Chauncey Bailey Project

Chauncey Bailey Project editor Mike Oliver dead at 64

To our readers:

It is with great sadness that we report the death of Mike Oliver, a key Chauncey Bailey Project editor whom we loved and respected and whose insightful leadership was invaluable throughout our work.

The Chauncey Bailey Project Team

Members of the Chauncey Bailey Project gather around Mike Oliver’s desk in the offices of the Oakland Tribune to do a final edit on a story.(Laura A. Oda/The Oakland Tribune/2008)

Members of the Chauncey Bailey Project gather around Mike Oliver’s desk in the offices of the Oakland

Tribune to do a final edit on a story.(Laura A. Oda/The Oakland Tribune/2008)

Mike Oliver, a renowned investigative reporter and editor, a prankster, music lover and sneaky good basketball player, died Monday. He was 64.

Oliver died at home with his wife of 42 years, Catherine, his high school sweetheart.

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Eight years ago Mike was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, and was given five years to live. He spent that time building awareness about it on AL.com and in his blog, My Vinyl Countdown, and raising money for research into that disease – an ugly mix of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as it was first described to him – through a three-on-three basketball tournament called Mike Madness.

He approached life, and the end of it, in much the same way he would race to the basket on a fast break at game point: with a beautiful arcing pull-up three, or a terribly advised, highly unlikely behind-the-back pass. Just for the sheer beauty of the thing.

Oliver was known professionally in Birmingham, Orlando, and California’s Bay Area for hard-hitting stories that held the powerful to account, for giving voice to those who were not often given one.

As a young reporter for the Birmingham News in the 1980s, Oliver was stunned to learn not only that rioting inmates at the then-new St Clair Correctional Facility had taken hostages and made demands, but they had asked for him by name.

The inmates demanded Coca-Cola and sandwich machines, access to typewriters, and permission to grow long hair and beards. And they asked for Oliver’s presence to monitor the negotiations. They had read him. They trusted him. And he went.

Oliver was an investigative editor at the Oakland Tribune in California when Chauncey Bailey, the editor of the nearby Oakland Post who was working on a series of damning pieces, was shot dead, execution style, by a masked man with a shotgun.

Mike joined other journalists to form the Chauncey Bailey Project, which uncovered evidence to convict the shooter and the mobster who ordered the hit and exposed a police cover-up.

Returning to the Birmingham News and AL.com, he wrote of healthcare fraud at a Birmingham non-profit that was designed to help poor people, but instead made the people who ran it rich. His work helped convict them of crimes.

“He had a certain fearlessness,” said Tom Gordon, a longtime friend and colleague. “He brought people to justice. The guy was good. He wasn’t somebody who screamed or was a big performance artist, and he was never a braggart.”

Oliver was known for his dry sense of humor. He kept it, even after his deadly diagnosis.

“When it came to news, he was serious, he was sharp, he was patient with reporters but had no time for liars,” said AL.com investigative editor Challen Stephens. “It made him easy to work with. And then, when everyone was busy dissecting some serious investigation, he’d shift into dry standup.”

Oliver prepared a standup routine, a la Steven Wright or Norm McDonald – two of his favorites – telling jokes about his condition.

“Anybody with Parkinson’s out in the audience,” he’d ask. “Go ahead, shake your hands.”

When that inevitably resulted in mortified gasps he was ready.

“C’mon. I’m dyin’ up here.”

Even in the face of death his friends remember joy, and song, and love, and the way he’d break into a thigh-slapping hambone solo even at inappropriate places – including a dive bar in Dublin that almost ended badly.

They remember him battling the war inside his brain to stand up at the afterparty of last year’s Mike Madness basketball tournament to dance, with abandon, to the Them song (not the Doors version) “Gloria,” covered by his friend Bob Blalock’s band, the Kensington’s.

They remember him slow dancing with Catherine in the basement of their Highland Park home, lost in each other and in Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.”

Gordon will remember him as a good man, a good father to daughters Hannah, Claire and Emily, and a great journalist. Mostly he will remember Oliver as “one helluva practical joker.”

Everybody has a story about Mike’s jokes. Like in 2012, when layoffs came to the Birmingham News and others papers, a young reporter began to tweet news of the layoffs. Mike called the young man on the phone, pretending to be a lawyer for the parent company demanding a cease and desist.

He knew when to stop the joke before the young man’s um um ums turned into a human resources moment.

Some of his wit is seen on the “About Me” page of his blog, as his friend Kevin Storr – a basketball buddy from the “Old Man Hoops” league they long shared – points out.

“Am I dying?” Mike wrote on that page ” Well, everyone is in line for that. I just may have to move ahead a few places in that line. I’ll keep the light on for you.”

Many people came to appreciate that blog, where Mike counted down his collection of almost 700 eclectic vinyl albums as a way to talk about his life, and his medical life sentence.

“I loved that Mike was a brutally honest reporter and writer about his fight with Lewy body dementia,” Storr said. “We all know people who are hiding what is really going on – or just hiding from what is really going on in their lives. Not Mike. He wanted to bring more attention to Lewy body dementia, and he did that by exposing exactly what he was going through. I’ve known a lot of people for a lot longer, but I feel like I know Mike better than many of them because of his openness and honesty.”

Mike did not talk about the fear of death, but the fear of losing the depth of his love for Catherine, and his daughters. And his wider family. He feared hurting them with a loss of memory he could not help, of causing them pain with the things he could not recall.

He feared a day when taking care of him would be all they would have strength to do.

Mike Oliver was my friend, and the father-in-law to my son, Ramsey. He is the other grandfather to my granddaughter Eloise, and if that baby’s perfection is evidence, he was the world’s greatest grandfather. Or one of them.

Perhaps he never accomplished his dream of dunking a basketball, but he played the game the same way he lived life. With style, and ill-advised passes, and joy. And the occasional hambone.

But do not take my word.

Read his work below. And donations may still be made here to Mike Madness. Proceeds will benefit Lewy body research.

2018

Somebody needs to tell Ted Turner his brain disease is fatal:

How the heck am I doing?

2019

Dementia Free Day: How too much information can be bad

2020

WARNING: All those with Lewy body disease, beware dangerous fainting spells:

2021

How I stopped the horrific hallucinations that threatened my sanity, my family, and my life:

2022

Rude Awakening (asking Alexa for R.E.M. and she plays “It’s the End of the World as we Know It”)

This isn’t writing, it’s typing

How to fight a fatal brain disease with vinyl records (slight return)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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