The tiger is dead, and I can now get off. It has been a hellish ride for 34 years – just as the late Paul Jagnow, my mentor and one of the best editors in the history of The Vindicator, said it would be.
The year was 1983 and the newspaper’s owners, Betty Brown (later Jagnow) and her son, Mark, had named me to replace the dean of political reporters in the state, the late Clingan Jackson, who had been on staff for a half-century.
The fact that Betty and Mark took a chance on an immigrant who had come to the Mahoning Valley to work for their paper demonstrated their commitment to quality journalism. They proved that they do have ink coursing through their veins.
“Do you want to write a Sunday column?” Jagnow growled, as he was inclined to do more often than not.
“Of course,” I replied.
“What do you want to write about?” he demanded.
“Public corruption, the Mafia, influence peddling by the rich and famous, the incompetence of government officials, waste of taxpayer dollars. You know, all the touchy-feely stuff.”
He smiled, which he rarely did when dealing with his reporters, and offered this insight that has been etched in my memory:
“Writing a hard-hitting column is like riding a tiger. Once you get on, you can’t get off.”
Jagnow then issued my marching orders:
“Go and kick some ass.”
And I did, Sunday after Sunday, with the blessings – and support – of the owners of The Vindicator, Betty, the publisher, and Mark, the general manager.
More than 1,500 columns have appeared either on the Editorial or Op-Ed pages. There also were numerous analyses on the front page memorializing events of political significance.
But now, with The Vindicator’s 150-year reign as the news leader in the Mahoning Valley coming to an end with the final edition on Aug. 31, today’s column is the exclamation point to that wild ride on the tiger.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve flipped through the card files in our library, which list each Sunday’s column with the headline, a brief summary of the subject matter, and the page number on which it appears.
I have also looked through folders containing Vindicator clips of the columns and have dug into the computer archives.
Man, have I been angry for a long time.
There aren’t any “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow,” “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” columns. There aren’t any “Kumbaya My Lord,” “We Are The World,” “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Walking On Sunshine” narratives. And there certainly aren’t any columns that would lead to Mr. Popularity awards.
What the past three-plus decades have provided are a window into the dark side of political life in the Mahoning Valley. Writing about corrupt officeholders and other public officials took very little effort. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Consider these headlines:
Traficant: America’s con man
Hall of Shame gets new inductee
Who killed mobster Joey Naples?
Did GM want the Cruze to fail?
GM rubs salt in Valley’s wounds
Bozo the clown & his pals
Clash of the con artists
GM workers were warned
It isn’t bribery; it’s love
Another black eye for the Valley
Go forth and break the law
Unsolved mystery: Oakhill scandal
Cafaro on FBI radar
Dems’ walk of shame
Smarmy apologist for Tony
Here’s a laugh: Jimbo for president
Mrs. T’s rewriting of history is pathetic
Region’s crooks have no shame
To be sure, there were columns about economic development efforts and an occasional ode to an honest politician.
But, by and large, this space was dedicated to the proposition that the Mahoning Valley had buried its corrupt head in the sand for too long.
But such angry columns also lent themselves to gallows humor.
The one that still makes me chuckle had some friendly advice to the legions of corrupt public officials looking to convince the world of their innocence.
I suggested the scofflaws use the “MEATBALL” defense.
Here’s the backstory. In January 1984, then Mahoning County Treasurer Michael Pope, a veteran of area politics, and other elected officials dismissed as a “joke” the widely held belief that they were tied to The Godfather of the Mafia in the Valley, Vincenzo “Jimmy” Prato.
The belief stemmed from the fact that Pope and the others were captured on FBI audio and video surveillance equipment that had been hidden in the drop ceiling of the Calla-Mar Manor Restaurant in North Lima, owned by Prato.
Not surprisingly, there were denials galore from the officeholders about a relationship with Prato.
But Pope took it a step further with his explanation for his presence at the Calla-Mar and thus earned a prominent spot on the Mahoning Valley’s Hall of Shame.
Pope said the Calla-Mar served great food and then added:
“They have the best spaghetti and meatballs.”
Thus was born the “MEATBALL” defense.
The column – and numerous others which focused on the Mafia – prompted leaders of the Italian-American community in the Valley to request a meeting with me, which took place in the hall of St. Anthony Church in Brier Hill on Youngstown’s North Side. Presiding over the friendly, but intense, get-together was Monsignor John DeMarinis, who was blunt and to the point: We resent your anti-Italian screeds.
The meeting ended amicably, but no promises were made.
It is noteworthy that Father DeMarinis officiated at the burial mass of Mafia boss Joseph “Little Joey” Naples in St. Anthony Church. Naples lived on the North Side.
I attended and sat toward the back of the church. In the front pews were several men out of central casting: Dark suits, white shirts, black ties – and pinkie rings.
In his homily, Father DeMarinis talked about Naples, the great family man, the humanitarian, the supporter of the church.
It almost brought tears to this hard-hearted journalist’s eyes.
But the one column that generated the most criticism, even from long-time supporters, appeared on Page One of the Sept. 28, 2014, edition of The Vindicator. It carried the headline: “Traficant blew chance to emulate ‘Iron Mike’. This was the lead:
“James A. Traficant Jr.’s political dream was to follow in Michael J. Kirwan’s footsteps — in the Mahoning Valley, in Washington and in the nation. Unfortunately, Traficant was never able to walk the straight-and-narrow the way Kirwan had done in his 33 years as this region’s congressman.”
The column was published the day after Traficant died in an accident on his farm.
One Traficant supporter called and left a brief message: “May you rot in hell.”
Another asked, “Why are you such an angry little man?”