Bill Reel – A Tribute

By Chris Lydon
September 2010

Bill Reel was the most charismatic all-round character I met at Yale, or maybe anyplace, ever.  To this day he personifies “the way we were” in those days:  ridiculously horny, innocent climbers, hooked on boyish fantasies of booze, broads and books – and in Bill’s case and mine, on jazz and baseball, too.

He was the rare kid who knew his way around the choice music joints of Manhattan before he got to Yale.  One afternoon in the mid-late 1950s, he had followed the jazz saxophone star Gerry Mulligan out of the Metropole in Times Square – around the corner to a bar where the headliner cooled off with a quiet drink on his break.  “Say, Mull,” Bill opened, “what are you fellows doing for ideas since Charlie Parker died?”  That was the end of their conversation, and the start of my laughing, awe-stricken love of Bill Reel when he started unpacking his teenage war stories.  The cheek of this raw youth!  The audacity!  The style!

We were together in Fenway Park, somewhere between the Red Sox dugout and home plate, on the afternoon of September 2, 1960, when Ted Williams – more God than man – stroked home run No. 517, his last but four, off the Senators’ Don Lee.  What else I remember about that Fenway afternoon is that after the game Bill and I conspired to linger near the runway where the visiting Senators would straggle out toward Kenmore Square – just to see if we could be mistaken for ball players.  And – can you believe it? – we were, by a few “knothole gang” kids who glanced in puzzlement at us, then at each other, and, just in case, asked us for autographs.

I hadn’t read The Catcher in the Rye at that point, but Bill had.  And he had mastered Holden Caulfield’s hilarious white-boy blues voice, in person and on paper, even in folk verse you couldn’t forget even if you wanted to:

When the weather’s hot and sticky,
   That’s no time for dunkin’ Dicky.
      When the frost is on the punkin
         That’s the time for Dicky dunkin’!

Of his dreamy wife to be, Susie Norkin, Bill wrote to me in 1962 – still in that Holden Caulfield register: “… we correspond regularly.  She is quite aware of the fact, however, that The Kid is not contemplating any binding commitments for some time.  (I can’t think of anything quite so depressing as being married.  Can you?)”

But then the Bill Reel version of Holden Caulfield shook off all that insecure adolescence.  He hung on to his store of Dicky jokes, even as he became a radiantly blessed, dedicated Christian.  Under pressure from his wife he quit drinking in 1968 and joined Alcoholics Anonymous.  So he had been married for 45 years when he died – dry and obsessively faithful to his AA meetings for 42.  In the company of Susie, their three adored and adoring kids and his prayer circle of ex-drunks, Bill had got as comfortably close as anybody I know to the truth of a loving God.  Over those years he’d become a curiously self-effacing star columnist in the “lively little journal” of New York, THE NEWS (all caps, a “style” point Bill always honored in his letters to me) and later at Newsday.  It was no small feat, Bill’s life, but I think I knew 50 years ago that Bill had all of that in him.

At Yale I was in on Bill’s transition from being an almost outstanding athlete to becoming the consummate newspaper guy.  Johnny Lee (class of 1958, SI coverboy and the last 40-point scorer against Harvard) was the basketball star who’d made Bill want to wear Yale Blue.  Lee told Bill once that the Yale coach who passed on Bill’s backcourt talents had made a mistake – no small comfort to Bill.  It is still safe to say that Bill Reel was one of the better ballplayers ever cut from the Yale varsity, and one of the better hoop regulars who played in the rotating pick-up game every afternoon on the fifth floor of the Payne Whitney gym.  I remember trailing Bill in those games, then lighting up as we stepped into the dark New Haven night.  “Have a real cigarette.  Have a Camel!” we’d say in our manly-man spoof.  The next stop in those days was the Liggett’s counter at Elm and York for coffee and the New York Post just arriving – the liberal old Post of James Wechsler, Bill Shannon and Max Lerner, of sports columnists like Milton Gross, and, in a class by himself, Murray Kempton, the artist among the tradesmen we aspired to join.

“Mother Yale has decided to cut me loose from her umbilical,” Bill wrote me in 1962, after his second shot at the B.A. missed.  When I signed on at the Boston Globe a year later, he exulted: “You are once again engaged in the world’s most vital and noble profession.  I can appreciate your dismay about a lede editorial on hoeing, but don’t be discouraged – even an effete newspaper is a more significant enterprise than, say, Wall St. or the insurance business.”

At THE NEWS by then, Bill was a copy boy with a yen and a gift for the full-length feature assignment.  The next big one, he wrote me in 1963, “would make me the most widely read writer in the city of New York on the particular Sunday, excluding, of course, the saint who happened to bat out that day’s gospel…  This is very exciting work, mostly done under pressure.  (The motto of the composing-room foreman is: ‘If you don’t make the trains, you can’t sell the paper – as long as it doesn’t say fuck-you in it, it’s going in now.’)  It is an amazing scene down there, terrific last-minute activity perfect for one of my temperament.  It takes care of all my nervous energy. I wouldn’t do anything else for a living.”

I hear a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Bill’s letters and columns – Hemingway, too, and a huge lot of Ring Lardner, whom we worshipped together for stories like “Haircut” and “A Caddy’s Diary” and the busher’s baseball diary, “You Know Me Al”.  Bill absorbed and extended the newsprint style of American prose.  His newspaper columns were often as stylish, as affecting, as Jimmy Breslin’s or Russell Baker’s – the best of the best in my time, I felt.

