Many reporters and other editorial employees who populated The Kansas City Star newsroom from the 1970s through the early 2000s — or parts of that period — are mourning the death Thursday Rick Alm, one of the grittiest journalists to ever step foot in the door at 18th and Grand.
Rick, who worked at The Star more than 30 years before being laid off in 2009, died from complications of prostate cancer. The last several days he had been in hospice care in Hutchinson, where he was living.
Always a striking presence in the newsroom, Rick presented an image somewhat reminiscent of Clark Gable in the 1934 Frank Capra movie “It Happened One Night.” Back in the days when ashtrays were part of the fabric of the newsroom, Rick would sit at his desk pounding out a story, one eye squinting, as smoke curled up around his face from a cigarette hanging down from his mouth.
When deep into a story, he would stride purposefully and heavily around the newsroom, brow furrowed and looking sufficiently intimidating to earn him the in-house nickname “The Alminator.”
Rick’s first big score at The Star took place in 1981 at the time of the Hyatt Regency skywalks’ collapse. He and another reporter, Tom Watts, collaborated with a structural engineer named Wayne Lischka, whom The Star had hired to figure out what happened the night of July 17, 1981, when 114 people were crushed to death at a tea dance in the Hyatt lobby.
Poring over blueprints and design plans obtained from the city, Lischka determined that a late-construction change in the way the skywalks were suspended had greatly increased the stress and weight on the skywalks. Initially, the support rods were to have extended straight down from the ceiling along the sides of the two skywalks, but engineers decided instead to stagger the rods that suspended the lower skywalk from the upper one. The change was fatal.
For their combined coverage of the disaster — in no small measure because of Alm’s and Watts’ breakthrough story — The Star and The Kansas City Times (the morning edition of The Star) won a Pulitzer Prize for general local reporting in 1982.
Rick went on to spend many years in the Kansas City, Kansas, bureau — first as a reporter, then as bureau chief and back to reporter again — where he exposed the chronic chicanery of a core group of people benefitting from either their positions in city and county governments or their connections to government officials. During those years, Rick wrote about some “bad hombres” (none of them Hispanic) and did so fearlessly.
In that role, he helped lay the groundwork for the seminal election in April 1997, when Wyandotte County residents voted by a 60-40 ratio to combine the city and county governments under Mayor Carol Marinovich .
Consolidation, in turn, triggered the breathtaking economic turnaround that began with NASCAR’s decision in 1998 to build Kansas Speedway near I-435 and I-70.
By that time, Rick had moved on to The Star’s business desk, where he covered the budding casino gambling business in the Kansas City area. He worked on the business desk until leaving The Star in 2009.
Here now are the memories of several reporters who worked with Rick…
Roy Wenzl, former Star reporter and now a reporter at The Wichita Eagle
(posted on Facebook)
In 1981 Rick ran into the Hyatt Regency hotel lobby right after the skywalks fell and made mental notes about the scene before they kicked him out. He ended up as one of the point writers on the Big Story published by The Star four days later. That story came about after Managing Editor Mike Waller ordered a structural engineer hired to look over the Hyatt plans and debris, along with reporters, including Rick. I was with the investigative team when the engineer showed his findings to us, pinpointing the collapse cause. Rick and Tom Watts were assigned to write it all up. Rick and I walked out of the room, and he lit up a smoke outside the door. “Wenzl,” he said, “we just won the f—ing Pulitzer Prize.” Which we did.
Mike Rice, former Star reporter and now para-legal
(posted on Facebook)
Rick was my mentor. He was the first editor at the paper to take me seriously and give me real news assignments. I will never forget one of the first stories he put me on was the death of a teen-aged KCK boy from a car accident in Oklahoma. He found the parents’ address late in the day and told me to go to their house the next day and interview them. I remember being totally scared shitless that evening. Couldn’t get to sleep. He told me what to do, what to say to them. I didn’t feel I was ready to do something like this, but he said I was. I felt like a 4-year-old kid, and Rick was the dad who was teaching me to swim by throwing me in the deep end of the pool. I was either going to drown or float. I went to the house. The parents let me in, thanked me for my interest in their lost son’s life and talked to me for about an hour…Well, I was floating! The story appeared in the Sunday paper two days later.
