New York Times columnist Dan Barry’s 1978 profile of a college dorm janitor

Dan Barry

Dan Barry

Perhaps Dan Barry is the best person to describe his own career exploits, from an excerpt of the commencement address he delivered at his alma mater St. Bonaventure University just weeks ago:

“I’ve been a newspaper journalist for 35 years and I have written thousands of stories. Small town crimes and big city massacres. Political campaigns for Town Council and for the United States Senate. Saints and mobsters. Burlesque queens and circus elephants. The powerful and the powerless. I have met the coroner from The Wizard of Oz.  I have witnessed a man’s execution. I saw New Orleans underwater after Hurricane Katrina. I spent an entire year writing about what happened to the city of my birth after an attack on a sunny Tuesday morning in September. In some ways, I’m still writing about that.”

Dan Barry is truly one of the great storytellers of our time, best known as the columnist for the regular New York Times feature “This Land,” which tells the tales of ordinary people with unique stories or meaningful lives in the hidden corners of America. It’s always a refreshing break to read that in a newspaper often noted for its coverage of the most powerful, from presidents to popes to dictators. Among Barry’s best writings include:

  • The tale of Mamie Lang Kirkland, the elderly black woman who finally returned to her home state a full century after her family left while fleeing a lynch mob.
  • The offbeat story of activists in Keene, New Hampshire who were paying literally all the parking meters in the town to “save you from the king’s tariff.”
  • The sad life of Jesse Webster, who since 1996 has served life in prison without parole for a completely nonviolent offense.
  • Dan Barry's 1908-style baseball column in the NYT print edition. Click for a larger view.

    Dan Barry’s 1908-style baseball column in the NYT print edition. Click for a larger view. (It should surprise nobody that the Cubs lost.)

    His column last October covering a Chicago Cubs vs. New York Mets baseball game as though it was 1908, featuring old-fashioned terminology (a single becomes a “one-bagger” and the Mets become “the Metropolitans”), a century-old font in the newspaper print edition, and grainy black-and-white photographs.

  • Another baseball-related story,  his book “Bottom of the 33rd” about the longest baseball game of all time in 1981. Barry alternates chapters describing the game inning-by-inning and tracking down the (often tragic) lives of the minor-league players in the subsequent three decades. I read the whole thing, all 33 innings of it, and I’d highly recommend even if you don’t love baseball. As proof, I don’t love baseball!
  • Barry’s new book, released just last month, is “The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland,” the true story of several dozen intellectually disabled men who were kept in servitude for more than 30 years in a small Iowa town without anybody knowing before gaining their freedom.

The piece Barry submitted for A Step in the Write Direction is a short column he wrote for his college publication the Bonaventure Convex in December 1978, about a janitor at a university dorm building who had more to his life than met the eye. The piece shows early glimpses of the “aura of mystique” writing style that Barry uses so often today, in particular phrases like “some people still say…” Below is Barry writing about what he remembers about writing the piece, followed by a photo of the piece as it appeared in the print edition you can read, followed by the original text copied and pasted. (A note for younger readers: Sophia Loren, who is mentioned more than once in the column and featured in the photo accompanying the piece, was an Oscar-winning actress from the ’50s and ’60s.)

Check out Dan Barry at his official website DanBarryOnline.com, follow him on Twitter at @DanBarryNYT, on Facebook at DanBarry.Author.

The story of Tony Oni — whose real name was Tony Villani — had a deep impact on me. I was a student at St. Bonaventure University, trying to imagine a life as a journalist who told the stories of others, including the vulnerable. And here, every morning, came Tony to my dormitory to pick up the beer cups and other debris of a bunch of relatively privileged young men from Syracuse and Buffalo and Long Island. Some ridiculed him for his intellectual disability, even as he cleaned their mess.
To check out the rumor that he was Sophia Loren’s cousin, I visited Tony in his squalid apartment in a dodgy part of town. He said he had a photo; it turned out to be a movie poster on his wall. But I kept digging, and ultimately found a photo of the two of them in an old campus newspaper.
I’m indebted to Tony Villani. I learned about the chasm that existed between the non-disabled and disabled worlds — that still exists, as I recently discovered in researching and writing “The Boys in the Bunkhouse.” I learned about not giving up in digging for facts. And I learned the rush from snatching a true story from out of the clouds of myth and rumor.

Toni Oni, The Spirit of Devereux - Dan Barry - The Bonaventure Convex, December 1978

Toni Oni, The Spirit of Devereux

By Dan Barry

When that freshman first lugs his suitcase up those stairs in Devereux, he can sense the tradition of the oldest dorm on the St. Bonaventure campus. It has a special air about it, one of pride and madness. The teachers refer to Dev as the “Zoo.”

