I was a young guy right out of school when I got a job at Comm Daily in D.C. in the Fall of 1993. The economy was still limping along, clawing its way out of a bad recession (sound familiar?)—and I was happy to have finally landed a job. During my first week, someone introduced me to a grouchy, Southern fried character named Dawson Nail. People called him Tack. He shook my hand out of obligation, growled something and then retired to his office for a nap. I remember thinking, “What the hell was that?” But my new boss Dan Warren just laughed, patted me on the back and said, “He’s a legend.” And he was right. Tack died on Friday. They’ll never be another one like him. Ever.
Tack came from the old school. Not the old school you and I know. This was an ancient old school from way, way back. The one where journalists took sources out to lunch and got them smashed on hard liquor, took down their secrets and then wrote up the stories in the afternoon while still swimming in Martini juices. Tack broke a lot of big stories like this back in his day. And he was still breaking them when I arrived at Comm Daily—despite those daily afternoon naps that commenced like clockwork at 2pm. He had earned the right after years of service, including practically putting the word “TV” on the map in the 50s at Broadcasting (now B&C) and then from 1964 on when he joined Warren’s Television Digest
Tack wore an Oklahoma drawl that dripped like warm molasses as he glad-handed his way through the world. A loud “How yew du’ne?” signaled his presence at any function, and it cut through the room no matter how noisy. When I got back from my very first business trip a few weeks after I joined Comm Daily, Tack—who until that point hadn’t said a word to me since I shook his hand that first day—sauntered out into the middle of the newsroom, loped toward my desk and loudly asked whether I had… how shall I rephrase this… enjoyed any female company on my trip. His exact words were significantly more blunt than I can repeat here. I stammered like a kid with no idea how to respond to this guy who was 40 years my senior (and looked like 60 years my senior). The newsroom broke out in laughter. I turned beet red. And as the laughter died down, Tack patted me on the back and winked. I knew right then that I had been hazed. And I was proud of it.
About a year later, Tack went missing one day. I asked about it, and someone told me he was at the doctor. The next day we found out he had been diagnosed with throat cancer. Tack had lived like a permanent cast member of “Mad Men” for years, so it wasn’t exactly a shock to any of us. But we all feared the worst. For months, he got chemo at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. And amazingly, he still came into the office just about every day. He still did his job. We joked that considering Tack’s lifestyle, the chemo was child’s play. He never even lost his hair. But he did quit smoking. And he did beat that cancer back mercilessly until it slinked away into the night, never to return. Nobody ever admitted it, but most of us really thought he was going to die. We had prepared for it. Accepted it. But Tack hadn’t. He just went on with his life. And he lived almost another two decades because of it.
I left Comm Daily shortly after the cancer scare, working for a string of TV and telecom pubs. Whenever I saw Tack at an industry dinner or confab, he’d give me a loud “How yew du’ne, kid?” He always tried to embarrass me, once berating me in front of five or six execs because I showed up at a one reception without a jacket (hey, it was the late ’90s dot-com thing… give me a break). None of his ribbing ever matched that first zinger after my business trip. But he loved to try. And I always appreciated the effort.
The last time I saw Tack was summer 2010 during a barbecue at Dennis Wharton’s house. Tack was still going strong then, chatting up everyone and still charming us all with his crusty sense of humor. There was just something about Tack. About the way he carried himself. He knew he was a legend, though he never acknowledged it. This was a guy who was a regular on “Meet the Press” when most people still had black-and-white TVs. He was a guest on the first C-SPAN call-in show in 1980. TV network CEOs took calls from him as if it was the President on the line. And he got away with it all because he was Tack Nail. There will never be another one. Rest in Peace. Somewhere, St. Peter is getting hazed. And he’s loving it.
(A memorial service for Nail will take place at 6:30 p.m. Thurs, Mar 31, at the National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW, Washington).
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX).