Tom Morgan, a reporter who covered Warwick and the West Bay for the Providence Journal in the 1970s, died last week in Providence.
He was often called “a reporter’s reporter,” which meant he was frequently praised by other writers but guardedly acknowledged by editors, who knew he wasn’t being paid what he was worth. Read the obituary in the Journal to learn more about who he was. I’ll just remember the guy I knew before I disappeared into the suburbs over 20 years ago.
When I first came to Providence over 30 years ago, Tom was one of my first and fastest friends. I was working as a bartender in a wine bar desperately attempting to “educate” him away from the pink, sweet zinfandel wine he loved to more sophisticated “varietals.” I eventually gave up, but I found that Tom was fun to be with as he worked his way through liters of zinfandel and he became a drinking buddy. And buddy, it was a lot of drinking. In those days, it wasn’t considered especially bad form for a reporter to reek of beer halls and nicotine and the writers who frequented Hope’s bar on Washington Street were not particularly ashamed of doing what Tom called “the Budweiser shuffle” up Federal Hill at dawn. Tom gave up smoking cigarettes before I met him and was annoyingly evangelical about it; but the talk and the good humor took the edge off. And, child of the sixties that he was, the prohibition didn’t include all forms of smoke. Mysterious “sources” provided him with some of the best.
But that was always after deadline.
Only one time did I see Tom drink before the paper went to bed. I was hanging out at Blake’s when Tom came in. He had just ordered a drink when the phone rang. His editor said his story was too long and could he come back and cut it to fit? He did, and then came back to the bar. The phone rang again and he went back to the office to stretch it to fit some dead space the editor found. He did, and never complained about it. The third and final story appeared in the next issue, functioning perfectly and showing no signs of surgery.
Tom had a great many eccentricies that his talent afforded him. He had a dress code that was essentially more satiric than sybaritic (how he would have loved that word) and favored thick thrift-shop neckties more like those worn by cartoon animals than by respectable journalists. Good puns and word play were greeted with appreciative grunts, no matter who was the butt.
Tom was sent to cover Senator John Chafee in Palestine and was caught up in some demonstrations. He was later seen wearing a T-shirt that said: “I got stoned with Senator Chafee.”
His mordant humor was revealed by his establishing a “pool” awarding money and bragging rights for predicting the demise of Salmon Rushdie.
But, when it came to interns and new reporters, he gave them all the advice and encouragement they needed. One of my favorite stories he told me is about the young writer that was assigned to Tom for her first night in West Bay. He told it like this:
“I was explaining that reporting wasn’t always that exciting, about the council and city hall meetings and not to expect much,” he said. “Then the Rolling Stones assault Andy Dickerman [Journal photographer] at Green and then we are all watching Mick Jagger and Keith Richards being arraigned for assault. Mick was really pissed and started yelling and wagging his hand, ‘Get that pressman out of here!’ when he saw me. The police chief was there and most times he was a bit of a fascist but he stood up to Mick and shouted, ‘This is America! We have freedom of the press here!’ I was actually a little proud of him.”
I’m actually a little proud of Tom Morgan, and the kind of journalism he practiced and I suspect we’ll all miss him and his stories more than we expected.
Editor’s note: A former Providence Journal and Warwick Beacon reporter, Joe Kernan lives in Warwick and occasionally writes for this paper.