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Bill Reel and My Life

Last week the Catholic Community lost a jewel. William Reel was a New York journalist for all of his adult life. He worked for the NY Daily News in varied capacities, most notably for a column that highlighted the lives of ordinary people doing the extraordinary. He did the same for The Tablet, the newspaper of the Brooklyn diocese. I was among his most avid readers.

Bill lost a long battle with cancer at age 71.

In the 1970’s and 80’s, Bill wrote a series of articles telling of a crusading priest Father Bruce Ritter, OFM and his war against the sex industry that was swallowing teens literally by the busload. He told of the bookish priest at Manhattan College who was challenged in 1968 by a student to put his money where his mouth was, as Fr. Ritter was preaching a sermon on doing service. So the priest with a doctorate in Medieval Theology left the comfortable confines of a great college (that I would be a visiting professor at 39 years later) and began a ministry of availability to the poor that would mushroom in 20 years to a child shelter and service agency with centers in seven cities and an annual budget of $90 Million.

Bill Reel was central to that growth and the many children’s lives saved as a result.

Because of Bill Reel’s articles, I contacted Fr. Ritter who invited me for a visit that would lead to my working at Covenant House on staff for seven years. At the beginning of my time at Covenant House I met a dynamic and humble staff member by the name of Chris Bell, who was leaving to start a group home for unwed mothers, named Good Counsel Home, under the direction of Fr. Benedict Groeschel who would later teach me in the seminary and give me invaluable spiritual direction.

One of Bill Reel’s greatest columns was of Chris Bell and Good Counsel Homes. Singer Frank Sinatra read the article and sent a check for $10,000 to help Chris get off the ground. (Good Counsel runs several homes and is in constant need of people’s prayerful and financial support).

When a close friend in college called to tell me that her Episcopalian pastor was found murdered, I went to be with her for the funeral. Outside of the church, there was Bill Reel. I introduced myself and told him of how his stories of Covenant House motivated me to join the staff. We talked for a while of that and many other issues of the day. He was keen to know what I thought of my experiences at Covenant House and where I saw my life as heading. He asked what I knew of the murdered priest, specifically asking about his priesthood and charitable deeds. He asked others, and then wrote a beautiful column, never mentioning the scandal and salacious circumstances associated with the murder.

Bill was a class act.

A few years later I ran into Bill again when I was in the seminary and he was there as part of a media workshop. To my astonishment, he walked up to me, greeted me by name, remembered when and how we met, and asked for my friend by name. He was as self-effacing as he was brilliant and kind.

We met at other events through the years, through mutual friends. Never did I hear an unkind word about Bill. In New York City, in New York Journalism, that’s quite a testimony.

Bill Reel’s life as a journalist, as a Catholic, was exemplary. When Fr. Ritter became embroiled in a sex and money scandal that brought him down (and almost brought Covenant House with him), no one person could have claimed greater right to having been betrayed than the man who helped put him on the map, Bill Reel. Yet Bill did not join in on the media feeding frenzy that ensued. He simply would not pile on.

Bill sought the nobility and sanctity that dwells within each of us, the non-celebrities. It was that goodness which he drew out into the light. He showed the sainthood of the common man, and ennobled us all in so doing. Moreover, he taught me to do the same. He helped set my life on its current path, and seemed to figure prominently in the lives of many around me. He was a good and decent man who spent his life and talents celebrating the goodness and decency of ordinary people all around us.

In the darkness and cynicism that has become journalism, he was a guiding light, a beacon of hope. Now that light has been joined to God’s eternal light. Though I’ll miss that light, I thank God for the way it has shone in my life and the lives of many whom I know. I marvel at how the tangent lines of our lives touch each other’s and effect such powerful changes for so brief an encounter. Such were the tangent lines of Bill Reel’s life and mine.

Thanks Bill and enjoy Heaven. You earned your halo.

{For a great sample of Bill’s style, click here and enjoy.}

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