Kevin Cooney spent his professional life as a TV commentator, all but two years in service to KCCI and its predecessor KRNT. He was the longest serving anchor in Des Moines TV history and led his station to repeated landslide ratings victories. We asked him to lunch, and he proposed his brother Brian’s pub, Cooney’s, with carryout from neighboring El Aquila Real, one of three excellent restaurants within a block of the bar with carryout service.
We pretty much opened the place at 2 p.m. but were alone for only about five minutes. Cooney’s has a large midafternoon crowd of neighborhood fans and, seemingly, lots of courthouse retirees. These were serious people. Almost everyone knew Kevin and commented upon a recent editorial he had written.
Cooney’s is Des Moines’ truest hearted Irish bar, where regulars might show up for Bloomsday in similar numbers as for St. Patrick’s Day. A DNA test by a Cooney sister revealed a 99 percent Irish heritage for the family, almost unheard of in the American melting pot. An homage to the great Irish writers hangs in the men’s bathroom. Signs from Irish highways near the Cooneys’ ancestral home in Wicklow decorate the bar. So does Des Moines history. Gorgeous marble table tops and bronze door knobs were salvaged by these two brothers from the destruction of the KRNT Theater.
“We visited the last Cooney in the homeland, Packy Cooney. He was living in a gypsy wagon, but he was the spitting image of the family. He had the gift of gab but could not write. Reminded me of the old bards who recited only from memory,” Kevin explained.
He said that gift came to him through a family of copy editors.
“Dad was the city desk editor at the Des Moines Tribune. Mom and my sister were both copy editors at the Register. Mom was also a features writer, much in the Erma Bombeck mode, and was my biggest inspiration. I had a copy job at the paper at age 16 there, along with Julie Gammack, Bill Bryson and Barbara Mack.”
A Cub Scout tour of KRNT studios convinced young Cooney that he wanted to work in the visual media, and he never wavered. Asked about some of his best “takes” that never made it to a newscast, he admitted to some jolly follies.
“We actually had a jolly reel of things like entire cascades of lights blowing out like fireworks overhead. All our screen graphics then were handwritten on short notice, so misspellings were common. They always embarrassed the on-air guy but were always the fault of backstage guys like me,” he admitted.
“The biggest mistake I ever made as a studio assistant was taking a call from someone who claimed to be Polk County Medical Examiner Richard Wooters saying that Judge Luther Glanton had died. He called at 6:20 p.m. so I frantically called back to verify with his pager and home phone. I got no answers. I decided to hand the scoop in before the 6 o’clock news ended. Ten minutes later, Michelle Parker tells me that Luther Glanton is on the phone. Paul Rhodes was the anchor then who looked bad, but he never revealed that I was the source of the mistake. That could have tanked my career. We did a story at 10 p.m. about the hoax, but Luther already was getting casseroles and flowers on his doorstep,” he recalled.
Other favorite memories of Cooney’s early days included a time when then Mayor Dick Olson talked a suicidal subject down from the KRNT weather beacon tower.
“Terry Anderson was reporting. He later became a famous hostage of Shiite Hezbollah militants and was held six years. Another memory is of tankers exploding brilliantly on the northside while the station was doing rare live coverage at St. Paul’s Carnival, with explosions in the background. We didn’t do live coverage then, so this was good luck,” he said.
Cooney has interviewed decades worth of presidents, senators, governors and titans of industry. I asked him who the most charismatic people he ever sat down with were.
“I have always found the best stories, and most interesting people, far from the corridors of power, mostly in bars and diners. My most memorable interview was in Bethlehem, Iowa, at Christmas time. This was before unincorporated towns were removed from the Iowa map, something I deplore. I was driving the old Mormon Trail looking for a story and found a church in Bethlehem. I knocked on the door of a chapel with four pews for two people each.
“Belle MacMurray answered and gave me an interview about Christmas in Bethlehem. She spoke so elegantly and gracefully, while large snowflakes fell around her under a starry sky, that I was telling myself that this was too good to be true. We ran that same story for four years,” Cooney recalled.
“Another favorite was a story I did in San Jose, California, when I worked there. A woman had opened a shelter for horses. She adopted two horses that no one wanted, and the word got out so people just started dropping horses off at her place. I asked her how she could cope, and she said, ‘You just can’t say no,’ adding that people also dropped off hay, oats and money to support her.
“A third favorite story was about a Mountain View, California, street named ‘Easy Street’ at the time when ‘Annie’ was a big hit and ‘Living on Easy Street’ was a national refrain. I talked to several guys on the street and got great stories,” he said.
What does Cooney think about the future of journalistic media?
“Television has always been better positioned than newspapers for the Internet. Daily papers are already just a sliver of what they were in terms of the totality of print media. And print is endangered. TV has the advantage because it produces video media with more serious production standards.
“An irony is that newspapers and news media in general both seek young eyeballs, but young people don’t read the paper or watch the news on TV. As a result, there is continued emphasis on appealing to the lowest common denominator because that is what advertisers supposedly want. Something needs to be reevaluated,” he said.