Ned Day lay on a beach in Hawaii, 4,000 miles and a lifetime away from his birth in West Allis 42 years earlier. He had been born a prince of sorts, the son of Milwaukee bowling legend Ned Day Sr., who had mingled with presidents and movie stars. As an adult, the younger Day […]
Ned Day lay on a beach in Hawaii, 4,000 miles and a lifetime away from his birth in West Allis 42 years earlier.
He had been born a prince of sorts, the son of Milwaukee bowling legend Ned Day Sr., who had mingled with presidents and movie stars. As an adult, the younger Day also had consorted with an icon: Frank Balistrieri – Frankie Bal – Milwaukee’s most notorious mobster. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Day worked in Frankie’s strip clubs, made collections for the boss’ gambling racket, and lived and played among the city’s seediest characters. But then a gruesome double murder forced him to take a soul-stricken look at the company he’d been keeping. Day came to realize there was a better purpose for his roguish nature.
The winds blew Day west to Las Vegas, where – remarkably – Frankie Bal’s legman became his nemesis. Working as a caricature of a hard-living, skirt-chasing, truth-telling muckraker, Day remade himself as a crusading journalist. He came to focus on the gangsters who had run Las Vegas for decades, helping to expose not just Balistrieri’s Vegas operation, but the whole Mafia infrastructure there. Eventually, Ned Day Jr. from West Allis, Wis., would be honored by Nevada’s governor and the state’s powerful U.S. senator as a model of journalistic integrity and courage.
By the time Day was done chronicling the wiseguys’ dirty deeds, the mob’s mythic hold on America’s gambling mecca was crumbling. But there may have been a price to pay for his hell-bent ways.
Ned Day lay on a beach in Hawaii.
He was dead.
It had been a life bracketed by kingpins.
He was born in 1945 to Ned and Frances Day at the height of his father’s fame. Beginning in the mid-1930s, Ned Day Sr. had forged a career that, by the end of that decade, would see him ranked as the best bowler in the world. The West Allis pro bowled with Harry Truman at the White House. He went to Hollywood to make movie shorts. Jack Benny name-checked him on the radio. He even made a Wheaties box. In an era when the nation’s 15,000 bowling alleys were a $250 million a year industry and perhaps no city was more bowling-mad than Milwaukee, it’s not a stretch to say that Ned Day was the Brett Favre of his sport.
The competitions themselves didn’t pay jack – the biggest pot he ever took was $14,000 in a nationally televised last hurrah in 1959 – but his high profile and good looks turned him into one of the sports world’s early marketing titans. He appeared in ads for bowling gear, motor oil, underwear and cigarettes (“Experience is the best teacher… in bowling and in choosing a cigarette!” he shilled for Camel). He wrote a series of books on the sport. And he owned three Milwaukee pro shops in addition to controlling the rich Brunswick franchise throughout bowling-besotted Wisconsin. When Ned Day Jr. arrived on April 5, 1945, it looked like he had been born into a perfect game.
He grew up in a modest home on South 92nd Street, hardly the mansion life of a celebrity’s son but lacking nothing in terms of toys and creature comforts. He was a quiet kid who attended Woodrow Wilson Elementary School and the private St. Aloysius, before a decision that would mark him forever.
His mother decreed that Ned would be shipped off to St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield. For the rest of his life, he would bitterly believe he was sent away because he was in the way of his father’s career and his mother’s social life.
“Ned was abandoned by his family,” says Mark Fierro, a colleague and close friend in Las Vegas. “They left him in the impossible position of winning back their love: ‘Tell me what I have to do to be good enough that you’ll love me and bring me home. Tell me what that is.’
“They set a bar that I think Ned felt was unreachable his entire life. It always hung over him and made him a much bigger person than he would have been.”
Enrolling at the strict and imposing St. John’s in 1959, Day initially hated the place. In a letter sent home to his mother, he reveals not only his anguish but also an early glimmer of a journalistic voice that would expose the misdeeds of powerful people.
“Today was another drag,” he wrote with all the righteous fury of an angry 14-year-old. “This place is the worst. … [Right now] the dean is showing some boy and his parents the campus and feeding them a pack of lies on how good this school is…
“I sure hope things get better because they can’t get any worse.”
