A writer's odyssey - W.C. Heinz, noted writer from Dorset, dies at 93

Posted

Friday, February 29

donald Keelan

Special to the Journal

DORSET - The journey for W.C. "Bill" Heinz, from his birthplace in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. to Dorset, spanned 93 years, one that came to an end early Wednesday morning, Feb. 27. The geographic distance between these two places may not be significant; what Bill Heinz had accomplished in between was legendary.

For Heinz, his odyssey had begun in 1933 upon his graduation from Mt. Vernon High School. From this densely populated city, next to the Bronx, Heinz traveled by train to Middlebury, and enrolled as a freshman, at Middlebury College. It was one of the few colleges his parents could afford.

Not long into his political science studies, he met a junior, who was conducting a meeting, Elizabeth (Betty) Bailey, who in 1935, with Bill as her escort, was the college's winter carnival queen, and later, in January 1941 his wife and lifelong partner, until her death in 2002.

Bill was intrigued by the newspaper world. And for him that world was centered in New York City. In 1937, New York City was home to nearly a dozen daily, afternoon and evening newspapers. But it was The New York Sun that gave Heinz his start in the newspaper publishing world, as a copy boy.

New York City, not unlike the rest of the country, was still in the clutches of the Great Depression when Heinz had arrived upon graduation from Middlebury College. However, for the city's masses, their escape was going out to the baseball parks to see the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York baseball Giants, and the New York Yankees. Heinz was at the ballpark, not as a fan, but as a sports reporter. His editor, Keats Speed, had seen that Heinz had a gift for reporting and elevated him from copy boy to the city desk.

A few years into Heinz's tenure at the Sun, Keats Speed had another assignment for his young reporter. It was to put on a uniform, that of a war correspondent. While still in his late 20s Heinz's new assignment would become the defining point in his illustrious writing career, as well as in his life.

In 1944 when Heinz sailed for England, World War II was at its peak. On June 6, 1944, D-Day, Heinz once again had a ringside seat. It was located on the upper deck of the USS Nevada, a battleship that had been sunk at Pearl Harbor. This massive weapon of war had been refloated, repaired and brought back to rejoin the fleet and seek its revenge on the Axis. After the landing at Normandy, The New York Sun's senior war correspondent, Gault McGowan, became a prisoner of war. Heinz was now the paper's senior war correspondent and followed the American First Army from Cherbourg to the Elbe.

Bill Heinz had once made a comment that World War II represented a "canvas" so large that no artist, writer or photographer would ever see anything like it again. His book "When We Were One," published in 2002, chronicles many of his dispatches from the war as well as pieces written about the war in later years. The historian John S.D. Eisenhower noted, "'When We Were One' is journalistic literature at its best; suspenseful, harrowing and touching."

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Other accolades had been given to other books that Heinz had authored or co-authored. When "The Professional" was published in 1958, Ernest Hemingway wrote that it was "the only good novel about a fighter I've ever read and an excellent first novel in it's own right."

What is not widely known is that in 1968, Heinz, using the pen name, Richard Hooker, co-authored the novel M*A*S*H, and today we all know the huge success that followed its publication.

Bill's passion for excellence in writing did not go unnoticed. He had been a five time winner of the prestigious E.P. Dutton award for excellence in magazine writing. Also, and unprecedented during his professional life, Heinz would be inducted into three Halls of Fame, the Sportswriters, War Correspondents and The Boxing Hall of Fame.

At times we are known for whose company we are thought of. According to Bill Littlefield, host of National Public Radio's "Only a Game," Bill Heinz "ran with the best - George Plimpton, the late David Halderstom and Damon Runyon." Littlefield's praise for Heinz is also echoed by John Schulian, a long time contributor to Sports Illustrated. Schulian noted that "Bill has a place alongside those of his great friends (and fellow sports writers) Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon and John Larnia."

But it was Heinz's passion for a local Vermont issue, one in Manchester, that kept a fire within him that was not be extinguished. It would become an all-consuming effort on his part and it occurred nearly 20 years ago. In the late 1980s, the former Mount Laurel School building was no longer needed to operate by providing education to children who were mentally challenged. Under federal and state law they were to be enrolled in public schools.

Heinz's years of work as a trustee, (Betty also had served as a trustee) for the Mt. Laurel School came to a boil when it was reported that the Town of Manchester would pay $100,000 to the Mt. Laurel organization for their school (today, the Town Hall of Manchester). The town leaders had no inkling of Heinz's fury over their "low ball" offer for the property. Heinz's crusade through the newspapers and the courts won the fight and $350,000 was paid by the town for the old school, although for the legendary boxing writer the decision was not quite the "knockout" that he had wished.

The results of Heinz's stubbornness, steadfastness and perseverance of 20 years ago can be witnessed today. The proceeds from the sale formed the basis of the Mt. Laurel Foundation, which continues to provide over $50,000 a year to area nonprofit organizations that treat, educate and care for those children who are in need of mental health resources.

Bill and Betty Heinz's involvement with the afflicted was not limited to Mt. Laurel. During their lifetime, it was their passion to insure that pediatric medical research into children's diseases would be carried on long after their deaths. Today, at the University of Vermont School of Medicine, the Barbara Bailey Heinz and Gayl Bailey Heinz Charitable Trust will enable future doctors to continue their research. The Trust that Betty and Bill had established was in part a memorial to their 16-year-old daughter, Barbara, who had died on February 27, 1964 in Stamford, Conn. from a viral infection, 44 years to the day before her father passed on.

It was the late Dewitt "Pete" Copp of Manchester who first introduced me to Bill and Betty. Pete was the editor of my first manuscript and had one purpose on that July day in 1992. He brought me up to the top of Nichols Hill in Dorset so I could meet someone that he believed was one of the most descriptive writers he had ever known. And as my editor, he wanted Heinz's writing skills to somehow rub off.

And thus began numerous coaching sessions as well as a friendship that continued until Bill's death. To have had Bill as a writing coach would be comparable to having Tiger Woods as a golf coach. On countless occasions, up until a year or so ago, Bill would critique my writing, whether at his home in Dorset or at the assisted living facility, Fillmore Pond in Bennington. He would do this by noting his comments in the left or right margins. He consistently emphasized his own trademark, "keep the sentence brief, use fewer words." For some unknown reason, Heinz, who was well known for his impatience and irascible personality, never allowed these attributes to come into play when applying his coaching skills.

The adage that the apple does not fall far from the tree is quite true in the Heinz's family. Bill and Betty's granddaughter, Kristina Heinz Pantalone, is a senior and a media production major at Connecticut's Quinnipiac University. Last summer she completed an internship at the home office of The Boston Red Sox organization. In October, she skipped classes in order to ride on one of the floats in the World Series Victory Parade in downtown Boston.

It's quite possible that the legendary Heinz's name will continue in the nation's newspapers sports pages and airwaves. Bill should be smiling and at the same time whispering to Kristina, "keep your sentences short, and above all, be accurate."


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