Capital Region

The Gazette’s Jeff Wilkin retires: Top 12 stories from 39 years at The Daily Gazette

Our Jeff Wilkin through the years
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Our Jeff Wilkin through the years

Categories: Life & Arts, News, Schenectady County

Editor’s Note: Our Jeff Wilkin is retiring after nearly 40 years as a reporter with The Daily Gazette. He now looks back at some of what he’s written.

All reporters have favorite stories.

In 39 years at The Daily Gazette, I can offer 12 favorite pieces that I liked writing and I think people liked reading. I have not included any stories that included heartbreak or tragedy.

Also be sure and read Jeff’s main story: Out of Time: Reflections on 42 years in the newspaper business

12: The Gilda Caper

I have assembled the newspaper’s history page since it was introduced in 2001. I wrote a story about Joe DiCarlo’s “search for Gilda” for a 2007 page. Working from an original story from 1946, about the time Joe took part in a newspaper-sponsored search for a woman dressed like “Gilda,” Rita Hayworth’s role in the movie of the same name, I used every detective cliche I could find or fabricate. So the story spoofed detective movies and hard-boiled detective slang and slogans. Anytime I get the chance to write “cracked open a deck of Chesterfields,” I’m writing it.

11: Santa Crew

In 1986, I interviewed several guys who spent parts of their Decembers playing Santa Claus in local shopping malls. That’s when there were a lot of Santas and a lot of malls.

This wasn’t just a seasonal job for these men; they really liked the gig. One told me about the time when a little girl asked him for just a coat for Christmas, she just wanted to be warm. “Santa” told me he found a way to leave his throne shortly after the visit; he searched the crowd for the girl and her parents and was going to buy her a coat … but he never found her.

Another member of the fraternity told me some small children knew they were better off than others. One little girl told Santa, “Give all the good toys to the poor children …. I’ll take what’s left.”

10: 24 Hours

Everyone knows Saratoga Race Course is busy during the mornings, afternoons and early evening. What about late evening into early morning?

In August 2001, I secured permission to spend 24 hours straight at the famous race course. My shift went from 1 p.m. to 1 p.m. I walked the empty grandstand and heard the occasional TV voice at 1 a.m. I saw food trucks pull up on the apron next to the track’s final stretch, delivering breads and meats at 3 a.m. The grandstand, fully lit in the middle of the night, looked haunted. At one point, with nothing to do, I decided to count the green benches on the apron. There were like 200.

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9: The Invaders

I’m a pop culture fan, so that makes me a UFO fan. Not sure if anyone else is part of the universe, but it’s fun to think about. It’s also fun to write about.

The United Friends Observer Society in Walker Valley, just west of Pine Bush — a hamlet in the town of Crawford and a reputed hotbed for UFO activity in the Northeast — landed on my radar in 2005. The Gazette sent a team — myself, photographer Ana Zangroniz and intern Katie Maslanka — to see if the truth was out there. We didn’t see any UFOs — unless you count the thousands of fireflies that rose into a tree — but had an adventure anyway. Ana experienced a medical emergency and needed an ambulance and hospital time; by the time she recovered, it was too late to drive home, so two rented motel rooms became part of the evening.

8: Queen of the Cosplayers

People love reading about other people, especially people with an unusual hobby or skill. I wrote a piece about Kelly Tenzyk … now Kelly Cary … in 2014. She is easily the queen of the cosplayers in the Capital Region.

Kelly makes her own authentic costumes and masquerades as comic book super heroes. She offered some super quotes and super photos, and I think both adults and kids got a kick out of the story.

I try to check out Kelly’s newest outfit every spring at Earthworld, Albany’s top comic book store. Even Kelly’s formidable powers could not prevent COVID-19 from postponing her 2020 appearance.


7: 48 Hours

I was the Schenectady Gazette’s police reporter in 1985, and received permission to ride along with the Schenectady, Rotterdam, Niskayuna and Glenville police departments during that summer.

I started Saturday at 8 p.m. with each department and went all night, finishing my shift Sunday at 8 a.m. I then went right to the newspaper, wrote as much as I could and then fell asleep in the newsroom lounge or conference room. Then I worked Sunday afternoon into the evening, weekend shift. We ran the stories on successive Mondays.

Still remember sitting in the front seat with guys like Tommy Flynn and Paul DeLuca of SPD, Tom Culbert of Rotterdam; John Lubrant of Niskayuna and Gil Powers of Glenville, helping to serve and protect for 48 hours.