But remarkably, Ned came to flourish at St. John’s. By the time he graduated in 1963, he had been voted most popular cadet and “Best All Around Fellow.” He served as captain of his company, earned numerous medals and awards, and prospered in football, hockey and golf. Images of Ned in the St. John’s yearbook show a ramrod-straight, remarkably handsome 18-year-old, ready to take on the world.
Just as noteworthy, given the charismatic persona Day soon would develop, was his nickname noted in the yearbook: Neddy Poo.
Day left the academy with a seemingly glowing future as heir to his father’s bowling empire.
But that empire, it turned out, was in decline. Ned Sr., considered by most of his peers to be a kind and generous man, spent his money freely and often recklessly. Worse, he had a drinking problem, a serious addiction to betting the horses and an overinflated belief in his stock market savvy. As his star as a bowler dimmed, the Brunswick contract expired, and one by one, the pro shops were shuttered. By 1965 – just two years after Ned Jr. left St. John’s – his father was down to one store. And then things went really bad.
Dennis Juechter came to work for Ned Sr. as a teenager in the late ’50s, drilling bowling balls and setting up the Brunswick pool tables Day was selling for top dollar. He was still working in Day’s remaining shop in 1965 when a pack of federal agents descended.
“It was really scary,” recalls Juechter, “probably eight FBI agents in the store with their suits open so we could see their guns. They raided the place, went downstairs, and there were ticker-tape machines down there. Ned was getting all the results from the tracks.”
It turned out that a nationwide gambling service was being run out of Day’s store. He would ultimately be named as an unindicted co-conspirator. Details of the case are scarce, but given the era and the nationwide scope of the investigation, it’s likely Day was working with the local mob.
The final years for Ned Day Sr. were brutal. His second wife divorced him in 1968, and a year later, he filed for bankruptcy. By 1971, his sole source of income was a used bookstore on South 16th Street. He died alone of a stroke in his apartment behind the store. It was Thanksgiving, and he was 60. His obituary in Newsweek was the first ever granted to a professional bowler.
Just as with St. John’s, his father’s squandering of the family fortune embittered the son while also driving him toward his destiny. “What happened was my father went broke and I had to find a way to go on with my life,” Day told a writer in 1981. “Instead of inheriting half a million dollars at age 20, I had to start all over again.”
It was the mid-1960s. The age of free love and ready drugs was dawning, but the decorated military school graduate went old-school and found his way into the bars, strip clubs and gambling dens of Milwaukee’s still-reigning mobster, Frank Balistrieri. Known by such nicknames as “Mr. Slick” and “Mad Bomber,” Frankie Bal was a dapper and dangerous man who had run the Milwaukee Family since 1961. He conducted his business at a table at Snug’s restaurant in the Shorecrest Hotel but owned clubs and other operations all over town.
Day’s descent into this world makes sense, considering his father’s places of business had for years been bowling alleys, pool halls and taverns. Maybe it was in one of these smoky halls where he met the guys who would end up being partners in his basement gambling operation. The bowling legend, meanwhile, tried to groom his son as his heir, sending him to tournaments all over the state. Ned’s chaperone was Dennis Juechter, the kid from the pro shop who was only a few years older. Young men, flush with Daddy’s cash and legendary name, set loose to compete – and hang out – in the drinking and gambling spots where the wiseguys conducted business. Somehow, Ned connected to the primo wiseguy, an experience he wrote about years later:
“I used to work for Frankie Bal back in the 1960s. … I remember when the old man would come in the joints, with his cronies in tow. … They’d stay in the corner mostly, drinking shooters of Crown Royal, leering at the dancing girls. …
“I remember Louie Fazio got blasted. Frankie Bal didn’t like him. I remember when Augie Maniaci took two bullets in the skull. Frankie Bal didn’t like him, either.”
It was the kind of raw – and perhaps overembellished – mob reporting that would become Ned Day’s stock in trade. But this was no Hollywood movie. By his own account, from ages 19 to 28, Day was “involved in some unhealthy activities” while prowling around the scuzzier climes of Milwaukee. He wrote a successful tout sheet, selling tips for betting on the horses running down in Chicago. He was arrested for passing bad checks in an attempt to settle up with an angry bookie.
And in 1972, at age 27, Ned Day married a onetime Miss Nude International who danced in one of the clubs. The marriage would last until 1974. He got custody of the crumpled Volkswagen Beetle that would become one of his many signatures.
