Sunday, March 2, 2008

Modie hangs 'em up

After nearly 38 years as a Seattle P-I reporter, Neil Modie called it quits last week, heading into what sounds like a very fun retirement of mountain climbing, do-gooder traveling, drinking and reading with his cool wife Helen, pictured with Neil above.

I've known Neil for a long time -- since way before I started working at the P-I four years ago -- and I felt privileged to be invited to an intimate farewell lunch on Friday at Etta's in Pike Place Market. There was a larger going-away party Friday night at Buckely's, the paper's semi-official tavern; I couldn't go to that one but Michelle stopped by for a beer.

In every newsroom there are a few characters who through quirkiness, talent or just longevity and familiarity seem to define the place. Modie to me was one of those people for the P-I. A longtime political reporter -- he must have had other beats over the years, but none I can remember -- Modie was the consummate pro, a man of few words (and, I liked to tease him, stories), but excellent news judgment and tight copy. He was a pleasure to edit.

Competing with him, which is how I first came to know him, wasn't as much fun. Neil was sneaky good; he could make reporting look very easy.

I recall once, as a youngish political reporter at the Seattle Times, nearly 20 years ago now, I was assigned to cover the Redistricting Commission, the group that was supposed to redraw the state's legislative map to account for population changes in the latest census. It was a long, frankly boring, process, with many meetings that stretched deep into the night in an airless room by the airport. One night I sat dutifully transcribing the meeting, glancing at my watch and stifling yawns. I noticed Modie sitting in the audience too. Wow, the P-I had sent some old guy (he would have been about my present age) who was barely bothering to take notes. Proof, I figured, that I'd been assigned a dud story, thing number A, and, B, that I was wasting a lot of effort writing down all these quotes. Modie was barely paying attention.

So I filed my story and then picked up the competition the next day to discover that Neil not only had managed a sharper account than mine of last night's dull meeting, but had somehow learned the details of a negotiated agreement among the commissioners that hadn't even been publicly discussed yet, let alone announced.

Bastard! He looked so calm because he had the story in his back pocket all along. I got smoked.

Years later, when I went to work at the P-I as city editor, I couldn't wait to see up close how Modie did it. He must be some furtive genius of sourcing, I thought, a master of working the phones and of meeting in dimily lit parking garages, with file cabinets full of dirt on everyone.

But no. I never did figure it out. Where Modie's newsroom neighbor Jane Hadley, a superlative reporter of similar vintage, had stacks of carefully annotated government reports on her desk, Neil had decades worth of press releases and old notebooks in a precarious heap. Where Jane could be heard cross-examining and brow-beating hapless bureaucrats on the phone, Modie occasionally could be overheard discussing a weekend hike on Mt. Rainier. He never seemed to be doing much of anything. But just about the time I'd be ready to roll up my sleeves and demand an accounting, Neil would turn in a perfectly crafted story nailing this or that politician's malfeasance, or explaining some interesting trend or phenomenon that no one else had quite noticed yet.

Pretty good trick. Plus he's one of the world's genuine great guys. Generous, self-deprecating and friendly to all -- even editors! even (especially) the poor dimwitted public official he's about to skewer -- Neil struck me as the rare reporter whom everyone truly liked.

At lunch the other day there were the expected jokes about his length of service (OK, his age), his deliberately paced work habits and the state of his desk -- Neil allowed that he'd managed to excavate the press-release pile back to the 1970s or so -- but the truth is that he'll be incredibly missed at the shrinking P-I. I've already missed him in the year that I've been off work.

For his 65th birthday a couple of years ago, Modie's wife Helen took him to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. He not only finished the climb, but he wrote this excellent article about the experience for the New York Times. Now that he's done working, Neil and Helen are going back to Africa, this time to do volunteer work in Darfur and elsewhere.

Enjoy your retirement, I told him over lunch. After all this practice I'm sure you'll do just fine.


Anonymous said...


It's one of those late nights sitting in front of the
computer and I thought of you ( the 30 year high
school reunion thing coming up) and looked around
a little bit and found your blog.
Still smart and handsome.

I am so glad that you are doing well. You have a beautiful family.


freda said...

great post Mark.

Rita said...

I don't know Neil but sure enjoyed your tribute to him.

I don't know Anonymous Elaine either, but she sounds smart.

Mark said...

She sounds really smart. I wish I knew who she was.

Actually, I'm pretty sure this is Elaine Pinckney, from old RHS, since I don't think I know any other Elaines from high school.

I got a kick out of "still smart and handsome." If she thought that back in the day she did a pretty good job of hiding it.

"No!" is how I think she responded to most of my ideas.

Anonymous said...

Holy cow, Mark,

You embellished and lied about me so outrageously and generously that I didn't even reconize me, other than the part about turning in at least two stories a year whether I needed to or not. Nobody else has ever, ever accused me of being a man of few words, just of few stories.

I've only just now seen your very gracious blog because I've been away from Internet access for the past several days. But thanks very much, it was great to see you at Etta's, and I'm sorry you weren't able to also make it to the Good Riddance party at Buckley's. Everyone told me I had a good time.

-- Modie