Daniel Bellow: Remembering Lew Cuyler: Friend, mentor, character

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Lewis C. Cuyler was an enthusiast for life. A big, tall gangly guy with a ready grin and a booming voice and twinkly eyes behind Coke bottle glasses, he made everything fun.

I met him when I came to work at The Berkshire Eagle in 1988. I had broken a big story over in New York state and they gave me the City Hall beat, which no one else seemed to want. He sized me up as a bright kid who didn't know a damn thing, and as The Eagle in those days was a teaching newspaper he set about wising me up.

Cuyler had been editor of the North Adams Transcript for years, and when they asked him who to hire to be business editor of The Eagle he took the job himself. He was happy to be writing stories again; he had that reporter personality. He had a staff of one, but that was his disciple, Danny Pearl, who had started a year ahead of me and was really good.

The two Dannys

Danny and I were friends, playing nerf football in the newsroom and hanging out in the local music scene, frequently mistaken for one another. To disambiguate us, Cuyler called Pearl Pearl and me Bellow, when he hit that first consonant you could hear it all over the newsroom. I called him Cuyler, which is also pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.

He took a lively interest in our doings, and even came out skiing and drinking with us, leading us to suspect that he had been a very fun guy in his younger days and also quite reliable with the ladies. It occurs to me he was the same age then I am now.

Cuyler understood his beat, and he knew how to cover it. "It's a subculture" he said once. "People in business think the press is out to get them. You have to win their trust." My job, by comparison, was easy — public officials were continually attacking each other and every office leaked like a sieve.

The affairs of the business desk and the City Hall reporter intersected at many points, and on Cuyler's careful instructions I asked many questions of Mayor Anne Everest Wojtkowski, who did not suffer gladly the interest of the press in the internal deliberations of the mayor's office. When I left The Eagle in the Great Financial Blight of 1990, she sent me half a dozen white roses with a note that the other six were for Lew Cuyler when he finally retired. Cuyler laughed at the gift because it was so ridiculous.

He had a fine sense of drama and an interest in things for their own sake. To be a reporter was to get a close view of life's rich pageant, so pull up a chair, kid. Enjoy the show. I adopted this view of life, and I know Pearl did, too.

My best Cuyler story happened on my 25th birthday, March 17, 1989, when we went out to walk the proposed route of the never-to-be built Pittsfield bypass. With Steve Moore, the environmental reporter, we started out bushwhacking from the end of Dan Fox Drive and we were having a great time until walking through a swamp in what used to be called Wild Acres I stepped on a patch of melting ice and fell into water above my head.

Every time I tried to heave myself back onto the ice, more of it would break. My heart was racing, but Cuyler kept his head. He grabbed a big sapling and Steve ran it over the ice and together they pulled me out, along with several gallons of icy water that were in my clothes. My blue lips were of concern, so Steve decided he would finish the hike and write the story, and Cuyler and I walked out two miles to the car.

He took me back to his house, and after 20 minutes in a hot shower I felt a lot better. He loaned me some clothes — fortunately we were about the same size — and we went back to the newsroom and something else was found for me to do that day. When Gae Elfenbein saw me she laughed. "You look just like Lew Cuyler!" she said. "An overgrown preppy."

Retirement reinvention

There was something of Peter Pan in him and it served him well in his retirement, in which he completely reinvented himself as the dean of Berkshire Sculling, spending every morning rowing on the calm surface of Onota Lake. Rowing a little boat on a sliding seat keeps you quite fit and running a small business is all the distraction a man could want and he married well the second time to the lovely Harriet, so I think it was a happy time.

Whenever I would see him, whether at some art opening or at the funeral of a colleague, he would light up and say "Hello, Bellow!" in that giant's voice. He'd grasp my shoulder in his right hand and hold me at arm's length to inspect me. He was full of questions about my new business and what it took to make it as an artist; he always had the greatest respect for entrepreneurs, having tried it once or twice himself.

The last time I saw him was in the spring; he and Harriet came to see my new pottery studio when I was having a sale. I showed him my kiln, eight tons of brick in a metal frame to hold up the arch and a sliding cart on rails. "My God, Bellow!" he exclaimed. "Look what you've done here!" He hung out for an hour, swapping stories, and it was only when he told the same one twice that I looked at Harriet and she nodded. My own father went like this, too.

He didn't want to leave but eventually he had to and he threw his arm around my shoulder and said: "I'm so proud of you, Bellow." I couldn't have asked for anything more from this man.

Daniel Bellow is a former Eagle reporter and deputy editorial page editor.

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