Polk Laffoon

Polk LaffoonPolk Laffoon died August 5 of a heart attack while swimming in Lake Michigan near his summer home in Harbor Springs, MI. He spent his last day exactly as he would have written it: under a beautiful summer sky, enjoying his family, swimming in the lake he loved. Besides falling in love with journalism and newspapers, he fell in love with Pinky Coleman in 1971, when a mutual friend urged Pinky to travel from her home in New York City to attend a party in Cincinnati so she could meet Polk. It was love at first sight. They married in 1973 and had three children: Coleman, Brent, and Samantha.

“First, the name,” says Mike Garvan. “It was unusual, and quickly the derivative nicknames arrived that we used at Yale and beyond: Pokie, Polkus, Polka Dot. Then, the voice. It was a little high pitched and nasal but with an almost southern lilt. And the presence. Polk was tall, blond and slender, with an engaging smile and manner. Easy-going, friendly and warm. but purposeful. He was refined in a way that few of us were. He loved literature and writing, and devoted his studies to those pursuits. He loved playing the piano; Gershwin and show tunes were among his favorites, and he would sing along as if he were in a piano bar. But when it came to having fun, he could let loose with the best of us. His version of the Alligator on the DKE dance floor was a writhing, twitching, hilarious tour de force! He had a balance between study and play during those years that I envied greatly.

“He was a wonderful father to his three children, supporting them as they pursued their various paths. Once, when he took one of his sons to a KISS concert, Polk sat with cotton stuffed in his ears, reading Newsweek throughout the concert! He was perhaps too refined for the rockers (and his mortified son). Polk’s writing was exceptional – not just his use of language but his understanding of people and place. On the website City Beat, he was called ‘perhaps the best newspaper writer in Cincinnati in the past 35 years.’ Polk had the talent and the passion, and his life had a significant impact on journalism and on all the lives he touched. You will be missed, my friend.”

Frank Clifford calls Polk “the classmate I would have chosen to explain the 1960s to my bewildered parents. He would have put them at ease and made them feel welcome. The soul of graciousness, Polk could have been our generation’s ambassador to people over 30. He and I broke into the newspaper business more or less at the same time and place, I in Louisville and he in nearby Cincinnati. He struck me as a grownup from the first moment I met him in Vanderbilt Hall, a gentleman in a seething crowd of teenagers. When I think of Polk I think of Hemingway’s accolade ‘the true gen,’ as in the genuine article.”

“My first exposure to Polk was the letter I received from the Yale informing me that one of my roommates was Polk Laffoon IV,” says Jack Morrison. “My first reaction was ‘This is going to be interesting,’ which turned out to be a rather large understatement. By the time I left Yale Polk was one of my closest friends, and it was a real gut punch to have lost him. He was a true Renaissance man at a time (the mid-’60s) and place (a college campus) where it was difficult to be one. Polk stood out among his friends because he didn’t really care about trying to be cool. He had an aura – he was kind, thoughtful, gracious and honest, all the things that made him a true friend. One of my classmates summed it up best on hearing the news of Polk’s passing: He was one of the really good guys.”

Lanny Davis says, “Polk Laffoon was above all such a kind, such a good, man. Such a happy warrior and always there as a friend with quiet wisdom and advice. I owe him so much for telling me so many times, ‘Lanny, calm down. It’s going to be OK.’ How many times Polk told me that. How many times he helped me calm down. And how many times he proved to be right: I was OK. Especially when I knew that Polk was nearby (or as far away as a phone call or email). May his sweet soul rest in peace.”

Bruce Brand recalls, “I see Polk with the good-natured beginning of a smile perpetually on his face. He thoroughly charmed my mother, no fool, on a visit to Seattle shortly after graduation. Tony Barclay saw the same response to Polk from his own mother. That Cincinnati southern charm working on the ladies.”

And Tony concurs: “Polk was full of kindness, natural unaffected charm, and gentle, often self-deprecating wit. Among many of us who thought we were journalists in the making at the Yale Daily News, Polk was one of the most talented, and his career with newspapers and Knight Ridder proved this. During one Michigan summer, my wife Gay’s grandfather, who was blind, hired Polk to read the Wall Street Journal aloud to him every day. Every time he tried to skip a few dull paragraphs, Mr. Sutphin would clear his throat and say, ‘Young man, go back and read it all to me.’ Polk considered that a good lesson, never to cut corners, and he lived his life that way.”

“Polk was the best man at my wedding, and we kept in close touch through the years,” says John Raben. “Above all else, Polk was tremendous fun to be with and to talk to. He loved life, and he was genuinely interested in the lives of his many friends. And a very wide circle of friends it was, because Polk was keenly interested in a wide variety of topics, including literature, art and architecture, politics, and current events. Polk expressed his own well-informed opinions, of course, but he always sought out and respected the opinions of other people, even when it was clear he disagreed. Perhaps that also reflects the then-prevailing atmosphere at Yale in our own ‘happy, golden, bygone days.’

“Polk also had a great sense of humor and appreciated that life’s rich pageant is, in many ways, a comedy to be enjoyed. Years ago, he and I played together in a golf tournament. Our team finished dead last, and we were each awarded a commemorative glass to honor that ‘achievement.’ Polk’s response was characteristic: ‘In a few years, no one will remember if we were given the glass because we finished first or last, but we will remember how much fun we had together.’ Rest in peace, my friend.”