As editor, Oats was the breaker (and sometimes maker) of Queens news for much of three decades.
Oats, the Trib’s esteemed editor/teacher, garnered a reputation as a Queens gadfly – a respected journalist and a quirky advocate for the borough during his tenure. His specialty, Queens parks, specifically, Flushing Meadows–Corona Park and the beautiful expanse that can be seen from his high-rise Forest Hills apartment he shared for many years with his delightful wife Corinne.
In 1997, Oats’ reputation was about to be solidified in granite or something more earthy.
Enter Matt Higgins.
Higgins got his start at the Trib somewhere around 1996 after working in the campaign of Congressman Gary Ackerman. That’s where I met him.
Since Ackerman was a pup, regulars to this column know that I have played a role in guiding his elections. Higgins was this hard working kid with bravado — more bravado than substance back in those days.
Well, I brought the Trib young Matt Higgins to stir things up and launch our Action Desk column.
Higgins quickly earned a journalistic name for himself with our readers and the City’s municipal offices with the successes of the Action Desk. Basically, by organized, persistent calling and writing, coupled with solid follow through, Higgins worked the system and got the bureaucracy to perform for readers who were having difficulty getting the government wheels to turn without screeching. Action Desk effectively became the Queens grease with Higgins as the mechanic.
For those of you not familiar, here’s how the Action Desk works. Readers write in with a complaint about a city service. The Action Desk contacts the agency and makes sure they are doing what they are supposed to do. The column helps get potholes plugged and traffic lights installed, all while investigating the efficiency of city services. The effort this writer conceived of and launched with Higgins is still going some seven years later — see page 45 of this issue.
The pair, our friends David and Matt, had no idea of what was just around the corner for them.
Oats and Higgins and this paper stumbled across one of the biggest scoops in the history of journalism in this borough.
In early 1997, we uncovered the presence of dangerous and flaking asbestos at Terrace on the Park, the borough’s leading catering hall – a City Parks Department concession.
"Terrace," one of two remaining buildings from the 1964 World’s Fair, had become the premier affair spot for Queens. From charities to politics, from bar mitzvahs to weddings, from Mayors to celebrities, "Terrace" was the place to celebrate your event with abundant smorgasbord and first class service — and apparently, asbestos, flaking in the kitchen right above the pots.
There was shock and shockwaves that followed as the Tribune printed exclusive pictures of the unseen exposed carcinogens in "Terrace."
Oats and Higgins shared the byline of the series of stories which put pressure on the City and restaurant to remove the asbestos from the historic 1964 World’s Fair structure.
The story made headlines citywide and earned the paper several awards. The series claimed as many front pages as any story we recall — perhaps our term limit crusade shares the title.
The asbestos at Terrace story was even nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
All in all it was a shining moment for this newspaper and its dynamic duo.
But soon after reaching the zenith of Queens journalism both Tribbies left the paper for other pursuits.
Oats continued to dabble in a myriad of Queens based pursuits while continuing to write and claim his place as a local historian and an advocate for the borough through his involvement in several groups including the Queens Olympic Committee.
Following his Trib stint, Higgins was hired by Rudy Giuliani’s press office and served the administration as the Mayor’s spokesperson.
Just to give you an idea of what his job under Giuliani was like, on Sept. 11, Higgins was setting up for a press conference just a few blocks from the World Trade Center when the first tower fell.
After living to tell his story, Higgins became the chief operating officer and director of communications for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation which was responsible for selecting a memorial to the victims of Sept. 11.
It’s a job he will hold until the end of this week. On Feb. 6, Matt leaves for "greener" pastures to work for the New York Jets as their vice president for strategic planning.
Higgins talked publicly about the move to the Jets for the first time last week.
For most in the City, the announcement was a mere blip on the radar – a short item on the Post’s Page Six and a blurb in the Metro Section of the New York Times.
Here at the Trib, we realized it meant that the stage was set for the biggest showdown involving two former Tribune employees we can remember.
You see, Higgins’ major role will be campaigning for a stadium for the former Queens football team on the West Side of Manhattan.
It goes directly against the grain of Oats’ philosophics.
Matt’s former mentor, colleague and drinking buddy is the head of the Queens Olympic Committee.
For the past two years, Oats has been trying to get anyone who will listen to see that a stadium built at Willets Point for the Jets and for the 2012 Olympics is the only plan that makes sense.
Oats has already become a thorn in the side of Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff who also heads up the NYC 2012 committee.
According to NYC 2012’s plans, a key component of New York landing its Olympic bid is the stadium on the West Side.
Doctoroff is also banking on the Jets, whose lease at the Meadowlands expires in 2008, to lay out a large part of the money to build the stadium where they will also play before and after the Olympics.
However, NYC 2012 has not been receptive to the suggestion of building an Olympic stadium at Willets Point.
In fact, a 2002 New York Times article quoted Doctoroff saying of Oats’ plan, point blank, "it’s not going to happen."
And Doctoroff has maintained that a stadium on the West Side of Manhattan is the only option for the Olympic plan.
What it all means is that a face-off between Oats and Higgins is inevitable.
It will be interesting to see how things play out for these two friends, who contributed to our journalistic effort and taught and learned much from us and each other while at the Trib.
It will be especially interesting since each knows how the other thinks and each will be able to predict each other’s next move.
What happens now remains to be seen.
Being the paper of record in Queens, we are likely to be swayed and have our opinion on where a stadium should be built.
But in a situation like this whom do you root for?
Oh, and Matt, save us two in the Skybox for the Jets-Giants game.
Michael Schenkler can be