Threads unravel but bind forever

Mar 9, 2004 6:35 AM

The threads of people’s lives begin to come unwound with age, and as they come apart they leave gaps that cannot be filled.

I returned from a successful Florida convention Saturday, elated at how things had gone in the second year of a joint venture between the Thoroughbred Racing Association and Harness Tracks of America, but the joy was short-lived. Two main strands that had tied my life together had frayed and broken.

I turned on my recorder to learn from Ray Poirier, executive editor of this newspaper, that its publisher and founder, Chuck Di Rocco, had died of pneumonia at 2:30 Saturday morning.

Then the phone rang and the editor of another publication told me that Beulah Dygert was gone too. Most readers would not know Beulah, but more about her later.

Almost everyone who reads this paper knows Chuck, from his columns if not personally, and all who wheel and deal at the top level of Las Vegas gaming and entertainment know him and owe him, personally.

He was, among many other things, the man who brought simulcasting to Las Vegas, as usual way ahead of the crowd. That contribution alone should earn a statue in the upscale race books of this town.

But those who knew him far before that, as I did, understand what a pioneer and innovator he was, what a raconteur he was, what a memory he had for people and places and events, and ”” far above and beyond all of that ”” what a friend he was.

He and I came from something of a common background, Chuck from the rough and tumble of South Philadelphia, I from the rough and tumble of the hard coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania, less than a hundred miles away. Chuck’s South Philly was a beloved treasure to him ”” its food, its homely sights, its sounds of dissonance along with its spirit of community. He loved the place, and he wrote about it with a passion that made it come alive even for those who didn’t know it.

I first met Di Rocco when he was the publicity director ”” and a very good one ”” at Buffalo Raceway in Hamburg, New York. He was then, as he was ever since, creative and imaginative.

When he left Buffalo after a dispute with management and landed in Las Vegas and made it in this tough town, he created an image in my mind that still persists today. Chuck Di Rocco becoming successful in Las Vegas, starting simulcasting and prospering as a disseminator, reminded me then, and still does, of Benjamin Franklin arriving in Philadelphia and walking its streets with a loaf of bread ”” and nothing else but his talent and smarts ”” under his arm.

It is one thing to have friends in high places, or contacts with movers and shakers. It is quite another to show up unannounced, unknown and unheralded, and make it big.

Chuck did it, not once but twice. Gaming Today is a testimonial to his resourcefulness and ingenuity. It was because of him and his and my longtime friend Ray Poirier, who was at Rockingham Park around the time Chuck was at Buffalo, that I was asked to write for this newspaper, and I added it to my duties because of my deep affection and respect for both of them.

Beulah Dygert, who died in her sleep recently in Illinois, deep in her 90s, was the widow of the man who gave me my start in announcing, almost 60 years ago. Her husband Erwin Dygert was the finest gentleman in racing of that era, and when he died young Beulah stayed in racing. She became an important aide in management at Hawthorne in Chicago, and worked for the Carey family there until she was right at 90.

Losing lifetime threads like Chuck and Beulah make the past unravel, and make the future far less anticipated than before.