Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Legend Passes

Jack Dempsey, a beefy, boisterous son of the Irish Channel who became a police reporter renowned for a booming voice, an ever-present straw hat and cigar, and a dogged determination to get the story first, died Thursday at Live Oak Village in Slidell. He was 92.

Mr. Dempsey, who wrote for The New Orleans States and, later, The States-Item, happened to reign over his realm of criminals and cops during the final decades of the period when an afternoon newspaper was the main source for finding out what had happened during the day. Until 1958, New Orleans had competing afternoon papers, The States and The New Orleans Item. They were combined to form The States-Item, which merged with The Times-Picayune in 1980.

In his heyday, when The States and The Item relied heavily on street sales, Mr. Dempsey employed what his States-Item colleague Angus Lind called "a combination of guile, contacts and natural curiosity" to stay just ahead of the competition with the latest development in a sensational crime story.

Once, acting on a tip Mr. Dempsey received that the husband of a murdered woman was going to be charged with killing her, editors at The States had an extra edition ready to go, but no word came for three hours. They were anxious hours, but editors had faith in Mr. Dempsey.

When he finally came through with the news at 6 p.m., the presses rolled. "We sent 12,000 papers downtown, and they were sold out in minutes," Walter Cowan, Mr. Dempsey's boss, told Lind in an interview.

On at least one occasion, Mr. Dempsey relied on sheer brass.

In a sensational murder case, the judge heard arguments from both sides over whether the slain woman's child could testify. When the judge said he would announce his decision at 2 p.m., Mr. Dempsey, who was sitting in the jury box with other reporters, popped up and said: "Make it 1 o'clock, judge! I got a 1 o'clock deadline," Lind wrote.

The judge complied.

Mr. Dempsey, who retired in 1981 after 39 years as a police reporter, "never quit trying to gain an advantage on his competition," Cowan said. "He did anything to meet and beat the competition, and beat was the word."

In one case, Mr. Dempsey's scoop was worldwide. In several columns of courthouse news, starting late in 1966, Mr. Dempsey relayed the rumor that District Attorney Jim Garrison was going to launch an investigation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

John Wilds, The States-Item's city editor, asked several reporters, including Rosemary James, to get to the bottom of it. Garrison refused to talk, James said, but when she and her colleagues investigated court fees and fines, they found several trips to Dallas, where Kennedy had been killed.

That was the beginning of a sensational string of stories that ended in 1969 with the acquittal of Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman who was the only man arrested in Garrison's wide-ranging inquiry.

"Without Jack reporting these rumors, it may have taken us a lot longer to come across it," James said. "He was good at ferreting out things."

To get his scoops, Mr. Dempsey assiduously cultivated his sources. That meant stopping at Freitag's Bakery every morning to buy hot doughnuts for the police at headquarters, he said in a 1985 interview, followed by a stop at Charity Hospital's emergency room.

"There was an old head nurse there," he said, "and (when) I found out when her birthday was, (I) used to bring her perfume and candy from time to time. So sometimes, she'd let me put on a doctor's smock, and I'd go in and ask the patient what happened. They'd just assume I was a doctor and tell me everything. Got a lot of scoops that way."

Mr. Dempsey was a character, and he knew it. At States-Item staff parties, he could be counted on to sing "Every Man a King," Huey Long's theme song, in what he called, in the tones of the Irish Channel, "a loud, stentorian verce." At the end of every dispatch he teletyped from the police headquarters press room, he used the signature "alihot," which stood for "a legend in his own time."

"I'm a novelty," he said in the 1981 interview. When his wife, Martha, urged him to take things seriously, Lind said this was Mr. Dempsey's reply: "I tried it for a week, but it didn't last."

Mr. Dempsey never used his first name, Richard. He grew up in the Irish Channel, where he sold newspapers to help his family make ends meet. One of his high-school friends was Russell Long, who became a U.S. senator -- and the best man at Mr. Dempsey's wedding.

Although he aspired to become a boxer like the other Jack Dempsey, whom he met years later, Mr. Dempsey went to LSU, where he studied journalism.

He served in the Navy during World War II and in the Marine Corps during the Korean conflict.

When Mr. Dempsey returned to civilian life, he resumed the role for which he will be remembered.

"He had a good time as a police reporter," James said. "He was motivated partially by a desire to get the news, partially by a good, strong Irish ego and partially by having a good time."

Mr. Dempsey's name and legend live on. Shortly before he retired, two policemen he knew received his permission to attach his name to a seafood restaurant they were opening on Poland Avenue.

And James, working with her husband, Joseph J. DeSalvo Jr., and William Faulkner scholar W. Kenneth Holditch, established the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society to celebrate creativity. When the group decided to give out awards to honor achievements in literature, journalism, music, art and community service, James had the perfect name for them: The ALIHOT Awards, which, she said, "are given to men and women who qualify as legends in their own times."

Survivors include two sons, Richard and Patrick Dempsey; two daughters, Colleen Carmichael of Slidell and Katherine Del Grande, of Sewickley, Pa.; a stepbrother, Donald Hayes of Metairie; a stepsister, Mary Louise Hayes of Metairie; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Jacob Schoen & Son Funeral Home is handling arrangements, which are incomplete.

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