Sunday, May 28, 2006

Lou Gehrig's Disease Claims Borsellino At 56; Playing the 'Name Game,' Kilen, Fuson, Clark, Burns Could Step Into the Register's Columnist Lineup

He was a fighter right down to the end.

But, for Rob Borsellino, the end came at 10:15 p.m. Saturday.

Regardless of how hard Rob Borsellino or anyone else fights or fought, Lou Gehrig's disease always wins.

Borsellino, a well-known columnist for the Des Moines Register died at 56 in Taylor House Hospice.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS] is the official name of the awful disease that killed baseball player Lou Gehrig, and now a newspaper guy named Rob Borsellino.

Regardless of how anyone felt personally about Borsellino, it is a sad Memorial weekend for any of us who care about the news business in Des Moines.

I wrote about Borsellino often. Whenever I referred to him in one of my columns, I called him "my very good friend Rob Borsellino."

He wasn't perfect. Hell, who is? None of us.

I'd kid Borsellino about sometimes being loose with the facts -- like when he wrote about Bill Reichardt's death a few years ago.

Borsellino had spent some time with the cancer-ridden Reichardt in his final days. Reichardt was a personable Des Moines clothier who I interviewed extensively for my book, "Tales from the Iowa Sidelines."

In his football days at Iowa, Reichardt was a fullback who was named the most valuable player in the Big Ten Conference as a senior in 1951. Borsellino wrote in the paper that the Hawkeyes didn't win a game that year.

Actually, Leonard Raffensperger's '51 Hawkeyes won two games and tied two others in a 2-5-2 season. They beat Kansas State and Pittsburgh, and tied Minnesota and Notre Dame.

So they weren't as bad as Borsellino indicated to his readers.

But he made a mistake or two along the way because he probably tried to be in too many places at the same time, and never allowed himself to slow down. He was only human.

Borsellino and his wife, Rekha, also a Register columnist, had two tours of duty at the newspaper.

They tried living and writing in Florida for a while, but came back after friends of Borsellino and Basu urged Register publisher Mary Stier to rehire them.

Stier was hoping the addition of Borsellino [right] and Basu would help the Register recover some of its sagging circulation.

But that didn't happen.

Circulation continues to sink at the Register, just like it sinks at most other daily newspapers around the nation.

It will be interesting to see how Stier and others at the Register attempt to fill Borsellino's spot as a columnist.

One possibility certainly is Mike Kilen, who has been an outstanding feature writer at the Register for several years.

It was Kilen who wrote the front-page story of Borsellino's death in today's Register.

I hear he has shown an interest in column-writing in the past, and he would be my choice for the job.

Obviously, he had most of today's story written ahead of time.

God never tells families or people who put out newsspapers when someone is going to die.

It's never a good time for someone to die. Ten-fifteen on a Saturday night definitely isn't a good time for people editing a Sunday newspaper.

[Writing stories in advance is something that's done often in newspaper offices because of what happened in the Borsellino situation. Try finding a reporter who is available to work on a story at 10:15 p.m. on a Saturday when there's a death like Borsellino's.

[I still laugh about when Bob Bowlsby was named Iowa's athletic director 15 years ago. Several of us in the newspaper office had earlier been assigned to write profiles of finalists for the job.

[The name assigned to me was Gary Cunningham, who had been a basketball coach at UCLA. The story I wrote in advance on Cunningham would have been used had he taken the job, but he turned it down.

[My profile on ol' Gary is probably still hanging around somewhere in a musty old newspaper waiting area. It was a damn good story, too.]

Another potential replacement for Borsellino could be Ken Fuson [left], who already is writing a once-weekly humor column for the Register.

The rest of the time, Fuson writes feature stories -- and does very well at it.

Both Kilen and Fuson would give the newspaper a different sort of column than Borsellino has been writing.

Nothing wrong with that.

It would be a mistake for Kilen, Fuson or anyone else to try to write in the same style as Borsellino.

Some will say that the Register needs a woman to write a newsside column, but I see no female writer waiting in the newsside wings to replace Borsellino.

However, Register sports columnist Nancy Clark could be a longshot for the job. She writes well.

Jane Burns, a former Register sports and features writer now at the Capital Times in Madison, Wis. -- and is happy there -- might be another possibility. She'd be worth a look.

Basu's columns appear on the Register's editorial pages, and it's doubtful she would be moved to the news pages.

Her writing style is not well-liked by many readers. If she is going to be in the paper at all, the editorial pages are the place for her.