DON BEAN (1928-2010)
Don (Donald L.) Bean was an ink-stained wretch straight out of the pages of Ben Hecht’s “Front Page” who gathered and wrote the news of the day during a 40-year Cleveland news career.
Bean, who always said, “There wasn’t a day that I didn’t want to go to work,” was employed at all three daily newspapers: The Cleveland Press, The Cleveland News (both now defunct through no fault of his) and The Plain Dealer.
In addition, he worked for International News Service, which later became United Press International, and for radio stations WGAR, WERE and WTAM plus several weekly newspapers.
In his 33 years at The Pee Dee, Bean mostly covered what he dubbed the “worm news” -- that is, the crimes of the day, the perpetrators, and the victims and what became of them.
He covered many major news events including the Dr. Sam Sheppard case and -- Sorry, Sam Reese Sheppard -- remained convinced at his death that Dr. Sam was guilty of bludgeoning his pregnant wife, Marilyn Reese Sheppard, to death in their Lake Road home in fashionable Bay Village on July 4, 1954.
Bean also covered the so-called Hough Riots of 1966, the Glenville shootout of 1968, the Judge Robert Steele case in Euclid and countless others.
Bean, 82, who died Sept. 19, 2010, is survived by his wife Olga (nee Fedorovich), to whom he was married for more than 54 years; daughter, Dr. Nadine M. Bean-Bianchini of West Chester, Pa.; sons, Matthew M. of Wickenburg, Ariz., and Scott A. of Parma, Ohio; six granddaughters: and a great-granddaughter. He resided in Parma from 1957.
He was born in Northfield, Ohio, on August 16, 1928, to Henry L. and Myrtle M., both deceased. He had four brothers: John R., Floyd H., C. James and R. Paul. (Don Bean pointed out that one of the brothers was so short he needed special golf clubs.)
Bean graduated from Northfield High School (now Nordonia Hills) in 1946. He served as a high-speed-radio operator in the Army Air Corps from 1946 to 1949, during the period when that division of the Army was established as the Air Force.
He graduated from Kent State University in 1954 and worked in newsgathering from then until 1994, when he retired from The Plain Dealer.
Bean was a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and was inducted into The Press Club of Cleveland’s Hall of Fame in 1995. He was a past president of the former UMACC (United Methodist Alcohol and Chemical Counseling) of Berea and an elder and trustee at Church in the Valley in Peninsula.
Reputation, courage, sobriety
Bean was a colorful, irrepressible, irreverent newsman. Some said he was unlettered, and all said was unfettered. Whatever he was called, he was always a staunch, dedicated defender of the people’s right to know and who held elected and appointed officials responsible for fulfilling their duties to the public.
Covering a murder in Shaker Heights, Bean felt the then-chief of police was being too protective of a teenaged white suspect and ignoring the rights of a black victim’s family.
Sitting in the chief’s office, Bean noticed a motto on the chief’s desk: “Our Men Serve All Men.” With disdain, Bean suggested the chief remove the sign for not living up to it. Outraged, the chief lunged across the desk and clutched Bean’s throat. Bean gave credit to Lt. Joseph Gardener for calming the chief down and saving Bean from serious injury or worse. It turned out the suspect was mentally ill, a fact the chief had been reluctant to share with the media.
It wasn’t the last intervention that would subsequently save Bean’s life. In 1980, his wife witnessed what Bean’s self-destructive, drinking lifestyle was doing to him and his family. She arranged for an intervention. With full support of The Plain Dealer and then-executive editor David Hopcraft, Bean went to alcoholism treatment and never had another drink of alcohol, One Day at a Time.
In addition to being chief police reporter, Mr. Bean was an assistant city editor, feature writer, a criminal courts reporter, and an obituary writer. Indeed, he wrote the draft of this obit.
In his career, Bean was shot at, pushed and shoved, tear- and pepper-gassed, and had his legitimacy questioned often.
He rarely, however, was accused of violating a confidence, except when the late, famed criminal defense lawyer Thomas A. Shaughnessy, a former reporter and newspaper owner, unjustly charged Bean with violating a confidence involving one of his clients.
