Eugene Cervi

Eugene Sisto Cervi, Colorado's most controversial newspaperman in the past 50 years, was born September 20, 1906, at Centralia, Illinois.

He was the son of a coal miner and had a natural feeling for the little man, for the poor families of America. His father named him after Eugene Debs, socialist, union leader, and presidential candidate, who received nearly a million votes in the 1920 campaign. (Cervi's middle name, Sisto, was his father's first name.)

The Cervi family came to Colorado in 1912, settling first at Larkspur and then in Denver. Gene received his education at Colorado College in Colorado Springs and then worked for a year in the steel mills of Pontiac, Michigan.

Back in Colorado, he worked as a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News from 1929 to 1936. During this period he was assigned the death watch on Frederick G. Bonfils, powerful publisher of the Denver Post, then an evening paper.

He watched the lights go on and off in the Bonfils mansion. After hours of observing, he saw a prominent Catholic priest enter the home. Cervi, a Catholic, assumed the visitor was there to give the last rites. Other clues led the reporter to conclude that Bonfils had expired. But he needed proof. Slipping to the home of a relative in that part of Denver, he telephoned Olinger's, the leading mortician.

"This is the Bonfils home," he said. "When are you coming to get the body?"

The undertaker said, "We are on the way now and should be there in five minutes."

The News city editor was satisfied and broke the story that morning, scooping the evening Post.

Cervi worked for the Denver Post prior to World War II, and during that conflict he held federal posts, such as director of the Colorado Office of War Information. In 1945 he began a newsletter, a weekly publication that did not seem to have the authority of a printed publication.

Gifford Phillips, a well to do young man who was an heir to the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp., had purchased the Jefferson Sentinel at Lakewood, Colorado. He shared Cervi's outlook and offered to let his friend have $25,000 worth of printing at his plant. Thus Cervi's Journal was born. In later years, Cervi repaid the $25,000.

Gene Cervi published a weekly tabloid to prepare businessmen to face the postwar era. He published what he called "lists" - such as real estate sales, mortgages, and new car buyers. He hoped to build a subscription list at 50 cents a copy by this means. But, in fact, his pungent editorials caused people to read the paper. The common question was, "Who is Gene exposing this week?"

At the same time Cervi was launching his printed paper, Ray Campbell, president of the Denver Post, brought in Palmer Hoyt of Portland, Oregon, as editor and publisher of the Post.

Cervi began scolding the Post and the News for siding with the establishment. They supported the Denver Water Board, Safeway, the Public Service Company, and other prominent institutions. "Each week," he told me at that time, "I look around to see what person with $2 million dollars is engaged in a selfish action. Then I pick up a brick and throw it through his window."

Cervi succeeded for three reasons: He knew Denver's power structure and its weaknesses, knowledge gained from years of residence and reporting; he had a persuasive and outspoken style of writing; and he had courage.

Bill Lederer, author of The Ugly American and a Navy captain, once telegraphed me from the Pacific fleet commander's office and asked me to select 15 Colorado journalists and public figures to go on a three week good will and inspection tour to Pearl Harbor by aircraft carrier.

Among the 15 were Gene Cervi and his enemy, editor Jack Foster of the Rocky Mountain News. One night in Hawaii, Foster softened Gene up with a few martinis and exacted a pledge from him.

"I wish you'd stop printing that the News is controlled by Scripps Howard of New York," Foster said. Mellowed by alcohol, Cervi agreed. A few months later, Gene told me that he regretted his promise. "I have been trying to say the same thing in different words," he said.

I first met Gene about 45 years ago at an American Civil Liberties Union dinner at the Albany Hotel in Denver. We were outraged about some situation, and before we broke up Gene suggested phoning Gene Amole, then operating a classical music radio station. He thought Amole could put something on the air. Amole was already making waves in Denver and could lend an attentive ear to our problem. It is ironic that Amole now writes Colorado's leading column for the Rocky Mountain News, frequently opposing the views found on the editorial page.

I was selected for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, and at the end of my year there I started the Colorado Editorial Advisory Board. This later became the Littleton Press Council. But first, in 1945, 1 persuaded eight newspaper editors, from both dailies and weeklies, to attend a dinner each quarter and listen to eight professors and experts appraise the performance of our papers in fields ranging from economics and sociology to psychology and international affairs.

Gene participated in these discussions for six years. He also joined the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, which met for a week each July in or around Carbondale, Illinois. I had helped H.R. Long launch the group, and H.R. was tickled when I secured membership for Gene. The two men thought alike.

ISWNE planned three trips abroad in those years. Gene and his wife, Eulalia, accompanied my wife, Irene, and me on all three trips.

When we went to Ireland, Eamon de Valera was prime minister. He had helped Ireland win independence, had been jailed twice, and escaped once back to the United States, where he was born. Gene and I called on him and we secured an hour's interview. De Valera insisted for a time that all school children be taught Gaelic, although only one percent of the population used the ancient tongue.

Our next trip with the Cervis was to a conference in Ottawa and Montreal. Gene was our spokesman for the American editors in that year of the World Fair and the geodesic dome.

