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COMMENTARY : 'Journalist Bill' Didn't Ignore Memos


The Los Angeles sports world, which has all too few true characters, lost an original Friday. When broadcaster Jim Healy died, so did a listening habit that had carried millions home along the L.A. freeways for years.

Healy was my introduction to Los Angeles, my first media shock treatment here. It was late February, 1981. I was here interviewing with the L.A. Times for a position of assistant sports editor, and I was riding with a friend on the freeway.

I was mostly not interested in being here, not even sure why I had come all the way from the safe harbor of Milwaukee to these insane freeways and frenzied goings on.

Suddenly, this squeaky, raspy voice blurted out on the radio that the sports editor of the Milwaukee Journal was in town and would soon become the next sports editor of The Times. Had I been driving, I would have become yet another L.A. traffic statistic.

Healy, of course, had it right, as he all so frequently did.

A month or so later, I took a job that I originally had had no interest in. Three months after that, I was sports editor. And two weeks after that, Healy had completely rearranged my identity. I was now "Journalist Bill."

Night after night, he would get it right. Night after night, he would find the wrong score, the stupid syntax, the missing comma on the sports pages of The Times. Night after night, he would chide me. It always began with the dreaded words, "Memo to Journalist Bill."

When the Herald Examiner folded nearly five years ago, there was discussion about how the lack of competition would make The Times sports section complacent. My answer was always the same: Not while Healy's around.

Early in my stay here, when I was shuffling personnel a great deal, I made a decision on a major coverage shift and, for fear that it would get out and mess things up, had told nobody except my wife what I was going to do. I had planned to tell the staffer involved early on a Wednesday morning. Tuesday night at 5:30, Healy had it on the air, had it dead right, and even had the correct reasons for the shift.

After that, when I was out making speeches and the subject of Healy came up, I would tell that story, assure the audience that Healy apparently had sources everywhere, and assure the audience that I was no longer telling my wife anything.

With the slings and arrows that came with being Healy's "Journalist Bill" also came lots of nice things, such as his label of The Times sports section as "the world champion." It was, of course, extreme hyperbole, but when you are on the receiving end of such things, you can't help but enjoy it.

Another nice thing was Healy's friendship. He could take it as well as dish it out, and he enjoyed greatly the occasional lunches with Times sportswriters. The tales flowed freely, and all too much of it ended up on the air the next night.

He also loved the horses and loved to show neophyte Midwesterners how to bet them, which was to do so with absolutely no logic, no preparation and no research. A few years ago, he showed me the way during the Fairplex meeting in Pomona. He bet the address of his new condo in Idaho in various trifecta combinations and, sure enough, hit one for about $900. I remember vividly his "See, kid" smirk.

For all his bombast and bluster on the airwaves, Healy was a shy man.

Years ago, I was asked to organize a one-day summer seminar on the media at UCLA. Part of the mandate was to balance the panel with print and broadcast journalists. I asked Healy, he accepted. Then I asked Fred Roggin of Channel 4, and mentioned that Healy would be among the speakers. Roggin accepted on the spot, saying that he wasn't so interested in speaking as he was in seeing Healy, whom he said almost never did that kind of public appearance.

As recently as a few years ago, Roggin was still talking about how I got Healy to make that appearance, calling it perhaps my "most significant contribution to journalism." If that's true, I'll take it.

With the public, Healy remained shy to the end. With his friends, he was outgoing and generous.

Two months ago, Healy ran into radio executive Bill Ward, his longtime friend and business colleague at both KLAC and KMPC. They were in the airport at Seattle, waiting to fly back to L.A. When Healy learned that Ward and another business associate were on his flight, but flying coach, Healy cashed in his own airline bonus miles to move both of them up to the first-class cabin with him and his wife, Pat.

When Healy was honored by the placement of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the event took place about noon and the media coverage was extensive. Then, upon returning to their offices, reporters learned that Magic Johnson had called a news conference to announce that he had the virus that causes AIDS. Healy's day had been upstaged.

I asked him later if that had bothered him. He said no, because this way, everybody would better remember his day as the same day that Magic made his stunning announcement.

Ward said Friday that, even before Healy's death, there was a noticeable void in the 5-6 p.m. time slot on the freeways of L.A. Others have expressed the same thing recently.

For me, the void may go even deeper. Healy's death is that of a friend and an identity. No more Journalist Bill.

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