John Richard "Dick" Irwin, 74, retires from the Baltimore Sun Monday after having spent 44 years reporting on the city's enduring crime industry and distilling and cataloging a never-ending litany of murders, shootings and robberies to his signature "police blotter."
He began the popular feature — which treated the theft of a tomato plant with as much reverence and importance as bank heist — in 1979 at the now-defunct News American, then to the now-defunct Evening Sun, and finally to the still-being-printed morning Baltimore Sun.
Dick has been absent since February recovering from medical problems and hardly a night went by when a desk sergeant in some far-flung police outpost didn't ask the reporter making cop rounds, "Where's Dick?"
Dick Irwin got information out of cops that no other reporter could, and he demanded perfection from not only himself but from the officers who answered the phone. Whatever information he got was going to be accurate in the next day's paper.
Maryland State Police spokesman Gregory M. Shipley called Irwin "an icon in the news business in Baltimore. He has the stamina and the tenacity to get every detail in every story that he pursues. Most policemen want to get off the midnight shift as quickly as possible. Not Dick Irwin. I can't count the number of times I've been awakened from a sound sleep from Dick. I will miss him, but I hope I get some sleep now."
Dick's humor was understated, to say the least. He could talk crass with cops but demanded civility when addressing others. Between stints as a newspaperman, he worked as a clerk in the Social Security Administration, pumped gas and patrolled the streets of North Baltimore for a year as a city police officer.
In the Sun newsroom, he left a reporter who sat next to him this note: "Dick Irwin is off until July 5. He says behave yourself!" In 1995, he stood at a window overlooking Centre Street and watched Pope John Paul II depart on a helicopter after a daylong, hectic visit to the city. "In another 10 minutes, he'll be the Anne Arundel bureau's problem," he said in perfect deadpan, a quip that earned him a spot on "The Wall," reserved for the best quotes heard around the newsroom.
Dick's police blotter, a list of daily crime both mundane and horrific, was a fixture in the evening and morning Sun for years, so much so that when it occasionally got crowded out for space or omitted because Dick was on vacation and cops would only talk to him, angry people flooded the newsroom with calls.
Dick might have been one of the last full-time night police reporters in the industry, and his blotter, at least in the form it was when Dick went on leave in February, will most likely not return.
And Dick, distraught over his departure, did not return to the newsroom for a final farewell, which typically involves cake, speeches and a ceremonial clapping during the final walk out the door. Instead, Dick, in keeping with his night-time hours, quietly slipped into the newsroom after midnight to retrieve some personal items from his desk.
He left behind frayed maps, tattered clippings and lists of people killed in the city in the past several years, which he meticulously kept on legal pads. He only discovered e-mail recently. "I still wrestle with whether this is the right thing to do," Dick told me. "I will of course be missing tremendously the people I've worked with."
Dick's first job in newspapers was in 1955 as a copy boy for the News American, when he was still in high school. He was promoted to reporter and covered the police beat until he got laid off in 1958. He went to work for the city police, the Sears regional headquarters in advertising and running a gas station in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at the Grand Teton National Park.
He returned to Baltimore in 1960 and took a job at the Social Security Administration where he met his wife, Gwen, to whom he has been married 46 years. Five years later he landed a job back at the News American. When that paper folded in 1986, he went to the Evening Sun, and then to the morning Sun when the evening edition stopped publishing in 1995.
I last wrote about Dick in February 2009 on the 30th anniversary of the blotter, noting that even in a struggling industry, the basic concept of listing crimes has survived in both print and on the Internet. The police blotter constantly ranked as one of the best-read features no matter the format.
The blotter is popular because it tells a story, small tales woven to form a portrait of our neighborhoods and of our streets. Even if it's not comprehensive, it's reassuring to know that the missing trash cans and petty thefts, the break-ins and the burglaries, the crimes that most aggravate but often get crowded out by murder and mayhem, still matter. We laugh at the stolen hot tub and shake our heads at the stolen assault weapon.
It's neighborhood gossip in print, or fodder for gossip yet to come. You learn not only that the woman down the street got held up at gunpoint, but that she had $300 in her purse, or that the man shot on Charles Street hailed a cab instead of taking an ambulance to the hospital.
Perhaps most amazing is that the Police Blotter has survived the test of the computer age. Despite electronic feeds in which thousands of crimes can be downloaded from police 911 centers directly to detailed mapping programs, Irwin's feature remains popular, whether it is read at the coffee table, viewed on the computer screen or downloaded to an iPhone (which, by the way, is among the leading items listed in the blotter as stolen).
The computer gives us: "Incident number: 090055470; Report number: n/a; Date/Time: February 07th, 2009 03:10 pm; Description: Assault; Nearby address: 3300 Laurel Fort Meade Rd."
Irwin gives us: "Someone entered the rear yard of a house in the 5900 block of Johnson St. on Saturday morning and removed a tomato from a tomato plant. The tomato was valued at $3, police said."
Here is one last favorite sent to me by a colleague:
North Point Precinct
Burglary/arrest: A woman reported someone had entered her apartment in the 200 block of Baltimore Ave. on Sunday night and stole a 13-inch television that she would recognize because it was infested with roaches. Near the woman's home that night, police arrested a man in connection with the burglary and recovered the TV — which police confirmed had the insects. Charged with the Baltimore Avenue burglary and another in the 2400 block of Keyway later that evening was Edward S. Renick Jr., 22, of no fixed address.