Don McGaffin: We lose one of the Real Ones

The two men in the black-and-white photograph sit in a television studio facing each other.

The man talking appears comfortable in this setting. The other man, brow furrowed, does not. He throws his counterpart a sullen glare. That would be Richard Nixon. The subject of his glare: Don McGaffin.

Instead of a puffball interview with a local, awe-struck reporter, the President had run into a feisty, combination puncher.

Don McGaffin has been called many things: a "reporter's reporter," a fearless man of uncompromising integrity, a symbol of the days when local television news pursued unflinching, investigative journalism.

McGaffin, 78, died May 29 after a fall in his Magnolia home.

He delivered stories that made a difference. And the story of McGaffin's life is the stuff of legend: the blue-eyed, 17-year-old who ran away from a tough home life in Elmsford, N.Y., to join the Marine Corps; the flyer shot down in the Korean War, floating several days in the China Sea; the determined war vet who earned his master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.

His series of investigative reports for KOMO-TV exposed a gambling network that brought down corrupt police chief Frank Ramon in 1969. In 1970 he moved to KING-TV, where he worked until 1983. McGaffin stood up for civil rights and the "little guy," and he spoke truth to power. After the Wah Mee Massacre in 1983, McGaffin went on the air to caution Seattle against a knee-jerk racist reaction toward the Chinese community. Who's around to do any such thing today?

When McGaffin and his cameraman were in danger of execution by their El Salvadorian rebel kidnappers in 1981, McGaffin reportedly asked one of his Mao-spouting captors why he couldn't think for himself. Many of his stories - such as his report on inflammable materials in children's nightwear, or the capture of Puget Sound orcas - led to change. He nailed Bob Hope for his slurring of Japanese-Americans during a performance for some Boy Scouts. He went without studio make-up.

A tough guy who, like Hemingway, loved cats.

I knew he'd lived on Queen Anne. I knew he'd suffered two strokes and the doctors had said he wouldn't live; or if he did, would never walk; or, if he did, would never talk. He proved the doctors wrong on all counts.

I didn't know he'd moved to Magnolia until I received a letter in October 2002 - a bulky envelope with "Donald E. McGaffin" stamped above the return address.

Man, I thought, what have I done now?

"Dear Mr. Dillon," it began, portentously.

McGaffin referred to a column I'd written on the Paul McCartney concert in Tacoma two weeks prior. In it, I had cited McGaffin's December 1980, on-air obituary for John Lennon. He pointed out that my memory was slightly off on one of the obituary details.

And so he wrote his tale of meeting the Beatles in 1964 while working as a feature writer for the San Jose Mercury News. The group was getting ready to play the Cow Palace in San Francisco.

McGaffin said he always suspected his city editor hated him: "'I don't write music,' I snapped, 'especially that junky music from those little Brit twits.'"

"The city editor pointed at the door. 'Just go.'"

At the Cow Palace he bumped into Joan Baez. She got him through the hoards, the gate and into the Beatles' trailer.

"And there they were, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and the monkey-faced kid who played the drums."

McGaffin was from the press. Lennon was not in the mood: "Trying to talk with Lennon was like walking on live snakes."

"McCartney eased me by the arm quickly out the door to the deck," McGaffin wrote.

They talked for 45 minutes. "He was a young, inquisitive and partially educated lad. And he seemed more interested in what I might know than what he knew."

On the way out, McGaffin and Lennon exchanged more unpleasantries. "We really didn't like each other." But, he continued, "Death was no place for Lennon. Death was no place for that musician."

After his chat with McCartney, McGaffin "began to grow my crew cut out, never to be worn again."

It was a wonderful letter. I wrote back suggesting, with a little "tailoring," it could be a guest column.

A bulky envelope with the familiar return address was not far behind.

"Dear Michael," it began, a cat's paw opening.

"Now permit me to tell you about editing, about editing of my work."

He'd resigned at KOMO, McGaffin explained, and was headed back to the San Francisco Chronicle, where he once worked, when KOMO's production chief asked him what would it take to get him to stay.

"I said (I was very comfortably sprawled on the couch in his office picking at moonbeams and waving a cigarette around) to get me to stay I'd make documentaries; I'd determine the subject; I'd research them; with a camera man, I'd film them; I'd voice them; I'd write them, air them" and if anyone touched them, that was it.

McGaffin was given what he wanted. Two years later those rules were broken, McGaffin wrote, and he quit. "That same day, Aug. 27, 1970, KING called and offered me a job. And I was here for 14 more years."

For the rest of his working life: "No one touched my scripts until I was on the air." Not Ancil Payne. Not Dorothy Bullit. "They all had to wait until I was on the air to find out what I'd report! If I was wrong, I could be fired. If I was right, KING-5 News got the plaudits. And Old Dorothy stood with me."

So much for "tailoring."

He addressed the lunch invitation in my letter: "Couple of personal things... The stroke... Now I must speak ver-r-ry slowly or my words spin around in the tumble mode. Frankly, I'm boring as hell. Also, I hate the phone (it's just ego) because I, well, I talk funny now. And I truly hate e-mail because it dances around my old, stupid brain."

We met at the El Ranchon in Magnolia Village.

I arrived early, but McGaffin had already positioned himself at a table. His blue, Irish eyes flashed with mirth as he told stories, his whispery, slurred speech maybe 80 percent there. As the restaurant filled up, the ambient noise overwhelmed the voice. It was difficult. We met again in the quiet of his Magnolia study.

But I'll never forget my departure from El Ranchon.

"I'll let you go first," he said. He said he didn't want me to see him walk out.

He could have made an excuse. He could have said I'll stay behind and read the newspaper. Instead, he told it like it was.

It's what he expected of himself, and others.

Turn on the local news, if you can bear it. Don McGaffin is very past tense.

It's our loss.

Mike Dillon can be reached at[[In-content Ad]]