Farewell to Duggan


By Dennis Smith

Dennis Duggan, a ray of sunlight.


Photo Courtesy of Tom Dunn

Dennis Duggan and Mary Elizabeth Pendl, his great love.



  Photo Courtesy of Patsy Powers

Dennis and friends [from left]: Timothy Lee, Dennis Smith, Jack Deacy, Frank McCourt, Bill Powers, Dennis Duggan and Jim Flanagan, the Irish Mafia of the literary world, July 2005.




By Dennis Smith




Dennis Duggan was not a spiritual man, or at least not one whose sense of moral outrage could be kept contained by the splendor of man-made ritual. Not being very organized himself he eschewed anything that had to do with an organized spirituality. But, still, he was a deeply spiritual man, a man who held great reverence for life and friendship. He was a man for all spring-times. He loved the warm weather, the smell of growing grass, the haze of dust kicked up over the pathways that streaked his hiking hills. Ever in the corner of the powerless and the weak, he loved to root for a bird risking all for a piece of bread. He was a self-trained naturalist, and he loved the annual regeneration of life that fights its way through the harsh residue of an angry winter. I know this because I often walked with him through forests and vales, and saw just how aware and reactive to nature he could be. I think he saw in the changes brought on by spring an opportunity for change in his own life, and if not change, expansion. In all his life, Dennis Duggan was never an idle person. He was always watchful, and, as good a reporter as ever existed, he saw the positive progressions in our society and was able to change and expand his opinions and commentaries. He never carried around an ideological soapbox, and the only absolute he insisted on was fairness.


You can tell a lot about a person if you weigh the books piled on his or her night table, and while Dennis Duggan kept most of his books on the bedside floor, the sofa, the kitchen counter, and the big chair on his back porch on West 11th Street, if you read the titles you would see that he was a man who read widely and thoroughly.  If a book was written by a friend you could be certain that he would read every page, and then he would call and tell you what a wonderful book it was. And it would be a sincere observation, for there was nothing obsequious about our friend Duggan. His blood, Irish and loyal, was committed to his friends, and like Erasmus he had the gift of sophisticated and reliable insight into every subject. Yet, finally, Dennis was not a lofty personage, but like William Bendix in “The Life of Riley”, he was just like the guy next door – but funnier. The truth is that Dennis was capable of being much more than the plain vanilla, take-me-as-I-am-or-don’t-take-me-at-all kind of guy. He could be a good neighbor at any level of life, even if he was living next door to the likes of Will Durant, Teilhard de Chardin, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I don’t mention these philosophers casually, for I have heard Dennis in heated conversations about each at one time or another.


Funny, that this is how I remember Dennis Duggan most, that he was so intelligent. For most, memories of Dennis have to do with laughter, and not with any ratiocinative probe for veritas profundis. But “smart” was always at the top of the list of words people used to describe him, and the phrase “smart and honest” undoubtedly was the way we thought of him when we thought about why we trusted what he had to say.


Dennis died after a year of not feeling himself. He had during this year a lousy and queasy feeling, and he had little appetite. He did not suffer much, but neither was he happy during this time. His complaints were a constant and unrelenting irritation in his life. There was no certainty to his malady, except that it finally took him. In addition to his multitudinous friends, he left behind his daughter Nancy, two sisters in Michigan, Gerry Wright and Mary Duggan, and his ever supportive significant other Mary Elizabeth Pendl and her son Greg.


Dennis Duggan was born on October 12, 1927 in Detroit. His mother and father, Michael and Anne, were Irish immigrants – his father, it was sometimes said, a man who came to the states on the run as an IRA operative. Though Dennis renounced subsequent IRA tactics, he was proud of his lineage and of his father’s patriotism in Ireland. He was also proud of the poverty into which he as born, a deprived pedigree that undoubtedly brought him closer to the poor and the down-on-their-luck individuals he so often wrote about. I think he also enjoyed the Horatio Alger progress of growing out of the teeming mass of Detroit Irish, most, like my own grandfather, who had arrived there to work for Henry Ford, and the great advancement of arriving in the big apple to take the position of financial reporter for the old gray lady. And, too, he appreciated the power of the press which was all his when he became the City Hall Bureau Chief for New York Newsday – a role that brought with it the respect of the high and mighty among New York power brokers.


A bona fide legend of Greenwich Village (his photo actually appeared in a calendar called “Legends of Greenwich Village”), Dennis was of the first generation of writers to follow the beats, and as the pot-smoking, coffee drinking poets faded like Sandra Dee movies into a well deserved past, Duggan was surely a standard bearer in the new legions that replaced them – a generation of hard thinking and analytical reporters, innovative, highly stylized, brazen, and brutally honest. Tom Wolfe, Richard Reeves, Kevin Buckley, Warren Berry, Tim Lee, Jim Flanagan, Lewis Lapham and Pete Hamill were Dennis’s friends, and they from time to time roomed with one another. With some it might have been more crashing than rooming. These were reporters who brought life to their stories, and who could make you laugh or cry at the drop of a campaign button.


Before landing so successfully at Newsday in 1967, Dennis had made his deadlines at most of the city’s papers – The News, The Herald Tribune, The Times, even the old Mirror. He had a colorful career, for there were more than a few nights when his concentration could be more strongly held by a bartender’s story at the Lion’s Head than by the notes he had made in preparation for an early morning interview. Often the early morning came and went without notice. If he missed a few interviews in his life, he certainly made up for it, for his columns over the decades helped and influenced as many lives as a veteran St.Vincent’s ER nurse. It is a tautology to say that Dennis cared about others, for when you knew him you knew that his caring came with the territory – with his mismatched ensembles and his tucked up chin and his incomparable smile. It was that affability that gave us all confidence in our friend Dennis. You knew he would always be there for you, as long as you were on the side of fairness and right. And, if he had to blow you out of the water, as he did with many politicians who said one thing and did another, he would do it with such style and grace that they would never, even with boiling blood, refuse his subsequent calls.


It was also this famous affability I am sure that brought the Silurians to entrust him with its presidency (2002-2004), a position he loved and worked hard at. Like the books at his bedside, a list of his friends would tell reams about Dennis, and he got most of them to come to the monthly Silurian lunches in Gramercy Park to entertain and challenge. Dennis was never a man to seek a halo, but I could always see how proud he was at those lunches in introducing his friends, men and women who made a difference in the life of our city.


And so now Dennis is gone. No longer are those wonderful self-mocking, anti-politically correct, scatological streaming, irreverent commentaries available to us in those early morning phone calls. We miss not only those calls, but that he enjoyed so much making them. He loved his friends as much as he enjoyed walking in the woods. Although, he did ask me once not so long ago if he was a patsy for always initiating the calls, for some of his friends were not equally considerate in making return calls. It was just another indication of his comprehensive caring for his friends. Why couldn’t they be more like him? “Look at it this way, Dennis,” I said. “There are many Franciscans, but only one St. Francis.”

So, goodbye Dennis. You gave me a great gift, one that I will always carry with me – that I had a true and a complete friend.]



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