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With a 'Goodbye, Denver,' City Loses Longtime Voice

Journalism: Columnist Gene Amole, faced with dying, decided to chronicle his last days for his readers. The series ended Monday.

May 19, 2002|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — In a city focused on the future, Gene Amole was the elegant spokesman for the past.

Change made him cranky. Sprawl made him cross. As a columnist for 24 years at the Rocky Mountain News, he played the role of nostalgic old-timer in a town swarming with newcomers.

He could be stubborn, contrary, out of step with the times. But his abiding decency and generous spirit made him the dean of Denver journalists, the city's answer to Herb Caen or Mike Royko.

The typical Amole column was a diatribe against the taxpayer-funded airport, or a screed against taxpayer-funded stadiums, or a wistful paean to the old days, when Denver's air and water were clean, its politics dirty. (Colorado's governor in the 1950s pulled a gun on Amole, a memory he treasured.)

Change was Amole's subject, his constant foe, until October, when he encountered one change he couldn't fight: His own mortality. In a memorable column that caught even his colleagues by surprise, the 78-year-old columnist announced that he was dying and that he would cover his last days as a story.

For months Amole wrote about the pain of death, the humor of it, the inconvenience. He rambled and rhapsodized and wept on the page, and described the dying of the light. During one 17-week span he wrote a column every day the newspaper published, outworking colleagues a third his age.

His chronicle of a death foretold drew thousands of e-mails and letters and phone calls, and his long-standing connection with the city grew even deeper.

On Monday, the chronicle ended. One day after Amole died of "multi-system failure," the News published his farewell, one last column Amole had left in reserve.

"Goodbye, Denver," read the front-page headline, above the familiar photo of Amole, hand to his temple, smiling wistfully. It was a sterling piece of journalism, more for what it was than for what it said. Even in death the consummate newspaperman had managed to make one last deadline.

On Friday, capping a week of remembrance, Denver honored Amole by doing what it seldom does, what Amole was forever telling it to do: It paused. Hundreds gathered in Civic Center Park for a reading of Amole's finest columns, an unusual tribute for a man who didn't consider himself a great writer.

Tom Gavin, a friend and former managing editor of the News, told the crowd that Amole would be sorely annoyed to see them all there. "If ever there was a man noisily intent on slipping quietly away," Gavin said. "Yet here we all are, trampling his careful plans."

He closed with a fitting send-off for a curmudgeon: "May flights of angels sing him to his rest," Gavin grumbled. "Whether he likes it or not."

Amole was born in Denver, and seemingly born to newspapers. He learned to read by studying the News through his grandfather's magnifying glass.

In his inaugural column, and often thereafter, he spoke of the newsroom as his paradise, his home, his destiny. "Everyone has to be somewhere," he wrote in 1993. "My somewhere is the newsroom."

That may be why he treated the News as he treated people, with a cherishing tenderness, an old-fashioned courtliness. Sometimes, referring to the News, he would adopt a reverent tone normally reserved for his wife, Trish, his four children and his grandson.

Long before he walked into the newsroom, however, Amole was already a household name in Denver. Popular disc jockey, pioneering TV personality, wealthy businessman--and, above all, war hero.

Joining the 6th Armored Division when he was barely out of his teens, he fought in many of the epic battles of World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge. War formed him. War hardened his head and softened his heart. War made him permanently wistful, and writing a column helped him work out why. Readers often held their breath as he struggled with the poignancy of his war memories and tried to translate their emotional aftermath.

In 1989, nearly 44 years after the day he came home, he wrote about the scene:

"Mom, Pop and Grandpa were waiting for me at the top of the passenger ramp at Denver Union Station. I tried to hug them all at the same time and still keep my duffle bag on my shoulder. My mother was crying as she counted the battle stars on my ETO ribbon. I was alive and home. The war was over and I wanted nothing more than to put it behind me forever.

"It wasn't long, though, before I began to realize that it would never be over for me."

The young veteran suffered flashbacks and nightmares and insomnia, which lasted for decades. He also endured bouts of survivor's guilt, as one of only three young men from his neighborhood who returned from the battlefields. He never forgot the five who didn't.

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