by Marie Lachat
Professor to Graterford inmates, public wearer of Revolutionary War garb, quaffer of an occasional Yuengling at Dirty Franks, Dean’s List student of Philadelphia neighborhoods, this is Clark DeLeon, though this only scratches the surface of a man in a long-term love affair with the city of Philadelphia.
As winner of the national William Randolph Hearst Feature Writing Award at Temple University, DeLeon started his slice-of-Philadelphia-life daily feature called “The Scene” for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1972. He was the city’s youngest columnist, and his column was an open book of his own foibles and sufferings, growing pains and joys and a chronicle of city oddities, oddballs and heroes.
DeLeon, 63, wrote of and from the nooks and crannies of a historic city and of its residents, visitors and occasional troublemakers, some intentional and some stumblebums. He was an observer and recorder of the ways, means and places of a city and its people, high and low, reporting all with an amusing yet gentle eye and crafty pen.
The Chestnut Hill Book Festival and Speaker Series is inviting community residents to meet Clark and hear his “Filulfian” (Philadelphian) storytelling on Thursday, Nov. 14, 7 p.m., at the Bombay Room of the Chestnut Hill Hotel. Decide for yourself if DeLeon looks great for his age or not. Ask him anything about his hero, Thacher Longstreth, or about the travails of Joey Coyle or who his favorite Philly mobster or politician is, what he thinks about Chestnut Hill and especially what it was like to be at Graterford Prison the night that Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.
DeLeon recently returned to the Inquirer as a bi-weekly columnist, but in September of 1995 he stunned readers of the Inquirer when, after 23 years with the paper, 22 of them as a columnist, he suddenly quit his job. Anyone in journalism knows that no one in his/her right mind voluntarily gives up a job as a columnist for a daily newspaper. It’s as rare as a U.S. Senator quitting, but at least a Senator can then become a highly-paid lobbyist. A former columnist can just go to a bar and get smashed.
“I think what it came down to,” said DeLeon at the time, “is that my editors — top management — heard enough from me. I think that what happened with me is part of a larger development. A sign that corporate culture is taking over. As long as I have been here, we prided ourselves on being an excellent newspaper with quirky tendencies and liveliness. You see less of that now.”
In his farewell column, Clark wrote in part: “What happened was that I wanted to do more, more of what I thought my column should be about. I wanted to write more honestly about the dilemma of race in America, how we’re all poisoned by racism because all our lives we’ve been drinking from the same poisoned well.
“I wanted to write about the moral paradox of black racism, especially when it was directed toward Asians and other immigrants. I wanted to point out that being a victim of racism is no excuse to engage in it, how you can feel the pain but fail to learn the lesson. I wanted to speak the unspoken. I wanted to write about issues of the heart and gut. I wanted to ask the big questions.
“My editors wanted me to write jokes; tasteful, politically correct observations with a humorous kicker. They wanted short answers to the questions they would not let me ask.”
For DeLeon, the corporate culture then creeping in and taking hold, even in the news industry, sapped the individual of creativity and of freedom of expression. The job DeLeon loved was not that job anymore. It was a daring thing to do in the challenging field of journalism; however, in between Inky gigs DeLeon pieced together an interesting and diverse array of journalistic endeavors that included publishing several books, doing television and radio commentary, writing articles for periodicals and online publishing, teaching, etc.
But the troubled Inquirer recently brought back DeLeon as a bi-weekly columnist in its Sunday Commentary section. Along with a return to the paper, he was inducted into Temple University’s School of Communications Alumni in the Media Hall of Fame.
DeLeon said that what kept him in journalism all these years was a love of language, a conviction that the truth matters and a belief that he can make a difference. He recently published the fourth volume of “Pennsylvania Curiosities,” which he will no doubt discuss on Thursday night.
For more information about DeLeon’s visit to the Chestnut Hill Hotel, call 215-247-6696.