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Post Mortem

The Dogfather in happier times.
Susan Goldstein

On May 12, two days after his departure from the Denver Post, longtime columnist Chuck Green told KHOW talk-show host Peter Boyles he hadn't resigned from the paper, as the Post had reported, and insisted that after 34 years of faithful service, he'd been sent packing without even receiving "cab fare" ("Three the Hard Way," May 16).

Today Green is presumably whistling a different tune -- but he's letting his lawyer do the whistling in public. Attorney Dan Caplis confirms that he was retained by Green after the columnist left his place of employment and notes, "Chuck has reached a settlement with the Post. He and Susan [Green, his wife] are looking forward to a new life."

This agreement quashes rumors that Green was planning to sue the Post -- a courtroom spectacle many journalism scenesters would have gladly paid to witness -- even as it imposes silence about the details (and dollar amounts) upon both sides. Public reaction to Green's disappearance has been nearly as quiet: No major Colorado media figure in recent memory has gone away with less fanfare.

From the beginning, the Post downplayed the turn of events, placing "Columnist Green Resigns From the Post," a May 12 article by staff writer Dave Curtin, in the Denver and the West section rather than on page one. Moreover, the piece's tone felt tentative, as if everyone involved was unsure how candid to be. Curtin claimed that Green "took pride in being both loved and reviled by his readers" and pointed out that Chuck's columns generated "tens of thousands of e-mails and letters over his career" -- a phrase that emphasized his popularity without touching on the dodgy issue of quality. A few paragraphs later, outgoing editor Glenn Guzzo took the same tack. "Our surveys always showed Chuck as the best-read columnist in Colorado," he said, echoing statements made on numerous occasions by Post owner Dean Singleton. Guzzo added, "He'll leave behind a loyal following, and we'll miss him very much."

Since then, little evidence has appeared to support these assertions. In a previous Westword profile ("The Dogfather Speaks," July 6, 2000), Green acknowledged that he wouldn't win a popularity contest at the Post. "I don't give a shit about what my colleagues think," he said then. "Most of my colleagues despise me. I'm probably the most unpopular person in my own newsroom." He may have been right: According to several Post sources, at least a handful of his peers greeted word of his exit with cheers and applause.

From an institutional standpoint, the Post may have subscribed to the adage about not saying anything if you don't have anything nice to say. The paper paid repeated tribute to Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole, who perished on the very day Curtin's Green retrospective appeared, offering up a front-page photograph, a lengthy obituary, an unsigned editorial and a praise-filled column by veteran scribe Peter Chronis. But honors of this sort have been withheld from Green, who all but nominated himself as the new dean of Denver columnists during a KHOW appearance last year after Amole announced he was dying.

The contrast between the Post's treatment of Amole and Green has been just as sharp when it comes to letters to the editor. Three heartfelt notes prompted by Amole's death appeared in the Post on May 16, just three days after his passing became widely known, but no correspondence about Green saw print until May 26, and the missives published were few in number -- just two relatively brief mash notes. Post editorial-page editor Sue O'Brien said last week that reader response as a whole was weak: "We've received very few letters. There were six to eight, all told. And most of them were one-line nasty-grams that were absent a phone number or address, which is one of our requirements. I've been stunned at how few of them we've gotten."

There might have been considerably more had the column Green wrote for the May 10 Post been published. Instead, it was spiked for reasons incoming Post editor Greg Moore spelled out earlier this month. "Quite frankly, there were some inaccuracies, and some facts that were not in the column," he said. "It just didn't hold together."

Based on a copy of the column obtained and authenticated by Westword, Moore was putting it mildly.

The inspiration for the column was a May 8 "senior farewell assembly" in the gymnasium at Highlands Ranch High School. Toward the end of the event, a student identified as Bryan Lupton, age eighteen, reportedly tossed one of two rabbits he'd captured previously that day onto the gym floor, breaking two of the creature's legs in the process; it had to be euthanized. Lupton was subsequently suspended for the remainder of the school year, banned from the school's May 23 graduation ceremony, booted off the baseball team and charged with cruelty to animals. He has a June 19 court date.

