Richard "Rich" Connelly, a longtime former staff writer and columnist for the Houston Press, died Tuesday at his Houston home after a several years long battle with cancer, his wife Bobette Riner by his side.
A graduate of the University of Houston, he had a long, successful journalism career starting with the Dallas Morning News and Texas Lawyer before coming to the Press. On the side he wrote a sports column for the (now defunct) Public News as Red Connelly.
As a writer for the Press, he often employed a special brand of irreverent dry humor that pointed out the absurdities and occasional idiocies of public and private individuals. He generally made his points in a light-hearted manner both in his Hair Balls column and in the magazine length features he wrote. Readers got his points not because he hit them with sledgehammer sermons, but because he made them laugh and think.
His all time classic in terms of long form features was probably the time he wrote about the rising waters of Tropical Storm Allison in "Wading for Godot" as his wife, his then- 9-year-old son Patrick and he were trapped for hours inside their home near White Oak Bayou. He was, if nothing else, a unique scene setter.
I was standing in the middle of my living room, taking a leak. While normally pissing in the living room would be considered a social faux pas among the Smart Set — unless your name is Jackson Pollock — Miss Manners might have given me a pass this time, seeing as how I was thigh-high in fetid, brackish water that had spread throughout the house. Wading back to stand over a commode that was itself under water seemed somewhat pointless at the time.
I'm standing there whizzing, surrounded by large pieces of heavy furniture floating leisurely about as if on a pleasure cruise. Outside, my wife's car — the one that just got $300 in repairs — sits totally submerged, its burglar alarm gargling pitifully underneath the waves.
The Rev. G. Todd Williams first met Rich after being the subject of some news stories Rich wrote. In 2005, Williams had organized a "Stink-In" at the Montrose Public Library to protest a new city ordinance of the time that said library patrons (read homeless people) could be booted if they had "offensive bodily hygiene."
Rich called the group "fragrant revolutionaries" and suggested that the Storytime Book on the day of the protest should be the children's classic: The Stinky Cheese Man.
As it turns out, Williams now is a chaplain with Houston Hospice, the organization that Rich and Bobbette brought in for help the last three weeks of his life. "I'm sad today," Williams said. "I'm really sad about his passing. We lost a good man. I'm so glad our lives crossed.
"I appreciated his authenticity and his willingness to listen. I never felt like he was just doing a story. Just being kind," Williams said. "I always found his reporting to be fair."
Bobette and Rich met when they were both covering a Dallas breaking news story for competing newspapers. She said she kept on covering the story after that because she wanted to see more of Rich. Although his illness meant Rich had to stop reporting and he left the Press in late 2013, Bobette said up until the last couple of weeks he was always on his laptop, looking at the news.
As an editor, my encounters with Rich could be as interesting as his copy.
In 2007, the same year that he won the Humor (under 100,000 circulation) category in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists competition, Rich hit a brief dry spell leaving him susceptible to that most dreaded of situations: an editor's idea for a story.
I asked him to write a story about ferrets. As he noted in the start to "Ferret Love," I knew that he didn't like pets to begin with, making this assignment even well, less appealing. Sucking it up, he reluctantly decided he'd be a team player and agreed.
Reluctantly being the key word. As he wrote:
You meet some ferret folks, and they seem like nice enough people, but still you put off, for as long as humanly possible, picking up the phone to talk ferrets. Finally deadline pressures force you to make the call.
And you hear this voice message: "Hello, you've reached the house of Prince Vladimir Poopin. I'm not in, and neither are my minions Noni and Dave. Please leave a message."
Good Lord, you think. Is it too late to switch to a feature story on sewage-line cost overruns?
After he'd hastily hung up and relayed the answering machine message to another reporter — who told him that this was actually a chance to mine journalism gold — he called back and this time got a person.
You take a deep breath, put on a happy face and steel yourself to talk about the cheery, happy, wonderful world of ferrets.
"So, how's ol' Prince Vladimir Poopin doing?" you ask, managing to work up a friendly chuckle.
"Oh...Well, he died this morning." ("Good CHRIST, can I catch a break with this story?" you somehow manage not to scream.)
In the end, the ferret owners were gracious interviewees and the ferrets were fascinating. We even brought them over to the newspaper to get photographs and the staff all got to play with them. And, best of all, for Rich it all crescendoed quite perfectly.
As he described it:
Staffers gather round to check out the commotion; some decide they want to hold one of the ferrets.
In the two hours of shooting, there are no untoward incidents save one.
One of the ferrets decides to take a nip out of one of the bystanders. The victim? The editor who assigned you the story.
Karma is, indeed, a bitch.
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Somewhere Rich is probably still laughing about that.
He was devoted to his wife and son and remained a staunch fan of the Notre Dame football team — which fortunately beat Duke 27-13 on Saturday night, Bobette said. Equally fortunate, she said, was that he didn't take in the Giants game Monday night because his beloved New York team lost 26-16 to the Steelers.
He had a rare talent and didn't deserve to die when he did. But as he would probably say: Who does? Even to the end he was more concerned about the effects of his cancer on his wife and son than what it was doing to him.
Arrangements are pending. Given the coronavirus, a memorial service will be scheduled some time in the future.