Hohler rides a road
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The professional success Hohler has experienced has been irregular.
“My story is for everybody who was a C-student, D-student in high school and maybe even in college, because I was able to overcome that and succeed despite my terrible youth, my awful youth,” Hohler said.
“‘I think I saw someone else kill him,’ Steeves said. ‘But on the other hand, I have a dream that I see myself doing it. I'm just not sure. I do know the guy wasn't killed for money. He did something sexually, and somebody did something to him.’ ” – From a Hohler story in the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, June 12, 1985
It was his lowest point. After two years of excessive partying at the University of Vermont, Hohler found himself sitting behind the wheel of a Checker Taxi Company cab in Boston wondering: What am I going to do with my life?
“I was going nowhere,” he said.
Hohler, a childhood Red Sox fan who worshipped Ted Williams, decided to try his hand at sportswriting. For eight years, Hohler took night classes at Suffolk University while driving a cab full time. He graduated with a degree in journalism in 1980 when he was 29.
“I was a late bloomer,” Hohler said.
He found his first job out of school with what is now the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, based in Peterborough, N.H., and eventually worked his way up to editor of the Ledger-Transcript. Two and a half years later, Hohler received a call from the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, the only daily newspaper in the state’s capital, to cover high school sports.
Eventually, the Monitor’s then-editor, Mike Pride, moved Hohler into newswriting. Hohler “was quite willing, even eager” to switch from sports, Pride said.
Hohler was quickly promoted to news columnist, where he wrote front-page pieces and human interest pieces. He’d introduce a homeless man to the public or profile a local business owner.
“Bob was one of the best writers we had, and also one of the most tenacious people,” said Pride, now administrator of Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia University.
In 1987, Hohler refused to testify at a murder trial in which a prisoner he interviewed, Richard Steeves, had been charged. Hohler contended that he was invoking a qualified privilege under the law for reporters not to be compelled to testify about news sources, which could have a chilling effect on reporters’ ability to gather news of public interest.
A Maine Superior Court convicted Hohler of criminal contempt for refusing to testify. Hohler had packed a bag and was ready for imprisonment. But he was given a six-month suspended sentence instead, and fined $2,500.
Hohler appealed the decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which upheld the decision finding Hohler guilty.
Hohler never did testify and the Monitor and Globe, for which he had gone to work after the Monitor, paid his fine.
A year earlier, Hohler had covered Christa McAuliffe’s quest to become the first civilian to go into space. Hohler was in Cape Canaveral, Fla., with McAuliffe’s family, watching the space shuttle Challenger disintegrate just 73 seconds into its flight. He would later write a book on the groundbreaking life of McAuliffe, a New Hampshire schoolteacher.
“Those two things gave me a really high profile in New Hampshire,” Hohler said.
Soon after, the Globe began incorporating weekly sections into its paper and hired Hohler as one of its two reporters for its New Hampshire weekly section. Nancy Marrapeese was named the section’s sportswriter.
Hohler spent three years writing for the Globe in Concord and Manchester, N.H., before returning to his hometown of Boston to join the Globe’s news staff.
“I had to come down here (to Boston) because you want to move up,” Hohler said. “You either die or you move up.”
“Every flying circus needs a clown, someone foolish enough to stand strapped to a steel post on the wing of a 1941 biplane as it swoops earthward at the speed of a Class 3 hurricane.” – From a Hohler story in The Boston Globe, Sept. 25, 1992
At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Hohler found himself clinging for his life on the tiny wing of an antique stunt plane for an assignment from Walter Robinson, then the Globe’s metro editor. Hohler played Santa Claus at what was then the Enchanted Village at the former Jordan Marsh department store in downtown Boston.
He walked into an empty VFW Post in Brighton and left with riveting copy for the next day’s Page One. Robinson had sent Hohler to talk to the many World War II veterans who frequented the post. Instead, Hohler wrote a hauntingly beautiful piece detailing that there were hardly any veterans still alive in Brighton.
“He could pull off any story,” Robinson said.
Hohler separated himself from the rest of Robinson’s staff with his intricate reporting. He became Robinson’s go-to Page One writer on the metro staff. Anytime he needed an important story or an offbeat feature, Robinson turned to Hohler.
“People will tell him everything they know,” Robinson said. “He’s such a nice guy. He’s just got one of those personalities where he can talk a dog off a meat wagon.”
More than 400 miles south in Washington, D.C., David Shribman took notice of Hohler’s work. Shribman, then the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, reached out to Robinson in 1993, hoping to recruit Hohler to the nation’s capital.
“He asked me if I would mind, I wish I said, ‘Yeah, I would mind’,” Robinson now says with a laugh.
The move sparked a swirl of controversy in the newsroom. Marty Nolan, then the editor of the Globe’s editorial page, chastised Hohler. Who do you think you are? Why are you qualified for this?
The Globe’s staff was loaded with experienced political writers, all having spent years covering the Massachusetts statehouse and Boston City Hall, grooming themselves for a move to D.C., thinking that they were on track for the Washington beat.
Hohler began to second-guess himself. Should he really be doing this? It wasn’t long ago that he was just a cab driver.
“I can’t imagine anybody in the newsroom could have for a moment suggested that he wasn’t deserving of it,” Robinson said. “There wasn’t any better reporter or writer in the newsroom at that time.”
“Angry and defiant, the Greek developer who five years ago vowed to revive the Fore River shipyard in Quincy yesterday accused U.S. officials of trying to destroy his project, his reputation, and his last hope of saving his company and fulfilling his promise.” – From a Hohler story in the Boston Globe, May 18, 2000
Nyhan convinced Hohler to accept the position in Washington. Hohler agreed to do the job for three years. He ended up staying for seven.
