Last Writes

Some newspaper columnists speak volumes even after they're gone.

They speak from the bookshelves.

"What's going on?" murmurs Greg Lopez, the Rocky Mountain News columnist killed in a hit-and-run six years ago, when he was just 35. Some of his best columns -- and there are many -- are collected in a volume whose name echoes Lopez's trademark greeting, a salutation that always made you scramble to think of something, anything, going on in your life that was worthy of his attention, his marvelous eye. And still he'd ask, "What's going on?"

The Crow Flies Crooked, the deliciously wicked novel by Jack Kisling, the late Denver Post columnist, is a rare bird -- like its author. Because the book is so difficult to find, my copy is an unwieldy Xeroxed version. Every time I see that big notebook, I remember its author's eyes twinkling in defiance of all cliches, feel again the anticipation as a flock of friends waited for Kisling to spit out the perfect capper to a conversation.

Alan Dumas, who contributed a story to Westword's very first issue in 1977 and continued to write for this paper through stints as a morning DJ and late-night talk-show host before he, too, landed at the News, didn't live long enough to see a book of his own published. He died suddenly -- heart problems: His was clearly too big, too generous -- just three days before the shootings at Columbine in April 1999. In that overhanging, overwhelming miasma of sadness, the loss of Dumas remains a discrete, piercing pain. But his voice carries on in the books he loved: well-thumbed James Bonds (including an original Octopussy), Charlton Heston's autobiography, a copy of The Shipping News, Annie Proulx's prize-winner. A few days before his death, Dumas drove up to interview Proulx at her Wyoming home; he never finished the piece (a colleague completed it for him). But in The Shipping News -- a novel ostensibly about a small community newspaper of the same name, but really about so much more -- Proulx does her own fine job of showing what keeps newspaper writers so interested and what makes them (some of them, at least) so interesting.

They listen, and then give us voice.

Gene Amole was interested in everything. He wrote about growing up in Denver, growing old in Denver. On my shelves are all three of his books, compilations of News columns. After Amole passed away Sunday, the paper announced that it will publish a fourth volume, The Last Chapter: "A Diary of Dying." It, too, will be a compilation of columns, all written since Amole revealed in October that he was suffering from "multi-systems failure" that would inevitably prove fatal. (Amole was so amazingly prolific in those last months that wags have suggested the final volume might better be called Tuesdays...and Wednesdays and Thursdays and Fridays and Saturdays with Morey.) And next to those books is an inadvertent Amole legacy: a collection of Thomas Hornsby Ferril poems that Amole donated to a charity auction, where I snapped it up.

Long before Amole started writing about his hometown, Ferril captured the city on paper. Amole profiled Colorado's poet laureate, a newspaper contributor himself, in an award-winning TV documentary; he and Ferril became friends, members of a mutual admiration society. And every Good Friday, Amole offered a live broadcast of Ferril's "The Prairie Melts" on KVOD, the classical-music station he'd founded in 1959, where so many of us first experienced his voice.

As Amole -- and Ferril's poem -- began:

The prairie melts into the throats of larks. And green like water green begins to flow into the pinto patches of the snow.

Amole and Dumas sit near each other on my shelves. They worked together, of course, but long before that, they were linked by a stunt Dumas pulled on his Westwordeditors that also snagged the unsuspecting Amole. In 1979, Dumas told us that a local priest, one James Sullivan, was leading a crusade to canonize the recently deceased John Wayne, who had converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed. Sounds like a good story, we said, and Dumas promptly wrote it. Amole, who had started testing his voice in a new medium just two years before -- his column debuted in the Rocky Mountain News about a month after this paper was born -- read Dumas's piece and agreed that the John Wayne for Saint campaign was a good story, so he wrote a column about it. And Time magazine, reading Amole's column, thought it was such a good story that a Time reporter called us to get Sullivan's number. That's when we discovered that Dumas's story was one large piece of wishful thinking.

Walking past that particular bookshelf, I, too, engage in some wishful thinking. I imagine Amole giving his younger colleague, another radio man, a stern talking-to about never deceiving your readers. They deserve better; they deserve your best. (Amole also may have a few words for the Denver Post writer who got the cause of his death wrong. It was not cancer, as the Post erroneously reported in Monday's cover squib -- an apparent compromise between the forces that wanted to cover Amole's passing on the front page and those who thought it belonged in the Metro section since, after all, Amole had written for the other paper. Then again, the Post had the mysterious loss of its own columnist, Chuck Green, to deal with. For more on that, see Michael Roberts's The Message.)

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