted Williams,” about the new manager of the Washington Senators baseball team. The story’s deck:

How do you like managing, Ted? “Well, a lot of it’s fun, A lot of it’s horseshit. When it gets to be more than fifty percent horseshit, I’ll quit.”

One Williams quote in the story led to considerable reader feedback:

“Listen, when I got down to spring training I told Sid Hudson to mark down the pitchers with the breaking stuff. He marked two, Bertina and Pascual. Two out of 22! Christ, that’s a disgrace. The slider is the most important pitch in baseball. You look at the guys who won for us; they did it by learning the breaking stuff. In this sport, when in doubt throw a slider. Listen, I hate to give you guys too much fucking dope. The whole league will know what we’re doing.

“Williams looked at the tape recorder and cleared his throat. “Let me say that no one has been more enthusiastic than the ninehundredthousandfuckingfans,” he beamed. “Keep that on your fucking tape if you can, buddy.”

That quote got a lot of reader feedback:

A day after that March issue hit the newsstands and the homes of subscribers, the phone calls started, mostly from fathers of kids playing Little League ball. You can imagine the scene as the kid picks up the magazine to read about the greatest baseball hitter of all time and then asks Dad, “What does ninehundredthousandfuckingfans mean?

The phone calls to the editor were followed by calls and letters canceling subscriptions.

The Washingtonian then decided that in the future the word would be spelled “f—ing” and we weren’t going to be casual about using it.

Tom, you were one of the best. Very few have done magazine writing any better and you were a lot of fun to be around.


  1. Raymon D. Fullerton III says

    I just now became aware that Tom Dowling died in May. My one-time encounter with Tom was hilarious as well as momentarily dark. He was a much-read sports section columnist for the Star, then moved to Page 1/above the fold. In 1981 I was national tour coordinator and public relations manager for the U.S. Coast Guard Band, working out of the then-USCG Headquarters building at Buzzard Point. In a column Tom expressed a measure of sympathy for “federal lawyers” who had been “exiled” to Buzzard Point. I called him and invited him for lunch in our building’s cafeteria. He accepted and after the meal we stood shoulder-to-shoulder by a window, facing roughly Northwest.
    “What is that,” asked Tom. “Oh, that is the Al Haig Missile Silo Complex,” I answered, referring to the abandoned PepCo power plant.
    “And that over there?”
    “Yeah, that would be the Spiro T. Agnew Reflecting Pond.”
    “How about this large hill?”
    “You are looking at the Richard M. Nixon Slag Heap.”
    Tom was steadily taking notes. The following Sunday, there I was, page 1, Washington Star, smack dab in the middle of Tom’s column. A day or two earlier my wife and I had left to enjoy a Bluegrass festival near the south end of the Shenandoah. My boss called and ordered me to return to Buzzard Point immediately.
    Seems that the “Second Floor” — that would be flag and senior officers — did not apparently share my offbeat sense of humor. For my insubordinate offense I was threatened with a transfer to Kodiak. I negotiated an option, a return to Governors Island in Upper New York Bay, then under Coast Guard administration. My brief time, about two hours, with Tom Dowling was pure joy.

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