As the upperclassmen arrive a few days later, they fill the freshman in on the history of his new home. Yes, Lanier lived here, and there’s where the Great Water War of ‘76 took place, and up on Fifth Dev two guys said a black mass and a priest held an exorcism.

But the only story that the upperclassmen tell with a special tone of reverence and mystery is the one about Toni-Oni, the janitor. He’s Sophia Loren’s cousin, the upperclassmen say.

As the years pass, that freshman (now an upperclassman) sees Toni-Oni almost any time of the day, dragging two plastic trash bags down the Dev halls, his eyes down in search of empty beer cans and scraps of paper. In his baggy blue uniform and black shoes, he perpetually cleans up after the students, never complaining, never scolding. Only smiling. He always smiles and says, “Hiya.”

Some people say his name is Antonio Villani and he lives across from Burger King in town. Others who know better say his name is Toni-Oni and he lives in Devereux tradition. After all, the upperclassmen say, he’s Sophia Loren’s cousin.

11-time Sportswriter of the Year Rick Reilly’s first big sports article about a local marathon included an interview with the governor

Rick Reilly photo

Rick Reilly, 11-time NSSA National Sportswriter of the Year

If you’re a huge sports fan, then longtime Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine columnist Rick Reilly is probably your favorite sportswriter. But if you’re not a sports fan, please keep reading this… because Rick Reilly would still probably be your favorite sportswriter.

See, Reilly rarely writes about game scores and recaps. He mostly writes about the people behind the games.

Rick Reilly's cover story last month. In this photo, just like in politics, the Green Party is on the left. (Photo: Walter Iooss Jr. for SI)

Rick Reilly’s cover story last month. In this photo, just like in politics, the Green Party is on the left. (Photo: Walter Iooss Jr. for SI)

Take his recent Sports Illustrated cover story about the Golden State Warriors, the basketball team which just set the record last week for most wins in a regular season. Almost any other writer would have structured the article around  superstar and Most Valuable Player award winner Steph Curry. Instead, Reilly structured the article around 15-year-old Sofia Petrafesa, afflicted with a bone cancer that shows up only 200 times a year in the U.S., a girl whose only dream is to see the Warriors play.

As another example, take Reilly’s 1999 column “Funny You Should Ask” which many people (including myself) consider to be his best piece. It’s kind of about sports, but mostly it’s about life itself, as in this beautifully eloquent paragraph:

I don’t think the meaning of life is gnashing our bicuspids over what comes after death but tasting all the tiny moments that come before it. We’re here to be the coach when Wendell, the one whose glasses always fog up, finally makes the only perfect backdoor pass all season. We’re here to be there when our kid has three goals and an assist. And especially when he doesn’t.

The cover depicts Reilly competing in the competition known as "ferret legging," which actually exists.

Reilly competing in the competition called”ferret legging,” which apparently actually exists.

Plus Reilly wrote one of the funniest books of the past few years — “Sports from Hell: My Search for the World’s Most Outrageous Competition.” In it, he goes around the world competing in everything from Chess Boxing to the World Sauna Championship to the Three-Mile Golf Hole.  And those are some of the less ridiculous contests.

Reilly is one of the best sportswriters but would probably be one of the worst horoscope writers. Here’s a quote from his 2011 University of Colorado-Boulder journalism school commencement speech:

“We’ll be fine. You guys should hang onto those diplomas. They’re like collectors’ items. It’s like ‘Donald Trump for President’ bumper stickers or polar bears. You’ll never see them again.”

So which early piece of writing did Reilly choose to feature here?  A Colorado native, Reilly, while still a sophomore in college, started writing sports on the side for the local Boulder Daily Camera newspaper . His first piece in May 1979 was about the local marathon, which even included a short interview with then-Governor of Colorado who was at the race. The article is copied below in text form at the end of this post, with a photo of the print edition version included as well.

As Reilly lamented when re-reading the piece for the first time in decades a few weeks ago, “It wasn’t much, was it?” To be perfectly honest… no, it wasn’t. Yet perhaps that just underscores the point: the best writers aren’t made, they’re developed.

Here’s how Reilly describes the experience in his own words:

The Boulder High School Owl, my first newspaper was called. “Hoo’s Hoo at BHS” I think was one of my columns. Yes, it was.

The Owl was HUGE for me because that was the first time I could actually write for somebody else. As opposed to my terrifyingly-detailed “newspaper” accounts of me and my 10-year-old friends’ exploits in Home Run Derby every day and what we did at “night” — I dated Joey Heatherton, I remember, and drove a Rolls-Royce.

Also, through the Owl, I competed in the state high school journalism contest, where I won first place in sportswriting. They gave you a list of random facts about some game, all mixed up, some important and some not, and you had to bang out a game story in six paragraphs and 15 minutes. Somehow, I think I got the word “obstetrician” into it.