Mike Waller, former KC Star managing editor and later editor (now retired and living in South Carolina)
Rick was one of the first reporters to reach the Hyatt Regency hotel after its skywalks collapsed. He was there before the first responders and stayed until the police forced him to leave. We teamed him up with reporter Tom Watts and hired a structural engineer, Wayne Lischka, to help them interpret hotel blueprints and design plans that the city made available to The Star and The Times on Monday, July 20. Working with photographs taken of the hotel collapse scene on Monday morning and with copies of the design plans Monday night, Lischka discovered the collapse was caused by a design change that doubled the stress on the skywalks. The Star wrote that story on Tuesday, July 21, and Alm and Watts reported on the disaster for the next several months. They turned out to be a perfect team. Alm was a tenacious reporter, a bulldog unfazed by dead ends. Watts was a bit more cautious and methodical, an expert at developing sources. Both were dedicated to accuracy; I don’ recall ever publishing a correction on any of their work throughout their careers. The National Bureau of Standards issued its report in early 1982 on the cause of the collapse and cited The Star’s reporting as 100 per cent accurate. Rick continued his dogged investigative reporting the rest of his life.
Chris Lester, former KC Star reporter and business editor and now a senior media relations manager for AT&T
(posted on Facebook)
You can draw a line to what was once great about The Kansas City Star through the prolific pens of people like Rick Alm. To be sure, he had a big hand in winning a Pulitzer Prize. Yet he didn’t flash ego, and he never lost his passion for the daily doings of local news. He was a true “grinder,” and I absolutely loved that about him. But Rick also was unfailingly supportive of those who followed him into the craft, and we were blessed to call him our mentor, colleague and friend. Newsrooms have always needed people like Rick, now perhaps more than ever. When Rick left the newspaper, I knew in my bones it was time for me to follow him out that door. If you buy the notion that the best newsrooms are like families, as I do, it feels like we’ve lost a big brother. He was a big man. But his heart was bigger. Tough guys are like that, sometimes. Tonight I’m going to drink a beer and shed a tear for Rick. He’ll be missed.
Phil O’Connor, former Star reporter, now with The Oklahoman
Smoldering. That’s how I remember him. Yes, there were the dangling cigarettes with the impracticably long ashes that he always seemed to be smoking. But more, I remember Rick Alm for his intensity. His relentlessness. His unending pursuit of story. I met him in 1984, in the KCK bureau, my first job out of college, a clerk watching in awe as the Alminator fearlessly covered the then-bareknuckled world of Wyandotte County politics. I can still see his powerful leg pumping as two meaty fingers furiously typed out the latest scandal he’d uncovered. And oh did he uncover scandal. He was a master of records research, an insightful interviewer in the incredulous style of Mike Wallace and a damn good story teller. He later became my boss. We often clashed — an immature kid (me) not ready to work as hard as he did. I regret that now. He just wanted me to be my best. I wasn’t. Still, I was watching. I was learning.
