Obituary: Myron Cope's career spanned newspapers, magazines, radio and TV
February 27, 2008 8:00 PM
Myron Cope works his WTAE final radio show in 1995.
By Gene Collier Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Myron Cope, the much-decorated master of the written word, the ever-celebrated sand-blaster of the spoken word, and a pre-eminent Pittsburgh symbol of not only our selves but of our hopes and our innate joyfulness, died today.
Mr. Cope was 79. He had been in declining health since even before his 2005 retirement from the Steelers broadcast booth, where he spent 35 years. The cause of death was given as respiratory failure.
One of the last of the great sports characters, a genuine oasis in a sea of ever homogenizing media-ocrity, Mr. Cope's life and career were nothing less than book-worthy, even if he had to write it himself. Twice.
"Double Yoi" it was called both times, the second an updated version of the original 2002 volume, the title immortalizing one of Cope's signature exclamations, which, along with "Okle-dokle," "Dumbkopf!", and "How do?", became go-to standards of a singular TV and radio language that often seemed entangled in an impossible dichotomy: it was uniquely Cope and yet it was intrinsically Pittsburgh.
"Donair, huh?" an acquaintance once asked of Mr. Cope. "I'll have to check that out; I'm not familiar with a Dallas restaurant named Donair."
Mr. Cope looked confused, perhaps because he himself was the source of the confusion.
"Oh Dallas, yeah," he'd just finished telling the acquaintance. "We went to the great restaurant dahn 'ere!"
National writers and broadcasters all but outdid themselves trying to describe not only Mr. Cope's voice and dialect but his wit, wisdom, and everyman genius, and not even their best attempts delivered the reliable magic of whatever it was Mr. Cope was delivering at the time.
"I've lost the most creative person I've ever known, a loyal and generous friend, and joy to be with," said Joe Gordon, the retired Steelers executive. "His accomplishments were just incredible. The characteristic that I most admired was his intensity to get things done, his durability to hang in there with his book, the DVD, the piece that he did for the City Paper; he really had to labor for those.
"He was such a perfectionist. I'd say to him, 'Myron, all you're doing is changing one sentence and it's taken four days.' "
He was best known as the squawking talisman of Steelers football and had the good fortune of arriving on the scene just as the ballclub was escaping some four decades of losing. Cope hit the glory road sprinting in 1970 and never lost momentum for the next 30 years. Locally, his celebrity dwarfed many of the players, even those of Super Bowl pedigree, and was surpassed by only a very few.
"He was a true celebrity," said Roy McHugh, the former columnist and sports editor of the Pittsburgh Press. "In the '70s, he and I went to closed circuit telecasts of big fights at the Civic Arena. One night as we were leaving we fell in step with [former world light-heavyweight champion] Billy Conn. We couldn't get three or four paces without people wanting Cope's autograph. Conn they ignored."
Regardless of the ever-more-corporate-imaged NFL he'd walked into, Mr. Cope remained a wag and raconteur of a sporting era from the other side of that transition. Though he was riding the new Pittsburgh wave of Dan and Art Rooney Jr.'s strictly business acumen and seasoned football calculations, he still had both feet in the smoke-filled rooms and occasional "toddy's" of Art Rooney Sr.'s world, which thrived on seat-of-the-pants adventurism.
Once at halftime in Cleveland, Cope found his intermission routine interrupted by an occupied restroom on old Municipal Stadium's roof, which is where the radio booths were situated. His long-standing para-military ritual of urinate, get a hot dog, and get back to the action now jeopardized, he improvised. Without being too graphic, let's just say that anyone walking by Municipal Stadium near that portion of the roof in the ensuing minutes had to wonder from where that sudden shower had come.
Born Myron Kopelman in Pittsburgh on Jan. 23, 1929, Mr. Cope lived all but seven months of his life here, the short period in 1951 when he took his first job after graduating from Pitt at the Erie Times, where an editor changed his byline to Cope. His next job was at the Post-Gazette, where his immense writing abilities soon dwarfed his salary, and Myron Cope quickly got the idea that he could do better himself as a free-lancer in the burgeoning sports magazine industry.
"Kid, you'll starve," an editor told him. "You'll be back in a six months."
Mr. Cope's magazine writing took its inevitable place among the nation's very best. In 1963, he won the E.P. Dutton Prize for "Best Magazine Sportswriting in the Nation" for his portrayal of Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay.
"Cope's columns in the Post-Gazette were in contrast to what had ever been in the paper, they were dazzling," said Mr. McHugh, himself a writer of immense skills. "In the '60s, there was a certain type of magazine style that no one was ever better at than Myron. He could talk to someone and extract all the humor possible from that person."
