There was a time when newspapers were brimming with irreverent characters who seemed to step out of the pages of a Damon Runyon short story. Alfonso X. Donalson, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette local news editor -- known universally as "Al Don" -- was one such character.
For much of his career, Al Donalson, who died on Tuesday at 80 after a struggle with diabetes, was the guy who younger reporters and editors turned to for perspective on Pittsburgh politics.
Along with the little-known back story on a politician or a shady political deal, Mr. Donalson would gladly pass on what was usually an unflattering nickname for a political figure. They ran the gamut from "Fat Man" to "Turkey Neck," though many are unprintable in a family newspaper. When Mr. Donalson compiled the PG's daily budget -- a summary of stories for the next day's paper -- he would indulge in some unvarnished truth-telling. PG columnist and reporter Sally Kalson supplied a sample: "Some fool punches a cop on Liberty Ave" and "Fool steals car and runs over his fool accomplice."
Mr. Donalson began his journalism career at The Pittsburgh Press in February 1970. From the start he was a dogged reporter with an easy laugh, a competitive streak and a shortage of patience for the vanity of politicians. He prided himself on his reporting chops, but many of his colleagues and some of the politicians he covered considered him one of the best writers in town -- period.
"I liked Al. He was a good reporter, fair and intelligent," said Cyril Wecht, the former Allegheny County coroner and commissioner who butted heads with him occasionally without losing respect.
"I was saddened to hear of the passing of Al Donalson, a media fixture on Grant Street and one of the true characters in a profession known for outsize personalities," said Gov. Tom Corbett in a statement passed along by former PG reporter Dennis Roddy, who now works for the governor.
"While possessed of the obligatory skepticism of the journalist, Al was unfailingly optimistic in his dealings with people and was a walking advertisement for all that is good about the institution of the city newspaper," said Mr. Corbett, a former county assistant district attorney and U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania.
Mr. Donalson joined the Post-Gazette as an assistant city editor in May 1986. At the end of the business day, the Grant Street reporters who worked under him would stream into the newsroom with behind-the-scenes tales and bawdy gossip that their supervisor relished. The laughter at the city desk would become explosive and contagious just as deadline fell.
"He went to Nicholas Coffee [in Market Square] virtually every day and returned with a bag of freshly roasted peanuts which he shared with us all," former PG reporter Barbara White Stack said. "He would crack open those nuts over his keyboard while regaling us with tales of Grant Street and shady politicians. Everyone knew which computer was Al Don's -- the one with the peanut confetti keyboard."
Though he had a sharp mind for names and details when he appeared on television news programs, Mr. Donalson would feign forgetfulness in the newsroom. "He [allegedly] had trouble remembering names, so anyone he couldn't place became 'old what-ee-name,' " staff writer Mark Roth said.
PG staff writer Mike Fuoco said that when he and former staff writers Bill Moushey and Mike Bucsko were working on an investigative piece, they couldn't find a key source. "Al Don told me to go see 'my man up on Smithfield Street,' " Mr. Fuoco said. "That was the key. We ran the story, which won an award but it wouldn't have been possible without 'my man,' " he said.
When Mr. Donalson retired from the PG in August 1999, he and Ruth, his wife of 53 years, tolerated the usual testimonials and farewell cake in the newsroom with one twist: “Al and Ruth, a retired music teacher, offered their own farewell,” recalled staff writer Len Barcousky. “They sang a duet from the musical ‘Carousel’ — ‘This was a real nice clambake,’ they sang in harmony. ‘And we all had a real good time.’ Lots of moist eyes that afternoon.”
Mr. Donalson lived in Stanton Heights and worshipped at East Liberty Presbyterian where he was an elder and choir member. He also sang at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church and was considered quite devout by those who never worked with him.
Born in a small town in southern Georgia, Mr. Donalson came with his family to Leechburg in Armstrong County at the age of 8. The family later moved to Pittsburgh and he graduated from Westinghouse High School, where he was editor of the student newspaper, The Bull Dog.
He attended Northwestern University before transferring to the University of Pittsburgh where he was political editor of The Pitt News. He served two years in the military as a chaplain's assistant.
Mr. Donalson freelanced for national publications that included The New York Times and New Times magazine.
Mr. Donalson is survived by his wife Ruth and a large extended family. The funeral is at 10 a.m. Monday at East Liberty Presbyterian Church.
Tony Norman: email@example.com or 412-263-1631.