Feature Articles

November 2004

Damon Chappie

By J. R. de Szigethy

     Damon Chappie, acknowledged as one of America�s best investigative reporters, passed away on Friday, November 5, after courageously battling a variety of illnesses during the last 20 years of his short life. Chappie reached the pinacle of his career as a staff member of Roll Call, a Washington - D. C. based magazine which chronicles the political scene in our nation�s Capital. Chappie�s expos�s on members of Congress Newt Gingrich, Bud Shuster, and James Traficant, among others, are among his best work, which achieved a national and international following.

Damon Chappie ~ 1964-2004
Damon Chappie
~ 1964-2004.
     Chappie grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania and achieved a degree in journalism from Penn State University. After working as a journalist at several venues, Chappie accepted a position with Roll Call Magazine in 1995. At that time, this magazine had a small circulation when compared to the top 100 newspapers and magazines of the United States. However, Chappie recognized two over-riding assets of Roll Call: first, there was the audience of the magazine; almost every Washington political figure, as well as leading Washington bureaucrats, regularly read Roll Call, given that the magazine had a reputation for uncovering the behind-the-scenes maneuverings in the nation�s capital, an achievement unrivaled by any other publication, including the once-venerable Washington Post.

     Secondly, in the mid-1990s Chappie recognized the unfolding potential of the Internet, a new technology that would make his - and all such reporting at Roll Call - available to anyone worldwide who had access to a computer. Perhaps prophetically, it was the emergence of this new computer technology that would later enable Chappie to continue to work in his profession after cruel Fate robbed Damon of his eyesight.

     Chappie utilized this technology in the year 2001, when Congressman James Traficant of Ohio was indicted on Federal bribery and racketeering charges. A quick computer search by Chappie revealed that this story was already being tracked by Andrea Wood of the Business Journal of Youngstown, Ohio, Ohio radio talk show host Louie B. Free, and this reporter at Chappie then joined what could be termed the �Traficant Four,� with each of the four journalists achieving their own exclusives on the Traficant saga, while sharing information with each other and appearing in each reporter�s respective formats.

     One Chappie exclusive at Roll Call was his uncovering of Federal documents that revealed that the single largest contributor to Traficant�s re-election campaign was a businessman who then purchased the radio station upon which Traficant�s nemesis Louie B. Free was giving a forum to Traficant critics. As the months unfolded Louie B. Free was fired, not once, not twice, but three times from three successive employers, in apparent retaliation for his speaking out in regards to the obvious ethical lapses of the popular but controversial Congressman. During the uncertainty during this time in which Traficant critics were under assault, Chappie was a reassuring presence, who calmly communicated that the machinations of a few in Ohio could not be contained there, but instead would be exposed on the national arena.

     What was unbeknownst to many during this time was the fact that Chappie was quietly and courageously fighting an even more deadly foe; a series of debilitating illnesses. Chappie�s health problems began in the early 1980s, when he utilized medication derived from blood products to combat his hemophilia, a rare disease by which a simple cut on the skin could escalate into a life-threatening bleeding. Chappie was among the thousands of such people across America during that time who became infected with a new virus that went undetected into the hemophilia medications; that organism was the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, more popularly known as AIDS.

     In 1997, Chappie�s eyesight began to fail, but Chappie determinedly utilized new computer technology to maintain his ability to work as an investigative reporter. In his final years, Chappie continued to write about those public figures in America who violated the public trust, while at the same time his own body was increasingly failing him.

     Andrea Wood recalls the first time she met Damon: �Damon earned the admiration of the Youngstown press corps during his time at the Traficant trial in Cleveland. Although I had been working with him since 2001, I did not learn of his disability until the day before he came to the trial. He wanted to forewarn me so I wasn�t shocked. Otherwise, he said, he never would have said anything. That�s the kind of guy he was. When he came to the trial, his great sense of humor came to the forefront. He understood the inside jokes because he had done so much homework; it was like he had been part of the Youngstown press corps for decades. He was an outstanding reporter and an outstanding human being. It never ceases to amaze me how the good die young.�

     When the moment of Damon�s passing came, he was comforted by his parents, his sister, and his female companion of the past decade.

     What this reporter would communicate to Damon�s loved ones is that, while Damon only spent 40 years in this life, he left behind a body of work that is the envy of those in his profession, an accomplishment most investigative reporters can never attain should they live to the age of 80 or beyond.

     The example Damon Chappie personified with such Dignity and quiet Grace can be perpetuated through contributions sent to the Damon Chappie Memorial Award in Investigative Journalism Fund, Penn State University, College of Communications, 301 James Building, University Park, PA 16802.

J. R. de Szigethy

© 2004

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