Many Angles

Remembering Dick Lutz

David Stone
Remembering Dick Lutz

The news of his sudden death brought instant sadness but, also, disbelief. Dick Lutz was one of a kind, larger than life, a figure we expected to always be here, riding his bike, meeting friends at Nisi... I knew him as a friend, boss, rival and teacher. He was charismatic, gruff, charming, difficult, endlessly helpful and a great storyteller. I'm going to miss him.

There was regret, too, joined with frustration that, for the last two years of his life, Dick and I never spoke. We passed on the street, on the steps outside Rivercross, deliberately invisible to each other. I didn't know how to fix our feud, and I can't honestly say that either of us wanted it fixed.

On balance, I owe him a lot, for a concise, hugely effective tutoring in journalism, his specialty, and an opportunity I wasn't looking for to use what I learned.

I knew Dick for a few years before our most important conversation took place. He'd voluntarily critiqued my novel, and I'd volunteered an editorial, Fifty Reasons To Love Roosevelt Island, over which he was thrilled, not because of the content, but because it relieved him of an obligation that had become personally draining.

Few realize how hard he worked at keeping the Main Street WIRE churning, issue after issue, for 20 years. Fewer still know how long he kept at it after growing eager to hand off at least some of the responsibilities. He hung in because it was a duty he created as he elevated the quality of the newspaper far beyond anything such a small community should expect.

Dick Lutz brought big city craftsmanship to an isolated neighborhood. It's still damned impressive when you go back into the archive and see the standards he maintained.

Things changed when I looked up from my lunch in Starbucks. (This was back in the good old days of comfortable seating, before the place devolved into a weird combination of boutique and lonely millennials study hall.)

When I lifted my eyes, Dick was staring at me. He later told me it was because, with me in one of my beardless periods, he wasn't sure who the sort of familiar looking guy sitting across from him, munching a sandwich and sipping coffee, was.

We talked shop a little, lamenting how hard it was to sell books. At this, as in most things, Dick was far more ambitious than me, going out of town to do readings while I waited patiently for the world of readers to miraculously discover my book's greatness.

He was wiser than me and sold a lot more of his book, Jadwiga's Crossing, than I did of mine.

Walking back up Main Street, Dick popped the question.

"What'll it take to get you to write for the WIRE?"

I was flattered, not just because I admired the WIRE's quality but because, really, freelance writers don't get solicited. We're usually preoccupied with devising strategies to get editors to even consider our work.

And, then, there was the fact that my journalism experience hover slightly above absolute zero. I'd once done a piece, on spec, about hookers migrating between neighborhoods in Buffalo, reacting to police presence. It ended up disappearing when the Buffalo News abruptly changed magazine editors. The new editor was not fascinated with my hooker story.

But soon, I was contributing regularly to the WIRE, covering the arts, especially RIVAA.

One thing to know about Dick Lutz is that he loved and respected writers. He paid us well, defended us when challenged, and wrapped up every issue of the WIRE with emails, "Check for you!" as the subject line, with instructions on when and where to pick it up.

It was a double thrill when the next WIRE carried your byline. The newspaper was so ingrained in community life, no matter what else you did, Islanders on hearing your name would reliably say, "You write for the WIRE."

That was all about Dick's insistence on quality and accuracy. People just counted on the WIRE to tell them what was going on.

Creating A Newspaper

It's true that Jack Resnick started the WIRE on his own initiative, determined that the community needed a unifying voice, and its mission never changed. Resnick handed off to Jim Bowser, who kept it active and reliable until illness forced him to retire.

After a hiatus, and quite without expecting he was tackling on a decades long assignment, Dick Lutz picked the WIRE up, hoping mainly to promote his own NYC10044 pioneering website.

Fate stepped in, and soon, he began churning out the first of hundreds of Main Street WIREs.

But he didn't just edit, writing most of the copy himself, he set up an operation that gathered dedicated volunteers to assemble the newspaper, all 6,000 copies, with inserts, in plastic bags that a following team of volunteers walked the hallways of every building to either hang on doorknobs or leave in doorways. Everybody got one.

