October 3, 2022
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From the Beatles to Brinks, a front-page career

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It was about 15 years ago and I was city editor at the Stamford Advocate, roaming the newsroom to quietly coax other editors into the 5 p.m. news meeting.

An editorial assistant interrupted to tell me Barry Hoffman was on the phone.

“I’ll call him back, but say these exact words. Tell him I said he should know better than to call at 5 o’clock. It is Showtime.”

Barry was the paper’s managing editor from 1985 to 1995, a bridge between journalism generations. He didn’t merely emerge from his glass office at 5 p.m. every day to summon the troops, he did it like he was on horseback barking orders to the infantry.


“IT’S SHOWTIME!”

After learning of Barry’s death at age 79 in his native Dallas, Texas, I reached out to some of his former colleagues seeking stories about him. It’s perilous to ask journalists to share personal stories. It’s about the only time they prefer going off the record. But Barry’s life was packed with front page news.

At 21, he was among the phalanx of journalists who welcomed the Beatles to America in 1964. He described the Fabs as “puppies” and shared Marlboros with them.

“These girls would be in the fountains outside the Plaza Hotel and ask me if I’d seen them,” he once recalled. “I said, ‘Saw them? They bummed a cigarette from me,’ and then flick them the butt.”

Barry was a United Press International reporter at the time, two years after starting out as a copy boy for the New York Herald Tribune. By 1968 he was serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam as a broadcast specialist and combat reporter. After his tenure in Stamford, he was a founder of HealthDay, an international news service.

I grew up reading his byline in Westchester newspapers. Bylines are stealth, so I couldn’t know what to expect when we met. I certainly didn’t expect a man who liked to drawl the catchphrase, “I’m just a Jew from Texas,” and relished being characterized as a human version of the cartoon rooster Foghorn Leghorn.

Arthur H. Gunther III, retired Rockland editorial page editor of The Journal News, makes it clear Barry’s hybrid Texan/New Yorker attitude was well-defined before he came to Connecticut.

“Barry Hoffman never walked into the newsroom — he burst in as if the presses had to halt for an Extra!,” Gunther wrote. “He bubbled with enthusiasm over uncovering political corruption; he urged reporters to look for all the facts, relentlessly; he went to tears over a baby’s death. He was Damon Runyonesque and a character out of ‘The Front Page.’”

Barry kept a framed front page in his Advocate office from an unforgettable story he was involved in covering, the 1981 Brink’s bank robbery in Nanuet, N.Y., which resulted in the deaths of two police officers and a guard. When Kathy Boudin, a member of the Weather Underground involved in the crime, died last month, former Advocate reporter Dan Mangan (now with CNBC.com) reached out to Barry to break the news.

“It was a terrible incident but a terrific story to chase,” Barry responded.

Former U.S. Rep Chris Shays recalls that “Barry was always accessible, and felt as managing editor he had a mission as important as any elected official, but treated those in public office with appreciation and respect.”

Barry took the news seriously, but had a sweet tooth for serving readers a little dessert.

Former Advocate News Editor Dan Berman recalls that a bear sighting in North Stamford inspired Barry to offer $100 to any reporter of photographer who could get a photo.

No one collected.

When temperatures on July 24, 1987 soared into the 90s, the Texan sent a writer to Bedford Street in Stamford to determine if it was hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.

Intern Alan Cullison, then attending University of Chicago, got the assignment. His former Stamford High School guidance counselor happened to pass by to find him crouching with his reporter’s notebook over a decidedly unfried egg.

“Alan, whatever are you doing?” she inquired.

“I think she maybe had higher hopes for me,” Cullison reflects.

She had no need to fear. Cullison’s byline now appears in the Wall Street Journal, where he has covered Moscow and national security.

Back in 1987, though, Cullison had not written for his school papers and found reporting “extremely stressful.”

“I didn’t like it at first,” he recalls. “I was gobsmacked by the idea that I could write something and 10,000 people could read it. I couldn’t believe the amount of responsibility this wild man was putting upon me.”

Cullison does a passable impersonation of Barry. He cranks the volume to 11 and steers his tones south when recalling greetings such as “What ya doin’ today kid?”

In recalling sources for the summer story, Cullison slips and refers to an “eggspert.”

“It took you 35 years to come up with that pun,” I tease.

Which reminds me to reach out to the only former staffer I know who once won the Punderdome pun contest.

A humor column had been Jerry Zezima’s dream as Stamford High School’s class clown. After Zezima wrote his first one for the Advocate in 1985, Barry announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a humorist.”

Since then, Zezima has written six books and 1,300 columns.

Some of Barry’s management style wouldn’t fly today. Ken Best, who was editor of the Weekend section at the time, said “I always think of Barry as the Advocate’s version of Lou Grant.”

Grant was a great boss, but his job interview style was already recognized as anachronistic when he asked Mary Richards her religion on the first episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1970.

Beth (Cooney) Fitzpatrick essentially played “Mary” to Barry’s “Lou” when she was hired at the Advocate.

“He asked me if I was the kind of girl who was ‘Into dead things.’” she recalls.

“Dead things?”

“You know. Hair. Nails. Dead things,” Barry clarified.

“He was trying to get a pulse on whether I was shallow and vapid or ‘just cute,’” she reflects. “I realize he could get fired for that line of inquiry today, but I sort of admired the creativity and humor that went into the prodding as he tried to size me up. He wasn’t wrong, by the way. I was always into hair, nails and journalism.”

She moved from covering courts to features, but retains the unflinching attitude of a news reporter. When recalling Barry’s departure from the paper, she reminded me, “he was fired, please don’t sugarcoat that” and that “the reporters and junior editors were all heartbroken.”

At a farewell party for Barry, former Arts Editor Geoffrey F.X. O’Connell wrote lyrics to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” with the chorus, “Sing us a song, you’re the Showtime Man.”

When I returned Barry’s call after that news meeting 15 years ago, he clearly appreciated being remembered.

“Aww man, that was great,” he said. “I got a little choked up.”

John Breunig is editorial page editor of the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time. jbreunig@scni.com; twitter.com/johnbreunig.





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