God bless you, pal

By Matthew Hennessey

It is with great sadness that I note the passing of my father-in-law, William J. “Bill” Reel. Mr. Reel was a well-known columnist in his day. He worked for twenty-five years at the New York Daily News, and another ten at Newsday, before retiring to New Hampshire. After moving out of the area he continued to write for The Tablet,  the newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn. In the last few years, he even wrote once or twice for the Manchester Union-Leader.

His kind of journalism—personal, witty, street-smart—was once familiar to readers of New York’s daily papers, but has now essentially vanished. His contemporaries, like Breslin and Hamill, have been supplanted by syndicated columnists writing about national affairs. People my age can only just recall a time when newspapers competed for the talents of writers like Westbrook Pegler, James M. Cain, Murray Kempton, and Mr. Reel’s all-time favorite, Jimmy Cannon.

These were the writers he grew up reading and that influenced his style. Of course, he brought his own unique voice to his thrice-weekly column. He was a man of great faith and never felt the need to obscure it. He lived and breathed compassion. He knew what it was like to touch bottom and have your life returned to you. He never stopped thanking God for rescuing him from his demons.

Personally, I owe him a great deal. He was a lovely guy, and I’ll miss him terribly. Nothing made him happier than to hear stories about his grandchildren while sipping a breakfast cup of green tea with honey. He loved a good laugh, as his many friends will attest. He always ended our visits to New Hampshire by shaking my hand, patting  me on the back, and saying, “God bless you, pal. You’ve got a beautiful family.”

Here is what I consider one of his finer columns. It was published on Friday, March 7, 1980. I hope the Daily News doesn’t mind that I reprint it here. Of course, they own the rights, but he gave them so much, I wouldn’t expect that they would object to this, the only tribute I can think of that does justice to his remarkable life and career.


After his wake, Dolan moved up to the Bronx
William Reel

St. Patrick’s Day is but a fortnight away, and its imminence put the Bronx boy in the mood for one of his reveries. The Bronx boy sat back and relaxed and closed his eyes and thought of Dolan and Sexton. Why those two corkers from County Cork? Well, why not?

Dolan and Sexton lived in the old Gas House district of Manhattan, in the East 20s where Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village stand today. Sexton ran a funeral parlor on E. 21st St. and Ave. A. This was during Prohibition. The funeral parlor doubled as a booze dump. When a shipment of bootleg whisky arrived on the East Side, it always stopped at Sexton’s first. Representatives of the various speakeasies would drop by to pick up their rations. Dolan was one such customer. “The stiffs come in one door of my funeral parlor, and them that helps people get stiff come in the other door,” Sexton liked to say.

One morning Dolan and about 50 other bootleggers and speakeasy guys were in Sexton’s funeral home on business when a telephone tip came in that the joint was about to be raided. The cops would be there in 10 minutes, not nearly enough time to drink up 50 cases of evidence. Throwing the brown stuff away was unthinkable. So, the lads decided to hide it.

It so happened that a large supply of flowers was on hand for a wake later in the day. “I’ve got a thought,” Sexton said. He wheeled in a fresh casket and planted it right in front of the booze, then he and Dolan and the others all pitched in and hauled the flowers down the hall and arranged them around the hootch until the room was nothing but blossoms and greenery. Dolan got into the coffin and Sexton wrapped rosary beads around his hands just a second or two before the cops burst in.

The raid was led by Capt. Billy Finnerty. He and his men poked their noses into every room in the place. When they got to where Dolan was laid out in front of 50 bootleggers kneeling in prayer, Sexton whispered to Finnerty above the chorus of Hail Marys, “Poor Joe Dolan passed on, ya’ know. May he rest in peace. These lads here are the Holy Name boys from the Epiphany.”

So the cops all stayed for a decade of the rosary and then tip-toed out, making their apologies. Sexton said they shouldn’t worry themselves about it. “It’s a comfort to know the department is on its toes, captain,” he told Finnerty. “We all make a mistake now and then. No harm done.”

The word spread quickly that Joe Dolan had died. Floral pieces arrived from the Anawanda Democratic Club and from all the speakeasies on the East Side, where Dolan was known and loved. Sexton’s funeral parlor was knee-deep in posies. And half the Gas House district showed up at Sexton’s to pay their respects to Dolan. There was quite a lot of explaining to do.

Dolan couldn’t stand the consequences of his resurrection. Almost before he was out of the casket, his girlfriend, Regina, had already taken up with Capt. Billy Finnerty. The Anawanda Club billed him for the flowers. His mother gave him a terrible bawling out and sent him to confession, “for triflin’ with the sacraments.”

To get away from the fuss, Dolan moved to the Bronx, where he later became friends with the Bronx boy and told him the story years after it happened. Dolan spent a legitimate 20 years tending bar with Aristotle Quinn at Manion’s on Ogden Ave. And a lively guy he was. But down in the Gas House district, the oldtimers still talk about the day Joe Dolan died. It must have been quite a day, the Bronx boy thought, yawning and smiling and emerging refreshed from his pre-St. Patrick’s Day reverie.

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Comments

  1. Matt Schiller says:

    Matt,
    Bill was one of the great New York writers, an excellent wordsmith and teller of yarns and one of the really good guys. I followed his work in the daily newspapers and worked at The Tablet when his column was featured on its pages.
    Thanks to one of those columns, I always think of him on June 1st, the Feast of St. Justin. This year I will be in New Orleans that day, but please be assured that he will be remembered at the Catholic Press Memorial Mass and in my prayers also.
    With deepest condolences,
    Matt Schiller

  2. Krista says:

    What a marvelous story in Mr. Reel’s column! True storytellers like that are a rare and valuable breed. My condolences to your family on your loss — it’s been a rough few months.

  3. Dear Matt,

    My name is Warren Hynes, and I grew up with Ursula. I was wondering if you could pass along my deepest condolences to her and to the family. Bill Reel had helped me a lot when I was starting out in journalism, and I am forever grateful. For what it’s worth, I wrote a little tribute to him in my own blog. In case you’re interested, the link is http://thepitchbaseballlife.blogspot.com/. Thanks for sharing your heartfelt memories.

  4. SK Trynosky Sr/. says:

    I just found out, my condolences to you and your family. Bill was like the other Bill (Buckley), a unique addition to NY life that made it all worth while.

    While the city was collapsing around us in the ’70’s and ’80’s Bill never gave up on it. It was because of people like him that I stayed and did my bit to help.

    He once made an appointment with me to come up and tour Washington Heights. He called and apologetically cancelled because of another committment. I never pressed him on a return engagement, I had that much respect. In a way I wish I had, that way I would have gotten to meet him.

    Again, I am so sorry for your loss and the loss to us all.

    God bless.

  5. Living in upstate NY during the 1980s and early 90s, I was familiar with Bill Reel’s work in the Daily News, and later, Newsday. He had a love of the city and its people that clearly shone through, though at times he must have felt as though he was tilting at liberal windmills. I moved to the Boston area in 1995 and sort of lost touch with his work, Newsday not being widely available in that area and this being prior to the time of wide Internet access and newspaper websites. That would change, but soon enough he had moved on to the next chapters of his life. I was not aware of his death until coming across the news of it online earlier today. I’m very sorry for the loss-he was, by today’s standards, a relatively young man, and I’m sure he’ll be greatly missed by all his family and friends. He also touched a chord in a great many readers, myself among them. Please accept my sincere condolences.

  6. Fred Rice says:

    Great story. As both my Grandfather and Dad were past presidents of the Anawanda Club, I can remember some truly amazing stories from the past. Not much on the web regarding Anawanda club…..thanks for the story.

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