Not the least sadness of Bill’s passing is realizing that the vast and various culture of newspapers that fed and delighted Bill so had shriveled and almost died before he did.  Yet the beauty of Bill’s newspaper life is that in his patient deadline explorations of village New York, Bill long ago reached and shared a vision far beyond the quotidian and ephemeral that define most journalism.

Bill’s last letter to me last winter, responding to a packet I sent him of my favorite Reel columns, began:

“How I cringe at the memory of ‘what are you doing for ideas since Bird died.’  I sure was an impudent little dick (literally and figuratively)…

“Looking back on my columning career overall leaves me wishing I had spent less time as a poor man’s pundit and done more human interest pieces.  People are so much more interesting than ideas…

“Have had cancer four years now and am on a miracle drug to buy time.  Am so grateful for time with five grandchildren born in the past six years.  Grandkids come along much later nowadays…

“Enclosed is a piece on my new favorite subject, prayer.  I know you told me you are a praying man.  God’s mercy is evident in this yarn…”  It was about A. A. founder Bill Wilson, for Catholic New York.  “I often wonder what would have become of me and my family had not the Lord intervened for Bill 75 years ago…”

Long before the end, serenity wasn’t just Bill Reel’s prayer.  Serenity was the man Bill became through faithful application over many years.  Everything in order, in due time, in proportion.  Kindness and good humor, to begin with.  Then the gifts of the Spirit as St. Paul enumerates them in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith.  Bill lived in the Spirit, it surely seemed, and it served him as even a Yale degree might not have.

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7 comments to Bill Reel – A Tribute

  • Chris Smith

    I had often wondered whatever had become of Bill Reel whose columns I always enjoyed reading. Somewhat saddened to learn of his passing four years ago. I say somewhat saddened only out of selfishness because I will miss his columns. However, happy because Bill through his devout faith had learned to accept his destiny in entering Gods’ Kingdom.

    I had once real a Reel article Bill had written about my neighborhood of Inwood, N.Y.C. in which Bill was somewhat critical of the northern Manhattan nabe. Many readers from the area were really upset by the article and didnt hesitate to tell him so by a barage of letters and phone calls. Bill agreed to revisit Inwood and dig a little deeper to get to know the residents better and all the positive aspects of living in Inwood. And thats exactly what he did. In his follow-up article he acknowledged he may have erred on Inwood and cast a more positive light on the area the second time around. It truly showed his faith shining through that perhaps he was wrong and was willing to admit it.

    A true gentleman and man of the people.

  • Steve Buck

    Beautiful. Thank you Chris for writing so well, and from the heart. I am only sad that I am learning about so many wonderful classmates only in their obituaries. It makes reunions and this website all the more important.

  • P. S. Make that 1994 for the FAS swan song. CL

  • Eric, Henry, Neal: Thanks from the heart. I can’t get get over how many great laughs with Bill come back and back. The last time I saw him, over lunch with Foster Knight in Harvard Square about four years ago, I realized that American men of our generation and persuasion had inescapably to locate ourselves by some sort of reference to just a few iconic figures. Not politicians or writers either, not JFK or WFB. But heeeeroes. Three in particular: Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra. Bill had a wonderful story about an ex-convent in Hoboken he’d written about — good people putting an old church property to unconventional community use. Next day came the call to Bill’s phone at THE NEWS: “Bill Reel, please hold for Frank Sinatra…” who wanted to thank him and ask just where his contribution ought to go. And I had to tell Bill about approaching Sinatra on the night of his last public performance, which chanced to be in Boston, on Labor Day weekend in 2004. At 2 a.m. I walked with some trepidation toward his table at the Colonnade Hotel, reached out and said: “Mr. Chairman, I just wanted to say: thank you.” He smiled cordially, the blue eyes undimmed by what seemed a lot of Jack Daniels. “Anybody hits you,” he said — it sounded like: hittschooo, as if he were crooning it — “let me know.” Thinking about Bill keeps telling me things about our crowd, and about myself — and amazingly, almost all of it is good! I wish you guys would send me your email addresses. Mine is Henry: can I share a memory of walking with you in Tokyo in the spring of 1963? Girls coming toward us on the sidewalk saw me and tittered: “Ah so, Ahh-so-nee Purr-kins.” Then they checked you out and rhapsodized: “Ah so, Char-oo-tong Hes-tong!” Dem were da days! Love all around to youse guys, most especially the friends of W. J. R. I’d love to hear what you’re reading, thinking, doing. Chris Lydon

  • neal freeman


    Thanks. This is just right. I ran into Bill only a few times at Yale — funny thing, it was usually at a pub or party — but we saw a lot of each other in NYC, with Bill moving up steadily at THE NEWS and me, frequently moving sideways, at Hearst. We had Jimmy Cannon and Bob Considine, The Trib had Breslin and, soon enough, THE NEWS had Bill, who was always deferential to his elders-but-no-betters. I remember hilarious dinners with Bill and Susie and my Jane out at their place on Staten Island — Bill’s riotous tales of “the drunk’s luck” stick with me even now. A man in full.

    Neal Freeman

  • Henry Childs

    I have always lived with the knowledge, Chris, that you were a master of erudition and spirit and facility with words. I now know how completely you have met the challenges we all aspire to meet, by being able to create such a complete and compelling tribute to such a great character (who did furnish you with plenty of material)as Bill was. I think we all would wish to have such a friend and chronicler as you AND Bill.

    All best, Henry

  • Eric Carlson

    Dear Chris,

    What a moving tribute to an exceptional character. What I remember was that he was always rather sassy, a sort of wise-ass guy in the best meaning of the term. He always had a comeback which often left me feeling totally inadequate. Thanks for your memories, human and hilarious.


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