Pete Hamill: From high school dropout to legendary journalist

Pete Hamill is greeted by colleagues from the New York Post, where he started working as a reporter in 1960.

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)First, last and always, Pete Hamill, was a newspaperman from the old school -- happily at home in a newsroom roaring with profanity, poetry, punishing deadlines and quirky personalities. He dropped out of high school, worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a sheet metal worker, did a tour in the Navy -- and then walked into the New York Post in 1960 to start working as a night-shift reporter, the start of what became a legendary career.

Errol Louis
Hamill died on Wednesday at the age of 85, days after breaking his hip from a fall. A lot of men and women can turn a phrase, land a big interview, meet a deadline or chase down leads. Hamill did all those things better than most of us. Above all, his writing was top notch, and included magazine pieces and several novels, and he even won a Grammy in 1975 for writing the liner notes to Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album.
But for Hamill it was all about newspapers and he worked at many of the major publications in New York City.
    A big-city newspaper is a fantastic, wonderfully surreal enterprise, a laboratory of human behavior. People cuss, hustle, smoke, drink and occasionally fight -- and then venture out into crazy, dodgy, dangerous situations over and over again, all to get The Story.
    Hamill thrived in that atmosphere. He brought the swagger of his native Brooklyn streets into the newsroom and wrote columns that named the city's heroes and villains and voiced its failures and fantasies.
    "Quite simply, I love newspapers and the men and women who make them," Hamill wrote in "News is a Verb," a brooding, book-length essay about the news business. "Newspapers have given me a full, rich life. They have provided me with a ringside seat at some of the most extraordinary events in my time on the planet."
    An honest paper is the voice of the city, a place where people learn truths about themselves, their neighborhood and the world. The writers and editors doggedly expose political corruption, chase down the facts of a murder, and chronicle the everyday pains and passions of a hundred neighborhoods and ethnic groups.
    Hamill was a leader in this odd, necessary vocation. He loved journalism, built it, changed it, defended it -- and inspired many of us to join the profession. Even after he became a boss, rising to become editor of the Post and its crosstown rival, the New York Daily News, Hamill never stopped being a street columnist, with a nose for being in the right place at the right time, snagging some of the biggest stories of our lifetime.
    In 1966, he traveled to Vietnam and wrote about going on patrol with Marines. Here's an excerpt from one of his columns:
    Where I come from, a place with shattered windows and no steam heat in winter is thought of as a slum. We think it criminal if rats scurry between the walls, or if children are forced to work at sixteen, or if a man loses one shot at decency and comfort because his education was incomplete or the color of his skin was unacceptable to others. But in the Cam Nes of the world, to live past three is a success, and to make it to thirty is a triumph. I wish I could bring you here somehow; I wish you could see the faces of the old women, the light in their eyes extinguished, their small, shrinking heads looking dumbly from under conical hats, their skin eroded, clay-dry, pitted with the half-healed gashes of the swamp leech.
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    Two years later, he was covering Robert Kennedy's run for president in 1968, standing so close to Kennedy at the moment of his assassination that Hamill was among the men who helped tackle Kennedy's killer.
      And decades later, he was blocks away from the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, and dutifully turned a column about that world-changing event for the next day's paper.
      When John Avlon, Jesse Angelo and I compiled Deadline Artists, a two-volume anthology of America's greatest newspaper columns, we occasionally argued over which pieces should be included. There was never a question about the need to include Hamill, who generously gave us a ton of time and advice and joined us on a book tour. It was a privilege to know him, share his work and follow in his footsteps, as today's smaller, smoke-free newsrooms continue to tell the stories of a great city, day by day.