Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Spider

"Simply, I would not have become a sports writer if Hal didn't believe I could," said The Hartford Courant's Dom Amore, who worked for Levy in 1982-84. "Hal had a unique way of recording play-by-play for football, using a legal pad and making five columns, for rushes, passes, penalties, kicking plays and the time. I covered Super Bowls still using Hal's system."

"Hal Levy was the first person I called when I was first named executive editor of Shore Line Newspapers in 1978 with a mandate to make them the best weekly newspapers in New England," said John Peterson, former president and publisher of the Shore Line Newspapers. "We went from no sports to being repeatedly recognized as the best weekly sports section in New England, all because of Hal."

  • Audio Interview With Hal, Summer 2008

    The Cool Justice Report
    Aug. 16, 2008

    EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report,

    All the proper eulogies have been done. Hal Levy got good sendoffs from papers including The New Haven Register, The Hartford Courant and many weeklies, as well as from former colleagues including Mark Gould and Bill Corlus. Hal died last month after a long and brave struggle with liver cancer. He was 62. Hundreds of friends got to say good-bye to Hal in person and they are counted in the thousands who still mourn him.

    Among my favorite Hal Levy stories …

    The Spider, as many of us called Hal Levy, was sucking down a brew or two at Billy Wilson's. This was a bar in Norwich, Connecticut, that had a newspaper above it. Hal was a workhorse sports writer and assistant sports editor who sometimes rode the gravitational pull downstairs with the hordes.

    As I recall, well, maybe I don't recall so well … the bar might have been called Dot's at the time. The time was sometime between 1970 and 1980, I think. I am certain of only one fact in this narrative: This place was a major killing field of brain cells.

    Through the fog of time, I can still hear Al -- who ran Dot's -- yelling, "Hotel-Motel Time!" This was the command at or after last call. Of course it was both a literal and a metaphorical imperative, for activities that might have been kept best in hotel rooms developed in all kinds of locations.

    There were many fine commotions at this bar, a scene of love, war and fellowship for reporters, editors, photographers, proofreaders, production or composing room workers, mental patients, cops, politicians and various hangers-on. It was a place immortalized many years ago in Connecticut Magazine as the launching pad for post-bar bacchanalia known as Choir Practice [with homage to Joseph Wambaugh] at the Norwich Marina. Hank Pearson wrote that piece, and, sadly, Hank has been gone for a while, too.

    There were few occurrences at this bar so profound, in my view, as the time a co-owner of the newspaper approached Hal and said, "How's Tim?"

    Hal looked up at Donald Oat Sr. and said, "Tim's dead."

    Tim was the sports editor. Like Hal, he was a maniac of a worker. Tim led by example. Tim would splice and prepare for production on a page the ticker tape of horse race results -- a lowly task -- if he wasn't writing a column, doing layout, setting up the staff schedule, checking on the emotional well being of the composing room staff or doing a gazillion other things. Another mentor, Brian Willett [who preceded Tim as sports editor], taught us how to use the electric typewriters - X's, dashes, periods and maybe other keys - as machine guns. The overall message was, Work Your Ass Off, It's Fun.

    And, unlike many of us at the paper, Tim was more or less presentable to the public at large. He was a valuable property to the owner.

    Oat, who appeared to be sober, was dumbstruck. He ran up the stairs to tell the managing editor, John Peterson, to work on an obituary and maybe funeral plans.

    We don't know what Hal was thinking. Often, when working, Hal would seem to be in a deep trance. You could drop a hand grenade near his desk and he wouldn't miss a beat figuring a batting average or putting some standings together. Maybe he was thinking about a mythical baseball game in which Tim had fallen.

    We don't know much of what Donald Oat was thinking.

    It turned out Tim wasn't really dead. He wasn't even sick.

    Donald knew Hal had to pay a price.

    Now, about Donald: He was known for firing guys, then, the next day, running into them at the office. One time Donald did a double-take take, as did a fired editor, wondering what had happened the night before. Then they both went about their business.

    So, in a Solomon-like gesture, Donald dispensed justice for Hal Levy. He suspended Hal for two weeks - with pay. Tim had to do his own job and Hal's.

    This might be a hallucination, but, I think that during Hal's punishment, Hal, Mike Clancy [then in sports, later a national correspondent for Reuters] and I saw Fritz The Cat at the Taftville Drive-In. Was there ever a drive-in in Taftville?

    Anyhow, you might recognize the sports editor's name. Tim Tolokan has been a big shot at the University of Connecticut athletic department for many years. I'm sure we thought of Tim longingly while at the drive-in.

    The Spider followed John Peterson to Shore Line Newspapers, where he consumed and covered local sports for about 30 years, making legions of friends and leaving a legacy of devotion to his craft.

    I told my wife this story and a few others upon hearing of Hal's death. "What a crazy place," she remarked.

    That was the beauty of it. Shit like that happened every day. The Spider stands out as a compelling individual in a glorious cast.

    FOOTNOTE: I credit Ken Keeley, the composing room foreman, with nicknaming Hal The Spider. I don't know how or why he came up with that.

  • Remembering Hal Levy, Sportswriter
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