Bean recalled that Shaughnessy said, “Bean, I’ll give you a good story, if you promise not to use my client’s name, for she is a call girl and if her mother, who has a bad heart, sees it in the paper, it will kill her.”
“Tom,” Bean remembered having replied, “I don’t need you to find out her name. It’s a matter of public record and well within the purview of the people’s right to know.”
In checking the records, Bean discovered the call girl was charged with possession of a criminal tool. The supposed criminal tool was a condom she had placed on a night table at the motel in which she was arrested prior to fulfilling her call.
Shaughnessy was right. It was a good story about the law overreaching. The woman was acquitted. Bean used the story.
“The call girl’s mother did not die from embarrassment,” Bean wrote for this obituary. “Shaughnessy, a bombastic, loud talker, often said that Bean couldn’t be trusted with a confidence. Not true. Bean often explained why that was in error.”
Bean had a stormy shouting confrontation with George Steinbrenner, best known as owner of the New York Yankees, after three employees of his Steinbrenner’s American Ship Building Co. died in an explosion aboard one of his ships being built at the Lorain shipyards. Marsh Samuel, Steinbrenner’s public relations manadvisor, told the media the victims’names would not be released although the families had already been notified.
“Let me talk to George,” Bean requested. Ushered into the owner’s spacious office, Bean pounded on the huge desk and told Steinbrenner, “You, sir, are suppressing free flow of information.” The names were released.
All of these things really happened and many more.
Another time, while covering a trial, Bean mixed up the names in a murder case. He mistakenly said the victim, the dead man, had been sent to prison for 15 years.
At work the next day, Bean answered the phone to hear former assistant county prosecutor Kathy Peterson say, “Hey, Bean, the Bureau of Prisons wants to know what they are supposed to do with a stiff for the next 15 years.”
Bean received a very unpleasant phone call next from the very angry and displeased mother of the victim.
Bean was at his best, most times, during pressure of deadline, and he was at his worst when times were slow on the police beat.
Twice at slow times and on different occasions, Bean assigned reporters to go to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Public Square to interview the Mother of the Unknown Soldier. Not only did they go, they waited for more than an hour for the “mother” to show up.
One April Fools Day, after waiting for one hour at the monument, a male reporter called the city desk and told the then-city editor, Ted Princiotto, “Ted, she didn’t show up.”
“Who didn’t show up?” Princiotto asked.
“The mother of the unknown soldier,” the reporter replied.
“Who sent you down there?” asked Princiotto.
“Bean did,” said the reporter.
Incredulously, Princiotto replied, “You damn fool! Don’t you know what day this is?”
Another time, Bean sent a beautiful, blonde woman reporter on the same absurd assignment. After she had waited more than an hour on a hot, muggy August night, she called Bean to ask, “Bean, how long must I wait for the mother?” Sarcastically, Bean told her, “Until she is identified.” With that, the reporter gasped and shouted, “Bean, you bastard!” Maybe I was, but it was fun.
The legend of Johnny Pott
Another slow time, Bean created the legend of a modern day Johnny Appleseed. He named his fictional character Johnny Pott and dressed him in a black derby hat, yellow sandals and a madras sport coat and even adorned him with a tattered, mailman’s pouch that was filled with marijuana seeds. The happy, high, hippy, Johnny Pott, Bean wrote, traveled the United States planting the seeds for his hippy friends.
Pott would crash (sleep the night) at apartments of his hippy friends and leave maps of his plantings, and when the plants ripened, the friends would happily reap the harvest.
Russ Kane, a wonderful and talented city editor, called Bean at the police beat after he had read the story. “Bean,” said the knowledgeable editor, “this sounds like a three-martini story to me.”
Quickly, Bean replied, “It’s not, but I can’t reveal my sources.”
The editor happily said, “On your word we’ll run it.”
The fictional story ran on the front page and in newspapers around the country.
A good reporter and a lucky one
During his career, Bean wrote many obits of late persons. There was a hot July day in 1959 while working for The Cleveland News when he almost became late himself, half a century before his time.
Bean often told the story.
“It was early morning. I was sitting at my desk. Breathing softly, just trying to stay alive and keep a low profile. I was suffering the granddaddy of all hangovers.