In 1987, on the occasion of the Hearst Corp.'s 100th anniversary, Mr. Cope was named as a noted literary achiever, among them Mark Twain, Jack London, Frederick Remington, Walter Winchell and Sidney Sheldon.
His style, simultaneously elegant, robust, and humored, landed him on the original full-time staff of Sports Illustrated, which, with the Saturday Evening Post, became the primary conduits of his work. At its 50th anniversary, Sports Illustrated cited Mr. Cope's profile of Howard Cosell as one of its 50 all-time classic articles. Only Mr. Cope and George Plimpton held the title of special contributor at that magazine when Mr. Cope left due to the demands of his burgeoning radio career, and in no small part due to health insurance concerns as they related to his son, Danny.
Mr. Cope's legendary charitable work, which ultimately led to his being awarded the American Institute for Public Service's Jefferson Award in January 1999, began with his son's enrollment at the Allegheny Valley School, an institution for the profoundly mentally and physically disabled. He served for many years on the board of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Autism Society of America and the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, the charity auto race he co-founded, along with the Myron Cope/Foge Fazio Golf Tournament for Autistic Children.
The Terrible Towel, long since a worldwide symbol of Steelers passion and often the Steelers artifact with which Mr. Cope is most identified, is now a trademark that benefits the Allegheny Valley School.
"He was always concerned that his legacy would be the Terrible Towel rather than his writing," said Mr. Gordon, "but his legacy is the joy and pleasure he brought to thousands and thousands of people for 35 years. My brother was dying of cancer in 1977, in really bad shape; that was when Myron had his talk show for only an hour each night. The only thing that would bring a smile to my brother's face or brighten his days was that hour with Myron, and that was still relatively early in his broadcast career."
Though his literary skills were muscular and his broadcast aptitudes somewhat initially debatable at best, Pittsburgh grew to know Mr. Cope far more through the airwaves than from his pristine prose. His WTAE talk show aired for more than 20 years, dominating its time slot. When the Steelers added his voice to their game broadcasts, Mr. Cope thought the only issue was whether he'd have the latitude to be an objective observer. But the only real question was whether there was a frequency that could deliver his signature irascible rasp, gentle and shrill, squeaky and yelpy, often in high emotion fueled by sometimes illogical bursts of excitability.
"He's a horse; he can fly!"
Mr. Cope wound up broadcasting five Super Bowls and was the only broadcaster appointed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Board of Selectors, which he served for 10 years. He became the first pro football announcer elected to the National Radio Hall of Fame, which he considered his greatest broadcast honor, as its honorees include Bob Hope, Edward R. Murrow, Orson Welles and Vin Scully. At the enshrinement dinner in November 2005, he was presented by Steelers Hall of Famer Franco Harris.
It was his broadcasting that opened the many facets of his persona to what grew to be an adoring public. His one-of-a-kind creations, songs and skits and admittedly goofy promotional gimmicks played as though Mr. Cope were Rodney Dangerfield in the late comedy great's Manhattan club. Mr. Cope's annual Christmas Carol, written around the year's general Steelers story line to the tune of Deck the Halls, included unforgettable passages such as "Deck the Broncos; they're just Yonkos," and "Pete Rostoski show 'em who's bosski," all followed with the beloved and routinely inexplicable, "Fug-a-gah-gah-gah, Guh-ga-ga-gah!"
"Another thing about him was his modesty," Mr. Gordon said. "It was unbelievable for a guy as popular and successful as he was, the way he related to people. He always had time for people, always was patient."
For all of this sometimes spastic public theater, Mr. Cope kept his journalist's eye and social critic's perspective on his experience and ours. His beloved wife Mildred, who died in 1994, once asked him after a Steelers playoff loss in Oakland if it was all just too depressing sometimes.
"No," he said. "It's just the way it goes. By the way, what did the vet say about the dog?"
"Gonna need surgery," she reported. "Probably cost $700."
"Now that's depressing," Myron said.
Mr. Cope's final months depressed many of his friends. He'd overcome some misdiagnosed back trouble a few years ago and was able to extend his Steelers career, but his health began failing in stages not long after he retired. Until his final weeks, which he spent in intensive care, it was confidently said of Myron Cope that he enjoyed life immensely and had little patience for those who didn't.
In its collective ear today, Pittsburgh can virtually hear his signature sign-off.
Mr. Cope is survived by two children, Daniel and Elizabeth A. Cope. Another daughter, Martha Ann, is deceased.
More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.