The Subject of a Lifetime
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.
Not that Amole's throat is problem-free. His esophagus is constricting, which affects his speech and makes it difficult for him to swallow soft foods or even drink water. But although he's already ruled out medical treatment that might prolong his life, limiting physicians to pain-reduction techniques, he plans to go ahead with a procedure known as esophageal dilation -- "They basically Roto-Rooter you" -- that will help maintain his pipes for as long as possible. For Amole, not being able to talk might be worse than death.
He certainly hasn't lost his verbal abilities, which are well remembered by fans of his "Friday Waltz" feature on KVOD. Indeed, a request for Amole to describe his work space results in a rousing conversation that's actually better than being there. For instance, a glance at a painting by Joe Barros (a former Denver Post staffer) of a now-destroyed courthouse once located on 16th Street prompts a yarn that incorporates Amole's grandfather, who moved to Denver at fifteen and helped plant "the lovely elm trees" that surrounded the building; the demolition of the structure in 1932, and the creation of a "sunken-garden park" in its place; and the brusqueness of magnate William Zeckendorf, who "blew into town with all his money" and had the trees ripped from the soil, although not from Amole's memory. "I was very angry when they cut those trees down," Amole says, still fuming half a century later. "They were dear things to me."
In many ways, this tale encompasses the contradictions in Amole's work. Because of the misty manner in which he talks about Denver's past, he's frequently tagged as a mere nostalgist, but he's long displayed a wariness of powerful interests along with a little guy's willingness to take them on. He famously opposed the building of Denver International Airport, penning, by his count, over 120 columns attacking the project at a time when the News's editorial section consistently supported it. Moreover, according to editor Temple, "Gene hasn't changed his view one iota. It's so clear that in many respects the airport is a success and has done a lot for Denver -- that's my view, anyway. But Gene's always thought it's a boondoggle, and he still feels that way."
The joint operating agreement that binds the business operations of the News and the Post hasn't won Amole over, either, but Temple allowed him to take repeated shots at it -- a decision that Amole says typifies the first-rate way he's been treated by the paper during his tenure. For his part, Temple says, "I was saddened that Gene felt so badly about how things were going when, in many ways, the JOA's worked out pretty well. If you look at the papers today, you can argue about the coverage, but we do have two vital newspapers in Denver, and there were a lot of people who thought that wouldn't be the case. But I thought it was fine that he reacted the way he did, and I put everything in the way he wanted it."
The willingness of Temple to be quoted about the JOA in these pages speaks volumes about his fondness for Amole, whom he recently lauded in two of his own columns. (He has never before consented to an interview with Westword, failing to so much as acknowledge innumerable requests over a period of years.) When Temple was chosen as the News's metro editor nine years ago, Amole didn't have an editor; he simply filed his column to the city desk. Temple put an end to that -- "I believe a columnist needs an editor," he says -- but Amole never displayed the slightest resentment, befriending the new hire and giving him a quick, intensive education in all things Denver. According to Temple, "He would lace his columns with so many details that we really had to work to trace them all -- and 99.9 percent of the time, they were right. Goofy spellings, weird names: He would remember them exactly. He knows Denver better than anybody.
"The core character of the Rocky Mountain News is that it's really connected to the community," Temple allows. "We're one of the few metro papers -- maybe the only one -- that essentially starts the paper with local news. And Gene exemplifies that commitment. I think one of the things that's important for newspapers to do is not only be critical of where you live, but to celebrate it as well -- and Gene does both."
But he couldn't keep doing it forever. Amole hasn't been around the newsroom much in recent years (the last lengthy appearance Temple remembers took place on his 75th birthday), and his work had become inconsistent. When he was truly engaged by a topic, he could rise to the challenge, but when he wasn't, his writing could be slack and redundant. Amole feared this kind of slippage. "He'd always say to me, 'John, you have to tell me when I've lost it -- when I'm no longer any good. You owe it to me,'" Temple reveals. He adds, "I never had to tell him that, because he's never lost it. But he knew he was getting old, and he didn't want to be here if he wasn't pulling his weight."