That same year, Ned Day began to chart a new, healthier course for his life. Always drawn to politics and a good argument, he sold off a pinkie ring to help raise tuition and enrolled as a political science major at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He delivered pies at the aptly named Ned’s Pizza to support himself.
Somehow, he came to the attention of UWM professor Jay Sykes, who read some of Ned’s writing and encouraged him to switch to journalism. Day took the bait, and before long, he was writing for Crossroads, a campus newspaper. With a lifelong suspicion of institutions and a deep resentment toward higher-ups who abuse their power, in November 1974, he wrote an exposé with the attention-grabbing headline: “Check of prof’s credentials uncovers bizarre disputes.” The professor with the suspect credentials ended up getting fired.
Day also wrote humorous and gritty essays drawn from his colorful past. One such piece, recounting his life as a pizza deliveryman, broke him into the big time. It was published in the weekly insert of the Milwaukee Journal, a paper he revered. Written in the wry, everyman voice of legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko, Day regaled his readers with the time he almost died for his trade.
“That’ll be $5.45,” I said.
“I don’t have the money,” the man replied with a strange grin. “But I do have this.” In his hand, and pointed right at my chest, was what seemed like the biggest handgun I’d ever seen. … There was a resounding crash, and I thought, “What a stupid way to die, delivering pizza to some maniac.” And then I remember thinking, “It doesn’t hurt, so I must be dead already. It just hasn’t reached my brain yet.” When I peered down to get a look at the hole in my chest, the man began to laugh, almost hysterically.
“Thought you’d had it, huh?” he said. “Don’t worry, pal, it’s only a blank.”
Most likely through the intervention of Jay Sykes, Day won a job writing for the weekly West Allis Star. Carol Vogel, who hired him, knew what she was getting.
“Ned wrote and lived on the edge,” she was quoted as saying after his death. “He was willing to take the time to work sources. He went to bars and parties and wherever sources were. Ninety percent of journalists don’t do that anymore.”
As one of many young writers with the chain of Post papers, he was soon paired with none other than Charlie Sykes, son of Jay and eventual conservative talk show host on WTMJ radio. Sykes, almost 10 years younger than Day and by his own admission very wet behind the ears, was agog at Day’s stories of his mob days.
“He described himself as a gambler and a pimp,” Sykes told Milwaukee Magazine for this story.
Sykes was also interviewed in 1987 by George Knapp, a Las Vegas newsman who worked with Day at KLAS-TV. It was for a KLAS retrospective on Ned after his death. In the interview, Sykes remembered that Day “would talk about riding around in expensive cars, wearing fur coats and jewelry.”
“Ned was an exaggerator about that period of his life,” cautions Knapp, a Peabody Award-winning journalist who was Day’s protege and best friend. “It was a performance kind of thing. He was creating a caricature of himself.”
The mid-’70s were heady times for budding young journalists like Day and Sykes. The two went together to see All the President’s Men, Sykes recalled in the KLAS story: “We thought we were going to be Woodward and Bernstein. We were raw reporters and took on what we thought were major corruption stories. We went out at night, we visited people’s houses, we went through public records.
“We were making $160 a week while knowing almost nothing about journalism. We were making it up as we went along, and Ned was really the inspiration for the rest of us.”
Day and Sykes shared bylines on some genuine muckraking, including exposing campaign violations by then-County Board Chairman William O’Donnell as he ran for what would become a 12-year reign as county executive. But much of Day’s reporting for the West Allis Star was stultifyingly dull, covering beauty pageants, endless city council meetings or accompanying some West Allis leaders on a fact-finding mission to Battle Creek, Mich., to study the feasibility of a shopping mall proposed for Greenfield Avenue.
It was hardly Mike Royko or Jimmy Breslin, but Day was learning his craft and building his portfolio. It would take a personal brush with horrific violence to drive him to bigger and better things out west.
Lucita Restis was found dead in a home on East Newton Avenue in Shorewood on April 28, 1976. Draped across her body was that of her 10-year-old daughter, Tzu-Li. Both had been strangled, the mother with a lamp cord and the daughter with a bicycle-lock chain. A liquor bottle had been twisted into the chain, apparently to turn it tighter on the little girl’s neck.
