Former Pioneer Press sports columnist Don Riley dies at 92

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Don Riley, the former St. Paul sports writer who spent more than four decades penning a widely read column in the city's newspapers, has died. He was 92.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press said Friday that Riley died Thursday from a heart ailment. He wrote ''The Eye Opener'' column and covered boxing in a newspaper career that spanned 44 years from 1943 to 1987.

''He pretty much carried the St. Paul newspaper, in my opinion, for four decades,'' said Charley Walters, the longtime Pioneer Press sports columnist. ''His column was so entertaining.''

Riley became known for weaving passing references to Hollywood starlets and characters such as Dracula and Frankenstein into his column and then running photos of them to draw more readers to his words. He also delighted in taking shots at fans of the Green Bay Packers, the chief rivals for the Minnesota Vikings.

The two teams square off Sunday night in Green Bay - Riley would call it ''Green Bush'' - with the winner being crowned champion of the NFC North. Riley's pot shots would often reach the Packers faithful because the Pioneer Press had a significant subscription base in Western Wisconsin. The timing of Riley's death resonated with Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse, who worked with Riley in St. Paul.

''I went to cover a game there and the Packers wouldn't put me in the press box,'' Riley told Reusse in a 1998 column. ''They put me in a snowdrift in the 55th row. They were mad, I guess, because that week I wrote, `Did you hear about the beauty contest in Green Bush? Nobody won.'''

As angry as the Packers fans would get, the affable and hilarious Riley would always win them over on his many trips to Minnesota's neighboring state.

''He was a mad genius,'' Reusse said. ''Every high school letterman's banquet in every little hamlet in Wisconsin had Riley as their guest speaker in April or May for years. They'd all boo him and hiss at him and then he'd make them laugh and they'd have him back.''

Convention was never Riley's thing. He rarely attended the sporting events he chronicled in the local paper and would experiment wildly all in an effort to entertain. Some recall a Christmas-time column that started on Page 1 with a picture of Minneapolis Lakers great George Mikan. When the column jumped inside for the second half, Riley also had the editors jump the lower half of the Mikan photo inside as well, showing just his legs.

''A classic old-time newspaper character,'' said AP sports writer John Nicholson, who worked with Riley in St. Paul at the end of the columnist's career. ''One of the greatest story-tellers I've ever met.''

Riley was a heavy drinker in his earlier days before sobering up in 1979 and he wrote a book titled ''Gallivan's Gang'' about his alcohol-fueled nights at a local watering hole. One such night included a confrontation with former Pioneer Press sports editor Arno Goethel after Riley stole some material from Goethel's Sunday column and put it in his own.

An angry Goethel physically confronted him in the bar and asked Riley how he could do such a thing.

''It was a pretty good item,'' Walters recalled Riley telling Goethel. ''I thought it deserved better readership.''

Those speaking gigs were just one of many schemes Riley came up with to supplement his newspaper salary. Reusse recalled how one year he concocted a ''Chow Cone,'' an ice cream cone filled with chow mein, to be sold at the Minnesota State Fair.

''Legend has it that the stand opened at 10 a.m.,'' Reusse said. ''At 10:10, first family bought it and it came through the bottom of the cone and got all over them and the Chow Cone stand was out of business by 10:30.''

One of Riley's notable quirks was a difficulty with recalling the names of his many co-workers and acquaintances, instead calling them ''Tiger'' or ''Ace.'' Both Nicholson and Walters told a story about Riley getting on an elevator one day with two men who knew Riley, but didn't know each other.

''Riley says, `Tiger, meet Ace. Ace, meet Tiger,''' Walters said with a laugh.

And just like all those Packers fans, the men in the elevator couldn't be mad at him, either.

''He was an all-time character,'' Walters said. ''A really lovable guy. You couldn't help but love the guy.''

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