SCHENECTADY Irv Dean was a lifelong newspaperman. He was always going to be.
“I must write. It’s embedded there, somewhere in my DNA,” he wrote in 2009 in his very first “Dean’s List” column to Daily Gazette readers. “It’s like one’s sexuality. We don’t choose, despite what some would have you believe.”
No topic was above or below his pay grade. In his early days, he wrote about crime, courts and government. He delved into sports, culture and art. He wrote about mummies, horse slaughter, Sundays with his wife and afternoons spent talking to his terrier. He wrote about his disdain for doctors, or rather, his disdain for being a patient. He wrote that his prostate cancer was nothing special. “Everybody gets it,” a friend once told him. He shared musings on food, child rearing, radiation treatments and his wife’s garish purple shed.
He planned to write all throughout the summer. But he didn’t get the chance. On Saturday morning, Irv Dean died of complications from lung cancer. He was 66.
The Schenectady resident spent a lifetime in the newspaper business, and most recently served as city editor at The Daily Gazette since 1999. He wrote regularly for the Gazette blog “Food Forum” and for his column “Dean’s List.”
He got his start in the industry as a teenager, when he spotted a classified ad for an office boy at The Post-Star in Glens Falls while working an overnight shift for a Queensbury catheter factory. The job involved filling paste pots and picking up takeout orders, but eventually evolved into writing obituaries and meeting notices and then full-fledged reporting.
He eventually rose up the ranks to managing editor at The Post-Star in 1977. Mark Behan remembers it vividly because it was the first time a boss ever asked him his age.
“I was 16, he had been newly named managing editor and I had been a stringer for four years for the Saratogian,” he recalled. “Nobody had any idea how old I was or what the deal was, they were just so desperate for reporters back then that they never asked how old I was.”
The first thing Dean asked the boy was whether he had a driver’s license.
By then, the “Irv Dean” byline already carried a lot of weight. Behan wanted to be Irv Dean before he even knew him. At just 12 years old, he noticed that all of the important stories in his hometown newspaper had Dean’s byline.
“For nearly 50 years, he has represented the gold standard among newspaper journalists in these parts,” wrote Behan, president of Albany-based Behan Communications, Inc., in an email. “He was a legend as early as his 20s: a work horse, a phenomenally fast and gifted writer, as comfortable covering opera as he was politics, cops and courts — and all in one day, as was often necessary. He amassed tons of contacts and was trusted by the best-placed sources. The rest of us rewrote press releases; Irv broke the big stories.”
Dean took Behan under his wing, guiding and inspiring him over the years. He served as best man at Dean’s wedding in the summer of 2011.
The “Irv Dean” byline is also probably familiar to readers of the now-defunct Knickerbocker News, a 145-year-old afternoon newspaper that was absorbed by the Times Union in 1988. Dean worked as a reporter and editor for the Albany-based paper on and off throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. He also did a stint as editor and publisher of the now-defunct Saratoga County weekly newspaper, the Moreau Sun, and served as national news editor of The Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale, Calif.
“Oh if there was a tough one, you’d give it to Irv,” said Kathy Condon, a former executive city editor for the Knick. “He was like this miracle in the newsroom. Ta-da!”
She was referring to his ability to produce the newsroom’s best work faster than anyone else and without error. In journalism, this was the holy trinity any editor could hope for.
Dean knew Schenectady like no one else, she said, even though he originally came to her from The Post-Star. In those days, the Knick was struggling to compete with its morning counterpart, the Times Union, even though Hearst Corporation owned them both. First shifts began at 2 a.m. Deadlines were tight to make afternoon deadlines, and at one point, Condon recalled, the Knick was trying to produce seven editions a day.
“You have to remember that a thousand years ago we were on typewriters, and I don’t know how many words a minute Irv typed, but if we were in a bind, he’d get us through it fast,” she said. “Reporters would call in over the telephone and have Irv take dictation.”
His copy was perfect, she said. She never once found an error.
“And on a typewriter,” she exclaimed. “I think that’s why we put him on the worst deadlines because we knew he would deliver and he always did. If we were in a crunch he was always there to step up to the plate. Always.”
