Kevin Cullen

Passing of a champion of the old media

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / July 10, 2011

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Years ago, before I joined this fine newspaper, I worked at the Boston Herald, where I met some great people and one certified character by the name of George Kimball.

In 1985, my reward for covering many homicides was a junket to Vegas to cover the world middleweight championship fight.

I sat next to George at ringside. Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns went at each other like tigers, hitting each other with unprecedented ferocity. Everybody ringside was sprayed with their sweat.

When the round ended, the crowd was standing, cheering, exhausted by the single most exhilarating round in any boxing match.

George put both hands on my shoulders. He knew more about boxing than any living being, and I was convinced he was about to capture in just a few words this transcendent moment.

George leaned toward my ear and yelled, “Get me a beer!’’

It was something Hunter S. Thompson might say. Inevitably, George and Thompson were friends. They both ran for sheriff. Thompson ran in Colorado. George went back to Kansas in 1970 to run against the sheriff who arrested him at an antiwar protest. George got thrown out of the University of Kansas for his antiwar activity.

George was the son of a career Army officer and had gone to school on an ROTC scholarship. He wasn’t just counterculture. He was counterintuitive. He covered Red Sox games by sitting in the bleachers. He was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, one-eyed bundle of intellect and wit. Like his great pal Pete Hamill, he instinctively knew whose side to be on, and invariably it was the little guy’s.

Like another iconic Boston newspaperman named George, as in Frazier, his copy was so good that editors had to put up with stuff that wouldn’t be tolerated of lesser writers.

Before the Herald, George wrote for the Phoenix, and one day he threw his column on the Phoenix copy desk and disappeared. John Ferguson and Ken Emerson, two fine editors, thought George had written the column in Welsh or gibberish. Eventually, they figured out if you moved your fingers on the keyboard one letter to the left, everything made sense. They retyped it and made deadline.

George only had one eye but he could spot talent. He championed young writers like Charlie Pierce, Mike Lupica, and Michael Gee.

When Pierce learned he was hired at the Phoenix on George’s recommendation, he went looking for George to thank him. Everybody at the Phoenix was amused that Pierce expected to find him in the newsroom.

“Try the Eliot,’’ someone suggested.

Charlie Pierce walked into the Eliot Lounge and found George with his head on the bar, his eyes closed.

Charlie was stammering his appreciation when George opened his good eye.

“Hey,’’ George said, without lifting his head, “got any speed?’’

George quit the Phoenix in a huff at 9 o’clock one morning after arguing with an editor and grabbed Pierce, saying, “C’mon. Let’s get a drink.’’

The Eliot was locked up tight, so they walked down Newbury Street, vainly looking for a watering hole that would open early. Finally, they walked into the Park Plaza and found some guy cleaning the lounge. George bribed the guy to open and he and Pierce sat there for hours, repeatedly expressing their belief that journalism would be a perfect job if there was no such thing as editors.

George went to the bathroom, and by the time Pierce realized he wasn’t coming back George was boarding a flight for Palm Beach.

“Sorry,’’ George told him later. “Just something I had to do.’’

If George was impulsive and eccentric, he was also a very talented writer, somebody who was both erudite and accessible. He made you want to care about boxing and boxers probably more than you should. He was the only guy I knew who could quote Brendan Behan and Muhammad Ali in the same sentence.

He loved Ireland and it loved him back. After he left the Herald in 2005, he continued to write a weekly column for The Irish Times. I can’t tell you how many times I bumped into George in Ireland. I thought he lived there. He and Eamonn Coghlan, the Irish runner, were great pals, and they ran a golf tournament in Hingham that raised money for a children’s hospital in Dublin. George got Bill Lee and Luis Tiant to play. Finbar Furey, the singer, would fly in from Ireland for it.

George died the other day. He was 67, which in George Kimball years is something like 107.

“I’m sad not just that George is gone,’’ Charlie Pierce was saying, “but that this business is not designed to produce George Kimballs anymore.’’

Charlie’s right. George wouldn’t last a day in today’s sober, smoke-free, buttoned-down newsrooms. His expense reports would be laughed at. His instinctive distrust of authority, whether a politician’s or an editor’s, wouldn’t be tolerated.

And so yes, this is the passing of a talented newspaperman and a genuine character but also of an era.

George lived on his own terms and died on them, giving the finger to cancer.

I last saw George a few years ago, after he was diagnosed.

He was standing outside the arrivals hall at Belfast International Airport, dragging on one of his beloved Lucky Strikes. We got talking and George noticed I kept glancing at his hand.

“Oh, these,’’ he said, holding the cigarette out. “Yeah, well, my doctor told me I should stop.’’

George drew hard again.

“So,’’ I asked, “what happened?’’

George expelled a long plume of smoke that seemed to drift out over the rolling hills of Antrim.

“I got another doctor,’’ George Kimball said.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at