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
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.