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PA Journalism Legend Al Neri Passes Away

Albert J. Neri, 58, an award-winning state capitol correspondent for newspapers in Pittsburgh and Erie, died on May 7, 2011.

For the past 15 months, Mr. Neri had been a resident of the Homeland Center, Harrisburg. He went there after complications from cancer treatment.

Until 2009, Neri had remained active as a media consultant to utility groups and non-profits. He graduated from the Temple University School of Journalism in 1974, was a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette from 1979 until 1990, and was state capitol bureau chief for the Erie Times News from 1993 until 2001 before becoming founding publisher and editor of the Insider, an electronic newsletter for Pennsylvania political enthusiasts, between 2002 and 2009.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge said, “He was so professional and such a good man, no one could hold a grudge against Al. He served the public with a sense of history, a work ethic, and he knew everybody.”

Marylynne Pitz, a Neri colleague during his years at the Post-Gazette, said that Mr. Neri as a reporter reminded her of the character Joe Rossi on television’s Lou Grant series. Mr. Neri had covered Pittsburgh’s city hall on Grant Street before moving to Harrisburg. “He always knew the political lay of the land … He had a wonderful feel for people, and Al was always a human being before he was a journalist,” said Pitz.

“I think that more than anything he has ever written,” Ridge said, “the best story that will be chronicled will be the grace and the dignity and the courage and the spirit he demonstrated during the past several years. The best story is the one that he wrote with his life, not with his pen. It is pretty remarkable.”

Mr. Neri arrived in the state capital in January, 1987 as the late Robert P. Casey, Sr. took office as governor. In his first week as a reporter in the Capitol, Mr. Neri attended the final news conference of state treasurer R. Budd Dwyer and was witness to its dramatic end when Dwyer fatally shot himself before a room full of reporters. Dwyer had been found guilty of corruption.

Mr. Neri won an award for his reporting on the Dwyer suicide, which found that Dwyer’s likely motivation for suicide had been to protect his $1.2 million state pension payout. Dwyer would have had to forfeit the pension when a federal judge in Williamsport sentenced him. He was scheduled for sentencing the next day.

Mr. Neri left journalism briefly to serve as press secretary for Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff. He returned to Harrisburg in 1991 when he briefly worked in the state attorney general’s office.

In 1993, he began reporting for the Erie Times-News with coverage of then U. S. Rep. Ridge, who was moving from status as a regional candidate to contender for statewide office. Ridge eventually won the race for governor in 1994 and took office in January 1995.

Mr. Neri covered the Ridge Administration for the Erie newspaper until it closed its capital bureau in 2001. Ridge, who visited Mr. Neri shortly before his death at the Homeland Center, said that Mr. Neri “used to visit my mother in Erie, Pennsylvania sometimes. I suspect she talked about a lot of things about me and other things. He became a friend of my mother’s.”

Mr. Neri won awards from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association for his coverage of Ridge’s first inauguration in 1995 and for stories on expense account abuse by Erie State Sen. Anthony “Buzz” Andrezeski in 1997.

“Al covered politics and government with a passion and insight I have seldom seen in journalists,” said David Sweet of Harrisburg, a former legislator, who is a lawyer-lobbyist and knew Mr. Neri’s work back to his start with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1979.

Mr. Neri began his coverage of government and politics with his assignment to Pittsburgh’s City Hall in 1981, where he “found his niche,” Sweet said.

Gary Tuma, a former Post-Gazette sportswriter who went on to cover the state capitol and became press spokesman for State Sen. Vince Fumo and for Gov. Ed Rendell said that when he arrived in Harrisburg Mr. Neri was extraordinarily kind to him.

“Al was a tremendous help to me as I made that unusual transition,” Tuma said. “Not only did he provide invaluable advice about covering the Capitol, he went out of his way to introduce me to as many of his contacts as possible. He was helpful in other ways, too. He took me house hunting a few times. He showed me his favorite restaurants. When my car broke down at the supermarket he came and got me. He invited me and my family, who knew no one in Harrisburg then, to his home.”

Tuma said, “Once, after I had been in Harrisburg a few months, I returned to Pittsburgh for a meeting.  I got into a conversation with the paper’s business manager at the time, Ray Burnett, who asked me how I was enjoying the new assignment. I said I liked it and that it was nice working with Al. I still remember Burnett’s words: ‘Yeah, if you can’t get along with Al Neri, you probably can’t get along with anyone.’”

Mr. Neri’s first job in journalism was with the Camden (N.J.) Courier-Post’s Cherry Hill bureau. He moved from the Courier-Post to the now defunct Philadelphia Bulletin in 1975, where he covered New Jersey news as a general assignment reporter. He left the Bulletin to join the Post-Gazette’s staff in 1979.

Mr. Neri’s love for Pittsburgh began in 1973 as a Temple University journalism student. He won a scholarship and an internship with the now-defunct Pittsburgh Press.

He is survived by his wife, Caroline Boyce of Mechanicsburg, Pa.; three children: son, Daniel of Harrisburg; daughters Jeanette Quinlan, an engineer in Palo Alto, California and her husband Michael; and Emma, a freshman at Harrisburg Academy in Camp Hill; his parents, Albert Sr., and Mary, and a brother, Philip, all of Philadelphia.

A celebration of Mr. Neri’s life will be held at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral, 221 N. Front Street, Harrisburg, PA 17101, on Saturday, June 4, 2011 at 11:00am.

In lieu of flowers, Mr. Neri requested that memorial contributions be made to Homeland Center, 1901 N. 5th Street, Harrisburg, PA  17102-1598.

—-

by Dan Lynch, formerly of the Philadelphia Inquirer

6 Responses

  1. Al Neri was a great reporter. He was also a great guy and always a loyal friend to me and my family. I met Al in the summer of 1975, when he was working with my brother Ted at the Courier-Post. Al was a real city kid but he became a passionate regular on canoe trips on the rivers in the South Jersey Pine Barrens–the Wading, the Batsto and the Oswego–that Ted organized on Saturdays. He wasn’t the world’s greatest canoeists–his nickname was Wrong Way Neri. But what Al lacked in skill he made up with enthusiasm. I later worked with Al at the Bulletin, and we’ve stayed in touch over the years. He was great to work with–thorough, fair and always hungry for a scoop that would make the front page. The last few years were difficult, but Al was a picture of grace and dignity despite the pain. I will miss him, and I wish his family peace and happiness in the years ahead.

  2. As usual, Clark out-did us. I can add only a personal Hear! Hear! Al was un-relenting in both his work ethic and decency. We’ll all miss him.

    Tony Wood

  3. Al Neri was a kid (two years younger than me) when I met him. At 21 years of age I was a grizzled veteran columnist at the Temple News, the daily student newspaper of Temple University where we covered the mean streets of North Philadelphia as if our lived depended on it. Al Neri was such a sweet innocent, so bright faced and sincere, so genuinely himself all the time. I gave him about as much chance as a big city newspaperman as a platoon leader gave an FNG in Vietnam.

    But Al was made of steel I could not see. He wore his heart on his chin but his backbone was stronger than his kind manner ever suggested. What an unrelenting nice guy. What a splendid journalist. The last time I saw him was at a lunch in South Philly, a reunion of Temple News veterans at Famous Deli. His face was disfigured from surgery but his smile was undimmed. He asked about my wife and children by name — I hadn’t seen in him maybe 20 years — but he was totally Al Neri. We all loved him.

    Clark DeLeon

  4. Al Neri was an extraordinary writer and a wonderful man. I’m very grateful for the conversations I had with him over the years. Pennsylvania will be much worse off without Al Neri!

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