'A good, gentle soul': The Eagle, Berkshires lose 'an institutional memory' as Derek Gentile dies at 62
GREAT BARRINGTON — Derek Gentile liked to write a good story as much as he loved to tell one. As colorful as he was erudite, Gentile was also known for his humor, his affability, his kindness, his friendship and the shorts that he once used to wear almost year-round.
A reporter for The Berkshire Eagle for almost 31 years, Gentile died suddenly Sunday at the age of 62. A prolific writer of books, he was an avid comic book collector, an unofficial historian of Berkshire County sports and a diabetic who had part of one of his legs amputated following a bout with the disease several years ago.
Gentile's passing came less than two months after he had retired from The Eagle in mid-September. He was in the process of writing a second novel, and was still writing his column for The Eagle in retirement.
"Sad news," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who knew Gentile throughout his career with The Eagle.
"He was a good, gentle soul," Pignatelli said. "He loved sports, loved politics and loved a good story. I'm shocked and saddened. We just had lunch last week. This has touched too close to home."
Gentile was also a major rock music fan — "a walking encyclopedia" according to Eagle colleague Jenn Smith — who interviewed countless musicians during his long career at The Eagle.
Colleagues, still in shock, gathered at The Eagle on Monday afternoon to remember Gentile and tell each other stories. His informal wit, his ability to tell a great story in person as well as on the page, and his uncanny ability to recall details were repeated again and again.
During his days as a college student in Boston, Gentile used to hitchhike home to Berkshire County, and relished the opportunity to talk to strangers and hear their stories. He could chat about music and literature with a deep knowledge, zest and humor.
Every Friday, Gentile went around the newsroom and gave each of his colleagues a piece of chocolate, and in the process said hello and asked how they were doing.
It seemed like a simple thing, but it was a pointed, dignifying gesture that defied the cynicism that often comes from working in a newsroom.
One of his favorite musicians was Bruce Springsteen, whom he saw perform more than 60 times, including multiple appearances on each of The Boss' many tours.
"One of the things that used to amaze us when we hung around a lot many years ago when we were younger, was that Derek would always know the flip side of the record that would be played," said former Eagle colleague D.R. Bahlman. "He had an encyclopedic memory of all this music and popular culture."
Until he lost part of his leg, and sometimes even after, Gentile often sported shorts as part of his regular attire, even donning them in the dead of winter.
"He wore the shorts sort of as a signature thing," Bahlman said. "He would roll with the elements. He wasn't going to change the way he was and it wasn't going to diminish his optimism or his faith in people."
Born in 1955 in Adams, Gentile was a 1973 graduate of Hoosac Valley High School. He attended Berkshire Community College and Northeastern University. He got involved in journalism while at Northeastern, interning at both The Associated Press and The Boston Globe. He also worked for the Hub's late, great alternative weekly, The Boston Phoenix.
"He loved Northeastern as many people do because it gave him an opportunity he might never have had through the co-op program," said former Eagle colleague Erik Bruun, a longtime friend, who is currently the CEO of SoCo Creamery in Great Barrington. "He just loved writing. The Eagle was like striking gold for him."
Gentile joined the Eagle on Oct. 1, 1986, after working for a smattering of Berkshire weekly newspapers, including the old Berkshire Courier and the Adams Packet.
"What I remember about Derek was that he was probably the most well-read individual that I ever knew in my life," said Tim Morey, of Adams, the clerk magistrate of Northern Berkshire District Court in North Adams, who was 12 when he met Gentile for the first time. "He was a walking sports encyclopedia, he really was. He got to know a lot about the local sports scene due to his research and whatnot. If you wanted the information, he had it for you. He was just a fountain of information. A great guy. A great, great guy."
Morey, who also attended Northeastern, and Gentile were part of a group of Berkshire County basketball-loving friends who began attending the Big East Men's Basketball Tournament when the postseason tourney began in 1980. They attended 36 of the 37 tournaments that have been held, missing only the 2016 tournament because Gentile had eye surgery, Morey said.
"He even went when he first had his problems with diabetes and part of his leg was amputated," Morey said. "We took him in a wheelchair. He wrote a column about that."
Gentile handled the loss of his leg gracefully, and never let the situation discourage him.
"It wasn't part of the plan," Bruun said. "First it was his toe, then his whole foot was amputated. The way he responded to it was that he was lucky. He adjusted his whole lifestyle, which was a very hard thing, but it was just a small bump in his journey. He carried forward and worked to make the best of it and saw the best in people.
After part of his leg was amputated, Pignatelli and Eagle executive editor Kevin Moran organized a benefit at the ITAM Lodge in Pittsfield to help raise money to pay for Gentile's medical expenses. Hundreds of people showed up. Pignatelli even arranged for the Red Sox World Series trophy to be at the event, which raised between $11,000 and $12,000, he said.
"It sold out," Pignatelli said.
"Derek was a fine journalist and one of the kindest souls who really put others before himself," Moran said. "His stories were -- and will remain -- legendary."
Gentile began his book-writing career in the early 2000s. A majority of his work was published by Black Dog Books, whose publisher is J.P. Leventhal, Bruun's uncle.
"He had written a novel about the 1927 Yankees," Bruun said. "There was some element to it that really interested him that was really obscure, and he started writing a novel about it. He asked me if I know anyone who could publish it. I introduced him to my uncle."
Leventhal, who is a big sports fan, didn't publish Gentile's first attempt at a novel, but the two men came up with the idea of having Gentile write "encyclopedia-type" coffee table books on different baseball teams. "Every year he would write a new one for them," Bruun said, referring to Black Dog.
In all, Gentile wrote seven baseball books, and three basketball books, along with his novel, "The Vanilla Envelope," which was published in 2008.
A book signing for Gentile's latest book, "Baseball's Best 1,000 Rankings of the Greatest Players of All-Time," published this year, took place at The Bookstore in Lenox last week. The Bookstore's owner, Matt Tannenbaum, carried several of Gentile's books.
"All his books on the Cubs, the Yankees and the Red Sox sold moderately well," Tannenbaum said. "He had a nice fan base. And they were always high quality. ... He never got pretentious.
"The Eagle and Berkshire County have lost an institutional memory," Tannenbaum said.
Gentile also liked to help people. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Gentile and Pignatelli were part of a group of Berkshire County residents who went to Louisiana to help rebuild houses in that city's 9th Ward.
And Gentile, who returned to the city in 2010, was formally declared an honorary citizen by the New Orleans City Council.
"The thing about New Orleans is that Derek didn't have any skills to swing a hammer, or pull wire or be a plumber," Pignatelli said. ""But if we didn't have anyone to document it; no one would have believed we built a house. He made our trip.
"He had a gift for the written word," Pignatelli said. "That's what I'll remember about him."
Contact Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski at email@example.com or at 413 496-6224.
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