As 2014 uncorks, it’s fitting and important to celebrate the enduring legacy of an extraordinary man who influenced generations of reporters—all from behind the burnished counter of a dark bar in inner-city Dallas.
That’s where the mercurial genius named Louis Canelakes dispensed beverages, encyclopedic knowledge and lasting wisdom to hundreds of journalists from around the globe.
Lou, no doubt the smartest man on the planet, passed away late last year, leaving behind not just a beautiful and loving family, but also an imprint on many reporters who shape the way we view the world. You will be following their work this year and for years to come. And that’s reason enough to ponder Lou’s importance.
One writer for The New York Times puts it this way: “He raised me.”
His friends told a story about Lou growing up in Illinois, where he was in charge of walking a neighborhood boy home from school. One day the kid veered into the street and Lou had to yank him out of the path of oncoming cars. It was something Lou would often do after he moved to Texas—he pulled one reporter after another to the right side of the story.
In the mid-1980s, Lou and his brother opened a tavern called Louie’s and it quickly became the most important media haunt in Texas—a distillery of ideas, editorial debates and news leads unlike anything else in that part of the country. Journalists from near and far huddled with Lou, seeking his expertise on sources, tips, the history of all things Texas, sports, cuisine, politics, music, weaponry, military history, Greek philosophy, horticulture, horse racing and how to approach the big-time judges, defense attorneys, secret agents, priests, school administrators and whistleblowers populating the back tables and booths of his joint.
Editors glanced up from drinks to see first lady Laura Bush walking in through the small doorway. Hockey players arrived with the only Stanley Cup ever won by a Texas team. ZZ Top’s promoter hung out in the corner.
There have always been places where newsies gather to wrestle with ever-inscrutable Texas: Warren’s in Houston, Scholz Garten in Austin, The Esquire in San Antonio. These de facto newsrooms are part of a journalism tradition that encompasses the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, the P&H Cafe in Memphis and reporter-friendly watering holes across America
But Louie’s surpassed them all. You could see that in the faces of the hundreds of people paying homage at his standing-room-only memorial service.
The New York Times guy had dropped everything to fly straight to town; so had the Boston Globe journalist and the former writer for The Wall Street Journal. There was a contributor to The Washington Post and Newsweek. There were stars from Dallas’ WFAA, muckrakers, nonfiction authors, photojournalists, and a sportswriter who’d won the prestigious Dobie Paisano Fellowship from the Texas Institute of Letters.
After the service, I thought about how Lou had taught me so many enduring lessons in those countless hours when we talked until the sun came up:
The best reporters are the best listeners. The best reporters run to cover race, inequality, and folks struggling to find whatever is left of the American Dream. (Lou spent decades quietly caring for the less fortunate. He kept at least one homeless man alive with hardly anyone knowing about it.) The best reporters honor ordinary people and loathe glossy pandering and trendy bullshit.
Louie Canelakes really did raise a legion of reporters, from Texas to New York. I learned more about life from him than I did at the three Ivy League schools I went deep into everlasting debt to attend. In time, I simply called him my brother.
Lou never worked for a news organization, but the reporters who loved him, like me, knew him as a role model for pursuing the real truths of life.
He pursued them every night at a humble little intersection deep in the heart of a tough Texas city.
He pursued them in his very own street-corner newsroom, where he always insisted to his reporters that love, grace, righteousness and human dignity reign supreme.