A Writer's Writer: A Tribute to Hal Levy
By Mark T. Gould
I knew the magnificent writer Hal Levy for many years, and it took the Beatles to get him to smile for me.
But, more on that later.
It may seem weird to equate a sportswriter with a politician, but, when you think about, Tip O'Neill and Hal Levy had a lot in common.
The late Speaker of House once famously said that "all politics is local." Likewise, Hal Levy, who may well have been the "Speaker of Sportswriters," and certainly was a writer's writer, clearly knew, way before the Internet took over, that "all sports is local," and he spent the vast majority of a tragically too short, yet monumentally influential, life walking that talk.
Levy, who passed away last month at age 61 after almost three decades as the sports editor and executive sports editor of the Shore Line Newspapers, based in Guilford, started his career at the late, lamented Groton News and, its then sister publication, the Norwich Bulletin.
It was at the latter where I, a freshly scrubbed and somewhat obnoxious young reporter with visions of Woodward and Bernstein, first ran into him in the mid-70s.
I'll never forget the first time we met. Well, make that sort of met. Levy was seated behind a paper-laden, overflowing desk in the Bulletin/News sports department, one foot on the desk, cigarette smoke circling his fiefdom, multiple half-drunk coffee cups littered around him. I marched through, and he growled at me, "so, you're the guy from Daily Campus. Big (expletive) deal." I had no idea who he was, but later learned that he had started his sports writing career, as did I, at UConn's Daily Campus newspaper.
We spoke little that summer, but I noticed that he didn't speak to many other reporters, either. But, I did manage to see him checking me out from time to time, in the news room, out of the corner of his eye.
A year later, I was hired full-time at the Bulletin, and assigned to the Montville bureau. I was in my little cubby-hole office in Uncasville one afternoon, when the door opened. In walked Levy, still puffing on a cigarette, still with a coffee cup in hand.
"I figure if you're gonna cover this town, you oughta know what the bleep's going on," he growled at me.
That started a great journalistic affair, as this beautiful, cranky guy taught me how to think like a reporter, how to find a story, develop a level of trust with sources, how to personalize and localize, how to never take standard answers for granted, and how to keep digging and digging. He also reviewed copy over my shoulder as I wrote it in that little satellite office, all the while puffing on his ever-present cigarette, and chugging his coffee, making me, day-by-day, a better writer and reporter.
Yet, as the time passed, while I had come to realize that, under that tough exterior, Hal was basically a pussy cat, I had never really seen him let down his guard and smile. Well, within a year after I met Hal, he had me over to his house in Montville. We were talking over a couple of beers, and I mentioned music. I asked what groups he liked. It was one of the few times that I saw his gruff exterior melt.
"There's nothing like the Beatles," he said, actually grinning from ear to ear.
It was a special, musical moment for both of us.
We remained kindred spirits until I left for greener, and perhaps greater, pastures a few years later. Hal? He still kept it local. Virtually ignoring what ESPN, the Internet and other more worldly outlets did to sports, Hal kept the focus on local high school and other amateur football, basketball, baseball, cross country and soccer games and leagues, sometimes operating as a virtual one-man local show. Along the way, he collected more awards and honors than you can count, including being inducted into the Connecticut High School Coaches' Hall of Fame, the New England Press Association Hall of Fame, the Connecticut Collegiate and Scholastic Softball Hall of Fame, the Branford Sports Hall of Fame, the Middletown Sports Hall of Fame and the Shoreline Conference Cross Country Hall of Fame.
There were a ton of talented writers and editors at the Bulletin and News in those days. John Peterson (still the only guy I would crawl through the snow to get a story for), Tom "Tiny" Perry, the magnificently clever Carl Sygiel, the amazing Andy Thibault, and a host of others. Yet, it was that gruff, yet sweet guy, behind his ever-present cigarette and coffee, who taught me to think and write like a reporter.
And, talked to me about The Beatles.
Like his favorite group, Hal Levy was one of a kind, in so many ways.