Restis had blown into town in 1968, on the run from her third husband, a carnival worker in Lake Charles, La. Beautiful and innately gifted at getting men to provide for her, she was, by any measure, a very naughty girl.
“It’s not my fault,” she was quoted as saying. “I just never learned how to go along with The Program.”
At 21, Restis had abandoned a first husband and daughter in Honolulu and landed in San Francisco, where she married a club owner and embarked on a career as a stripper. She soon was earning top dollar while developing a reputation as a hellcat who once cracked a bar patron over the head with a liquor bottle for badmouthing Hawaiians.
She was 32 when she and her 3-year-old daughter arrived in Milwaukee, taking up residence on the ninth floor of the Wisconsin Hotel. Although old for her profession, she quickly was earning $600 a week as a featured stripper in clubs in Appleton, Green Bay and Milwaukee.
If you were a stripper in Milwaukee, odds are you worked in one of Frankie Bal’s clubs. Which included the Ad Lib. Which is where Ned Day tended bar. Which resulted in the fact that sometime during the late ’60s or early ’70s, Ned Day was her lover.
Of course he was.
But there was something else, something that undercuts the tawdriness with a wisp of poignancy: Day had claimed the little girl as his goddaughter. And now, mother and child had been brutally murdered, just at the point when the reporter was trying to put his dodgy past behind him and go legit.
The local press breathlessly covered the lurid details of the crime. With his exclusive access to key facts, this could have been the story that made Day’s career, but he was thrown into a tricky journalistic position once his connection to the victims was revealed. The reporter – who was called in to identify the bodies and, for a time, seems to have been considered a suspect – had become part of the story.
Day’s editors tried to keep him off the case. So he set out to find the killer himself.
Day knew that, for years, Restis had been taking money for sex from a “farmer from Sheboygan.” She had described him as “weird, odd, crazy and a psycho.” She had even provided a name: William Heinen.
On the day the murders broke in the Milwaukee papers, Day was already in Sheboygan. He found Heinen’s home and got a photo of him in his driveway, but for some reason never confronted the suspected murderer. It was nearly a week before Heinen was arrested, and it’s not clear if the police were acting on a tip from Day. But Sykes is certain Day got to the killer first.
Days after Heinen’s arrest, Day published a firsthand account of his relationship with the slain mother and daughter. It is a painfully honest piece, opening with Day standing over their bodies in the morgue.
“Their faces were not peaceful,” he wrote. “The death masks reflected a moment of ultimate terror, seemingly frozen in time.”
Day then proceeds to relay Lucita Restis’ turbulent life, never once passing judgment on a woman who would strike many as contemptible (“She was beautiful to her friends,” he noted). As he would for the rest of his life, Ned Day found redeeming qualities in the shabbiest of souls – particularly when their flaws were laid in contrast to corrupt and powerful players who exploited those beneath them.
“[Lucita] was less than saintly,” he wrote. “But she remained a fascinating, beguiling and adamantly unrepentant sinner. … Most people would judge her to be a poor mother, but she dearly loved Tzu-Li. She fretted about her daughter’s education, finally enrolling her in a strict parochial school in Shorewood.
“I remember Tzu-Li to be at once charming, stubborn, wonderfully wise beyond her years and, like her mother, very adept at getting her way,” he said in tribute to his goddaughter. (It would come out in the trial that 10-year-old Tzu-Li had been killed trying to protect her mother.)
On July 14, three months after the murders, William Heinen was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years in state prison. The killer had been a wretchedly pathetic figure on the stand, and his public defender convinced the jury that his crimes were committed while he was not in his right mind. According to journalist William Janz, who covered the story, the lesser verdict outraged the entire city. And Ned Day.
Janz recalls that the incident became a life-changer for the reporter. “Ned told me in the courthouse that, after the case was over, he was going to hop in his old Volkswagen and head for Las Vegas, where he could find some adventure.”
Just five months after Lucita and Tzu-Li Restis were killed, Ned Day left Milwaukee for Las Vegas. He was 31.
“Half of Ned would have liked to have made it here, to be a respectable reporter for the Milwaukee Journal,” Charlie Sykes would recall. “But I think there were a lot of ghosts here for Ned, and that was one of the reasons he felt he had to leave.”
