When the task is to write an obituary for someone whom you owe so much of your life, there is no great way to start, and “thank you” feels small.
So many at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and other media outlets, owe Ellen Alfano not just a thank you but a level of gratitude that any combination of words fail.
On Saturday, the former longtime managing editor of the Star-Telegram died. For the last several months she battled multiple systems atrophy, a rare disorder that attacks nerve cells around the brain. She was 66.
She kept it quiet, and most of us didn’t know the extent of what she had been fighting.
Ellen could be tough, and if you tried to slip a $3.50 Starbucks receipt in your expense report she’d nail you, but in the end she was fair, decent and humane.
She wanted people in jobs, working, able to pursue a career they liked that could support their life.
There are many women who receive the credit for helping to create a path, and a place, in sports media for women, and Ellen Alfano should be among them.
“She banged her head against the glass ceiling several times and always broke through,” her husband, Pete, wrote in a Facebook post.
You just never saw her.
“She was a quiet pioneer because she never wanted the credit,” said ProFootballTalk NFL reporter Charean Williams, whom Alfano brought to the Star-Telegram around 2000. “She was an amazing journalist and really, really good for a really long time.”
Alfano was hired by the Star-Telegram and worked as an editor in the sports department from 1976 to ‘89.
“She was the first woman I ever worked for,” said Jim Reeves, the award-winning retired Star-Telegram sports columnist. “I can only imagine what it took for her to get through the ol’ boys network, and the traditional things that were going on, and getting respect in the sports community.
“She was a pioneer, certainly in Texas. She was extremely capable, talented and driven to make our sports department top of the line.
“I think she inspired female journalists and writers to continue in this business, whereas (before) they might have given up.”
Alfano left the Star-Telegram in 1989 to join the ambitious startup news organization, The National as an assistant managing editor. The National was a first-of-its kind daily sports newspaper that lasted for about 18 months.
Among the people who worked with Alfano at The National were Frank Deford, Dave Kindred, Johnette Howard, Norman Chad, Chris Mortensen, Ed Werder and scores of other names you likely recognize.
Alfano was one of the few women working there.
“She was a great hire at The National ... . She really appreciated good reporters and journalism,” Mortensen said in a direct message. Since joining ESPN, Mortensen has been one of the network’s foremost NFL reporters for more than 20 years.
“She was professional and a very fair, contributed to an exceptional enterprise and had a gift for kindness from what I witnessed and experienced.”
After The National closed, Alfano went to work for the ATP Tour. It was there she met her husband, former New York Times reporter Pete Alfano.
In 1998, she returned to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as its managing editor to oversee the sports department, among other responsibilities. She quickly hired one of her longtime friends, the late Celeste Williams, as her sports editor.
Pete Alfano also joined the staff as both a sports, metro and features writer.
Under “Ellen ‘n’ Celeste,” the Star-Telegram’s sports department won dozens of state and national awards; the Star-Telegram’s sports section under those two was routinely ranked in the top 10 best sports sections in the country in the biggest circulation category by the Associated Press Sports Editors.
Amid the slow downturn in the newspaper industry, Alfano left the Star-Telegram in 2012.
A graduate of Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri, Ellen had a son, Nicholas, and a stepson, Christopher.
Included in a career that spanned more than 30 years are scores of people whom she hired, mentored and supported. Present company included.
“She brought me to Dallas-Fort Worth. I will be forever indebted to her for taking a chance on me,” current ESPN reporter Ed Werder said.
Reeves, the former Star-Telegram sports columnist, said, “She did wonders for my career.”
Charean Williams said, “She hired me to come back to Texas and gave me a chance to cover the Dallas Cowboys, which was my dream to do. I’m forever grateful to her.”
Personally, Ellen’s professional support and encouragement is secondary to the compassion and empathy she displayed for me at a terrible time.
Like so many, we are all grateful to Ellen Alfano.