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Todd Richissin, an award-winning former Sun investigative reporter and foreign correspondent, dies

Todd Richissin worked at The Sun from 1997 to 2007.
Todd Richissin worked at The Sun from 1997 to 2007.

Todd Richissin, a former Sun foreign correspondent and investigative reporter who wrote movingly and authoritatively about wars, the death of a pope, a royal marriage, the challenges of Wimbledon, and the simple delights of a carefully brewed cup of English tea, died of cancer Friday at the David Simpson House Hospice in Cleveland.

The former Manhattan resident was 57.

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“First and foremost, Todd was such a great guy and colleague who cared about his fellow staffers and was fun-loving and collegial. He was a great journalist and it’s tragic he died so young," said William K. Marimow, former editor-in-chief of The Sun, who lives in Philadelphia. “He was a wonderful reporter, writer, and storyteller whose terrific stories were always visual and colorful.”

Anthony F. Barbieri, a former foreign correspondent was managing editor of The Sun from 2000 to 2004.

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“Todd was a tremendously versatile reporter and writer. He could do a probing investigative project like the boot camp stories, which took a lot of patience and persistence,” wrote Mr. Barbieri, who after leaving The Sun, was the Foster Professor of Writing and Editing at Penn State University.

“But he was also unmatched as a parachutist — someone who could drop into a story in the morning and who by the end of the day will have crafted a wonderful, authoritative 800 words on whatever the situation was,” Mr. Barbieri, an Oakenshaw resident, wrote. “Because Todd was based in London he did a lot of that in Europe and the Middle East.”

He recalled Mr. Richissin springing into action when two commuter trains were bombed March 11, 2004, in Madrid, killing 193 people and injuring nearly 2,000.

“Todd was in London when it happened. He got to Madrid that afternoon and filed two stories for the next day — a main news story and a very atmospheric and moving story about the aftermath,” Mr. Barbieri wrote.

Both stories ran on the front page.

“Yesterday was a day of tears in a city known for its bright gaiety, a day of trepidation in a city known for its optimism,” Mr. Richissin wrote in one of them. “Everywhere — in the city’s cafes and restaurants where red-eyed women and red-eyed men sat silently or talked in low voices, on the roads eerily missing the usual cacophony of car horns, in the neighborhood of Atocha, where people walking dogs stood and gazed at the station hit so hard — there was an unmistakable deflation of people usually pumped so full of pride in their country.”

Robert S. Ruby, a Roland Park resident, who was The Sun’s last foreign editor, had tapped Mr. Richissin in 2002 to be the paper’s London correspondent.

“Todd never ignored the humanity of the people he was reporting on,” Mr. Ruby said. “He was the standard, a great reporter and a gifted writer.”

Since he was 6 years old, Mr. Richissin knew he wanted to be a newspaperman with all of its joys and sorrows, critical, demanding and supportive editors, unyielding deadlines, late nights, foul weather and good, cold cups of coagulating coffee and a few cold beers after work at a nearby saloon with colleagues celebrating surviving another day in the city room, and in addition to all of this, the freedom to roam the world, experience interesting things and talk to people who you never knew until five minutes ago.

He came to personify what H.L. Mencken had written about his newspaper days: “As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.”

“He was a gregarious colleague, with a soft heart hidden inside a crusty newsman exterior,” said Candus S. “Candy” Thomson, a former longtime Sun reporter, editor and outdoors columnist, and a close friend. “Todd had a great antenna, picking up on small things around him — how people were acting and interacting. That skill came out in his storytelling.”

Mr. Richissin, son of Tom Francis Richissin, a Cleveland police officer, and his wife, Maureen Richissin, a nursing home administrator, was born in Cleveland and raised in Brook Park, a Cleveland suburb.

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He was a 1981 graduate of Midpark High School, where he had been editor of the Midpark Monitor, the school newspaper. He attended Ohio University, where he obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism, and where he edited The Lamp, the college newspaper, which earned several Hearst Awards.

He began his career at The Associated Press and in 1992 joined the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, as a reporter. Four years later, he became a Sun investigative reporter.

His 1999 four-part “Charlie Squad” series, which detailed abuse at state-run boot camps for juvenile criminals, earned him a George Polk Award for journalistic excellence in 2000.

The series, which followed the lives of 14 of the state’s toughest juvenile offenders, resulted in a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, also in 2000. As a result of the series, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening closed the camps, fired top juvenile justice officials, and launched an investigation into the abuse by the state police and FBI.