“The then city editor, the late Mr. John W. “Johnny” Rees, looked at me and barked, ‘Bean, get out to W. 93 St. and Lorain Ave. Shots have been fired in a bank.’
“Thankful to get out of the city room and into what I mistakenly thought would be some fresh air, I jumped into the car of the late News photographer Jerry Horton,and we sped to the scene.
“When I got out of the car, the tear gas was thick as fog and painful as salt in an open wound. Police were shielded behind their police patrol cars. Gunshots were being fired from the bank and at the bank. I walked down the middle of the street. A hunched over policeman, with gun in hand, was behind the fender of his black and white. Then came an officer’s shout: ‘Get down you, damn fool. You want to get shot?’
“Still upright, I calmly replied, ‘I’d be a hell of a lot better off.’
“As I choked and gagged and almost hurled, I stooped beside the cop. I noticed the officer had a tiny razor-type tear on his right hip pocket where a bullet had grazed him.’ It turned out he was the first on the scene. I interviewed him and had another scoop.”
Bean would often modestly say, “I was not only a good reporter, I was a very lucky one.”
It turned out the bank robbers had kidnapped the bank manager at his west side Cleveland home and taken him to the bank while other gang members held his family hostage at the home. As bank employees reported for work they too became hostages. It was the first of its kind in the nation of bank robbers taking hostages, much like Al Pacino’s movie, “Dog Day Afternoon.” The whole thing turned out well with no one injured and all the robbers captured.
On another occasion, after Bean did have one of those famed three-martini lunches with the late gossip queen, Mary Strassmeyer, and dropped her off at the Pee Dee building, he headed back to the police beat at the Justice Center. He was driving the police beat car west on St. Clair Ave. when at E. 13 St., where new roads were under construction, Bean drove the car into very, fresh cement -- right up to the rocker panels.
Construction laborers turned the air blue, screaming oaths and curses at Bean, who coolly replied, “Don’t you yell at me. You don’t see any barricades knocked down.”
Mollified, they had a nearby construction truck pull the car out. It was dripping with fresh cement. From that day on, colleague Lou Mio called Bean, “Medusa wheels.”
Bean prided himself on meeting deadlines. Rarely did he miss a story. However, his dedication at one point cost the Plain Dealer $10,000 in an out- of- court settlement when he pocketed a picture from the counter of the Cleveland Police Department’s Scientific Identification Unit. He thought it was the photo of a wanted murder suspect, but the photo turned out to be that of a man with the same first name, same middle initial and same last name. Oops, wrong man.
Bean was active in The Newspaper Guild labor union. He was, in his own words, “beloved” past president of Local #1, the first local in the then-33,000-member international union.
It was in this capacity during the newspaper strike on Oct. 2, 1972 that Bean attempted unsuccessfully to dissuade a police captain from deploying horses from the police mounted unit against a newspaper picket line at The Plain Dealer.
Bean failed in his effort, and six mounted policemen charged their horses into a united, densely packed picket line. During the melee of horseflesh pushing against human flesh, Bean was knocked to the ground by a blow to the back of the head delivered by a Teamsters Union business agent. As he fell, the self-described “athletic” Bean whirled in mid-air to discover his attacker advancing on him, seeking to do more bodily injury. Reflexively, Bean lashed out with his feet, breaking the agent’s leg.
Television reporter Paul Sciria later asked the agent how he sustained his injury. With a straight face, the agent replied, “A horse stepped on me.” The incident was precipitated by a long-standing dispute between The Guild and The Teamsters on how best to prosecute a labor dispute.
Cleveland citizens and labor leaders were outraged at the use of horses against humans during a peaceful, lawful strike action. Thanks to pictures made by Pee Dee reporter William F. Miller and his testimony before City Council, an ordinance was passed,banning the use of horses in labor disputes.
Perhaps the bill’s passage was aided by the outrageous behavior of one of the mounted policemen, whose tasteless behavior was exceeded only by one of the horses that had relieved itself on the sidewalk during the horse charge. The crowd had settled down. All was at peace when the mental giant of a policeman noted the presence of the road apples and suggested to one of our prettiest and youngest women reporters, Susan Stranahan, “Why don’t you pick that up (road apples) and eat it?” That remark almost started an attack against the policemen and the horses they rode in on. It did, however, cost the policeman a transfer out of the unit after Bean complained to the police chief.