Anyway, the judge was the assistant sports editor at the Boulder (CO) Daily Camera. The problem was he judged the contest anonymously. That is, nobody’s names or towns were on the entries. So he didn’t know who he’d picked. When I won, I tried desperately to find him and ask for a job, but he was gone.

BUT… I was a teller at the local bank that summer after my senior year and who do I end up “telling” next to but the guy’s WIFE.

I begged her for a month to tell him I was the kid who won the contest and would they need any help? And finally she did and he immediately called me and gave me a JOB, which I worked at 40 hours a week while going to CU [University of Colorado at Boulder].

And, anyway, that’s how I got my break.

And now, here is — in both photo and text form — Reilly’s 1979 article about a Colorado marathon. (Reilly can be found at his official website RickReillyOnline.com, and follow him on Twitter @ReillyRick. Read and watch his ESPN articles and videos here, and read his 10 best Sports Illustrated feature articles through the years here.)

Rick Reilly - Boulder Daily Camera - Barksdale Beats Heat for Marathon Win - 5.7.1979

Click the photo or open it in a new tab for a larger version.

Barksdale Beats Heat for Marathon Win

By RICK REILLY

Camera Sports Writer

DENVER – Boulderites Hank Barksdale and Bernie Allen are giving Colorado marathon runners the business.

The business is a wholesale running gear company — International Sports, operated out of Boulder by Allen and assisted by Barksdale. The company deals in professional equipment for the serious runner. The other business the two are involved in is actually running marathons. Allen won the first annual Boulder Memorial Hospital Life and Health Marathon earlier this year, and Barksdale claimed the United Bank of Denver Mile-High Marathon Sunday.

The red-haired Barksdale, who turns 25 today, beat the searing mid-morning sun, the altitude, and 1,657 other runners to win the title and cross the finish line at the Brown Palace Hotel in downtown Denver in 2 hours, 33 minutes and 39 seconds.

“I never pushed it,” an exhausted Barksdale said afterwards. “It was so hot out there that after a while, I realized that running with a kick was going to be ridiculous. I just decided to keep up a steady pace. The heat took at least five minutes off my time. So did the altitude.”

Barksdale took the lead at about the 20-mile point on the scenic Denver course and was never behind after that. Second place went to Longmont’s 18-year-old Perry Evoniuk, who ran 2:35:47.

The women’s winner was Bette Popper, a Littleton native and a member of the Rocky Mountain Road Runners, co-hosts of the event. She finished in 3:13:30, unofficially.

Claiming second behind Popper was Boulder’s Beth Schlichter, a physical therapist at Boulder Memorial Hospital. Schlichter finished in three hours and 15 minutes, also an unofficial time after a computer breakdown prevented accurate timing.

A crowd of about two thousand people roared as Barksdale made the turn onto 17th street off of Glenarm and headed into the last yards of the gruelling 26-mile, 385-yard course. When he arrived, a swarm of television cameras and reporters greeted him, along with Gov. Richard Lamm, who placed an Athens-like Olympic wreath around his head.

Lamm had already run his own 13-mile race earlier in the day, but remained at the race site for a few hours afterwards.

“This is such a joy,” he said. “I envy these people [finishing the race]. But you don’t have to go 26 miles to enjoy running. You should be able to run around the block and still have fun.

“I just ran 5 or 6 miles a day, but I keep thinking it would be a good goal to try and run one of these things. I have so much fun now, though, I would hate for it to become a chore. There are already so many chores in life.”

Women’s champ Popper was greeted with the same type of enthusiasm as she neared the finish.

“I have the best fan club in the world,” said Popper. “This is wonderful. The course was beautiful. I ran badly, but it was good enough to win, I guess.”

Businessman Allen, a native of England, dropped out of the race near the 20th mile but Barksdale, the man they call “Hammerin’ Hank,” hung on to win his first marathon ever.

The slender Barksdale didn’t enter last month’s Boulder event because he was training for the Boston Marathon (where he finished 190th). He says he will probably run in the New York Marathon.

Barksdale defeated former CU track star Mike Peterson, one of the favorites of the race, who withdrew after 24 miles because of blisters.

Last year’s winner, Skip Houk, from Reno, Nevada, finished fifth. Houk ran a 2:30:53 on a cold, snowy day in 1978.

“The heat made all the difference,” Houk said. “It was bad for me. Even before the halfway mark, I could feel it. It was a lot easier to run last year.”

Third-place finishers were Roger Gerard, 35, of Arvada and Martha McKeal, also 35, of Colorado Springs.

Though the breakdown made complete results unavailable, Boulder also had one of the best efforts by a young runner Sunday. Twelve-year-old Jay Roper finished the 26-plus-mile race in 3:56.