Books: Thursday, February 25, 2004
Yankee Cowboy

From a Star-Telegram satellite comes an insightful compilation of one columnist’s musings.

By Betty Brink

Dave Lieber, a New Yorker who’s been the “Yankee Cowboy” columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Northeast Tarrant County bureau for almost a decade now, may not be all that familiar to those of us not privileged to live in one of the small towns or ’burbs in that part of the county — dubbed the Netroplex by Lieber.

Lieber pens three columns a week, but his wit, wisdom, and worldly approach to things personal, political, religious, and quirky — especially the quirkiness of his adopted state — only rarely enliven the version of the S-T’s op-ed pages distributed in the rest of the county.

But Lieber himself has now come to our rescue. The Dog of My Nightmares, a compilation of his best Star-Telegram columns (along with one sensitive and insightful piece from the Philadelphia Inquirer), hit shelves around the first of the year. It’s more than worth the $12.95 price tag.

Lieber calls his book a series of “stories” written by a columnist. And he’s right. Whether he’s writing about falling in love and getting his first dog (both at age 37), being Jewish in a state that reveres above all else prayers to Jesus before Friday night kickoff (“Intolerance, Texas Style”), his hometown after 9/11 (“A nightmare envelops my father’s city of dreams”), the sad state of Texas “Edukation,” or the smarmy machinations of local politicians, this Manhattan transplant is a storyteller imbued with a reporter’s nose.

His most provocative piece is the one from the Inquirer, a remembrance of a decade-long correspondence, beginning when Lieber was 16, with a prison pen-pal and convicted murderer named John and their first meeting after John was paroled. “We parted with a handshake,” he wrote. “Then he turned around and walked off into the dark. ... I watched him, ready in case he turned around for a final wave. I thought he might need some reassurance, but I realized later that I did. John never looked back.”

This reviewer, who had read only Lieber’s political columns on the paper’s web site, was amazed at the range of his interests and his ability to make even the most mundane — like his observation of a turtle trying to cross a busy highway (he didn’t make it) — a statement of thought-provoking import. In the turtle’s case, it was the age-old question of when a journalist’s job of objectively reporting an event crosses over to one of responsibility for his subject’s well-being. Lieber chose to watch and report on other drivers’ attempts to miss the turtle, until one didn’t swerve in time. Lieber was guilt-ridden. “Now I wish I had just picked up the little turtle,” he wrote. “Forget the story. Live a life. Then we both could have gone on our merry way.”

For this political junkie, however, Lieber’s at his best when he points out just how naked some of the local emperors are. His columns on former Haltom City municipal judge Jack Byno’s unethical use of his judge’s office to promote his and his wife’s law practice and on Byno’s propensity for sending single moms to jail for their kids’ truancy helped lead to Byno’s resignation from that office last year. Back in 2000, Lieber exposed Hurst’s mayor Bill Souder and mayor pro-tem Charles Swearengen for accepting perks from the city’s waste hauler, including access to the company’s luxury suite at Texas Stadium, where they and their wives dined on the company’s tab and watched Cowboys games. And when Lieber wrote in 2001 that the mayor of North Richland Hills, Charles Scoma, had lied on his resumé about his college degrees (he said he had two; he had none), Scoma soon left public life, returned to college, and finally earned at least one of the degrees he had lied about.

Yet by far the most profound political story is of Lieber’s encounter with Gov. Rick Perry. When Lieber introduced himself, Perry asked, “Is that L-E-I-B-E-R?” No, the columnist said, and spelled his name correctly for Perry, who immediately asked, “Did you ever live in Israel?” Lieber writes that he was “taken aback.” He’d never been asked that question before. His mind flashed to an African-American standing in front of Perry and being asked “Did you ever live in Africa?” “Sometimes,” Lieber writes, “only the briefest of encounters can illuminate a candidate’s personality and beliefs.”

Lieber’s resumé includes an internship at the Atlanta Journal (now the Journal-Constitution), a stint at the Charleston Gazette, and 10 years as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Also, Lieber — whose desk is filled with awards, including a few Press Club of Dallas Katies — was the 2002 winner of the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, given annually by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists to a writer whose work best represents the “high ideals” of the Oklahoma satirist and humorist.

With that background and the quality of his Northeast Tarrant work underlined by the book, one can only wonder why a wordsmith of such enormous talent with the abilities of a seasoned investigative reporter isn’t working the whole territory from the Star-Telegram’s downtown office. Just imagine the paper shredding at the Fort Worth school district offices or in the back rooms of the county courthouse once word got out that Dave was coming.

One last note: A portion of the profits from this book will be donated to the Humane Society of North Texas to help dogs like Sadie, the “psycho dog” who gave Lieber the title for the book (not to mention a slew of columns for the paper). Sadie, a Labrador retriever, was badly abused by her previous owner. The dog became part of Lieber’s life once he married Karen, Sadie’s rescuer. Sadie, though, wasn’t necessarily pleased with the union. “Our family was fine without him,” the canine sniffs to Karen in one of the several Lieber columns in which Sadie appears — and was never paid a dime for, the indignant dog points out.

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