As much as he had the DNA of a writer, he also carried the makeup of an editor. Bill Dowd spotted it early on. It was during the ’70s when young reporters would pass through the Knick’s doors before finding a place to land on their feet.
“He worked with a lot of young people who had been taught a lot of different ways,” he said. “They came from grad schools or had a year or two of experience at smaller papers. And he was eager and willing to take them under his wing and mentor them.”
Dowd was the Knick’s last-ever managing editor, and witnessed first-hand how the decline of manufacturing jobs brought down afternoon papers. Many manufacturing jobs began early in the morning and wrapped up around early afternoon, he said, just in time for workers to grab their afternoon paper and get the day’s headlines. When those jobs began to disappear and hours shifted to the 9-to-5 workday, the Knick had to change its formula.
And Dowd found in Dean someone capable of giving the paper a fighting chance.
“He helped us cast a story a certain way to tell a tale and to do it in a literate fashion,” he said. “We were very big on pushing our reporters to be storytellers. We couldn’t just give the morning’s headlines anymore. We had to include why something happened and the context and that’s harder to do on a day-in, day-out basis I think.”
Years after Dean had gone on to work at the Gazette and Dowd had gone on to be associate editor at the Times Union, the two men ran into each other at Troy’s annual Chowderfest.
They both loved food, and they both served that year as judges.
Dean had a soft spot for food. He had a discerning palate and love for fine food that his best man Behan would say, “never overwhelmed a weakness for chili dogs.”
He reviewed hundreds of restaurants throughout the Capital Region online and in print. His favorite meals were those shared with his wife, Beverly, though. He wrote easily of contented evenings spent grilling chicken and corn on the cob for her on the porch of their Stockade home.
Beverly Elander brought out in Dean a side no one really expected. He was a bespectacled, balding man with six grown children by the time he found her. The editor with the gravelly voice and well-seasoned demeanor admitted his single status in a 2009 column, but later discovered that their meeting and falling in love was quite the “geriatric love story.”
“My first enduring memory of Beverly was of her dazzling smile as we introduced ourselves on her front stoop. It still melts my heart. Who is this beautiful creature? I asked myself. She lives next door to me? How could that be?”
He shared their story in a recent April column titled “Our story: Love blooms in the Stockade,” just a few weeks after a doctor told him his fatal prognosis.
He had beat prostate and skin cancer the year before, receiving radiation treatments early in the morning before heading into the Gazette. This time, lung cancer would infect his brain, eventually cutting his career, newly minted marriage and life short.
“What a romantic,” said Gazette Editor Judy Patrick earlier this week, sounding slightly surprised to hear herself describe him this way.
She knew Dean since he first came to the Gazette in 1999, but she didn’t really get to know him until she became dayside city editor to his night-side city editor. She described him as the editor you relied on to make sure that stories were fair, accurate and well-sourced.
Patrick never saw him get frazzled over fast-breaking news or hectic situations.
“I never saw him lose his cool,” she said. “I did see him get excited when there was a good story breaking. But he never panicked. All during (Tropical Storm) Irene, he never panicked. And you need somebody like that to think things through. On election night, when you’d get 20 different stories coming in all at once and you gotta get those pages moving, he was never frazzled.”
Dean, for all his history filling paste pots and clacking away over a typewriter, was eager to embrace changes and new technology in the industry. His colleagues at the Knick say he moved effortlessly from the world of Underwood typewriters to personal computers. He loved the idea of employing social media in journalism’s favor, but he encouraged the newsroom to maintain old journalism standards when doing so.
“He thought it was really important to go back to those basic journalism values,” said Patrick. “He was a big believer in, yes, we can do these new things, but no, you can’t give up the standards. You should have an editor read tweets. He didn’t want blogs to go up unchallenged. He loved the idea of doing things in these different ways, despite the fact that he’d been in the business for 30, 40 years.”
After a lifetime doing what he loved, Dean delivered on many of the goals he set for himself. As an editor, he professed once in a column that it was his personal credo to “get in and out of a story without leaving footprints.” As a writer of said column, he promised only that which any lifelong newspaperman could: “I will never lie to you, though I can assure you we will disagree sometimes.”