 

This story was a natural for Green, who's written frequently, even obsessively, about pets like Gus, a keeshond whose losing battle with cancer was chronicled for more than a year, as well as furry or feathered beasts suffering at the hands of humans. As part of researching this particular tale, Green called Bruce Caughey, communications director for the Douglas County School District, who authored a press release about the rabbit-throwing incident. Caughey says he wasn't in the office the first time Green phoned, "and when my secretary asked him what he wanted, when he wanted it, and when I could get back to him, he apparently felt she was putting up a shield for me. His response to her was, 'Haven't you people learned anything from Columbine?'"

Understandably, Caughey sees this leap of logic as patently ridiculous. But Green made it repeatedly in his column, a hyperbolic, often senseless screed that seemed to equate the sad fate of one rabbit with the mass slayings at Columbine. Green wrote:

"Apparently the Douglas County School District has learned nothing from Jefferson County Public Schools. When a dozen kids and a teacher were murdered in the rampage at Columbine High School three years ago, the Jefferson County school district clamped a lid on information about the killings, lifting it only slightly and carefully to let out information that didn't incriminate the school's administration. Even now, more than three years later, the school district is withholding information about what happened on that horrible day. Three years ago in Jefferson County, kids died. This week in Douglas County, a rabbit died. Kids then, rabbits now... it makes no difference. The bureaucracy's reaction is unchanged... keep a lid on it."

As it turns out, more information than usual was available about the Highlands Ranch High matter: Lupton spoke openly and apologetically about his wrongheaded prank for separate articles by Post reporter J. Sebastian Sinisi and News staffer Robert Sanchez, who also interviewed the student's mother. But Green concentrated on Caughey, who had to go to others in order to get the answers the columnist wanted. Green was clearly impatient: He griped in his unpublished column that Caughey "finally" faxed him a certain piece of information, when Caughey says the elapsed time between the request and its fulfillment was approximately fifteen minutes. More problematically, he seems to have felt that Caughey denied a rabbit had been thrown at all even though the student's act was never in dispute.

As a result, the chunk of the column devoted to proving this already acknowledged detail was wholly unnecessary other than as a way for Green to imply that the school's principal, Lisle Gates, was involved in some kind of elaborate coverup: "Citizens of Douglas County should be aware that most of what they will learn of this sordid event will come from investigators and witnesses, through the media. The truth won't come from the principal of the school, the one person they should trust the most."

The column came too close to publication for comfort. Caughey received a call at home around 9:30 p.m. on May 9 from Post city editor Evan Dreyer, who at that late hour was still trying to reconcile Green's prose with other reports. In answering Dreyer's questions, Caughey didn't skimp on criticism of Green. "I deal with reporters every day," says Caughey, who's worked in his present capacity for eleven years, "and this was so outside the bounds of normalcy. It was absurd, the way it went."

After reading the version of Green's column acquired by Westword, Caughey expresses both relief that the piece never ran and praise for others at the Post. "I want to thank Evan Dreyer for tracking me down at home and clarifying my comments. He had great follow-through on this one. And I'd like to say that Joe Sinisi portrayed the story accurately and did everything a good reporter should." He adds, "The Post made the right decision in pulling the column, because the entire premise is outrageous -- and it brings to mind a rhetorical question. Chuck Green accused the schools of keeping a tight lid on information, but I've been looking carefully for any information about his quote-unquote resignation, and very little has been forthcoming."

So is Green the one guilty of keeping a tight lid on things? "It certainly appears that way to me," Caughey replies.

Now it can be told: Granted, Westword hasn't been entirely up front about another infamous Chuck Green-related subject: the disappearance of Green's sketched portrait from the wall of fame at the Denver Press Club. With Green gone from the Post, however, it's time to come clean -- and the simple truth is that certain staffers from this publication are far from innocent.

 

But you knew that already, right?

The distasteful affair began in late 2000, when a number of Westworders gathered at the Press Club for a holiday-inspired get-together. Following the consumption of numerous beverages that should be kept away from children, attendees came up with the idea of snatching the drawing of Green, with staff writer Stuart Steers eventually doing the deed. (By the way, I swear on the sainted memory of Edward R. Murrow that I was not at this gathering and had no role in the plot. But I confess that I failed to tell the proper authorities what I learned later about the dastardly act, for which I feel a deep and abiding shame -- sort of.)

