Remembering Larry Maddry

by Kerry Dougherty 

What happens when corporate bean counters drive out all of their experienced workers and replace them with fresh-faced kids right out of school?

Bad things.

In the case of newspapers, it means hiring reporters who are unfamiliar with the area. It means all of the curmudgeonly grammarians are gone and there’s no one around to catch mistakes in copy.

And it means that when beloved newspapermen from an earlier era die, no one in the newsroom remembers them.

That may explain why it took The Virginian-Pilot — where I worked for 34 years — about a week to mourn the loss of Marvin Lake, the first black reporter ever hired by the Pilot and a man most of us admired and found to be a thoughtful sounding board for story ideas.

It also means that as I write this it’s been five days since the death of beloved metro columnist Larry Maddry — who retired in 2000 — and the newspaper has yet to print a word about him.

Maddry’s family shouldn’t have to buy an obituary from the newspaper where he delighted readers for more than 30 years to note his passing.

I’m hoping to wake up this Wednesday morning, find a front-page story on Larry and feel a little foolish for writing this.

Even if that happens, this little tribute is what I want to offer:

It’s rare that a person who worked for decades in a bustling newsroom with its over-sized egos and terrible tempers leaves with no enemies. But it was impossible not to like Larry Maddry, the columnist with a soft Southern drawl, dry wit, and the ability to write like an angel.

I don’t believe I ever heard anyone — even the most hard-bitten journalists — gripe about him.

Maddry’s most memorable columns — the ones old timers still talk about — concerned Fred the cat.

This was in 1981 when a local cat made the finals of a “Meow Off” contest in Beverly Hills. Larry Maddry knew a good story when he saw one and he asked the newspaper honchos to send him to California.

No way, they said. Too expensive.

So, Larry decided to enlist the community to pressure the editors. He donned a risqué cat costume and headed out to local shopping malls for weeks with petitions demanding the newspaper send him to California.

Local TV news covered Maddry’s stunt in vintage Ron Burgundy style:

Maddry’s persistence – or the fish net stockings – paid off.

This happened three years before I arrived at the Pilot, but Larry’s dispatches from the Greyhound were classics. Fred didn’t win the contest, but Larry won the hearts of readers with his amusing accounts of seeing the country through the window of a Greyhound bus.

When Maddry retired in 2000 the entire staff wore cat masks to his party. He wrote about the cat incident in one of his last columns after learning the editors planned to run a photo of him in the feline finery with his farewell:

Here’s what happened. I was a poor columnist with a family who could not afford to visit his aging mother living in California as much as I liked because air travel was expensive.

So, when a press release reached my desk saying a Virginia Beach cat named Fred had been selected to appear in the National Meow-Off in Beverly Hills, Calif., I jumped out of my seat.

The owner was a Navy enlisted man and the story looked big enough to punch my ticket to California.

But my editor refused to send me to cover the contest, natch. Despite the strong Navy, animal and human interest angle.

So I began a campaign to enlist reader help in pressuring the editor to send me to the contest.

It began with the cat costume. Unfortunately, I could not find a Walt Disney type cat suit in Hampton Roads costume shops. So I had to settle for a swinging-divorcee-goes-to-Halloween-party-at-Las Vegas-casino costume.

It had fur trim around the collar, a low neckline and black fishnet stockings. (The Vegas comparison is good. The stockings, in time, got several holes larger than silver dollars in them.)

Kids from the neighborhood joined my campaign. We all appeared at a local mall as I wore the suit while smoking a cigar. The cigar, I hoped, would take the edge off the impression that I might be a sexual wierdo. I’m not sure it worked.

The kids carried signs saying stuff like, “Send the moron to meow-land!” And I urged mall-goers to sign a petition dem put a large cat balloon over the roof of the building. And readers, bless ’em, demanded that they send me to the contest.

In time, the editor gave in. They gave me a bus ticket to California, and a peanut butter sandwich and a banana for the trip across country. It was a rough, three-day trip. I couldn’t sleep. I sat next to a woman with enough metal curlers in her hair to make a radar antenna.

(Fred the Wonder Cat had a first-class plane ticket and arrived ahead of me).

We got a lot of press coverage in L.A. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner ran a story about Fred (who didn’t win the contest but did well) and me. That paper also ran a photo of me in the cat suit.

“And you wonder why so many newspapers are folding?” writer Richard Nordwind observed.

I’d hoped I’d put that episode behind me. It’s been a long time since I’ve stepped into a 7-Eleven and been mocked by a total stranger making a meowing sound.

Now they intend to run the darned photo of me again! It’s gonna come out April 1. And I can close my eyes and see the caption: “Now talk about a real April fool . . . get a load of this!’

In reading through some of Larry’s wonderful and quirky columns, I found one he wrote upon the death of legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko.

I’d like this post about Larry to be as good as his about Royko. It isn’t. Then again, when I was promoted to the coveted columnist position left vacant by Larry Maddry in 2000 I knew I’d never measure up.

He was a singular talent.

RIP, Larry.

Republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed and Unedited.