It was a wonder to watch the mechanism he devised pump out an issue.

And there Dick was, every session, first on the scene, making sure tables were ready for volunteers soon to arrive, managing the working parts, ordering lunch for everyone and making sure it was delivered on time.

Far behind the scenes, he also ran the business operation, maintaining all the books in a system he devised, billing advertisers, collecting fees and paying bills. Many ads that ran in the WIRE were created by Dick - for free.

He was responsible for the look and feel of the newspaper, the composition, much of the photography, and he kept a team of proofreaders busy looking out for writers like me who continually misused "your" and "you're," "its and it's..."

Which one's the possessive form again? You could count on Dick to catch, and correct, your mistakes.

Back on a personal level, there's no simple way to say this other than "Dick Lutz taught me how to write."

After I successfully mimicked art critics I'd read, he asked me to tackle some news assignments. My first - and I laugh inside as I write this - was a report on the sad shape of Roosevelt Island's infrastructure. 

Yes, even then.

Later came a Blackwell House Park proposal that smelled for all the world like RIOC finding a way to funnel significant dollars to a "friendly" vendor for a project that never got built. When FDR Four Freedoms Park had a time capsule buried and an emergency call sent me rushing out the door with a half-finished lunch behind me, I got to walk through the park's muddy, half-finished lawn with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and listen to her talk about how proud she was of having been able to contribute federal money to the cause.

Weeding my way through assignments, I learned on the fly because Dick took the time to carefully edit everything I submitted and made my work read better than it was written. My piece up about the Blackwell House park that never was, for example, tried his patience. A complete rewrite of the duller than duller account I'd sent was needed, and after patiently explaining what was wrong - almost everything - he threw me a tight deadline.

I got on it.

That's how you learn to write news. It may rhyme with muse, but it's got little to do with inspiration. Journalism is work. Sometimes, you just have to put your head down and do it.

Dick Lutz did that on Roosevelt Island for twenty years. He expected his writers to do the same. Most didn't stick around for long, not having the work ethic or the commitment he demanded.

One summer day, the WIRE's demands at an ebb with only a single edition published between June and September, Dick sent me out to a press briefing by City Council Member Jessica Lappin. The story itself, I discovered, was bigger than anything I'd tackled before. A scrum of reporters was jostling for position in the Tram Plaza as Lappin began.

That's the first time I heard about what was to become Cornell Tech.

He didn't know it at the time, but Dick Lutz gave me responsibility for the biggest story to hit Roosevelt Island, maybe since its founding as a model community, one with significant international exposure.

I spent much of the next year covering the difficult birth of the Community Coalition, giving representatives from both Stanford - the early favorite - and Cornell Island tours, attending every ULURP presentation until the deal was finally done and Cornell cleared for construction.

For months, my byline was on the front page of most WIRE issues. Some had nearly all news content contributed by no one other than Dick Lutz and me.

That ended when, after a dispute over content, I told him I'd cover only arts in the future. We entered into a truce.

But then, when Briana Warsing, a talented writer he'd been grooming to take over the WIRE's editorship, planned to move to California where her husband landed a new job, Dick initiated a conversation about my stepping in as editor and publisher.

I was no more skilled at those tasks than I was as a journalist when he first recruited me. Dick's confidence in me and my ability to learn what I need to in a short four month apprenticeship was as inspiring as it was flattering.

He convinced me I could handle it, and with owner Jack Resnick's approval, we started the transition.

As most people know now, that ended badly, the fallout leaving Dick and me permanent, hostile strangers.

In perspective, that's still more unfortunate, most of all because it means, until he died last weekend, I never took a long look at what his friendship and mentorship did for me. It was a lot, maybe even enough to outweigh the wounds from our terminal disagreement.

Wherever Dick Lutz is, I hope he can read this and know I'd like thank him, that no matter what hard feelings were left between us, the good times and the learning will not be forgotten.

Something of Dick Lutz will stay alive, just as long as I do.

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