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WILLIAM J. REEL
Born: April 14, 1939
William J. Reel was born in Canaan, Connecticut, son of Joseph Slocum and Cynthia Parsons Reel. He graduated from Salisbury School and attended Yale with our class from 1958 to 1960. He was a member of Branford College.
After Bill left Yale he moved to New York and began a remarkable career in journalism. In his own words in our 40th Reunion Book, he wrote:
"If I'd graduated from Yale, I probably would have felt obliged to take a respectable job. But I flunked out, so I could take any job that would have me. I walked into the New York Daily News and applied for a job as a copyboy. My application impressed the personnel manager. 'You went to Yale,' he said, looking at me with respect. 'Yes, sir, for two years. I flunked out, though,' I admitted. 'That's all right,' he assured me. A couple of years at Yale more than met his standards. No need for a diploma. I was hired as a copyboy at $50 per week. Yale charisma came through for me when I needed it. I went on eventually to become a columnist. I would have made a terrible businessman, so flunking out of Yale was a blessing in a way."
The obituary in the New York Daily News by his former colleague Owen Moritz captured his career:
Bill Reel, a wry, street-smart Daily News columnist who celebrated the life of ordinary New Yorkers, died after a long bout with cancer. Reel died in North Sutton, New Hampshire. He worked for The Daily News for 38 years - the last 16 as a columnist with a wide readership.
He held strong convictions about religion and politics, reflected in his Reel People columns. Easygoing, with a constant smile, he was known as "Reverend" among his newsroom colleagues. One of his best-known columns was about the work of Good Counsel, a religious group in Hoboken, New Jersey that seeks shelter for pregnant women. The next day, Reel got a call from Frank Sinatra asking where he could make a donation. Sinatra's donation was $10,000. Reel wanted to make note of that in a follow-up column but Chris Bell, director of Good Counsel, told him the crooner stipulated he wanted no publicity. Reel waited until after Sinatra's death in 1998 to reveal the name of the Good Samaritan.
Reel won numerous honors. Manhattan College awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1996 and Good Counsel honored him in 2009 at its Annual "Ball for Life" event. He was given a plaque that read: "To Bill Reel - who wrote about ordinary New Yorkers in an extraordinary way."
Reel joined The News in 1962 as a copyboy, moving up to makeup editor, feature writer, and cityside and religious reporter before becoming a columnist in 1974. He left The News in 1991 to write for Newsday, retiring from that paper in 2001. He continued to write a weekly column for The Tablet, the publication of the Brooklyn Roman Catholic Archdiocese.
"Many young writers grew up wanting to be Bill Buckley. I grew up wanting to be Bill Reel," said William McGurn, a long-time friend and former chief speechwriter for Pres. George W. Bush.
Reel was not above mocking himself. A casual dresser, he once wrote he was among the 10 best dressed men in the Westerleigh section of Staten Island (where he lived for 44 years).
He attended Yale for two years. As he wrote later in Yale's alumni magazine: "Thanks for the provocative pieces exploring the origin of the Serenity Prayer. Having sobered up in 1968 (none too soon; alcohol figured heavily in my failure to get beyond my sophomore year at Yale), I've said the prayer many thousands of times. God's grace has been unfailing. Whoever first composed the Serenity Prayer surely was inspired by its true Author."
A selection for Bill's columns entitled "Get Reel - The Brooklyn Boy and Other Stories of Faith in the City" was published in 1995 by Andrews & McMeel.
In 1980 the Society of Silurians honored Bill with an award for humorous writing. Twice in the 1980s the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association recognized him for columns capturing the dedication of police officers.
Through classmates Steve Clark and Paul Robinson, Bill met his wife Sue Ellen Norkin while he was at Yale and she was a New Haven native attending Albertus Magnus. After she obtained her bachelor's degree in 1962 Sue Ellen studied mathematics at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.. Bill, who was then living and working in New York, kept visiting her and they married in 1964. Residing on Staten Island for over 4 decades, they had three children and 5 grandchildren: John J. Reel (wife Virginia Fuentes Valencia), a teacher and columnist now living in Seville, Spain; Joseph S. Reel, an investment manager who lives New Hampshire; and Ursula Hennessey (husband Matthew), a former journalist and school teacher now living in New Canaan, Connecticut; and grandchildren Clara, Magdalena, Blas, Patrick and Ryan.
After he and Sue Ellen moved to New Hampshire, Bill continued to write, contributing occasional pieces to the Manchester (New Hampshire) Union-Leader.
Bill died May 3, 2010, at home surrounded by his family after his struggle with cancer, which Sue Ellen said he fought "bravely and with great humor." Classmates Chris Lydon** and Foster Knight attended his wake and funeral.
Bill's friend, and current Wall Street Journal columnist, McGurn paid him a special tribute:
"In the home where I grew up, the Daily News was the gospel and Bill Reel the leading evangelist. Not that it was primarily political, like today. Bill belonged to that long tradition of city writing from James M. Cain to his favorite, Jimmy Cannon, that once made our city newspapers such a joy to read. His subject was New York, which for someone steeped in his tradition, meant the whole Runyanesque world of saloons, jails, precincts, fire houses, churches, synagogues and neighborhoods."
Recognizing Bill's humor, McGurn recalled some of the causes he promoted: "Good Counsel was just one of many. You may not remember some of the others. But they speak to his judgment. One was a call for Staten Island to secede from the U.S. and to declare itself a monarchy. Another proposed closing shortfalls in federal, state and city budgets by instituting a new sin tax - a tariff on sex that would be voluntarily paid and self-reported. And when Bill found out that you didn't need to be a priest to be a Roman Catholic Cardinal or a lawyer to sit on the Supreme Court, he devoted still another column signaling his openness to an appointment to either position. Let me tell you, this man was a font of ideas.
"For his most faithful readers, though, 'Reel People' was the column of the second chance. Week after week he wrote about New Yorkers who had messed up their lives pretty badly, but were looking for the road back. ... 'Reel People' was about the happy endings that could come out of these messy lives, with the right love and humility. The ever-presence of hope lent a kind of magic to his words and the more humble or despised the cause, the more enthusiastically Bill embraced it."
The family suggested that donations in Bill's memory may be made to the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon, New Hampshire, or to Lake Sunapee Region Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice in New London, New Hampshire.
** Chris Lydon, who knew Bill Reel well from undergraduate days and later, has composed a special tribute to Bill which we present here in full: "Bill Reel - A Tribute".