Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ned Whelan (1943-2013): Definitive Chronicler of 1970s and 1980s Cleveland

  Whelan with fiance Hedda Dempsey.
More than any other writer, Edward P. “Ned” Whelan, Cleveland Magazine staffer from 1973 to 1987, crafted the definitive profiles of Cleveland’s most controversial political figures and most infamous criminals. Whelan, whose career ranged from The Plain Dealer to public relations, died last night at age 70 in Arizona, where he was visiting his daughter.

When Cleveland Magazine was new, the brash upstart in a two-newspaper town, Whelan’s work -- aggressive, deeply reported, with an eye for character and human frailty and hubris – played a key role in establishing us as a force among the city’s media.

Whelan’s work on the Cleveland Mafia has no equal. For more than a decade, he chronicled its power struggles, rages and lethal decline. His Mob articles are the original source of every retelling of the tale, from history books to documentaries – and they even became a reference for the mobsters themselves. When hit man Ray Ferritto hunted down Irish gangster Danny Greene in 1977, he used a picture of Greene from a Whelan story to identify him.

“When it comes to coverage of the Mob, he became one of the foremost authorities anywhere in the country,” says Rich Osborne, who worked with Whelan at Cleveland Magazine from 1979 to 1984. “He knew them very well. They told him things they wouldn’t tell anybody else.”

Cleveland’s most powerful political figures, from Ralph Perk to George Forbes, felt the sting of Whelan’s caustic wit and the glare of his merciless eye. “He’s looking better than ever,” Whelan wrote of Mayor Perk during his 1974 U.S. Senate run, “his white boots gleaming, his once singed hair now coiffured and his ego swelling with the helium of senatorial dreams.”

Michael D. Roberts, Cleveland Magazine’s former editor, penned a tribute to Whelan after he left the staff in 1987. “He was always near the major stories in town, delving and probing, testing this politician or that issue,” Roberts wrote. “Whelan embraced every article … as if it were the most important story in the world. This passion was the key to his success.”

Sitting in the office next to Whelan’s provided an advanced education in the craft of reporting. “His attention to detail was like no one I’d ever worked with before,” says Osborne, who often overheard him on the phone with sources. “[It was] not only the very specific questions he asked, but his ability to weasel information out of people was phenomenal. He charmed it out of them.”

The payoff came in the stories. Osborne recalls Whelan’s 11,000-word profile of Cleveland businessman Hans Fischer, which builds to a tragic climax. Whelan’s ending describes “what time the sun rose that morning, where [Fischer] walked through the house, from the bedroom to kitchen -- every single detail, so you were in the story with him,” Osborne recalls. “His ability as a writer to tell a story in a compelling way was like no writer I’d ever worked with before.”

We plan to publish a more lengthy tribute to Ned Whelan in the May issue of Cleveland Magazine.

To read some of Whelan’s vast body of work, please follow the links to our online archive below.

“Ralph Perk’s Flight to Washington,” May 1974

“The Bombing Business,” April 1977

“The Life and Hard Times Of Cleveland’s Mafia: How Danny Greene's Murder Exploded The Godfather Myth,” August 1978

“The United States of America vs. Hans Fischer,” October 1979

“George Forbes: An Obsession With Power,” November 1986

“Top Gun” (Dick Jacobs profile), March 1987

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