There are certain moments, in a long Upstate journalism career, in which you know you were absolutely fortunate, absolutely blessed. That is how I remember the many times I would be at the Syracuse City School District offices, waiting for an interview with someone, and Neil Driscoll would bring me in to simply sit and talk ...
And he'd lean back in his chair, glint of morning light in his dark eyes, and he'd tell stories. About his Staten Island childhood. About his friend, former Syracuse Mayor Tom Young. About City Hall. About governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo. About famous journalists and many statewide newspapers, and years worth of unforgettable newsroom characters. About political conventions in Buffalo and chance encounters in New York and jousts of wit and cunning in the halls of Albany.
Memorably, he also told the greatest, most insightful stories I'd ever heard about Lee Alexander, the once-young and brilliant mayor of Syracuse whose comet of a state - and even national - career was extinguished by staggering revelations of corruption.
The stories Neil shared, over coffee, were not stories for the newspaper. Instead: Stories of his wife and kids, whom he loved with an entirety and intensity that will always be a burning model. Stories of human beings, of dark and light, of complexities. Stories told with love, without condemnation: He did not judge a fall from grace. Instead, he always saw the tragedy.
In that way, even when he left the business, he remained the greatest and most honest kind of journalist.
Neil died this week in Syracuse, from complications caused by lung cancer. He worked for The Staten Island Advance, then the old Herald-Journal of Syracuse as a reporter and columnist, before accepting a job as a public affairs officer for Young, who at the time was mayor of Syracuse. Neil later served the same role for the school district.
What he was, in truth, was a Seanchai, a Seanchaidh to my mother's people from Scotland, a spiritual designation that no one awards, but you know it when you see it: A born storyteller. You felt that insight and wonder whenever he walked into the room, and in humor, love and warmth - in a way you could process and endure - he could bring you hard and difficult truth. I loved him, as so many loved him. The void he leaves is not tragic, but a tribute more commanding than a statue:
In Upstate New York, there will never be another quite like him.
-- Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at email@example.com and read more of his work in this archive.