The death of 'Tiger' Al Ross

Dateline: Tue 29 Dec 2009

Al Ross, known affectionately as 'Tiger" or "Tiger Al" -- does anyone know why? -- died last week, on Dec. 23. The longtime Indianapolis Star copy editor's obit was in the newspaper this morning.

Many of us didn't know that Al also wrote jazz reviews and features for the Star; thanks to the obit for filling in those blanks. But we did know that he loved music, sailing and dogs. He and Marie -- his wife preceded him in death -- were always fussing about those dogs that shared their Butler-Tarkington bungalow.

Like many copy editors in the pre-Gannett era, Tiger Al was in a class by himself.

He had twitchy habits, including bursting out in "AIEEEE!!!" every now and then, usually (I think) the result of some Atex-related error -- that was the word processing system he and others were adjusting to, that gave some major fits. But then "AIEEEE!!" was also just part of who Al was.

He was fond of telling a story on himself as a young boy -- that he tried to set a fire in the bathtub, and his mother, fortitously, caught him before real damage was done. The episode prompted his formal father to pronounce, in despair, to his wife, "Mother, the boy's a half-wit!!!" That always garnered the first chuckle from Al himself.

Al is one of those characters who used to populate newsrooms. Perhaps the best tribute to him, at this stage, is an essay written by former copy editor Richard Gilbert, who went on to work for Indiana University Press before becoming a gentleman farmer in Ohio. It is long, so I am including it in a separate post, with minor throat-cleaing so you will know who the various characters are -- in case you didn't happen to be in the newsroom at midnight in the 1970s, when Al regaled us all with his stories....




John Hawn [unverified] said:

So long, Tiger Al. You provided many memories during my stint at The Star.

I grew accustomed to his many growls and mumblings on the rim. I remember one particular late night, during an unusual display of tics and grunts when he turned around to face me. "Excuse me," he said. "I've got problems." He immediately got up and left the building, presumably for home.

Another time, he wanted to see a movie I was reviewing at Castleton Square. I told him, sure, he could tag along, but that I would need a ride back to the paper. He agreed. As it turned out, he drove me to Fall Creek and Meridian and told me I had to get out because he had to get back home.

Al was proud of the fact that he was John Mellencamp's Little League team in Seymour.

Al sure was a strange -- and wonderful-- character who made working at The Star interesting.

Ruth: I believe "Tiger" was nicknamed for his love of his alma mater and its athetic teams, the Mizzou Tigers.

And does anyone remember his unpublished novel, "Regulation League"?

2009-12-29 15:53:55

John Hawn [unverified] said:

Ooops. Should have said that Al was proud of the fact he coached John Mellencamp on his Little League team in Seymour.

2009-12-29 16:03:10

howard smulevitz [unverified] said:

My connection with Al probably goes back further than anyone's, although I didn't know him until we met at the paper.
Al and I both graduated from Hyde Park High School on the Southside of Chicago, he in 1950 and I in 1956. His mother taught there. Because I never had her for an academic class, just a study hall one semester,which meant no real contact with her, I never learned why she had a reputation for idiosyncracy. TIger liked to talk about her experiences, and we occasionally shared memories about Chicago and school. As the obit notes, Al also went to the University of Illinois, so we also had a few common memories from there.
I have no anecdotes, just recollections like other people of being startled out of concentration by that "AIEEEE!!" (thanks for typing that out, Ruth), Frank Maple's cackles and mutterings or other assorted sounds from the southwest corner of the city room. It was always a challenge to explain to someone who heard those sounds on the phone what kind of asylum I worked at.
I think I remember having two main reactions to Al Ross - smiling, or shaking my head in disbelief - maybe both at the same time. Since seeing the obit, I've had the same reactions, tinged by sadness. (And by the way, notice that the obit is straightforward and factual). Maybe Tiger had a hand in that?

2009-12-30 00:06:29

I miss them all [unverified] said:

I remember Al walking and sometimes all but running thru Platemaking on the way to Composing.

He would kind of mumble as the printers took the type off the galleys and put them on the page.

When the edition was done he would sometimes stop and talk sailing with one of my co-workers. It was obvious that sailing was a passion. When Al talked sailing he would smile and become animated, also the mumbling would go away and you could hear every word plainly.

I got to see lots of "characters" from editorial that came to Composing; Robin and his myriad of nervous tics, Alex kick a wall and get ordered off the floor, some that would just get mad and start yelling.

It was a zoo, but if I could turn the clock back...