Tom Watts, former Star reporter, now retired and living in Kansas City
I knew Rick as a reporter in the newsroom, but we traveled in different groups. But that night changed everything, and we were joined at the hip for the next several months — not always happily. As with virtually every other reporter and editor at The Star and The Times, we spent hours at the scene trying to get any scrap of information that would help us understand what killed so many people. The choice I made that night was to try and observe the herculean efforts by firefighters and other rescue workers and the best place to do that was inside the hotel. After being told to leave several times, I found a spot on the second level of the lobby behind a large rubber plant where I successfully hid for several hours. During my watch there, a man walked by and warned me that the entire hotel was dangerous and I should take care. Our conversation revealed that he was a structural engineer who had already been hired by one of the firms that would likely be involved in the likely lawsuits that would arise from the tragedy. After a time he also agreed to work with me to keep my reporting accurate — as long as he remained anonymous because he feared his standing in national engineering circles might be damaged by getting involved in a newspaper project. Later that night, as The Star’s staff gathered at the paper to chart our coverage, Rick and I were among several reporters assigned to start digging for the cause of the collapse. Mike Waller, managing editor of The Star; David Zeeck, city editor; and Darryl Levings, an assistant city editor, oversaw our efforts, and a decision was made to hire a structural engineer to make sure our reporting was based on construction facts. My source identified Wayne Lischka as a young engineer who had once worked for him and had his own practice and might not face the same potential professional hazards of the more established engineer. Wayne agreed, and on Monday — armed with page numbers provided by my source — he and Rick examined the structural documents on file at City Hall. Their conclusion was the same as the one reached by my source, that a design change on the rods holding the walkways doubled stress and guaranteed that they would ultimately fail. As Rick apparently told another staffer, Roy Wenzl, that story was the Pulitzer. It may have been, but Rick and I rarely talked about that for fear that it would screw the chances. The two of us worked for months on elements of the cause and related stories. Waller and others have said we made a perfect team. That may have been clearer from the outside. It was true that Rick was aggressive and I was more conservative. If we came to a locked door, Rick was enthusiastic about kicking it down while I looked for a key. In the end, he got us through the door, and I picked up more nuances to the story in my search. We argued over our approaches and occasionally really got pissed at each other, but we got the stories we wanted and respected each other greatly at the end of the day.
Karen Dillon, former Star reporter and now a freelance investigative reporter
Rick was my bureau chief in Kansas City, Kansas, in the early 1990s, and he was one of a handful of hard-news editors whom I worked for over my career that I completely respected. Rick was what we call in the newspaper business a reporter’s editor. It wasn’t good writing and feature stories that brought him to the business. What lit up his eyes was a tough story about bad government. He saw his role in journalism as a watchdog, and that’s how he ended up with the story that led to The Star and Times winning the Pulitzer for the Hyatt hotel tragedy. But he was always humble about his part. He told me once over beers, when I was telling some folks that his work had resulted in the most sought after prize in journalism, that it had been a team effort. As the KCK bureau chief, he also wrote a weekly column. And boy, could he twist the knife in corrupt politicians in a way that was needed.
Here’s an example of that knife twisting, from a Rick Alm column Karen dug up from Star archives..
SECTION: ZONE/WYANDOTTE COUNTY DATE: October 14, 1993
After months of behind-the-scenes haggling, the City Council in Kansas City, Kan., finally decided whose favorite good-ol’-boy lawyers would get appointed as new Municipal Court judges.
One of them is former Wyandotte County District Court Judge William M. Cook, who, on the very day he retired last month, disgracefully fouled that judicial nest.
Cook sentenced former Wyandotte County Commissioner Pat Scherzer to do 100 pushups — or something like that — for driving drunk and shattering the automobiles and lives of six innocent people.
In a rare move, the Kansas Attorney General’s office is appealing the sentence. Attorney General Bob Stephan, who characterized Scherzer as “gutter-sloppy drunk” the night of the accident, said there was “no excuse” for Cook’s 90-day, house-arrest wrist-slapping of Scherzer.
Now Cook will be dispensing equal justice for all in Municipal Court, where traffic tickets, housing-code violations and other misdemeanor and city ordinance cases are heard.
Because the cases are small ones, so are the maximum sentences that Municipal Court judges are permitted to mete out.
That should suit Minimum Bill just fine.
Rick’s survivors include four children, 10 grandchildren and a brother. He requested that his body be cremated and that there be no funeral. Former Star staffers are planning a party in his memory in Kansas City, Kan.