Exclusive: Excerpts from John Riley’s new book, “Delaware Eyewitness”

We were delighted to announce last week that TSD contributor John Riley has written an extraordinary new memoir, “Delaware Eyewitness: Behind the Scenes in the First State.” 

Today we are sharing some choice excerpts from the book, featuring prominent local people and institutions – the Deer Park Tavern, Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzcyki and former governor and now US Senator Tom Carper – as well as a riveting first-person account of the beginning of the end of a storied local company.

You can order copies of Riley’s book HERE.

From “Early Politics, 1968 – 1969”

Constantly looking for ways to earn a buck, I added waiter to my list of job skills that year. The epicenter of UD social life, outside of the fraternities was the Deer Park Hotel on West Main Street in Newark. There was talk that the poet Edgar Allen Poe had collapsed drunk in front of the hotel in 1843, never making it to his poetry reading at the Newark Academy. The restaurant section was always crammed with students, while the back-bar area was filled with locals, referred to as “townies.” The Townie Bar looked at times like the wild west.

On one occasion when I walked in to pick up a beer order, George Thompson, the balding, gravelly-voiced, pot-bellied owner took out a small bat from behind the bar and knocked a guy sitting there out cold. He then sent me to get a mop to wipe up the blood on the floor.

Above the college conversation, the hit songs “Reflections” by the Supremes and “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane played over and over on the bar’s jukebox. On many nights, a local realtor, “Doc” McClary, a veteran of the Italian campaign in World War II would join students, including future Wilmington mayor Mike Purzycki and other Theta Chi fraternity brothers, at the same table. Well known and influential around town, McClary on at least one occasion used his influence to get some of “the brothers” sprung from the Newark city jail.

For my part, I would achieve my own fifteen minutes of fame when a photographer snapped a shot of me holding a tray full of beers and put it on the front page of the student newspaper The Review.

While a couple of us waited tables, either Bob Layton, president of the University Intramural Council or football team captain Ed “Sandy” Sand worked the front door checking IDs. Layton was a popular, handsome guy from Carney’s Point, New Jersey. Commissioned through ROTC, Bob had only been in Vietnam for a month when he was mortally wounded leading his platoon in action in the Saigon region. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his attempt to rescue a seriously wounded combat medic. I was in training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri when I received word of Layton’s death.

From “The Other Side of the Aisle, 1976”

After further discussions with Evans about Kendall, he agreed to meet him at the White House, but he also wanted to see President Ford while he was there. I called Kendall to make the arrangements. Of course, the appointment with lame-duck President Ford would take some work, but he said he would try to make it happen. A few days later we arrived at the West Wing, where Kendall welcomed us and said the president was unable to meet with us, but we would instead meet with his chief of staff, Dick Cheney.

I do not remember much about our discussion with Cheney that day, though I am certain that part of it was focused on the political picture in the wake of the 1976 election. As a kid from Wilmington’s Pine Street, I was a bit in awe of the situation I found myself in. Cheney, true to the form we would later see when he served as vice president, never cracked a smile and seemed to have little interest in the meeting. The office itself was very impressive, a beautiful view of the south lawn with a crackling fire only a few feet away.

About fifteen minutes into the Cheney meeting, there was a knock on the door, and in came Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense. Rumsfeld quickly mentioned the NATO meeting he was returning from, indicating all was well with the alliance. As Cheney walked him back to the door, I reached across the cocktail table and stuffed my pockets with packs of matches with the White House logo.

From “Vietnam, 1998”

The pace and intensity of the Japan and Taiwan schedule was such that I had given little thought to what lay ahead. The next morning, we would be on a flight “back to the future!”

As we boarded Vietnam Airlines for the 1,016-mile trip to Hanoi, I felt what I could only describe as a haunting feeling. The very word Vietnam and all it implied had dominated my young life. It was more than the name of a country, more than a war that took 58,000 young American lives. It was a time and a place that had penetrated every corner of America for more than a decade. Historians would say we lost the war, but more than that, we lost part of the American soul. The war had nearly torn the country apart.

No doubt some of what I felt was guilt, driven by the fact that I had never served in combat. Many, perhaps most, of more than two-and-half million soldiers who made the trip in the 1960s and early ’70s did so with fear and apprehension, a state of mind I never had to experience. Those Americans were on my mind as our flight descended through the clouds to the former French colonial city. Another thought weighing on me was how we would be received by the people of a country we had dropped more bombs on than were deployed in all of World War II.

Hanoi’s airport in 1998 was still “third world.” We picked up our luggage amid a chaotic scene of hundreds of Vietnamese darting in every direction. Throughout the terminal, people pressed against us and nearly everyone was offering us a ride or trying to sell us a bootleg copy of Graham Green’s The Quiet American. As we broke through the clogged doors into the blazing hot sun, we could see a man about fifty yards away waving to us. He was standing on the running board of a large SUV with two American flags on the front. It was Carper’s friend, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson—a man who had spent six years in Vietnam as a POW. Carper and Peterson had served in Congress together and had traveled to Vietnam years before on a mission to recover the remains or determine the status of Americans who were still missing in action (MIA).

From “The Spiral Down, 2000”

Looking back, what was about to happen was entirely predictable. But I had no experience at this level of the corporate world in 2000, so I did not realize that something significant was in the making when Stalter entered my office on the afternoon of October 17. He told me my presence was needed at a private room on the second floor of the Hotel DuPont.

I quickly covered the two blocks to the Delaware landmark where Hercules was born in 1912. When I knocked on the door, who would answer but former chairman & CEO Tom Gossage. I knew Gossage from my executive recruiting days, and he welcomed me like we were old friends. He introduced me to the three others in the room: Dick Dahlen, Ed Carrington, and Larry Rankin. He then gave me some rather stunning news saying, “John, Vince has resigned, and I am the new Hercules chairman and CEO.”

I remember thinking, Wow, I’m in the middle of a coup d’état.

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1 Comment

  • Excellent exclusive….. thank you for highlighting this book. For those of us that love Delaware but did not grow up here it’s a great insight into the first state!