2009-12-30 00:37:47

George Stuteville [unverified] said:

John, Howard, Ruthie...these recollections of Tiger Al and Maple just confirm what I have long thought -- that we got the biggest slice of the best times to have worked at The Star. I am thinking of the scene in the remake of The Titanic when the musicians gathered on the deck, shook hands, told each other what a privilege it was to have worked together, then began making great music on a rapidly sinking ship.

2009-12-30 09:06:04

ruthholl [Member] said:

Oh, gosh, this is all wonderful. Thank each of you. I was disappointed there was no service we could attend for Al, but I feel like we're having an on-line wake.
Here is what Lynn and Dick Hopper have to say about the nickname "Tiger Al" -- and thanks, John, I did not know the U of Missouri moniker.
Here's Lynn's email:

In giving this very serious matter some more thought, I am thinking that
"Tiger Al" came about a slightly different way, although it still may
have referred in part to his Missouri connection.
When he was assigned part time to upstairs makeup, the composing room
foreman was Al Pritchard, nice, but the most phlegmatic guy you are ever
likely to meet. He did, however, have a habit of calling everyone
"Sweetheart". With two Als in the room, some distinction had to be made,
so he became "Sweetheart Al." Dick's opinion is that our Al became
"Tiger" on the same theory that big guys are nicknamed "Tiny", but it is
entirely possible he just wasn't aware of the Mizzou thingie.
At any rate, it cleared up confusion in the composing room!

2009-12-30 10:21:37

Ellen McKinney [unverified] said:

my first 11 or so years at the star were spent on the night copy desk, where i often was the only "girl" in the city room after 7 p.m. (unless st. helen connor was there.)

often, i sat next to tiger, who had the largest assortment of "tics" i've ever seen in a single human being.

to cite just a few: he filled out his copy sked in alternating colors. he exclaimed, "er, what the? what the?" or "urp, urp" with fair regularity and little context. he talked obsessively about court tennis, a medieval royal sport. (he also loved playing modern tennis.)

i once, quite seriously, asked him if he'd ever been screened for/diagnosed with tourette syndrome; he replied, with equal gravity, that he had not been but that he probably would qualify.

because of his quirks, he probably wouldn't have lasted out his probation in today's gannettized, sanitized newsrooms, but he was dependable, hard-working and conscientious when i knew him best.

i remember attending his and marie's wedding. i think most of us were surprised that he'd found love that late in life, but happy for both of them.

oh -- and the nickname was because of the mizzou connection according to the tiger himself.

like other commenters on this and other occasions, i feel lucky to have been part of the "old corps," the hard-working, hard-griping and often hard-drinking people who put out the star with as much integrity as the pulliams' and bob early's prejudices would allow.

the men i worked with in those early days included a scholar of greek and latin (bill brooks), speakers of multiple modern languages (vladimir posvar, john ackelmire), a veteran of the oss (cia forerunner -- ackelmire again), a former war correspondent who eventually wrote or ghost-wrote at least a dozen books (john mcdowell) and the inimitable charlie griffo, whose nose for news was almost infallible.

(i say almost because when the first news of "gay plague" (hiv/aids) came over the wire, i wanted to run a story on it in the sunday focus section. his response was that nobody cared about something killing just a few "queers." he was unconvinced by my argument that no other microorganism had been known to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.)

journalism has continued to attract fascinating people. but today there are far fewer chances to get to know the people around you because the pace gives camraderie little chance to develop. the person at the next terminal may be an expert on classical literature or woodworking, but only 2 or 3 close coworkers will have an inkling of that.

back in the days of working on the old chicago sun "rim," if i had a world war 2 question, all i had to do was ask any of the veterans on the desk; they, in turn, asked me about pop music, hippies and feminists.

"those were the days, my friends/we thought they'd never end/we'd sing and dance forever and a day . . . "

2009-12-31 08:17:31

howard smulevitz [unverified] said:

Ellen, although I don't want to divert from Tiger to Griffo stories, let me match yours:
Charlie and Bix Smith were sorting through the photo flimsies one Saturday, when Bix held up the photo of a woman and it was about the second female rabbi. Charlie tossed it aside, saying, "We had one of those last year."
A minute or so later, Griffo announced he had a good tornado devastation picture. From my desk maybe 10 feet away, I blurted,"Charlie, we had one of those last year." For some reason, he just glanced at me and kept sorting pictures, so I lived to tell the story.

2009-12-31 20:25:12

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