Rich Brooks: Journalist Parodies Family Life and ALS in Weekly Column

By: Stephanie Dufner
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Rich Brooks

For more than eight years, Floridians in the Southwest region of the state enjoyed the blithe humor of columnist Rich Brooks. Brooks, whose column appeared each Saturday in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, often wrote about the comical aspects of domestic relations and living with ALS.

“The topics that resonate with readers are those about family life and dealing with ALS,” agrees Brooks, a Sunshine State resident for almost 20 years.* “I also write about topics that are important to me such as community issues, disability rights and stem cell research.”

In one of his more recent pieces, Brooks discussed the Christmas “toys” he received from his family. “I didn’t get any toys of the ‘Pogo Stick’ definition; these toys came from the hardware store,” he writes in his January 7 column. Brooks goes on to illustrate his plans to get his two teenage sons, Noah, 19, a student at the University of Florida and Nathaniel, 15, a freshman in high school, to use these gadgets to trim the weeds around his house, pressure wash the driveway and clean the family van using an industrial-capacity vacuum.

“Many of his columns have to do with life in the Brooks household,” says Diane McFarlin, publisher of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “Rich often writes about his sons, wife Kathy, and caretaker Jerry.”

The topic of ALS often appears in Brooks’ column, which appears in all Herald-Tribune editions from Charlotte to Manatee counties. In one column, the newspaper editor-turned-writer refers to himself as “Floppy Dad,” a nickname his wife mistakenly gave him to describe some of the ALS symptoms Brooks has. The term is a reference to the moniker Michael J. Fox’ children call the actor (“Shaky Dad”). Fox has Parkinson’s disease, a movement disorder whose patients often experience tremors in their hands, legs and other body parts.

“How does Dad get into his wheelchair?” Brooks recounts in this tale. “His trusty health aide lifts him. Lift and flop. He’s Floppy Dad. How does Dad get into his easy chair? Lift and flop. He’s Floppy Dad.”

Such anecdotes have garnered Brooks a devoted audience. “I get emails and letters all the time,” notes Brooks. “They are overwhelmingly supportive. I think that readers are initially surprised that my columns discuss my illness in such a frank manner.” He alerted his readers to his ALS diagnosis in 1997 after he began writing his column.

But the Herald Tribune’s executive editor, Mike Connelly, sees a clearer reason for Brooks’ appeal. “The humanity and humor he brings to his column captivates readers.”

And it’s that captivating wit that continuously draws readers to this journalist’s column. “Trying to look at all the difficulties of life with a sense of humor is imperative to getting along with others,” Brooks observes. “Humor is even more important to those facing debilitating diseases. It’s also important for others to see people with disease maintain their sense of humor. Humor lends a sense of normalcy to difficult circumstances.”

“He’s an excellent writer,” says Brooks’ editor at the Herald-Tribune, Deb Winsor. “I love reading him and don’t have to edit him at all. We saw him as a good editor but didn’t get to benefit from him as a writer.”

McFarlin mentions Brooks’ personality as being the key to his success, and she says a combination of bravery, liveliness and straightforward demeanor made him a standout in the newsroom.

“This feistiness gives him the strength to fight for his life. He’s always been courageous. Courage is a characteristic you want in any reporter,” says McFarlin. As for the column’s having a strong readership, the publisher believes Brooks’ audience simply empathizes with him.

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“His readers are utterly moved by his matter-of fact-tone. Rich has always been funny and irreverent; he’s never been overly sentimental, and he has never played the martyr. He’s always been very straightforward and realistic. He definitely strikes a chord.”

The columnist calls his childhood in Columbus, Ohio “unremarkable.” Born in 1952, he was the fourth of five children. “My two brothers, two sisters and I share ideals and characteristics passed along to us by our parents,” says Brooks. “Among these are a sense of humor, strong work ethic, optimistic outlook, love of games and sports, and devotion and loyalty to one’s family.”

“He’s smart. He’s edgy, he’s just a great guy to work with,” adds Winsor, an assistant editor of the newspaper’s Metro section. As she has known Brooks for almost 20 years, Winsor has had a bird’s eye view of the column’s evolution in the past two decades. “From the get go, his focus was on local politics. Now he writes about topics such as stem cell issues. How he does it all? I have no clue. But he’s so connected. He writes with an authority that nobody else has.”

“He’s written about his condition,” Winsor continues. “He wrote about community issues at first; now he writes more about issues we all can relate to.”

“In some ways ALS has inspired my writing” Brooks explains. “I was a bureau chief and editor when I was diagnosed. As my illness progressed and editing became more difficult, I began to write more. I became a full-time columnist in 1997.”

The first sign of Brooks’ having ALS transpired in the mid-90s. “The first symptom that emerged was cramping in my left hand. Around the same time, my golf game became worse. That was in 1994. In the spring of 1995, I fell hard while running. The ALS diagnosis came in the fall.”

Brooks, a journalist for almost 30 years, began his career as a high school sports writer for a weekly newspaper in Columbus. He then went on to Ohio State University where he received a degree in journalism in 1975. After graduating from college, Brooks moved west to Los Angeles to work at Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA, now known as AmeriCorps VISTA) in fundraising and public relations at a residential facility for developmentally disabled children, teens and adults.

This job made a formidable impact on the young writer. “It was an experience that changed my views of people with disabilities,” Brooks says. “It was there that I learned to appreciate their daily struggles and how disabilities affect families.”

After his VISTA stint, Brooks married, freelanced at several L.A.-based magazines and attended graduate school at California State University Northridge. He found steady employment as a city editor at the Burbank Daily Review, held jobs at the city desks at newspapers in Glendale and Santa Monica, and eventually moved to Sarasota in the mid-1980s, where he started working at the Herald-Tribune.

Last year, Brooks’ column received kudos from his cohorts in the newspaper industry when he was honored as a finalist to receive the American Society of Newspaper Editors Award. This annual award pays tribute to editorial excellence in daily newspapers.

Since being diagnosed with ALS in late 1995, Brooks has relied on a host of resources to accommodate him with daily living: He has used a wheelchair since 1997 and a portable ventilator for more than two years. On the professional side, speech recognition software initially allowed him to dictate his column, but as ALS has affected his speech for the past few years, Brooks has depended on family, friends and caregiver to type his column. Fortunately, technological advances will give Brooks another opportunity to work at the keyboard.

“I’m getting a speech communication device and computer which will once again allow me to type my own columns,” he says.

*Rich Brooks passed away in May 2011

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