Michael “Max” Maxakuli was a Milwaukee club owner and entertainment promoter whom Ned Day had gotten to know in his days working for the mob. In 1970, Maxakuli migrated to Las Vegas, arriving in time to find a budding backgammon craze. He quickly capitalized on it, becoming not only a top backgammon professional but one of its chief proponents.
By the time he lured Day to join him in 1976 with his tales of dames, money and endless sources of misadventure, Maxakuli had become an influential man.
One place where he had pull was the Valley Times, run by an iconoclastic and not entirely scrupulous editor named Bob Brown. The Valley Times set itself apart by covering the grittier stories that were ignored by the city’s leading daily papers, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Las Vegas Sun. In lieu of a decent salary, writers were given enormous freedom by Brown to chase whatever story attracted their interest, the gaudier or more provocative, the better.
Maxakuli gave Brown some of Day’s clips; according to legend, it was the pizza delivery guy story that sold Brown. Word came back to Day that, when he was ready to give up on Milwaukee, there was a newspaper job waiting for him in Las Vegas.
Shortly after arriving in his new town, Day wrote a letter to his mother and grandmother back in Wisconsin that recognized this shot at redemption.
“I know that some things I have done in the past have served to dishonor you both, but those days are behind me,” he vowed. “I may never be rich, but I do plan to be the best damned newsman possible.”
The Valley Times was the perfect launching pad for Day. Given Brown’s loose leash and Maxakuli’s contacts, Day could plunge straight into the two realms that were the feisty newspaper’s area of focus: politics and the Mafia. Day familiarized himself with mob bosses just enough to start making their lives miserable, in a way that may have had even Frank Balistrieri feeling a twinge of unease back in Milwaukee.
Day’s timing in arriving in Las Vegas was exquisite. The mob kingpins – who had run the town since Bugsy Siegel helped it rise garishly from the desert in the ’40s – had worn out their welcome. Their violent and boorish behavior was perceived by the citizens and some increasingly powerful corporate interests as a barrier to Vegas becoming a world-class resort town. At the same time, years of work by federal agents to drive a stake through the heart of a crime operation, one with tentacles extending to every corner of the country (including Milwaukee), were about to pay off.
One of the mob’s remaining assets in Las Vegas was having a news media that historically had been either too afraid or too cozy with the crooks to stick their noses into their business. Ned Day, having nearly been shot dead for a $5 pizza, had no such fear. In fact, he went out of his way to use the most belittling language to describe the Mafia operatives.
Case in point: Day persisted in referring to Tony Spilotro, the sociopath who was the real-life model for Joe Pesci’s character in Casino, as “a fireplug who walks like a man.” This was when he was not calling him Tony the Ant. Spilotro, suspected by the FBI to have been responsible for at least 22 murders, hated it.
In the first major profile on Day in Las Vegan magazine in 1981, Day – clearly reveling in being the subject of a story rather than its author – snarled out his defiance.
“I remember soon after I first got to town … my friend asked me to not talk about [Spilotro]. ‘Don’t even mention his name. He doesn’t like it when people talk about him,’ ” Day recalled. It was advice he rejected. “If what they say about Spilotro is true,” he told the magazine, “then he’s smart enough to know that if he gets angry with something I write, there’s no way he can rationally make a move against me because he stands to lose too much. If something happens to me, then ‘60 Minutes’ and Geraldo Rivera and all those jerks are going to be all over here like they were in Arizona.” Don Bolles, a Phoenix journalist, had been blown up in his car by the mob five years earlier.
The interviewer asked Day if he wasn’t giving Spilotro a little too much credit for his intelligence. “Maybe,” Day shrugged. “But that’s the risk. I didn’t say there weren’t any risks.”
Not content to just tweak the wiseguys, for good measure, Day also provoked the shadowiest and most powerful players in the U.S. government. In 1980, Day started writing stories about fantastic military experiments being conducted in a heavily protected zone of the Nevada desert known as Area 51. In one of the first stories ever written about the mysterious military base, he told of aircraft invisible to radar and even a type of ray gun being developed. In no time, the journalist found himself dragged into an interrogation room and placed under bright lights by FBI agents, angrily accusing him of endangering national security.
According to Knapp, Day was typically unimpressed. “Ned says, ‘Look, I’ve done you a favor. I’m working for a little paper in North Las Vegas. If a guy like me can find out these secrets, you can be damned sure the Russians already know about them. So get off my f**king back.’