Most times when Bean pulled one of his hoaxes, he remained undetected and anonymous. If caught, he was more often than not forgiven.
One time his fun and games backfired on him. It was a time when one of Cleveland’s more notorious, infamous mobsters was indicted for murder. The mobster was using a newly acquired girlfriend, a young schoolteacher, as his alibi at his trial. Every reporter in the city was panting for an interview with the beautiful moll for his defense.
Bean had a woman friend call James Naughton, then the Plain Dealer politics writer, in the city room. She told Naughton she was ready to spill her guts, would no longer be an alibi for the hood and invited Naughton to meet her at a local bar. Naughton thought he had the scoop of his life.
Then the night city editor, who was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs, called Bean at the police beat and ordered him to accompany Naughton and watch his back.
Bean spent a couple of uncomfortable hours in a cold car while Naughton sipped drinks inside a warm bar awaiting the arrival of Miss Tell-It-All. That was one time the joke was on Bean.
Another prank for which he was forgiven was when he and colleague Pat Garling moved the staff’s favorite fawner’s desk from the city room into the Women’s Department. In those archaic days, the women were separated from their male counterparts and generally limited to covering women’s news only.
Mr. Fawner came by his name rightly as he was a celebrity hound, a table-hopping type who could never keep his hands off the famous nor pass up a chance to fawn over them.
Take the case of the erudite, prolific author Don Robertson, who had written numerous novels including, “The Three Days,” “The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread,” and “Flag Full of Stars.” In addition, Don had numerous television scripts to his credit. He had just returned to a writing job at The Plain Dealer from New York, where he had been writing soap operas. Don was famous. He was also a grouch.
Mr. Fawner spotted Mr. Famous in the city room. He rushed to him and gushed to him, “Oh, Mr. Robertson, it is such a thrill to meet you. I have read every one of your books and loved them all.”
And then the Fawner said, “What’s the matter, couldn’t you make it in New York?”
It was instant hate. Robertson turned the air blue with obscenities. They did not talk to each other for the next five years.
So, you understand why Bean and his cohorts just had to move Mr. Fawner’s desk. Pat Garling agreed. They moved it with little effort. It worked better than anyone could have dreamed. The next morning a delegation of women were in the office of Executive Editor Bill Ware, pounding on his desk in rage and shouting they would not put up with that man’s working in their department. Poor Mr. Ware had no idea what they were yelling about.
As Bean reported for work that night, he was told City Editor Ted Princiotto wanted him in his office. As Bean entered, Princiotto was negatively shaking his head from side to side and said, “You don’t know anything about a desk being moved last night? Do you?”
Bean lied and replied, “No.”
“I didn’t think so,” Princiotto said, “Get the hell out of here.”
On the beat
Bean’s career was not all jokes and laughs although when he began his career in 1954 the profession was then known as the newspaper game. Today, when a laugh is heard in the city room heads lift to see what the strange sound is.
In 1959, while working for The Cleveland News, Bean was assigned to cover a New York Central passenger train crash in Wellington, Ohio, that killed nine persons. The crash took place around 9 p.m. Bean was called at home and arrived on the scene about 3 a.m. By 3:12 a.m. he knew the cause of the crash as he overheard two railroad employees discussing how the engineer was speeding 70 miles per hour through the 35 mph area.
Bean identified himself as a reporter, but the employees refused to go on the record. Bean confirmed the fact through another source. Once again, he could crow, “Not only a good reporter but a lucky one.”
Bean had just begun working for The Pee Dee in 1961 and was at the police beat when a raging fire broke out in a six-story tenement building. Almost every piece of firefighting equipment in the city was battling the blaze.
Bean stood under a nearby railroad bridge and discovered that the woman standing next to him not only lived in the building, she was the rent collector. She provided information that the fire broke out in the stairwell of the only exit from the building and numerous fire code violations were ignored by the owners.
