January 2007 Issue
A Column a Day
That's 2,500 daily missives to date from Dayton Daily News journalist Dale Huffman.
Here's what you hear when you go to lunch with Dale Huffman:
"Thanks for that thing you wrote, Dale."
"Hi, Mr. Huffman."
And so on, in a continuous chorus of hellos and appreciative how-are-ya's that makes it immediately plain that this is a guy a lot of people know and love.
Why shouldn't they? He goes to work each day at the Dayton Daily News, where he is a metro columnist, with the goal of sharing their stories with thousands of their neighbors. He's good at it, too, and he's been at it a long time.
In Dayton and its environs, Dale Huffman is arguably the best-known personality at the Dayton Daily News, if not the best-known media personality in the area.
Here's the part you can't argue with: Dale Huffman is on a streak.
He's written a column every day for the last seven years - that's EVERY day, without missing a single one, in a continuous unbroken stretch of copy that has tickled and engaged the fancies of readers and fans throughout the Miami Valley, and drawn the support of editors and fellow reporters who keeping egging him on.
"It's a few over 2,500 columns," Dale says. "I've kind of lost the exact count."
Huffman, 70, had already been at this for quite a while when Daily News Editor Jeff Bruce suggested the column-a-day idea in 1999. He was already writing three or four times a week or more, a pace he'd kept up for more than 20 years at that point (he's been at the Daily News for 38 years, a columnist for 30), production that had made him exceptionally well-known.
As one of Dale's many editors over that long stretch of time, I confess that I have fond memories of the days, more than a dozen years ago, when we worked side-by-side. I remember that when I began at the DDN, people I met at social events would ask me whether I knew Dale, and measure my relative standing in the universe by whether the answer was "yes."
Working with Dale is a true delight - not only is he thoughtful, kind and incredibly easy-going, but following his work is a good way to get to know the city from a point of view that is refreshingly different from what newspaper stories often show.
That, in fact, is Dale Huffman's stock in trade, what he calls "Dale Stories" - those good-news, frequently upbeat and uplifting tales of everyday successes and achievements that most of us know happen, but which somehow don't always seem to get the same notice or consideration in the news pages as the stuff that bleeds.
While Dale's done more than his share of the bleeding stuff - he started his career as a TV reporter in Cincinnati in the 1960s - he looks nowadays for those stories about how people live their lives and spend their days, express their affections and connect with the people around them. Sick kids, award-winning teachers, home-coming soldiers, happy parents, long-distance lovers, bemedaled veterans, accomplished students, proud grandparents, semi-goofy pet owners, helpful neighbors and active retirees - all find their way into Dale's daily column.
Well, a recent week was typical. On Monday, Dale recalled the colorful history of a downtown Dayton hotel, the Admiral Benbow, that's bound for the wrecking ball. It's been vacant for decades, but once was a lively hot spot that drew musicians, entertainers and even the stray partying journalist.
On Tuesday, his readers learned about Diana Gardner, a 14-year-old from Brookville who's been tapped to sing the national anthem in a special concert in Washington, D.C. She was an adopted child who had made her foster parents very, very proud. Dale made you feel proud of her, too.
The next day, he clued readers in on the fate of an old bank clock that had once stood on a downtown tower but had been moved to escape demolition in the 1970s. Now, as fate and progress would have it, the large blue clock tower - a notable local landmark alongside Interstate 75 - was to be moved once more, again to escape the wreckers. Dale introduced the people who were making it happen.
Thursday brought a column about a missing sock. "The missing-sock saga still has legs," he punned in his lead, harking back to an old story his readers have been following for six years. Back in 2000, while he was writing about a trip along the Great Miami River through downtown, he'd lost a sock that got wet, and that he'd hung on a railing to dry. His missing sock got mentioned on TV - and, long story short, the column told how a fan presented him with lost socks from his family's dryer to make up for the shortfall.
That story contains several of the keys to Dale's success: He makes tons of personal appearances and will happily emcee any worthy community event; he doesn't mind poking fun at himself; he's kept himself, and his column, in the public eye by making friends with lots of local broadcasters; and he gets lots and lots of names in the paper. Add all those things up, and you have one by-gosh Dayton celebrity.
Dependability is important, too. Dale gives his readers something they can count on, day after day. "I tell Dale Huffman stories," he says, and any reader of the DDN would know what he means. "I'll take a little mundane thing from a calendar item that other people might overlook - I'll read it, digest it, make some calls and turn it into a story with a lot of drama. I'll give it a little punch line, a walk-off to satisfy 'em.
"I've always been a storyteller," he says. 'I've always tried to write in a way that keeps people going along, and not just skip to the last paragraph."
Early in his Daily News career, he was one of the main guys who got sent out on the big story. He covered Gary Gilmore's execution in Utah in 1977, and found the doomed man's sister sitting in her car outside the prison, listening to the event coverage on her radio. "I sat there with her while she listened to her brother dying. It was very poignant."
He was sent to Atlanta to cover the murder trial of Marcus Wayne Chenault, a young mentally ill Dayton man who killed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s mother in 1974. "That was awful, but I got some good stories out of that one," Huffman recalls.
He covered the infamous Ohio Penitentiary riots in 1968 - knowing that his brother Eddie was an inmate inside the walls. His editors let him stay on the story, and he ended up testifying before a congressional subcommittee on prison violence.
As boys, Dale and Eddie had grown up in an orphanage in Springfield after their family fell apart. "I was in there from third grade till high school, and it was hell," he recalls. "But I like to think today that that experience pushed me to excel - to become who I am today."
Eddie went a different way, falling into drugs and crime and dying shortly after the prison riot. Another brother, Keith, died in Miamisburg at the age of 12, struck by a train "while delivering the Dayton Daily News," Dale recalls.
Dale ended up reconciling and reuniting with his mother, Katherine, and taking care of her in her old age. His readers grew to know her pretty well during that time, too, thanks to frequent mentions of her in his columns.
And not just her. There have been homeless people he's befriended and introduced to his readers, and other folks who needed help and got it. There have been silly things, too - for Dale's column is usually upbeat - such as celebrity oyster-eating contests, beard-growing competitions and the famous "Class of 2000," in which he "adopted" 50 Dayton-area kids as kindergartners and wrote about their lives as they moved toward high-school graduation at the millennium. He's still in touch with some of them.
So, needless to say, when he walks through town, people know who he is.
"Sometimes, I'm amazed," he says as he looks back over a career that he doesn't plan to quit any time soon. "I get gifts from readers, and notes, and it's all so sweet. It really does feel good, and it's almost unreal. What a great place I'm in right now."
Actually, Dayton might be a greater place for lots of us, thanks to Dale being Dale.
Ron Rollins is an editor at the Dayton Daily News who has known and worked with Dale Huffman for 20 years.