“And they let him go. But that was his imperative: Get the story right and tell it, no matter what might happen.”
By the early 1980s, Day had become a media star in Las Vegas. In 1980, after moving on to the more prestigious Review-Journal, he took a second job as managing editor at KLAS, the top-rated CBS affiliate in Las Vegas. Bob Stoldal, who ran the TV newsroom, courted the apprehensive reporter over a series of nights at the infamous Crazy Horse topless saloon. They ended up writing his contract on a cocktail napkin.
Despite – or maybe because of – his distinctive Milwaukee twang, Day projected a colorful, everyman persona that was a natural for a market as wild and woolly as Las Vegas.
Sykes got a firsthand look at Day’s new life in a visit to see his old comrade. “He had become king of that town. He went everywhere, knew everyone,” Sykes recalls. “We stayed up all night. I remember the sun coming up over the mountains outside the strip club he took me to.
“But he also admitted he was sometimes exhausted by the life, and he was relying on pharmaceutical aids to keep him going.”
It was a time when cocaine use was rampant. Day’s appetite for extracurricular decadence and for drinking prodigiously became part of his legend. Day – sometimes wearing suits he bought at Goodwill – brought strippers to formal events and partied openly with his nefarious sources, a dubious journalistic practice.
Friends describe a crazed weekend on nearby Lake Mead, everyone drunk and stoned and trying to water ski behind a houseboat, while Day was tended to – in various capacities – by a woman known only as Nurse Julie. It’s a gonzo romp straight out of Hunter S. Thompson, one of Day’s literary heroes.
Others, however, suggest his reputation as a world-class carouser was somewhat overblown – usually by Ned Day.
“I don’t think Ned was ever as bad as he wanted people to think,” says Linda Faiss, who worked with Day at the Valley Times. “When he was out with the hookers and strippers, it wasn’t like he was going to disappear into some dark netherworld. He was an outrageous character, but he was a good person.”
“His social life never affected his work,” says Mary Hausch, Day’s editor at the Review-Journal. “I know he was staying up all night, but I don’t recall him ever missing a deadline. I was amazed.”
George Knapp believes Day’s bluster masked a surprising sadness. “Ned was never alone, but he was profoundly lonely,” he says. “He could sink into pits of despair, particularly around the holidays. If he was between girlfriends, we’d end up drinking all night and solving the problems of the world.”
Day never quite left his hometown behind. In one column, he paid tribute to his grandmother, who had run a rough-and-tumble boarding house in Milwaukee. In another, he spoke of a Las Vegas visit from his mother and two of her 70-something gal pals from Florida. (Patricia Judice, described by friends as the love of Day’s life before her career took her to Los Angeles in 1980, observed mother and son together and says the specter of St. John’s still haunted their relationship.)
And a year before his death, Day devoted a column to a guy named Don Lutz, who had gone to St. Aloysius with Day. Lutz, whom Day recalled as a troublemaker as a kid, grew up to be a boxer with some promise before being sent to Vietnam. He came home with a Purple Heart and wounds he was told would keep him from fathering children. He married his high school sweetheart, became father to her kids, and then – lo and behold – a month after the wedding, his wife was pregnant with a little girl.
Lutz had worked six years in a Milwaukee halfway house for men returning from prison, and when the state shut that down, he moved to the county’s Children’s Detention Center.
Day, writing shortly after his most spectacular brush with the mob had earned him headlines, hailed once again the virtue of the Little Guy.
Many people have told me what a brave fellow I am [for provoking the mob]. I’ve suspected they’re wrong. Now I know they are.
Real courage is the kind shown by Don Lutz, the quiet, uncelebrated kind. …
It’s the kind of stomach you need to fight your way up the ladder, only to get knocked down by circumstances outside your control; and then, when nobody is looking, when nobody cares, to get back up and keep slugging it out.
That takes guts.
It was a working-class tribute on par with Royko’s finest. And it’s hard to read it and not think about Day’s own unlikely reinventions, from rich kid to military school stud to street punk to acclaimed journalist riding high 2,000 miles from home.