ISWNE took a month's trip in 1969 to Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Hong Kong. When we had a background session at the American embassy in Tokyo, Gene exploded at a diplomat for talking down to us. In Manila, President Ferdinand Marcos broke his date with the American editors, so we had a view of his ruthlessness even then. Eulalia and Irene were welcomed at a party given by Imelda Marcos but got to see only one pair of her shoes.

In Taiwan the editors had to turn in their American currency, which could be reclaimed when we departed. We each received a slip to indicate what we had deposited. When the time came to depart, Gene found that he had lost his slip. He blew his stack. He had an armload of books on Taiwan, and he threw these at the innocent clerk. For a couple hours, he kept to himself, ashamed at his loss of temper. He always had a low boiling point, but it often stood him in good stead.

On the way back, I arranged a small cocktail party in Hawaii for George Chaplin, editor of the Honolulu Advertiser. He was trying to tie up with the Bulletin in a joint operation agreement under the Newspaper Preservation Act. Gene told him that he would consider supporting his proposal and would let him know in the morning. Neither man slept much that night. Chaplin left more literature under Gene's hotel door, hoping to win his favor. But at dawn Gene had to say no.

It was at about that same time that Gene telephoned me one day and said that he wanted to take me to lunch in Littleton and get a question answered. After we were served, he got right to the point. "Do you have any absolutes?" he asked.

I quickly answered that the one thing I would never change my mind about was mankind - the welfare of all humans on earth. I added that I appreciated all other creatures, but humans were No. 1. Gene said his absolute was the Catholic Church.

We both read each other's editorials. He once announced that I was in favor of a certain proposition. I phoned to tell him that I was against it, the same as he was. He grumbled that I had not come out strongly against it. Shortly before he died, Gene was infuriated by something else that I had written. He did what readers occasionally do: He punished me by canceling his subscription.

Gene prospered sufficiently so that he could join the Cherry Hills Country Club, an exclusive club in the finest subdivision on the edge of Denver. He needed a strategy for winning the approval of the membership committee because many members had denounced the Journal over the years. He instructed a friendly member to approach two more, who would win over two more, until he had enough votes to gain admission. The tactic worked, and Eulalia continues her membership to this day.

Eulalia, by the way, was constantly criticizing his editorials, which she thought seemed extreme and sometimes unwarranted. He finally ordered her to stop reading his paper.

Gene was a Democrat and served two years as state party chairman. He had disagreements with Ed C. Johnson, popular U.S. senator who later became governor. Gene even opposed him in the primary, but Big Ed was invincible and easily defeated Gene at the polls.

Among Gene's four children was his son Michael, now a successful businessman, who was a mischievous student. When a serious prank led to his dismissal from school, Gene went into action. He called on the school superintendent and demanded readmission for Mike.

"Mr. Cervi," the superintendent intoned, "we will not let Mike back into this building unless you bring him to school each day. That will be the only way you will get to know your son and understand his needs." From then on, Cervi chauffeured Mike to school.

Gene Cervi was at home with the editors of ISWNE, people who regarded the great issues of the day as worthy of their attention and efforts. After Gene died, the organization established the Eugene Cervi Award for excellence in journalism, particularly for public service through community journalism. When I received this award in 1979, 1 was also handed a bronze sculpture of an English bulldog. It symbolized the tenacity with which Gene clung to issues.

One long battle conducted by Cervi was to put Maurice Brody on the board of Colorado's largest bank. Brody had a vast knowledge of municipal bonds, but he was disqualified at the time because he was a Jew. There was a "gentlemen's agreement" that kept Jews off bank boards in Denver. Cervi won that fight, and the bank officers were grateful as time went on for having such a valuable adviser.

Cervi's Business Journal was printed by a commercial shop. He came to me once and asked me to print his paper. I begged off, partly because we had our hands full and partly because intimate business contact would lose me a friend.

Working with architect Eugene Sternberg and attorney Leonard Campbell, Cervi began building his own plant in downtown Denver so that he could print the Journal himself. In the midst of the construction, he died at the age of 64. His daughter Cle (Mrs. William Simon), trained by her father, took over. It was a staggering task, running the enterprise and directing 29 employees.

After a time, she sold to Daniel Lynch and Bruce MacIntosh. In two years they changed the name to Rocky Mountain Journal. The paper, under a new ownership, is now called the Denver Business Journal.

Gene Cervi died on December 15, 1970, and services were held at the great Immaculate Conception Cathedral. The large crowd of mourners testified to Gene's place in the Colorado community. I watched the elaborate ceremony that cold day as an honorary pallbearer.

Cervi's brand of gadfly journalism is needed in every large city. He had a talent for criticism that encouraged debate. His victims often were his friends. With all his editorials against the Denver Post, he could go to New York and be invited to dinner at the home of Helen Bonfils, the dominant owner of the paper.

I have always thought that Gene's early demise was due to the fights he had with important people in Colorado. Cle tells me that is not true.

"Confrontation did not bother him," she assured me.


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