6: Heartbeat

Dr. Kathy Magliato is a hotshot cardiac surgeon in California. Her book, “Heart Matters” became a 2010 bestseller, and NBC offered a fictional version of Kathy in 2016’s drama “Heartbeat.” As question-and-answer pieces are popular in newspapers these days, we landed an interview with the doc, and she was just great. Page designer Jeff Haff used a giant image of Kathy on the page, we included NBC’s Dr. Alexandra Pantiere (Melissa George) in a smaller photo and the full page was a vibrant and dynamic package. Too bad the show did not last long. Dr. Magliato is still going strong.

PS: An honorable mention in the “Q-and-A” department is my 2011 piece on Bill Moody, also known as Percy Pringle III, also known as Paul Bearer. Moody worked for World Wrestling Entertainment, the “manager” for the fearsome Undertaker, and he was promoting an upcoming local appearance. People in the wrestling game know how to talk, and “Paul” had a bunch of stories. My favorite was this one: Moody was a licensed funeral technician, and once in a while helped friends in the business if he was home in Alabama. He said some people, making arrangements for deceased family members, occasionally would ask him to get into a photograph with Grandma’s casket.

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5: The Time Tunnel

People might know my byline now … I’ll make a comeback in 79 years, in 2099.

In 1999, as part of the celebration and observance of the coming millennium, I proposed a “time capsule” that readers would help us stock. The project was one of reader participation exercises, and they were always fun to put together.  This time, people contributed racing programs, photographs, high school photos, an ash tray … just bunches of things. The story ran on Dec. 31, 1999 … the “capsule,” a steel gray safe … will be opened at the start of the next century.

4: Carl and Carly

It’s another collection. For a while, I had the chance to interview rock stars who were promoting shows in the Capital Region. As a teenager, I spent hours listening to the British progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer, so it was a personal thrill to talk to drummer Carl Palmer in 2017. Carl answered all my questions, including ELP’s notoriety as a band that never really got along.

Carly Simon was another favorite interview, and we talked in person about her favorite songs, food and the mystery person in that “I hear you went up to Saratoga, and your horse naturally won” line from “You’re So Vain.”

Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson from Yes, Peter Frampton, Alice Cooper, Ginger Baker, Annie Haslam from Renaissance, Derek Shulman from Gentle Giant, Tiny Tim, George Clinton from Parliament-Funkadelic, Richie Furay from Poco, Garth Brooks, pianist Lee Shaw and Dave Wakeling of General Public were also among my favorites.

The always-cordial Alice Cooper probably gave me the best line. I asked the theatrical Cooper if people ever greeted him with the “We’re not worthy!” salute, the greeting the “Wayne’s World” goofballs served Alice in their movie. “It’s only every day,” Alice said.

Also be sure and read Jeff’s main story: Out of Time: Reflections on 42 years in the newspaper business


3: Naked Truth

I was writing a story about sun clubs during the summer of 2000 — nudists — and locals invited me to the Berkshire Vista Resort in Hancock, Mass. for a closer look at the natural lifestyle. I’ve been overdressed for interviews before, under-dressed for others. These were the first interviews I ever conducted when I wasn’t dressed, period. I had to keep my clothes in the trunk — part of the resort’s rules — and met people of all shapes and sizes in an eye-opening feature. I’m still answering questions about this one.

2: Mother Dear

Some Northeast Ballet fans still remember Mother. Ballet chiefs at Schenectady’s fine dance company asked me if I would play the outlandish character in their 1997 production of “The Nutcracker.” If you know the show, you know the role. “Mother Ginger” is a buxom, bouncy soul who brings her personality and a passel of little “gingerbread” children to the stage in the variation-heavy second act. I accepted the challenge, practiced for three months, worried for three months but passed the theatrical test. Darlene Myers, the professor, graciously asked me to reprise the role for the next 11 years. With retirement time on my hands, I may try out for the fearsome Rat King. It’s about time I played a villain.

1: The Haunted House

It was really a haunted inn, the Wayside Inn in Greenfield. A Colonial-era ghost supposedly walked the rooms after dark, and I staked out the room with candles, bells, ghost book and a tape recorder just before Halloween in 2002. This piece, my all-time favorite, was helped immensely by the photo illustration our then Chief Photographer Dave Kraus put together. Dave got shots of the room and then superimposed the image of a woman — a Colonial reenactor dressed in the styles of the ghost’s time — into the picture. The model carried a candelabra, and it really set the spooky mood for the piece. I had interviews with witches and ghost hunters in the piece and stories about the ghost from the owners. But the shy spirit never showed up.

That’s it for now. I’m finished as a full-timer, but hope to contribute feature pieces on a part-time basis.

 

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