“He writes like a dream. He’s honest and hardworking and curious and determined not to fail,” said Shribman, now executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I thought those were the perfect attributes for the job.”
Based in D.C., Hohler covered Congress, politics, and penned many national stories as well. He traveled to Wyoming to cover the Matthew Shepard murder case — a victim of sexual-orientation persecution in 1998 — and reported on the murder of James Byrd in Texas — an African-American killed by three white supremacists three months earlier. In 2000, he wrote about the high-profile, Miami custody and immigration controversy of 7-year-old Elian Gonzalez, whose mother drowned as they attempted to flee Cuba. He covered countless hurricanes.
President Bill Clinton’s impeachment highlighted Hohler’s time as a Globe Washington correspondent. Hohler remembers the story seemingly landing in his lap after a series of staff transitions, like a gift from the newspaper gods.
“Bob Hohler went one-on-one with The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal in the most competitive story of his generation, and never on one day, not once, was he beaten by the so-called ‘bigs’,” Shribman said. “I have to say, it was a breathtaking phenomenon to witness.”
Then, as his wife began to miss Boston, Hohler’s itch to cover sports returned. It was 2000, and he was about to celebrate his 50th birthday. He was yet again at a crossroads in his career.
If he wanted, there were plenty of desks waiting for him in Boston, offering two decades of editing before retirement. But for someone whose writing Robinson says “dances off the page” that didn’t seem like the right path.
“That’s the big question for guys in their 40s, 50s in the Globe: Where are you gonna go? What are you doing?” Hohler said.
Dan Shaughnessy, a longtime Globe sports columnist, cautioned against the decision.
“It’s a marriage killer,” Shaughnessy told Hohler. “It’s a young man’s game.”
The Boston Herald had three young men covering the team. It required nearly six months on the road. Hohler began second-guessing himself again, even with his childhood dream, covering the Red Sox, staring him in the face.
This time, Mark Morrow, the Globe’s then-senior deputy managing editor, convinced Hohler to take the leap.
“You can’t let this pass,” he told Hohler. “This is like covering the Kennedy White House if you were in Washington.”
Skwar had his reservations. Hohler had done a tremendous job on the Washington beat. He could write. So what?
The Sox beat was an entirely different task. It wasn’t every day someone switched over from news to sports, let alone from the Washington bureau to the Red Sox.
“I don’t care what beat you were coming from,” said Skwar, now a senior coordinating producer at ESPN. “Whoever’s going to be covering that beat, (the fans) are going to be watching every letter that beat (reporter) writes, let alone every word and every sentence and every paragraph.”
Hohler covered the Red Sox from 2000 to 2004, capping off his stint with the team’s epic run to its first World Series title in 86 years. He calls it the greatest challenge of his career, in which he produced some of his best work.
Baseball players can be more sensitive than politicians. Longtime Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra was always terse with the media. On one road trip, Hohler wrote about Carl Everett missing the team bus and complaining about having to pay $20 for a cab to the stadium. In the clubhouse back in Boston, Everett erupted into an explicit rant against the Globe that sports talk radio replayed for the next five years.
“I was a lineman holding a telescope dealing with the players,” Hohler said.
He visited the Dominican Republic one summer, hoping to speak with both David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez in the same day for offseason features. Ortiz took so long showering and dressing in the clubhouse after one game, however, that Hohler was late to meet Martinez and his representatives at a hotel they had designated.
“I was just sitting in traffic watching this opportunity slip away,” Hohler said.
Hohler missed Martinez, but the Herald managed to speak with him. When he returned to Boston, the Herald ran with Pedro coverage on its back page for three straight days, essentially celebrating Hohler’s missed opportunity.
The beat was a grind. After four years, Hohler welcomed a change of pace.
“Other than being a war correspondent, the Red Sox beat is by far the most demanding of the paper,” Hohler said.
“The only thing that he could do to complete the journalistic experience is maybe had he been embedded with the military in Iraq or something,” Sullivan said of Hohler.
The investigative position has allowed Hohler to find his sweet spot.
In June 2009, the Globe ran Hohler’s seven-part series exposing terrible playing conditions for many high school athletes in Boston public schools. It sparked a “visible improvement” in athletic programs in the city, Sullivan said.
After the Red Sox’s historic collapse in September 2011, Sullivan sent Hohler searching for deeper reasons for the team’s failures.
“The beer-and-chicken story will live forever,” Sullivan said. “People still talk about it. Only a great reporter like Bob would have gotten the detail that was necessary to prove the case.”
Today, about half of Hohler’s stories are assigned by Sullivan, the other half he pitches to the editor. That recipe has earned Hohler a plethora of honors. In 2005, the Associated Press Sports Editors recognized him for the nation's best investigative reporting. His work appears in the 2007 and 2010 editions of “The Best American Sports Writing.'' In 2013, he participated in the Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Hohler said he still has a few years on the job left in him. He’ll continue to chase meaningful stories with the potential to spark legitimate change. As his roller coaster career comes to a close, it’s the longest he has driven in a single direction.
Pride, the former Concord Monitor editor, said: “Bob drove me to Boston one time as a favor, and I noticed that even in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Bob didn't like to let his wheels stop rolling even when he had to drift between lanes to make it happen. He said it went back to his days as a cabby in Boston. As a reporter he had the same habit: Keep moving forward and you'll get there faster. Get there, and you can get a quicker start on the next one.”
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