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Born to be sheriff

Tom Hritz recalls the life and times of Eugene Coon, a legendary figure in Allegheny County politics

Sunday, October 25, 1998

I can't exactly remember the first time I met Gene Coon. It was probably sometime in 1968 when they sent me to City Hall to cover the lame-duck Barr administration. Democrat Joe Barr was getting ready to hang it up, and Democrat Pete Flaherty was getting ready to duke it out with Harry Kramer for the mayoralty. Kramer got destroyed.


Tom Hritz, a Post-Gazette columnist, covered city government in the 1960s and '70s.


But I can remember what he looked like when I did.

Tough as the proverbial nails. He was born to wear a uniform. He looked like sort of a cross between a Marine drill sergeant and the toughest-looking cop you could possibly come up against. Crew cut . . . the whole nine yards. He fought in Korea before he became a cop. Gene was generally soft-spoken, but when somebody teed him off, he could bellow like hell.

Like all cops, he started as a footsoldier in the streets. After he earned his gold badge, he was promoted to detective and later to chief of detectives. When I went up to Grant Street, he was assistant superintendent for the uniform division.

When racially inspired riots broke out in the Hill District in 1968, Coon commanded the uniform division. Instead of sending personnel into the area to quell the rioting, Coon chose instead to cordon off the area, allowing no one to go in or out. Then he just left the riots and the fires to burn themselves out. He said at the time he thought his tactics would save lives. I think he was right.

The last thing I ever thought Gene Coon would do was to go into politics. He didn't fit the image. Even Pete Flaherty liked him when he took over City Hall in 1970, and Flaherty didn't like too many holdovers from the Barr administration. He demonstrated it by firing them from all echelons left and right.

The sheriff at that time was an aging, slim guy named Bill Davis. We used to call him Wild Bill Davis because he was so quiet and unwild. When Davis was sheriff, you didn't hear much out of the office and you didn't see much of Wild Bill. Gene Coon would later change that.

Coon was a Republican disguised as a Democrat. He obviously knew he would go nowhere as a Republican, so when he decided to run for sheriff in the late '60s, it was as a Democrat. I can't remember whether Wild Bill Davis was one of his opponents in the primary or not. I only know that Wild Bill went quietly and politely, just like he did everything else.

Coon, by the way, rarely wore his sheriff's uniform during the 27 years that he held the office. He preferred to wear suits or sport coats, and strangely enough, still looked tough as nails in blue serge.

Gene Coon was a colorful guy, and under his leadership, the sheriff's department slowly crept out of isolation and started to generate news. Some politicians stifle news while others encourage it. Coon encouraged it.

Coon's main man was John McNamara, who served only until a few years ago as the county's chief deputy sheriff. I never wanted to ask a politician for a favor, but McNamara was an exception to the rule.

Back in the early '70s, I started getting threatening letters from the federal government accusing me of defaulting on my student loan. The trouble was that I had paid off the thing at least two years before that. When the letters and the phone calls began to increase, I called Gene Coon. Why I will never know.

I told him about my predicament. "You're sure you paid that thing off," he said.

"Yes," I said.

"OK," he said. "I'll put Mac on it."

I don't know what John McNamara did - what he could do. But he must have done something. Because from that day on, I never heard a word from those student loan people.

I never saw Gene Coon take a drink when he was in uniform. But when he put on a suit, I did. And it usually was a lot of fun.

When all the work was done on election night, we would usually congregate at an all-night club on Wood Street called Monte's and drink on good ol' Gene. Coon would sort of preside at these things, making predictions about big Democratic wins in the months and years to come. It was a pretty safe prediction insofar as I never saw a Republican celebrate a victory in Monte's.

Coon's personal victories made for the best parties. True, he would go on to suffer a lot of personal setbacks in the future. And booze would play a part in it.

But now that he's gone, I'd like to remember him for the tough, fun guy that he was. The hell with the rest of it.

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