"Okay Pal, What's Shaking?"

A Daily News reporter pays tribute to her departing Inquirer mentor.

By Catherine Lucey
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 16, 2005

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Copping a deal: Veteran Inquirer reporter Thomas J. Gibbons Jr. took the buyout. His last day is Friday.

When I first moved down to police headquarters as a green Daily News cops reporter two years ago, I was nervous. Mostly I was scared I couldn't hack it in the male cop shop, that officers would hassle a young woman or not give me stories.

I didn't have to worry. From day one, I had Tommy.

Tommy-Thomas J. Gibbons Jr.-is something of a legend among cops and journalists in this town. A former highway patrol officer who was
shot in the line of duty before becoming a police reporter, Gibbons is a
pinstripe-wearing, tough-talking, old-fashioned pro who drinks Manhattans and calls everyone pal.

"Okay pal, what's shaking?" Tommy would say to me when he blew into the smoky, dirty press office first thing in the morning. "Let's rock 'n' roll."

Even though I worked for the Daily News and he for the Inquirer, Gibbons took me under his wing. It was from watching Tommy that I learned the job, learned how to use hard-edged police lingo, how to weasel information out of cops and how to speak gently to crime victims' families.

Pretty quickly the cops learned they couldn't hit on me or screw me out of stories and get away with it. Tommy wasn't afraid to get on the phone and yell: "I'm the senior reporter down here and we're not going to stand for this."

I grew to love the job, because I loved working with this old-school journalist in his sharp suits and shiny shoes. Tommy had three decades of memories about Philly crimes, told great stories about the boozy old days in the Roundhouse and had sources in every cops division and city department.

Now, after 32 years on the job, Thomas J. Gibbons Jr. is going to pick up his briefcase, throw his tan overcoat on one shoulder and walk out the pressroom door for the last time. Six o'clock on Friday, an era of Philadelphia journalism will end.

Tommy's taking the buyout offered to Inquirer and Daily News employees. At 60, he says he's ready.

I'm just not sure I am.

Tommy and I bonded quickly, as I suppose you do when you spend 10-hour days together surveying the tragedies of a violent city. He was my mentor, sidekick and confidant. During downtimes I'd fill Tommy in on my private life, and he'd describe the old days when the pressroom was staffed around the clock by five or six hard-drinking guys.

"It was a different time," he'd say, telling me about how they'd steal stories from each other, or how on a slow day he might answer the phone: "Medical examiner's office, body-washing department."

Soon I started drinking martinis and calling people pal, while Tommy lived vicariously through my dating tales. By the time Tommy met my boyfriend, he told him it felt like he was meeting a son-in-law.

My boyfriend told me he felt more pressure over meeting Tommy than meeting my dad.

I eventually learned Tommy's famous life story, one that cops and reporters pass around in awe behind his back.

He grew up around cops, looking up to his dad, who served as police commissioner in the '50s. But after graduating high school in 1962, he became a copy boy at The Evening Bulletin. He quit three years later, at age 20, to join the police force. After just five years he was shot on the job one night in West Philadelphia and almost died.

He eventually recovered, but was too weak to work as a street cop again. So he returned to the Bulletin in 1973, moving over to the Inquirer before the Bulletin went under in 1981. For most of his lengthy career he's covered cops and has had to walk a tightrope, trying to be loyal to both his work and his cop buddies.

Occasionally he complained he was tired of his job.

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