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Tuesday, June 10, 2008 | Among crates of library files from the heydays of San Diego newspapers are clippings that overflowed the mountainous stacks of papers that Alfred “Al” JaCoby accumulated and hid behind as he edited Sunday sections of the San Diego Union. He was handicapped by a failing common to journalists: he could not throw good newspaper writing away, even though it came to him second-hand from newspapers he’d already read.

For him, newspapers lived and died as surely as the human beings who put them together. This attitude varied somewhat between those who worked into the night to produce a morning newspaper, and into mid-afternoon to produce an afternoon newspaper. I worked over on the Tribune side of the building, on the paper that came out at midday. There was more than casual distrust of reporters crossing that barrier. But I favored that detour so that I might gawk at JaCoby’s fortress, caved beside his glass wall by his own untangled notes and files, clippings and sliding drawers. The scene was chaotic, every janitor’s nightmare.

There was never another reporter in our region whose quirks matched those of JaCoby. He was a carnivorous reader, a homely, crippled man who feasted on wine and words. All but a grumpy minority of us felt affection for this gruff and wise colleague, and marveled that he had, through reading, grown so worldly. His crooked smile engaged skeptics. Even after the amputation of a leg, JaCoby hobbled about cheerfully, like a showman, quick to slap his stub and cackle at his bad fortune.

After his leg was amputated, I sat with JaCoby at his hospital bed and found him reveling in another source of sardonic humor. “Put this in your column, Morgan,” he hissed. “The hospital sent in a flunky to get me to sign a release to pay for cremating my leg. I said, ‘Throw it in the trash or pay for it yourself. It wasn’t my idea to cut it off.’”

JaCoby remained entertaining and bemused, marveling at the disparities of those around him. He often saw a world all his own, and contended that he even understood it. He died last week at 81, on the day we were scheduled to have lunch, and I assume that — as always — he felt he had the last laugh.

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