The Subject of a Lifetime

Gene Amole savors the opportunity to document his own demise.

Gene Amole should have known that old pals would be coming out of the woodwork about now. After all, the veteran Rocky Mountain News columnist made the announcement that he's dying in a rather public way -- on the front page of the October 26 News, which reaches over 600,000 readers. But while he'd like to entertain each and every one of the friends he's made during his 78 years, this great gabber -- he's among the finest raconteurs Denver's ever produced -- no longer has the stamina. "It's too exhausting," he says.

Still, Amole has been energized by his latest, and last, assignment -- to write a diary about his personal deterioration.

Doing so hasn't been easy. John Temple, the News's editor, publisher and president, has received multiple offers from community members willing and eager to take dictation for their favorite scribe. But Amole, whose first column for the News ran in December 1977, has never been able to work that way. For him, touching a keyboard is an integral part of the process. Unfortunately, his hands tremble so severely that typing is impossible unless he takes a powerful drug, Propranolol, approximately 45 minutes before sitting down at his computer. And because the folks at the Hospice of Metro Denver who are overseeing his care also have him on morphine, getting the words out is often a struggle. "I used to be a very fast writer; anyone who ever worked around me in the newsroom will tell you that. But I'm not anymore," he concedes. "I have to hunt and peck sometimes -- and I don't know what I'd do without spellcheck."

Even so, Amole is writing at a feverish pace, remaining at least a week ahead of commitments that he'd been missing before his statement. And he shows no sign of letting up. "I've got an awful lot to say," he explains, "and I don't know how much time I've got left to say it."

His peers are in a rush, too, with the Denver Post's Woody Paige and Chuck Green hurrying salutes to Amole into print while the object of their admiration can still enjoy them. In his entry, Green admitted that he'd penned a previous homage when he thought Amole was dying several years ago -- hardly the first time he's repeated himself. Paige, meanwhile, argued that Amole "will outlive us all," which is highly unlikely; hospices don't accept patients unless they've been diagnosed with less than six months to live.

The best tribute, however, came from Channel 6's Don Kinney, who devoted half the November 2 edition of his weekly public-affairs program, The State of Colorado, to a wonderful Amole retrospective. In addition to highlighting Amole's tenure at the News, Kinney's footage showed Amole at the microphone at KVOD-FM, the classical-music station he and partner Ed Koepke owned from 1957 to 1983, and as a television personality whose 1952 debut took place the first week that commercial TV was available in Denver. Amole anchored broadcasts at channels 2 and 7, and he produced, wrote and narrated shows for most of the other area outlets as well, winning a Peabody Award for one of his offerings, Panorama.

In addition, Amole worked as a TV reporter and in 1955 landed what should have been the biggest scoop of his life: With the help of cameraman Morey Engle, he managed to get an exclusive jailhouse interview with John Gilbert Graham, a Colorado man who was the first person to blow up an American passenger plane, killing all 44 people aboard, including his mother. Although Graham purchased a quickie insurance policy for his mother before the flight, which led authorities to believe that money spurred the crime, the murderer told Amole and Engle that he was actually motivated by hatred for his mother, who'd placed him in an orphanage after his father's death. But because of pressure from United Airlines and the FBI, which Amole says "wanted to gas Graham real quick so no one else would get any ideas," the film wasn't aired until decades after the killer's 1956 execution, on a Channel 6 special called Murder in Midair. Representatives of the NBC newsmagazine Dateline subsequently purchased the film, but have never broadcast its most startling revelations -- an oversight Amole finds incomprehensible.

Nonetheless, Amole has more important things to worry about than the odd decisions of bigtime news executives. That's why he's prioritizing, setting aside most of his relatively few good hours a day for writing and family -- his wife, Trish, and adult children Tustin, Jonathan, Susan and Brett, a freelance photographer whose work frequently appears in Westword -- and he's trying to keep other commitments to an absolute minimum. Visits are especially taxing: On a recent morning, he notes, "my lawyer and my financial gal came over, and it took everything out of me." That's why he insists on chatting with print reporters over the phone and why he's turned down pleas from every television station in town to quiz him at his Marston Slopes home; other reasons include "I didn't want to see those trucks pull up here" and "I don't want to be on TV anymore."

But phone calls present problems of their own; as he acknowledged in a November 5 column, his arm has grown too weak to hold the receiver. Thank goodness, then, for the invention of the speakerphone and for the relative strength of his voice, which, though raspy, seems in better shape than the rest of him. Among the body parts failing fastest are his heart, his lungs and his kidneys, plus his hands and feet, which are afflicted by peripheral neuropathy, a condition most commonly associated with diabetics and AIDS patients. Amole thinks the malady can be traced to his days as a soldier fighting in World War II, especially a severe case of frostbite that struck him around the time of the Battle of the Bulge.

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