By 1987, Ned Day was 42 and prospering in his second decade in Las Vegas. He had been awarded a prime co-anchor spot at KLAS. A slew of writing awards kept his column a must-read in the Review-Journal. Publications ranging from Reader’s Digest to the New Yorker were feeling him out for employment. Maybe it was time to find a new market for his talents.
As he had chronicled with glee, by 1987, the mob was becoming a shadow of itself, thanks largely to the feds breaking up a casino skimming operation that would help get Frank Balistrieri sent to prison. Tony the Ant, who ran the skim, had disappeared by then and was eventually found buried alive in a cornfield in Indiana.
As it was all coming undone for the wiseguys, somebody firebombed Ned Day’s car. Naturally, the car wasn’t insured. He called it the greatest day of his life, mourning only the fact that his favorite golf clubs were in the backseat.
Day had fallen in love with Mary Ottman, a woman described by all as being of a caliber far removed from the frowsy company he had been keeping. No doubt with her influence, he began a humorous series of television reports about his efforts to get in shape. Decades of smoking, drinking, drugging and appalling eating habits had brought him to a point where his doctor told him – on camera – that he was killing himself.
A vacation would also do him some good, so he and Ottman left for Hawaii toward the end of August 1987. It was, by all accounts, a glorious trip, though Day persisted in writing his column when he was supposed to be relaxing, filing it via FedEx.
On the morning of Sept. 3, 1987, Day and Ottman were snorkeling in the waters near Honolulu when Day was struck by what would be declared a fatal heart attack, perhaps precipitated by his unhealthy lifestyle. While there are those to this day who promote the possibility that the mob finally got him, there is not a trace of evidence to support it. Although it is a testament to the guy’s life that it feels possible.
Buttressing that feeling is that, when Day’s final column arrived at the Review-Journal on the day he died, he had whimsically implored the paper to hang onto it “as a potential historical record in the event that I … sleep with the fishes tonight.”
The reaction to Day’s death in Vegas was stunning. Nevada Sen. Harry Reid hailed Day as “an uneducated man who wrote like he had a Ph.D. …. He was tough and fair.” Then-Gov. Richard Bryan declared Day “not only an outstanding journalist but an outstanding citizen as well.” Former Gov. Grant Sawyer called Day “the most influential man in Nevada.” Among media types in town, the common consensus was that Day had influenced a generation of journalists.
Also among the mourners were the Little Guys – cab drivers and casino workers and ladies of the night – there to honor Day for having spoken up for them. And a phalanx of weeping young women in skimpy black dresses, each of them behaving as if they had been the love of Ned Day’s life.
And alone at the back of the service stood Max Maxakuli, whose life started falling apart in 1982 and who would ultimately do time in prison for selling cocaine. When Ned Day’s star began rising just as Maxakuli’s started going bad, Day distanced himself from the friend who brought him in from Milwaukee and got him his first job. Maxakuli died in 2006.
Day’s small headstone was inscribed with the jaunty tagline he used at the end of his TV reports: “I thought you’d like to know, I’m Ned Day.” Every year on Day’s birthday, George Knapp visits his mentor and leaves behind a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a Diet 7UP – the only things the journalist tended to have in his refrigerator.
A moving addendum would be woven into Day’s story within days of his death. It turned out a daughter had been conceived in Hawaii. She graduated from college in 2010 with a double major in history and Spanish, and is thinking about medical school and maybe a future helping women in Latin American countries. According to everyone who has met her, she has all of her father’s – and grandfather’s – charisma and drive.
Ned Day’s death received little notice in Milwaukee. The connection to his once-famous father had faded into obscurity, and the sort of folks Day lurked around with in his mob days may not have wanted to implicate themselves by saying they knew him. Or they were dead.
But Charlie Sykes believes something of Day’s spirit was left behind in this town as well.
“I think for everyone who worked with Ned, it changed them in the way they went about their job,” says Sykes. “They went about it with a bit more determination and aggressiveness, but with a little more sense of fun, too.”
Those qualities stood out in everything Day did, but perhaps never more so than in the column he wrote after his car was firebombed. “Can’t you guys get it right?” he joyously needled the mob. “It’s not the car you want to annihilate. It’s the freakin’ typewriter, for cryin’ out loud. And, oh yes, kiss my rosy, red patootie.”
Tom Matthews is a Wauwatosa-based freelancer who has profiled Howie Epstein, Badfinger and the BoDeans for Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.