Only at a newspaper

Dateline: Sun 16 Sep 2007

Dick Hopper, my longtime friend and former colleague at the Star, noted recently that newspapers, in the not-too-far-distant past, employed a lot of "misfits" -- his word.

He meant, of course, himself and me, but the description casts a wider net: many reporters and editors had substance abuse problems, mainly alcohol, as well as issues with authority, problems on the home front, etc. By the very nature of what a reporter was supposed to be, the job/personality type was close to outlaw: outcast, standing apart, not a joiner, an impartial observer, cold, cynical, adrenalin junkies, joking over the latest plane crash, or worse, praying for a plane crash. No wonder so many drank.

I thought of all this Saturday, after a long and pleasant phone chat with former Star photo editor, copy editor, sports slot man, investigative reporter, felon and all around fascinating conversationalist, Russ Leonard (the elder).

I've never met Russ, who is now 80 years old, but he was moving into the realm of legend when I came to the Star in 1978: he threw a typewriter out of a window once, in a fit of temper. No, it was a pot of ink. Whatever, something was tossed onto New York Street or the alley behind the building, and Russ was the culprit. Was anybody killed, was anybody injured? No. But whatever was thrown almost struck a printer on lunch break. Russ, it was generally agreed, was a wild man. Talented, smart, but wild.

Then there was the prison thing; I was aware vaguely that Mr. Leonard did time, which puts him, far as I know, in a club with three other former Star employees: the artist John Bigelow and copy messenger Greg Okey.

Russ served for, as he notes, "six years and two months" in prison, on a conviction of child molestation, beginning in 1999. After release came two years' probation, at age 78. Now he's free to the point that he can tell his story, which he has, in an upcoming book, "i prison," a self-published work about his life behind bars and what should/could be done within the justice system to rehabilitate inmates. As for the offense that sent him away, "The book includes the transcript from the trial. I wonder how anyone reading it could have found me guilty." (I don't know about that, but I know I'll be buying the book).

While I found this fascinating -- plus Russ' mention of meeting regularly with former Star/News employees at a weekly gabfest at Glendale Library -- I was even more intrigued when he told me he had persuaded John Bigelow to illustrate his book, 12 chapters in all.

Bigelow is serving time in Pendleton for the 2003 fatal beating of his wife Marianne. As tragic and senseless as her death was, it was compounded by the fact that, at the time, Bigelow was a graphic artist under Gannett and was being asked/forced to take an early retirement. I recall seeing him in the newsroom a week or so before Marianne was killed: he walked, shuffled really, with his head bent at an almost 45 degree angle, his face fixed to the floor. He reeked of depression and shame. For whatever reasons, he snapped, at home one day -- the word was that his wife was ill, and he was fearful that he would not have the insurance to support her. Hence, a mercy killing? At any rate, police reported that after the crime, he called the school where his son was, and told them he would not be able to pick up: He had killed his wife.

He never stood trial; a deal was reached, and he was shipped out. He has been at Pendleton for a while now. (His address to follow.)

So why drag all this sordid past into 2007? Friends tell me that Russ Leonard was a talented writer/editor in his day, altho booze stripped him down. Bigelow was (and is) an artist with a unique and oft delightful style. Besides doing caricatures, charts, maps and other art for the Star, he was fond of drawing elaborate space ships with aliens pouring out. Russ once hosted a Citizens Forum TV show on Channel 4; Russ invited John on as a guest. Russ asked John, "Where do you come from?"

"A flying saucer," was the answer. Deadpan. But he was joking. Wasn't he?

Russ said he thought of John Bigelow as he was working on his book. He wrote him, asking if he'd like to contribute; Bigelow was delighted to have the work. With 12 chapters, Bigelow has done 15 drawings, including the cover illustration.

So how is Bigelow doing? "Very depressed...," said Russ. "I think he's gone a little batty."

Several Star retirees have contributed to donating money to Bigelow from time to time. Lynn Hopper, Dick Hopper's wife, takes care of the mailing and the protocol (it has to be sent as a money order).

Russ Leonard frets that Bigelow is getting no help for depression or any mental assistance at Pendleton. I am told he does appreciate mail and cards. In case anyone wants to write him, his address is:

John Bigelow, DOC # 138045

PCF PO Box 30

Pendleton, INd. 46064

Meanwhile, Russ is making corrections on the galleys of his book, which he expects to be published around Thanksgiving by AuthorHouse, which is also former Star city editor/investigative reporter Dick Cady's publisher. And for the record, Russ is writing under the name R. Rathbone Leonard. Rathbone is his middle name.

I have no opinion on the conviction or the court trial; I haven't read a word about it. At any rate, nobody can argue: he did his time.

And I am impressed at a man who comes out of prison at age 78 and at age 80 writes a book. I am also happy that Bigelow collaborated, that even behind bars, he's found a bit of meaningful work.

Srange story? Strange days. That's the way the Star used to be.

As for Greg Okey, does anybody have contact with him?

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