As Bean was hastily scribbling notes, the roof of the building collapsed with a loud crash. Heat from the flames could be felt. The woman grabbed Bean’s arm in a vise-like grip and would let go only after being assured she was not in harm’s way.
During the early days of the Vietnam War, reporters on the police beat were assigned to obtain pictures and interview next of kin of servicemen killed in battle. As this difficult and heart-wrenching task continued for a very long time and protest against the war became more frequent, Bean later recounted, “It was one of the very few times I departed from objectivity. We were taught at Kent State: ‘Objectivity above all.’ I began asking surviving parents if they thought perhaps the war was not in our best interest. I did not receive any responses against the war.”
Lawsuits and threat of lawsuits are an occupational hazard. However, lawsuits can be a very good learning tool. While Bean was employed at International News Service in 1957, Louis B. Seltzer threatened to sue INS and Bean for a million dollars.
“I was crushed, I was devastated, I thought my career was over,” Bean said.
It turned out that Bean had written a story that Seltzer, editor of The Cleveland Press and a powerful man known as Mr. Cleveland, had apologized in open court to a lawyer who had filed a libel lawsuit against the newspaper when Seltzer wrote that the attorney did not have enough money to file a writ of mandamus. Seltzer’s apology was delivered during a recess, not when court was in session. Bean quickly called the powerful man, who told Bean, “Check both sides, young man. Check both sides.” The suit was dropped and a career was saved. And Bean checked with both sides – no, with all sides -- for evermore.
It's all in the game.
It was newspaper tradition to pull the leg (hoax) of the reporter who was taking his first stint as obituary writer, a job nearly all reporters. A job we all had to do at one time or another.
One night in the late ’70s, Bob Holmes, a talented, athletic, broad-shouldered Englishman who had emigrated to Cleveland from Liverpool, was on the obit desk. Bean couldn’t wait to get to work to pull a hoax on him. It nearly caused Bean to be fired.
Upon arrival at the police beat, Bean found that fellow police beat reporter Ed Kissel, a prankster in his own right, had prepared a fake obit about a German World War II ace whot had purportedly shot down 18 Spitfires during the Battle of Britain.
Bean lauded Kissel for his originality but believed Holmes would not fall for it and said, “Perhaps we can do better.” Bean should have left well enough alone as it turned out.
After some thought he called Holmes about 7:30 p.m., some hours before deadline, and said, “This is the Donald B. Johnson Funeral Home in Northfield, and we might have an obit for the paper.”
Before Bean could say anything further, Holmes said,” I can’t talk to you now. I’m too busy.” He then hung up.
Bean bided his time and called back at 10:30 p.m. -- right on deadline. He told Holmes again that he was the mortician from the Northfield funeral home. “I tried to talk to you earlier on but you were too busy. We do have the body of Cyrus Eaton in here.”
Eaton was a great Cleveland industrialist, millionaire and railroad owner, and his death would be front page news any time it happened.
Holmes, between a swit and a sweat, panicked. Bean could hear him as he shouted to the night city editor, Vern Havener, a pipe-smoking, no-nonsense WWII11 veteran, “Vern, oh. Vern!”
In his excitement, Holmes hung up the phone before Bean could tell him it was a joke. Within minutes, the entire city staff sprang into action and just about everyone in the newsroom was busy on the fake obit. All the phone lines were tied up as the staff called notables for comment, worked to update the standing Eaton obituary on deadline and contact the funeral home for confirmation of the death.
Failing to get a line into the city room, Bean knew he had to rush to the city room from the Central Police Station to stop the story from seeing the light of print. And also to try to save his job and to at least prove he was sober.
Bean liked to recount that as he approached the city desk with his hat in his hand -- and he didn’t even wear a hat -- dense clouds of smoke rose from the pipe of a very angry night city editor.
“What do you know about a Cyrus Eaton obit?” Havener asked in the coldest, iciest voice Bean ever had heard.
Bean said, “I know everything about it. I was trying to pull Bob Holmes’ leg.”
Havener replied, “You’ll be pulling your leg on the street.”
To his everlasting credit Vern never filed a complaint against Bean.
The near firing did not deter further pranks. It was, after all, called the “newspaper game.”