I was never a colleague, competitor, or even a close friend of Bill Casteel. I was just one of his many readers. He has passed away at the age of 82. It’s been about eighteen years since he wrote a newspaper column, leaving a void that has yet to be filled.
I first discovered him in the 1970s while I was still in high school, thirty miles from Chattanooga. Each day during lunch, I’d go to the library, where a fresh Chattanooga Times awaited.
I’d skip the “A” section, and head right to B-1, where Bill’s mug was always glaring at me from the upper left side of the page. Like the man himself, Bill’s column was right to the point. Even the name of his column didn’t waste any words. It was called “Byline.” There was no doubt the opinions expressed were those of the author.
To reminisce about Bill’s thrice-weekly columns, takes one back to a golden era of Chattanooga characters. Of course, we have some real winners today, who are surely thankful they are spared Casteel’s cutting commentary.
Imagine what he would have to say about allegations of City Hall hanky-panky, the County Commission’s indiscreet use of discretionary funds, crime-fighting drones, gang-free zones, bike lanes, Southside odors, and School Board shenanigans. Those columns practically write themselves.
Our household names of the 1960s, 70s and 80s included Bookie Turner, Ward Crutchfield, Harry Thornton, Paul Clark, Jim Eberle, Dalton Roberts, Roy McDonald, Flop Fuller and others, most of whom are no longer with us. He joked with some, battled with others, and drank with even more. Don’t you know that when Bill entered the pearly gates, some of his former subjects welcomed him, while others scattered like roaches in daylight.
Bill was a splash of cold water in the morning. Politicians had a love-hate relationship with the morning columnist. They loved to get their name in the paper. But they hated to be called out for their mistakes. That was his specialty. He had no fear. He was the personification of the old journalism quote: comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.
He also had an eye for the unusual, and penned some of the best feature stories ever. Although he’s best remembered as a critic of government gone bad, my favorite Casteel columns were his election year specials. Admittedly copying a radio football prediction show called “Leonard’s Losers,” Bill’s pre-election forecasts were called “Casteel’s Casualties.” If your name was on his list, you could count on a long drive home on election night.
Bill’s column was also a useful guide for reporters who were new to the city. My wife recalls moving here from Pennsylvania in the 1980s. She says after one month of reading Casteel, she had figured out Chattanooga’s cast of characters.
In 1998, Bill’s newspaper career came to an end. When Chattanooga’s two papers merged, someone decided there was no longer room for Bill’s voice at our breakfast table. Bill and I had breakfast shortly after that. I told him how much I missed his take on the world, and he said he missed sharing it. This was at the dawn of the internet era, and I suggested he start something on the web. He looked me right in the eye and asked, “Do you really think people are going to sit there in front of a computer, and read opinion columns?” I never said he was a visionary.
I have a few personal memories of Bill. When the Challenger Center opened in 1995, they invited media types to take on some simulated missions in the control room. It’s something countless school groups have done ever since, but we were the first. Most of us were just there to have fun, but Bill, who was captain of my team, was determined to get it right. Mission accomplished. I felt smarter just sitting next to him.
A few years ago, he was volunteering at St. Barnabas Nursing Home. He called me and said, “Do you need a news story?” It being Bill, I figured he had some dirt on a local politico. No, he had met a 95-year-old woman who was an amazing pianist, who he believed should be on the news. He was right, proving he still had the best instincts in town.
But my favorite memory was made earlier this year. His daughter Diane told me Bill wasn’t feeling well, and it might cheer him up if some old friends got together with him. Garry Mac and I met Bill and Diane at Lillie Mae’s restaurant in Red Bank. We loved hearing Bill talk about the characters, curmudgeons and crooks he had caroused with and written about.
We didn’t know it then, but time was running out for Bill. He didn’t have many good days after that. But I’ll never forget his joy in praising the newspaper folks he idolized as a young reporter, the Times colleagues he loved, and publisher Ruth Holmberg, whom he adored.
She had the foresight to hand over valuable newspaper space to Bill, three times a week. He sold a lot of papers, made us laugh, and challenged us to think.
Thank you Bill, for sharing your Byline with us. Many an important person has said, “Everyone is replaceable.” As you did with so many important people, you proved them wrong.