Monday, July 14, 2008

Beach on Mr. Leeney

Robert J. Leeney was a living link to the legacy of New Haven
This old Elm City won’t be quite the same without Robert J. Leeney living amongst us and writing about it all, reminding us of our storied past.
When I saw the headline Monday morning announcing his death, at age 92, I know I shared with many others in this community a stabbing sensation, a temporary loss of breath.
And I had a personal pang of regret, because for the past six months, I had tried to take my old editor out for lunch in his famous stomping ground, downtown New Haven.
When I met Bob Leeney in 1977, I was a cub reporter and he was the New Haven Register’s editor. I quickly realized he was fair, ethical and a calming presence in a business that has far too few such people.
He helped me learn, as a newcomer to this city, what a special place it is and has been through the past centuries.
In more recent times, after the Register moved from Orange Street to Sargent Drive and Leeney became editor emeritus, it was comforting to see him come in once a week to file his Saturday column. He was an important link to this newspaper’s history and to the community’s history.
His column focused on this. As a member of the New Haven Museum and Historical Society and the Friends of the Grove Street Cemetery, he treasured the city’s legacy and taught us to value it, too.
In his farewell column of April 21, 2007, Leeney characterized the museum and society as "an institution I consider a key to a vital, progressive and self-improving city, a place for preserving mutual memories, which are based on affection and which may help guide a community from the past to a productive future."
In that column, he noted he had become a Register reporter in 1940, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president and John W. Murphy was mayor.
"Everybody shopped downtown for everything," he wrote, "and a wide web of trolley car tracks interlocked at the Green."
But 67 years later, he was penning his final regular Saturday column because, he told us in his lead, it’s important to listen to your doctor’s advice.
Four years before that, he had written a beautifully evocative column about his heart attack.
Because it was a mild attack, he was able to describe the experience minute by minute, from the first symptoms he felt in the kitchen of his Bethany home to the ambulance ride and the procedures at the hospital.
This is how he recounted being put on the hospital table: "I found myself like a wounded knight upon his narrow shield, arms and elbows propped outside as the cardiac crew moved in."
He concluded what he called "this adventure of the heart" by recalling his return home:
"I went to bed early. A full moon, moving west above our trees, thrust its long silver rays through the window and onto the pillow where for so many years my dear wife, Anne, had slumbered.
"I touched the pillow where the moonlight and the memory fused and whispered, ‘Much ado about nothing, old girl’ — and went to sleep."
Is it humanly possible to read those lines with dry eyes?
Occasionally I called his house to quote him for a news story or ask about a contact. After Katharine Hepburn died in June 2003, I knew he was the man to call because he had covered the Shubert Theater for decades and met its stars. Sure enough, he had a ready recollection of interviewing her.
"She talked to you directly, with the forthrightness one would expect," he said. "But she was easy to talk to."
Last February, when I again called upon him for input on a news story, I asked him how he was doing. Since he was forever an optimist, I was struck by his tone: "I’m housebound; I can’t drive anymore. I can’t say I’ll meet you downtown tomorrow at 2."
He was speaking hypothetically; we hadn’t been discussing a get-together. But after I hung up the phone, I decided I should follow-up and offer to drive him downtown for lunch. I realized we had never eaten a meal together. I also wanted to buy a copy of his book, "Habitations," a collection of his columns.
I made three attempts to see him. The first time he said he had to see his doctor; the second and third times he said he didn’t feel well enough to go out.
He concluded that final conversation by laughing at himself, saying, "I’m a sick old geezer!"
We agreed we would keep trying. But I wondered if I would ever see him again.
During an interview shortly before he announced he was ending his Saturday column, he modestly said of his career, "I just had an amazing run of luck."
And we were very lucky to have him here.
Randall Beach can be reached at or 789-5766.

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