An appreciation of Chuck Newman, former Inquirer writer and editor

Posted: November 03, 2011

Assuming for a moment that he could have shed the trademark blue-eyed skepticism that made him so dogged a reporter, Chuck Newman might actually have enjoyed being compared to a Broad Street bully.

Mr. Newman, who died suddenly Wednesday of a heart attack at 79, was after all the sportswriting equivalent of the Stanley Cup-winning Flyers teams he covered in the mid-1970s - aggressive, feisty, confrontational, strong-willed and tough.

Others could craft the flowery prose. Mr. Newman's gift was gathering information, working the phones, asking the difficult questions. What interested him was getting the story first, sorting out the facts from the fluff, grasping what was happening beneath the surface.

Covering hockey, USFL football and Big 5 basketball, among many other sports in his 33 years at The Inquirer, Mr. Newman was as likely to provoke the teams and people he covered as praise them.

He relished being a thorn in the side of such Philadelphia sports icons as Rollie Massimino, Ed Snider and John Chaney. A prolific storyteller, he told tales about each, not all of which got into print.

"He had a lot of strong feelings about players, teams and especially coaches - often negative - and boy, would he share them," said Lou Rabito, an Inquirer writer and editor who worked alongside Mr. Newman for 11 years. "But what made him a joy to work with was, while he took sports seriously, while he took newspaper work seriously, he never took himself seriously."

After a Temple-Villanova football game in 1971, Temple students had to intervene when two Villanova fans - infuriated by something Mr. Newman had written - tried to assault him. He wore such incidents as badges of honor, proof that he was not - what for him was the worst epithet of all - a homer.

He could be just as tough on his editors and fellow reporters. Nothing upset Mr. Newman more than when he felt The Inquirer had been beaten. He'd sometimes come into the office brandishing a Daily News or New York paper and, pointing to some newsworthy story, sarcastically exclaim to anyone in ear range, "Don't worry, pal, we'll get this story in the paper one of these days."

Long past his retirement in 2001, he was firing off emails chastising the sports department he loved and suggesting stories it should be pursuing, many of them on his pet themes.

But as critical as he often was of editors, Mr. Newman understood the important role they played in the newsroom, especially after he became one himself in 1989.

"The desk is the guts of the product that reaches the reader every day," he wrote in that unfinished memoir. "They're the ones who perform the drudgery of making unreadable copy readable, correcting grammar and punctuation, which in many cases is the plague of those who cover the stories."

That was an example of a softer side that Mr. Newman always seemed reluctant to display. He could be extremely charitable and, both as a newsroom veteran and a journalism instructor at Temple, gladly counseled generations of future writers and editors.

"Thanks to Chuck I learned a lot and laughed a lot," ESPN's Jayson Stark, a former Inquirer colleague, wrote in a Tweet. "[He was] a true sportswriting original."

Mr. Newman, who joined The Inquirer when Walter Annenberg still owned the newspaper, was the beat writer for two of the most memorable championship teams in Philadelphia's sports history - Fred Shero's Broad Street Bullies and Villanova's 1985 NCAA basketball champions.

Combative by nature, he enjoyed nothing more than chronicling how those physical Flyers had pummeled yet another foe into submission, and his daily reports were invariably filled with examples of that team's colorful character and pugnacious style.

Because he knew basketball so well and followed every nuance of the game from recruiting to rules changes, Mr. Newman could be unusually critical of the tactics Big 5 coaches employed, both on the court and off.

Chaney once ushered him out of his office when he wanted to know how the Temple coach could have missed out on a prized recruit from Arizona. And in the run-up to Villanova's surprise national title in 1985, Mr. Newman penned a revealing profile of Massimino, the Wildcats coach whose relationship with the media and fellow coaches was not always as warm and fuzzy as his public persona.

In detailing what he saw as Massimino's split personality, Mr. Newman wrote that while players adored him, other coaches frequently found him to be "overbearing" and "disingenuous".

Along the way, the energetic and always fit writer taught journalism for decades at Temple, lectured at and operated camps for basketball referees and owned a stake in several harness horses.

"I would've enjoyed being a student in his class," Temple basketball coach Fran Dunphy wrote in an email.

Harness racing was a particularly beloved pastime, and in his later years he could often be found at the off-track-betting facility in Concordville, not far from his home in Glen Mills.

But basketball was his true passion. In fact, the night before he died, he and his wife had gone to see "The Mighty Macs," a movie created by a former Penn player Mr. Newman had once covered, Tim Chambers.

He not only played and covered basketball, he refereed it. In his later years, he was the referee evaluator for the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.

A close confidante of virtually every Big 5 coach, from Harry Litwack to Phil Martelli, Mr. Newman often encountered the breed at Shields' Tavern, the now-defunct Drexel Hill bar that was a gathering place for Philadelphia's basketball elite.

One of Mr. Newman's favorite basketball stories involved his brief stint as an NBA official in the 1960s. At one preseason game, the rookie ref encountered the legendary Wilt Chamberlain.

"On one possession, he called Wilt for a three-second violation, and being a rookie ref, he was expecting Wilt to go off on him," recalled Rabito. "Not a peep from Wilt. Next time they were running downcourt, Wilt ran up next to him, leaned in and said, 'That's OK. You'll get the next one right.' "

Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Newman worked at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and Baltimore Evening Sun before joining The Inquirer in 1968. One night in 2000, 11 years after he'd stopped writing and become a high school editor, he collapsed in the newsroom. His heart stopped beating, and he had to be revived by colleagues.

Writing of himself in the third person in a 2005 draft of a proposed memoir that occupied him late in life, Mr. Newman said this of his near-death experience:

"In 2000 he died. . . . He stood up at his desk in the Inquirer at the usual 7 p.m. departure time and remembered nothing until awakening at the nearest hospital, a victim of a sudden and - in this case - usually fatal heart attack. His survival was only because of the availability of a defibrillator installed in the office maybe two weeks earlier and the quick action of two people only recently trained on its use."

The experience might have mellowed Mr. Newman. Opinionated and caustic, for years following a divorce from his first wife he was estranged from his oldest son, Scott, now the head of strategy for Bloomberg News' content syndication division. But in the last year, according to Scott, the father had reconciled with the son.

"Call it the biggest comeback since Lazarus," said Scott Newman, 48. "He wouldn't talk to me for 20 years. But something went off. He came to my daughter's high school graduation, always asked about how she was doing. We went to Phil Jasner's funeral together. We talked four or five times a week, with him mentioning just how proud he was of what I've achieved. . . . I pass this story on simply because I want people to know there's hope for everyone. I give my Dad the utmost respect and credit. He changed before he climbed into the box. Most don't."

He is survived by his wife, Nancy; daughter Allyson; sons Scott and Brett; step-daughters Michelle and Karen, and eight grandchildren. His first wife, Arlene Hoffman, died in 2007. A viewing is scheduled for Monday starting at 10:30 a.m. at Kish Funeral Home, 1998 Sproul Road, Broomall. Pa. A service is scheduled to follow at 12:30 p.m.


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, Giving 'Em Fitz, at www.philly.com/fitz.

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