“In boots, military pants, black T-shirts and hats, 14 large men — all muscles and no hair — pace a patch of yellowing mountain grass, pounding their fists into open palms and leather gloves,” Mr. Richissin wrote. “It’s induction day for 14 juvenile delinquents at a state-run boot camp in the woods of Garrett County.

"Time to beat some kids.

“'Here they come!' ... Get ready gentlemen! Kick ass!"

“I still remember the headline,” Mr. Marimow said. “'From Yo to Sir.' It was an incredible piece of narrative reporting.”

“His writing about Maryland’s heroin addiction crisis in rural and suburban neighborhoods in 1998 was deeply sourced and searing,” said Ms. Thomson, a Sandwich, Massachusetts, resident.

In 2002, he wrote a piece about Michael Austin, who spent 27 years at the Maryland House of Correction for murder before being freed, “because there was no evidence that survived scrutiny to indicate he had anything to do with the crime.”

“Put away in 1975, the year Saigon fell to North Vietnam, Austin looks at the world with the curiosity of a child plopped on the moon,” he wrote.

Mr. Richissin was promoted to foreign correspondent in 2002, and covered the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

In 2003, reporting from Highway 8 in Iraq, he wrote, "The tanks and trucks and buses shot up, burned out and spent, linger like ghosts on the median of the highway, along its sides and off to the distance, buried in the sand, dead.

“The harm they represent is past. They are no longer frightening, compared to the cautious soldiers and their pointed guns or the helicopter gunships that fly so low above the road that it seems the children who jump at them could grab hold.”

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In 2005, he wrote a moving story that retraced the World War ll route of Sun war correspondent Lee McCardell, who chronicled atrocities in 1945 in the German town of Neunburg vorm Wald, where Nazis slaughtered 161 men in the fields, farms and along roadsides and in its “schoolyards shot them dead or brained them with rifle butts, not as some desperate tactic to win the war but because they knew they had already lost it.”

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When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, Mr. Richissin documented the majesty of the papal funeral, as presidents, royalty and the humble gathered in St. Peter’s Square in what he observed as “one of the largest religious gatherings in modern times.”

“As winds blew across the vast cobblestone square, the giant bell of the basilica tolled slowly, a mournful suitable sound for announcing funerals, though no mourners needed to be called.”

Not all of Mr. Richissin’s reportage was about the world’s miseries and sorrows. He also had a talent for seeing stories in offbeat and quirky subjects such as Marmite spread on toast, which he described as “Essential Britishness.”

He wrote of the enduring value and tradition of the queen’s garden parties, where 27,000 cups of tea would be poured,10,000 glasses of iced coffee consumed, along with 20,000 glasses of juice, 20,000 sandwiches, 5,000 bridge rolls, 9,000 buttered scones, and 9,000 fruit tartlets, while describing one female guest as wearing a hat the “size of a Volkswagen Bug.”

He complained about black tea getting weaker: “The weather here still stinks, the beer is still unchilled and Britain’s royal family remains energetically unbalanced. The role of traditional black tea in Britain, though, apparently, is weakening.”

When Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles tied the knot in 2005, he wrote of their marriage “at last legitimizing their decades of love in the eyes of the Church of England.”

After returning to Baltimore, Mr. Richissin left The Sun in 2007 and joined Patch in 2011, where at his death he was national editor and had developed a reputation as a mentor to wet-behind-the-ears reporters whom he transformed into highly skilled professionals.

He was also the author of “Fathers & Sons,” which was published by Running Press in 2000.

A larger-than-life figure, the gregarious Mr. Richissin, who wore a closely and carefully trimmed reddish beard, was known for his easy laughter and bear hugs, which were akin to two railroad cars coupling.

Diagnosed with cancer three years ago, he left Manhattan and returned to Cleveland, and had not retired at his death.

“He was looking forward to working the presidential election next week,” said a brother, Ted Richissin of Cleveland.

“His hobbies were sports and news. He was a Browns and Indians fan," his brother said. “And just being with people. He made friends fast and that’ll be his legacy.”

A celebration-of-life service will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday at A. Repepi & Sons Funeral Home in Middleburg Heights, Ohio.

He is survived by three other brothers, Thomas Richissin of Boston, and Timothy Richissin and Terry Richissin, both of Cleveland, and many nieces and nephews.

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