Some days just suck. And today, it appears, is going to be one of them. I just learned that my friend, mentor, veteran journalist and all-around good guy Al Salvato died unexpectedly Monday after complications related to his battle with leukemia. I really don’t know what to say. He was supposed to be fine.
Stunned wouldn’t even begin to describe the feelings I’m having right now. In a profession that is so competitive, impersonal and often cutthroat, it’s rare anyone meets someone like Al. It seemed no matter when I popped by campus or phoned him, he was always ready to talk a little shop. He encouraged me to keep plugging away, even when circumstances and my own will seemed determined to get the best of me. After devastating developments in my own professional life last March, I found my way to the chair across from his inside his UC office. He was his usual supportive self, offering to make calls and quickly jotted down a long list of editors he knew that I should call to look for a new job. This was a minor setback, he assured me. It helped give me the strength to go on a bit more, to keep trying, to remain confident in my abilities as a journalist.
In our often long conversations I learned so much about the business and his passion for it. I liked looking at the framed 8-by-10 house ad from The Cincinnati Post he had on top of his bookcase. It was him, sometime in the 1970s, I think, leaning against a wall, with his arms crossed, wearing a shirt and tie with the sleeves rolled up. The consumate reporter, I would think, looking at the black-and-white re-print. It was obvious he was proud of it, though he’d brush off any references to it. The copy next to the photo spoke of his achievements as a reporter and, subtly, how the readers of The Post should be proud that they get to read Al’s work. It was neat to see.
I couldn’t stop telling him how impressed and proud I was that he influenced such dramatic changes at the University of Cincinnati’s student newspaper, The News Record. When I was a student at UC our paper was not really anything to be proud of. I’d tell fellow students back then I worked at the paper and they’d retort, “Oh, you mean The News Retched.” Even as bad as it was, that place whetted my appetite for journalism (and then the night-side staffers at The Cincinnati Enquirer solidified it when I was a news aide there in the late 90s). I struggled to deal with how bad The News Record was and how much I wanted it to be better. Students today do not have to worry about that. They have Al to thank.
Back then the paper was bad, it was corrupt and the people there didn’t care too much. Al came along and changed all that. A few years ago the paper won “Best Student Newspaper” at the Ohio SPJ Awards. It beat out powerhouses like Ohio University’s student newspaper, backed, arguably, by one of the top-three journalism programs in the country. I could not have been prouder, though I had nothing to do with it. Al did, and I could hold my head high and say, “Yeah, I went to that school.” It was a special moment.
Later Al asked me to join the UC Communications Board. The “Comm Board”, as it is known colloquially, was the big Higher Power that could right wrongs and make sweeping changes to the paper. Back when I was a student I always hoped they’d be the ones to save our paper. It seemed the only hope for fixing all the wacky things that were going on. Now, I would sit on this board and help guide the students into making this paper the best it could be. It was and has been a true honor. Al made that happen.
Al and I last spoke Wednesday about his coup, of sorts: landing The New York Times’ Joe Treaster to keynote our upcoming SPJ regional convention. He sounded a little hoarse on the phone, apologizing a few times for coughing, but saying, overall, he was feeling better. He told me and others he expected to be back at work yesterday. Instead, he died.
An avid runner, YMCA volunteer and coordinator of the Flying Pig marathon, he knew what it meant to be a journalist and be active in his community. It’s something we shared (though not the running – he would have kicked my butt there).
It’s been a rough morning, bleeding now into the afternoon. I just spoke to another colleague who said Al’s wife was by his side when he died. It breaks my heart to think about it. I just sent an e-mail out to 1,500 SPJ members and media people. One of the nice things about being a leader in SPJ is I get to hear about things usually first. So, when I send out an e-mail to so many people, some reply their own thoughts. This time replies, as one would expect, have been exceptional and emotional.
Many have echoed my own thoughts about what a warm, kind, caring, professional person he was, but added that they never knew a better editor, a gentler friend and more competent colleague. Some had known him decades, they’ve said.
I liked one response in particular. Bill Sloat, Cincinnati correspondent for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, wrote me this: “(Al) is probably chasing a story in heaven right now. Or meeting Mencken and John Peter Zenger. I can imagine Mike Kelley handling the introductions.”
I bet he’s right. Another fine addition to that great newsroom in the sky. God bless you, Al. I couldn’t have written it better myself.
Al Salvato ’s funeral arrangements (confirmed)
Visitation is 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 2, 2006 at Muehlenkamp-Erschell Funeral Home, 427 S. Fort Thomas Ave., Fort Thomas, Ky. Get Directions
Mass of Christian Burial is 11 a.m. Friday, March 3, 2006 at St. Catherine of Siena Church, 1803 N. Fort Thomas Ave., Fort Thomas, Ky. Get Directions