Ron Shaffer: “He wrote gritty investigative stories for the Washington Post before launching a popular column under the name Dr. Gridlock”

From a Washington Post obit by Matt Schudel headlined “Ron Shaffer, Washington Post journalist who founded ‘Dr. Gridlock’ column, dies at 76”:

Ron Shaffer, a Washington Post journalist who wrote gritty investigative stories before launching a popular and sometimes cheeky column about commuting under the name of “Dr. Gridlock,” died Nov. 11 at his home in Centreville, Va….

Mr. Shaffer joined The Post in 1971, after serving in Vietnam with the Navy….

Tall and rugged-looking, he took on many hard-hitting assignments in the 1970s, including on-the-street reporting about drug dealing, murders and scandal. In 1977, he and a Post colleague, Kevin Klose, published a book, “Surprise! Surprise!,” about how federal agents shut down a ring of D.C. crooks dealing in stolen goods….

In 1978, Mr. Shaffer examined efforts of the Church of Scientology to destroy the reputation of anyone its leaders considered a critic of the organization, including judges, politicians and journalists. The church retaliated against Mr. Shaffer by issuing a subpoena for his documents, which was quashed in court.

In 1979, Mr. Shaffer and Lewis M. Simons wrote an investigative series about P.I. Properties, a spinoff from Pride Inc., an urban empowerment organization founded in the 1960s by several people, including future D.C. mayor Marion Barry.

P.I. Properties was intended to provide low-income housing for D.C. residents. But in their year-long investigation, Mr. Shaffer and Simons discovered that P.I.’s top officials, including Barry’s former wife, Mary Treadwell, her sister, Joan M. Booth, and a manager named Robert E. Lee Jr., used the organization to defraud tenants and the federal government of at least $600,000.

The reporters — whose lives were threatened after the articles were published — found that two sets of financial records were kept and that, over a four-year period, Treadwell, Booth and Lee stole directly from P.I. Properties’ funds or used fake loans, false invoices and as many as 250 bank accounts to conceal their theft. All three were convicted, and Booth and Treadwell went to prison.

The Post series was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in local investigative specialized reporting.

After working as an editor, Mr. Shaffer developed the idea of devoting a weekly column to a subject that affected almost everyone in the Washington area: the problem of getting from one place to another, whether by car, bus or train. He wanted to respond to readers’ complaints, he said, as if he were “the Ann Landers of traffic.”

Dr. Gridlock made his debut on Sept. 5, 1986, with the goal of exploring “what makes it difficult to get around on roads, from misleading signs to chronic bottlenecks. We’ll try to find out why bad situations exist and what is being done about them.”

For the first few years, the column was written without a byline, as if Dr. Gridlock were an irreverent psychologist analyzing aberrant roadside behavior. In his first column, he provoked readers with a broadside about bicyclists, who “dart in and out of traffic” and “run red lights” and “dare you to hit them.”

As Dr. Gridlock, Mr. Shaffer asked readers if they had “ever seen a bicyclist pulled over by police? Has anyone ever seen a bicyclist ticketed? Perhaps police ought to look a little more closely at two-wheeled behavior.”…

With that, Mr. Shaffer was off, producing a column that drew as many as 400 letters a week and was consistently one of the most popular features in the newspaper. The Dr. Gridlock column became a forum for readers venting their frustration over confusing and congested highways, endless road repairs and rude behavior by drivers and Metro passengers.

Mr. Shaffer often included quizzes for readers, asking them to decipher the meaning of vanity license plates seen around town. He chided local government officials and highway engineers for not taking steps to improve life for commuters.

“Interstate highways in California generally have clearly marked lanes, good surfaces and are well signed,” he wrote. “Drivers are told the names of the next three exits and the number of miles to them.

“As you are painfully aware, things are not like that around here.”

He suggested that offices adopt a four-day workweek or run a split schedule, with one shift beginning at 6 a.m. and a second shift starting at 2 p.m.

“If we’re going to get out of ever-mounting gridlock,” he wrote in 2006, “we’ve got to do more work from home or at least from regional office centers. We are reaching the point where telework is becoming a necessity lest our transportation system collapse.”

Mr. Shaffer retired in 2006….

Ronald Russell Shaffer was born Feb. 27, 1945, in San Bernardino, Calif., and grew up in Riverside, Calif. He studied journalism at the University of Southern California and worked at a newspaper in Riverside before entering the Navy. From 1968 to 1971, he was based in Vietnam, where he worked for the Stars and Stripes military newspaper. He joined The Post soon after his discharge.

He adopted an orphaned boy he met in Vietnam, Peter Sang Shaffer, who died several years ago. Mr. Shaffer’s survivors include his wife of 44 years, the former Vi Barnes….

In his final column, on June 25, 2006, Mr. Shaffer noted some of the changes he helped bring about as Dr. Gridlock, including improved signage on the Beltway and the renaming of one of two local roadways called the George Washington Memorial Parkway as the Clara Barton Parkway.

He also sought to persuade the Metropolitan Washington Airports to have Smartcarte baggage carriers at Dulles Airport. After many meetings — and countless complaints from airline passengers — the luggage carts were finally installed.

“Given the number of people helped,” Mr. Shaffer wrote, “it was probably the greatest accomplishment of my life.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida.

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