On balance, Amole is managing to do so even as his vitality diminishes drip by drip. The October 26 column about his decision stands with his best work, but some of the followups have been comparatively scattershot, jumping from topic to topic without the benefit of transitions. (In his November 9 submission, Amole noticed this development: "I tend to wander some in these columns.") Also, Amole has thus far concentrated primarily on reminiscences, not the cold, hard facts of dying. But even the least of his recent prose finds Amole giving it his all -- and that's a lot.
His main goal now, beyond surviving until Christmas, is to honestly share his experiences in the hope that others will benefit from them. "This has turned out to be the best possible solution for me and my family," he says, "and it's been very helpful to me in dealing with my own sense of loss. Because, you know, I'm going to lose my life here."
Out-of-business decision: "Show Them the Money," the column that appeared here on November 16, 2000, concerned the high demand for business writers. In particular, the item focused on five veterans of the Rocky Mountain News -- Dan Luzadder, Dana Coffield, Richard Williamson, Bill Scanlon and Rebecca Cantwell -- who were hired away by Interactive Week, a burgeoning Ziff Davis publication that offered them salaries in the $80,000-a-year range and the opportunity to work from their homes.
What a difference a year makes. On November 5, Ziff Davis CEO Robert Callahan announced that Interactive Week would be folded into another of the company's magazines, eWeek. But since all 75 Interactive Week employees were pink-slipped, with only editor Rob Fixmer retaining a paycheck, it's a merger in name only. The statement was likely handled in this way in an attempt to justify shifting sizable advertising commitments made to Interactive Week over to eWeek.
Whatever the case, all five former Rocky hands are now looking for work in a job environment that couldn't be more dissimilar from the one that existed last November. A recent piece by the Village Voice's Cynthia Cotts quoted a claim made on the IWantMedia.com Web site that 100,000 jobs in the media sector have been lost in the past year or so -- and even if this figure is misleading, Cotts points out that pink slips have flown at loads of major newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times,the New York Times and the San Jose Mercury News. (There have also been layoffs at the Denver Newspaper Agency and at papers in the New Times chain, Westword's parent company.) Moreover, the rough sledding facing Internet-based industries, and the attendant fall-off of advertising related to them, means that some of the severest cutbacks have been made in the areas of business and technology reporting. Ouch.
In many respects, Interactive Week wasn't a classic dot-com publication. The mag primarily concerned itself with telecommunications, a business that seems likely to weather the economic storm better than some others. This has resulted in understandable bitterness directed at Callahan, a former president of the broadcast group at the Disney-owned network ABC who was named Ziff Davis's CEO less than two weeks before dumping Interactive Week. But there's no question that Ziff Davis is a company in a considerable state of turmoil. The firm's previous CEO, James Dunning, who was forced out in August, responded to his ouster by filing a $300 million lawsuit naming a slew of executives and investors.
None of these maneuvers will help Interactive Week writers, but both Luzadder and Coffield, who survived two previous rounds of layoffs before being canned, value their time at the magazine. "It was very dynamic," Luzadder says. "They hired real journalists, and we did real stories about the Internet."
Adds Coffield, "Interactive Week made me really have to dig down into telecommunications, and I understand massive amounts more about how the industry works. And that's a valuable thing to understand, particularly in this environment. I hate to hark back to September 11, but that changed the economics for all kinds of companies. It used to be cheaper to fly people to Chicago for a meeting, but now people are looking at telecommunications solutions to their travel issues, and these companies will benefit. That's the kind of thing we were covering, not Dogfood.com. But we were unfairly lumped into that."
Unfair or not, Interactive Week is gone. But at least there's still the Rocky Mountain News.
Everybody must get Stoned: As noted here on November 1, the Denver Post has spent big bucks to send correspondents overseas to cover aspects of the Afghanistan war -- an ambitious move that hasn't yet resulted in boffo journalism. In contrast, the Rocky Mountain News has relied on wire copy -- a defensible choice. But considerably more bizarre, given current events, was the Rocky's decision to ship film critic Robert Denerstein to London to see the debut of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, a flick that's been heavily hyped in major magazines for weeks, and which will start playing in nearly every American theater cineplex just six days after Denerstein's November 10 article appeared.
News boss John Temple wouldn't comment on the logic behind Denerstein's trip, restricting his remarks to Gene Amole only, and Denerstein didn't return a call. But people at the Post have plenty to say about it -- although most of their comments aren't suitable for family audiences.
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