A life well lived: Dick Scaife was a true newsman and patriot

| Saturday, July 5, 2014, 7:21 p.m.

One measure of a life is what people say when it's over.

We journalists spend no small portion of our careers writing about the dead. We cover them as tragic stories or as obituaries, often urging those who knew them to tell us the bad as well as the good. The bad is livelier reading, after all.

On mercifully rare occasions, we write about those we know best — good friends, close relatives.

This special section is a reflection on one such life: Dick Scaife, the newspaper's publisher, who died on Independence Day at the age of 82.

Some of these voices knew him well. Some were touched by his generosity of spirit and giving, or by the opportunities he gave them.

— 00 ­—

For many of us at his newspapers, Dick was more than a good boss; he was a good friend.

He was the kind of boss who paid for a child's education when a parent could not, or insisted that someone be steered into substance-abuse treatment and given another chance on the job.

He often attended newsroom Christmas parties to hand out checks and congratulations to award-winners, then stayed to shake hands and talk. Last year, though clearly ill, he insisted on hosting a Christmas party in his home for three-dozen employees, greeting each one and posing for photos afterward.

Nearly everyone who works for our newspapers at least knew about him because of his enormous life and reputation, not all of it flattering.

He was, after all, a figure from the national stage — a man who knew presidents and pursued a few of them in print, who donated to causes that some critics found objectionable, who weathered his own sensational moments.

Perhaps most aggravating to his critics, he didn't give a fig what they said or thought about him.

He said as much in a May 18 newspaper column revealing that he was dying of cancer: “Some who dislike me may rejoice at this news. Naturally, I can't share their enthusiasm.”

A few readers mistook that as a sorrow-filled admission. It wasn't. It was a jab at his critics, a bit of the defiance that always was a big part of him.

— 00 ­—

I knew little about him when he hired me as an editor in 2000.

An old boss was aghast that I could go to work for “that guy,” but I just wanted a promising job.

Our first real encounter occurred on a frigid January day. He wanted lunch, so we left his Downtown office; he didn't grab a winter coat, so I didn't either. We marched across the Smithfield Street bridge to the South Side, in a bitter wind that snatched away my breath. Afterward, we made a teeth-chattering walking tour of the city that I thought would never end.

I realized then that I'd be hard-pressed to keep up with him.

He could be demanding, and sometimes brutal if he knew you were capable of better work. That was OK; it compelled — sometimes terrified — me to do some of the best work, to put together the best news staff, of a 40-year career.

Those ice-blue eyes could freeze you in place if you displeased him. Or they could light up the room when things went well or took a mischievous turn.

He had a great sense of humor (especially about himself) and a gaudy (some might say garish) taste in clothes. Many of us remember the newsroom meeting when then-Mayor Bob O'Connor asked, “So did you win the Masters?”

Dick, dressed in one of his awful sportcoats — this one a relatively subdued electric-green — took a second to comprehend the joke before exploding in deep-chested laughter.

— 00 ­—

He was adamant in his beliefs. Yet, he changed his opinions more than once during our 15 years together, when given more facts or an argument he hadn't considered.

One opinion never changed: He was unapologetically patriotic. He wanted the best — not second best, not equal — for America. It was essential for the world as well as for us, he believed.

When I bought a Honda to replace an old Jeep, he had me feeling guilty for weeks that I didn't buy American. No matter that the Honda was built here, or that he had owned a couple Mercedes and a Toyota.

He never flinched at controversy or condemnation; if I suggested some editorial decision might cost us readers, he replied that it was the right thing to do.

He was an unwavering friend for those who deserved it. Despite a firestorm of criticism, he stood by one politician who enraged the public, because their friendship meant more to him than the consequences of losing subscribers.

He was just as insistent that friendship never trump the public good. When we wrote an article critical of another close friend in politics, Dick didn't raise hell; he said the man “needed to realize he's not in private business anymore, and the rules are different now.”

Yet, if friends proved unworthy, well, God help them — because no one else could.

Many people claimed to be his “best” friend. I often thought that, with a few notable exceptions, his true best friends were his dogs, whom he loved with abandon.

— 00 ­—

He was a rare newspaper publisher: Most are businessmen, eyeing the profit-and-loss columns; Dick was a newsman, eyeing the news columns.

He wanted the best paper possible, and worried less about the cost of producing it. He hated long stories, not because they wasted money but because he thought today's busy readers wouldn't struggle through them.

Of this piece, he would have said: “God-awful long. Nobody's going to read it.”

He could be the most exacting critic of a day's edition, poring over every story and then calling to say what he liked or didn't. Some of those conversations could be hair-raising.

He believed a great newspaper needs lots of news — including news from abroad, which most publishers abandoned decades ago as too costly or unimportant. He said we needed to know what's happening abroad because it might happen here next, or drag us into deadly events, or change our lives by altering stock markets, the availability of commodities, the price of goods.

— 00 ­—

He was never as conservative as many people thought — or, perhaps, not the kind of partisan conservative they believed.

He supported and liked Democrats as well as Republicans, and distrusted some Republicans the most. In a famous political reversal, he discovered that he liked Bill and Hillary Clinton — especially Hillary, whom he endorsed for president in 2008.

He editorialized in favor of Planned Parenthood when conservatives tried to defund it, for the decriminalization of marijuana before states began to do it, and against going to war in Iraq.

Those were just a few of the times he contradicted the “conservative” label … but not really. Because, to him, conservatism meant keeping government out of our lives as much as possible.

In that, he was much like two political figures he admired most, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

— 00 ­—

He cared deeply about Pittsburgh.

Few people will ever know of the hundreds of millions of dollars he gave to charities and community groups, because he did so quietly. He didn't donate to win approval; he donated to do good, to save what should be saved — people, buildings, traditions, the country.

When he gave $1 million — one of the three largest individual gifts — to help with the recovery from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, he had to be persuaded to allow his newspapers to report it. To him, that was just a responsibility that came with wealth.

Much of his life and wealth were spent preserving beautiful, still-useful buildings and neighborhoods across the region. If not for him, Station Square — our destination on that long-ago frigid January day — would be a parking lot now.

He also treasured American art, as his last column in the Trib recounted, and gave incredible pieces to museums here and elsewhere.

I spent many Sundays talking with him about art: works and artists he admired, the details of paintings he bought decades ago, which museums were the best, how to build a good collection. His advice was simple: Buy what you like, not what you think will be worth more one day.

It was advice he followed in many of his life's pursuits.

— 00 ­—

He was an extremely complicated man, one of the most complex I've ever known.

A man with so many layers and interests, ideas and passions, with a memory for history and the moments in it that he experienced, with such an understanding of the world's intricacies and a curiosity about its meaning for us all, that no conversation with him ever needed to lag. You could go on for hours and always learn something.

Often, you learned more about yourself.

What I learned from my time with him is that you never really know about a person until you really get to know them — that what we first think, or hear from others, usually is not who or what they are.

I also learned what a life lived well really is.

Dick Scaife was born into incredible wealth and could have spent eight decades enjoying it frivolously.

Instead, he spent some of it to put more than a thousand people to work each day, informing our communities and our nation.

He donated much more of it to make life more beautiful, more livable, for countless people — most of whom he never met — and to make our nation safer and stronger.

I miss him already.

— 30 ­—

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