The portrait wound up on a Westword wall, where it was seen a few weeks later by a visitor, Rocky Mountain News gossip columnist Penny Parker. With their cover blown, the perpetrators of the Chuck-napping decided to get some mileage out of it and sent Parker a ransom note under the name Hack Liberation Front. The list of demands for the portrait's safe return included "Mr. Green will not be allowed to incur further brain damage among his readers via increasingly toxic and sentimental odes to his dead pets and decrepit colleagues" and "Upon penalty of knucklectomy, Mr. Green will no longer pollute the civic dialogue with exploitive, mush-minded musings on the death of one JonBenét Ramsey."

Parker chronicled this highly charged situation in her January 23, 2001, column and followed up the next day with an offer from then-Press Club president Don Knox. Even though he guessed, with disturbing prescience, that the guilty parties hailed from "an alternative newsweekly that is not The Onion," Knox promised to provide the wannabe felons with a marinated-pork dinner in exchange for the portrait. But since this proposition fell far short of the previously published ultimatums, the Steers Mob ignored it and decided to wait for the powers that were to cave in. Evidently, the folks at the Press Club didn't much miss the vintage drawing -- which pictures Green with a Bobby Goldsboro hairdo and the biggest sideburns this side of President Chester A. Arthur --because the negotiations ended right there.

During the next twelve months or so, the Green "artwork" was never defaced, although photocopies of it were the target of some fiddling. (Self-control only goes so far.) Still, chronicling precisely what happened to the portrait itself over this span would be as difficult as discovering everything that took place during the lost years of Jesus Christ. Suffice it to say that earlier in 2002, the portrait was wrapped up and handed over to the News's Parker, who then delivered it to the desk of Rocky reporter Lynn Bartels.

Upon discovering the contents of the package, Bartels, a hard-bitten journalist if ever there was one, unleashed a scream worthy of Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. But after pulling herself together, she realized what a valuable commodity she had on her hands -- and for the second time, the rendering of Green became the subject of a hostage drama.

In a March 28 e-mail addressed to aforementioned Post city editor Evan Dreyer that later circulated throughout the Post's internal communications system, Bartels wrote of her horror upon discovering "the purloined Press Club picture of one Chuck Green, aka The Dogfather, Gus's Dad, Upchuck, ChuckBenét, Chuckie Wuckie, Dinky's Deep Throat or, as we fondly think of him here at the Rocky, El Correcto." She then listed fourteen requirements that had to be met before she would turn over the portrait, among them "The italics key from Chuck's keyboard," "A halt to any Ranger column with a Wyoming dateline" and "One box of lime green Jell-O" -- a U-Haul trailer's worth of which had been delivered to the Post a month earlier by a Salt Lake City radio station offended by an anti-Utah column from the pen of sports columnist Woody Paige ("Woody Goes Limp," February 21).

Bartels threatened serious consequences: "If our demands are not met by the time we have to share the same sewage system, the picture is dead, dead, dead, dead, dead." But she proved willing to bargain, pledging to turn over the portrait if she and fellow Rocky journalist Peggy Lowe were treated to a lunch, on Dreyer's expense account, at Morton's, the Palm or, in a worst-case scenario, Chick-fil-A -- "but we get to order fries."

Remarkably, Dreyer didn't take this deal, putting News writer John Ensslin, who's also a boardmember and program coordinator for the Press Club, in a tough spot. Ensslin wanted Green's portrait in its proper place prior to the watering hole's June 1 closure for renovation. (The Club is trying to raise $120,000 -- and has already received separate donations of $25,000 toward that goal from the Post and the News -- to restore its first floor to the splendor it exuded at the time of its 1925 grand opening.) But he refused to compromise his principles along the way. "I want Chuck back on the wall," he said. "I just don't want to give in to terrorists."

 

He didn't need to. Last week, Bartels conceded that Green's resignation (or whatever) had destroyed her bargaining power. "I feel totally robbed out of an expensive dinner on the Post expense account," she said bitterly. "Because now, the ransom's worthless." Afterward, Bartels gave Ensslin permission to take possession of the Green drawing, which made its return to the Press Club in auspicious fashion. On May 24, former News international editor Holger Jensen, who said at a gathering in his honor that the Press Club had been more loyal to him than several of his past employers, unveiled what he thought was his own portrait, only to discover the one of Green instead. The Jensen sketch was produced a moment later, and a good laugh was had by all.

Guess that means it was a victimless crime -- although Green might disagree. Yet one thing is beyond dispute: Confession is good for the soul.


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