In July of 1985, L.A. Times reporter Bob Pool was motoring through Reseda when he spotted a potential story.
To be honest, it didn’t have a lot going for it. A mail carrier, working her route on foot, appeared to be quite pregnant.
No editor would assign such a story. No reporter would volunteer.
But this was Bob Pool, who had a good eye and nimble fingers, and his secret weapons were natural curiosity and a flair for puns.
Pool parked his car and walked the route with the mail carrier, whose baby was due in a few weeks. She was hoping for a boy, she told him, and Pool learned that her colleagues helped out by taking her heaviest parcels off her hands. On Tampa Avenue, Pool watched homemaker Betty Murphy wait in front of her house to save the mail carrier a few steps.
In Pool’s hands, a non-story became an elegant little suburban sketch.
“Minette Sheller delivers the mail 475 times a day in Reseda,” Pool wrote. “Nineteen days from now, she hopes to deliver a male.”
It was a classic play on words by Pool, who wrote that Sheller completed her rounds “without so much as a pregnant pause.”
With that little story, a giant city became a small town. And that’s been Pool’s specialty for decades — chronicling the humanity and quirks of an amorphous metropolis and discovering hidden treasures far outside the glare of Hollywood.
“I’ve lived vicariously for 50 years,” he told me the other day.
In his 31 years at The Times, Pool has tapped out more than 4,000 stories. And even though he’s still at the top of his game, he’s closing in on 70 and has decided to rest his fingers and his feet.
The city will lose a treasure when Pool walks out the door for the last time. But his enduring contribution is the reminder to present and future staffers that good things happen when you blow off news conferences, set fire to press releases, get out of the office and celebrate the daily drama on what might be the world’s greatest stage.
Sure, we’ve also got to rattle cages, chase crooks, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as they say. And Bob Pool has carried some of that load over the years too, a jack of all trades in a job that got him shot at (the gunman missed), assaulted (he recovered) and sued (he won).
But at his best, Pool was a man among the masses in the city he’s called home since 1958, far more intrigued by the hotel bellhop than the mega-celebrity whose bags he carried.
In 2004, when Tony Marquez of the Bel-Air Hotel was named best hotel worker in America, Pool ended his profile of Marquez with this:
“So says the bellman from Bell who became a bellwether in Bel-Air.”
In 1988, he found a woman who’d been at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. for what you might call an extended stay.
“Thelma Becker checked into the Biltmore on Jan. 7, 1940, and never checked out,” Pool wrote.
Becker, a traveling lingerie saleswoman from Indiana, liked what she saw here and didn’t want to go home. She quickly became a beloved member of the hotel family and was allowed to stay in her room as the lone permanent resident — for just $33 a night.
In 1985, Pool got wind of a crisis at the Etiwanda Avenue police station. After an invastion of ants, a call went out to janitors instead of exterminators. The janitors “lobbed bug bombs” that drove out the cops but not the ants, and Pool penned this opening line:
“Police in Northridge should have called out a ‘swat’ team this morning.”
In 1997, Pool assembled a touching story on a retiring UCLA cardiologist who set up scholarships for Lennox Middle School students as give-back for the financial aid that had pulled him out of poverty decades earlier.
“Cardiologist Glenn Langer has a lot of heart,” began Pool’s story, which moved readers to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cause.
Pool the man is much like Pool the writer — lots of humility and understatement. But if you pressed him on some of his favorite stories over the years, he might bring up his month-long stint in 1990 as a shopping mall Santa.
He actually got a little cocky after three weeks, thinking he was a convincing enough Santa to fool his goddaughter. And that led to some domestic friction at the North Pole.
“Mrs. Claus was peeved with Santa.”
“ ‘You’re going to ruin Christmas for her!’ she snorted when I announced that I had invited our 4-year-old goddaughter to the mall to sit on my knee. ‘She’ll recognize you.’”
But the tot didn’t tug at his beard, and Pool didn’t blow his cover.
“Mrs. Claus was relieved to hear that,” Pool wrote.
“No one wants to be married to the Grinch who stole Christmas.”
One reason it’s hard to imagine Santa in retirement is that he hasn’t slowed down after 50 years of delivering gifts to readers. Times reporter Harriet Ryan, who sits near Pool in the office, said he’s as bright-eyed as ever.
“When Bob got back from an interview Friday about the discovery of a preserved speakeasy in a downtown basement, he was so excited about it and went on and on about what he saw and what the sources told him,” Ryan said.
“And that was his last interview. EVER. And he was still so excited about being a reporter.... He’s like the Derek Jeter of journalism. He left performing better than most other players and still loving the game.”
Earlier this week I was able to track down Minette Sheller, the pregnant mail carrier, who told me she vividly recalls the day Pool stopped his car and asked if he could hang out with her.
“I remember him saying he wanted to do a human interest story,” said Sheller, whose last name is now McNally, and whose son — yes, she had a boy — is now 29. A couple of years ago, McNally said, she took the Pool story she’s kept all these years, had it laminated and gave it to her son.
“Wish him a happy retirement for me,” she said.