Des Moines Register Writer Rob Borsellino

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Rob Borsellino, a sardonic, tough-edged columnist for the Des Moines Register who wrote of his struggles with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, died of the disease May 27 at the Taylor House hospice in Des Moines. He was 56.

Through his columns, testimony on Capitol Hill and appearances on television, Mr. Borsellino became nationally known for drawing attention to the degenerative nerve disorder, also called Lou Gehrig's disease. He continued to write his newspaper column until three weeks before his death, typing with one finger.

Even before his disease was diagnosed, Mr. Borsellino was one of the most popular, and most vilified, people in Iowa. His personal style -- he was rail-thin, dressed in black, never wore a tie and spoke in the streetwise accents of his native Bronx, N.Y. -- made him an exotic character in the heart of the Corn Belt as well as a local celebrity. His sharply worded commentary, which often expressed a liberal perspective on politics and the plight of the dispossessed, sometimes helped shape statewide elections.

"He had a very special voice and reflected the state and its people in a way we hadn't seen before," said Mary P. Stier, president and publisher of the Register. "And we're better for it."

In February 2005, several months after his ALS diagnosis, Mr. Borsellino revealed in his column that he had the incurable disease. He eventually lost the ability to speak and had to be fed through a tube, but his popularity only grew. Strangers sent money, anonymously paid for his family's meals at restaurants and openly prayed for his recovery. Two weeks ago, he was presented the ALS Association's Voice of Courage Award.

Last month, Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard headlined a benefit concert in Des Moines in Mr. Borsellino's honor, raising nearly $100,000 for ALS. In a statement read by his son, Mr. Borsellino wryly departed from Gehrig's famous "luckiest man on the face of the earth" comment, when ALS forced him to retire from baseball.

"Tonight," Mr. Borsellino wrote, "I consider myself the unluckiest SOB on the face the earth."

Robert J. Borsellino was born in New York and was 6 when his father died. He grew up in a public housing project in the Bronx, and, according to his high school yearbook, his ambitions were "to be a musician and to meet Bob Dylan."

His first wife, Grammy-winning musician Cindy Cashdollar, actually did play with Dylan, but not until after she and Mr. Borsellino were divorced.

He graduated from the State University of New York at New Paltz and worked in radio before beginning his newspaper career in 1976 in Woodstock, N.Y. During the early 1980s, he was editor of the Kingston Daily Freeman in New York, where he met his future wife, Rekha Basu. He also worked for Newsday in New York and the Albany Times Union, where he was the New York state Capitol bureau chief.

In 1993, two years after his wife had joined the Register as an editorial writer and later a columnist, he went to Des Moines. When Mr. Borsellino was given a column in 1998, he brought a sarcastic, big-city style to the job.

"In spite of themselves, people found themselves addicted to his column," his wife said yesterday. "He developed a tremendous following."

In 1998, he wrote a critical column about Republican gubernatorial candidate James Ross Lightfoot, who quickly lost a substantial lead in the polls. The column was widely considered a decisive factor in the victory of Iowa's current governor, Tom Vilsack (D).

In January 2001, Mr. Borsellino and his wife left Iowa for the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Less than a year later, realizing how much they missed Iowa, they moved back.

Mr. Borsellino knew how much he had been affected by Iowa's civil ways, he wrote, when he realized it had been two years since he'd given anyone what he called the single-digit "Italian salute."

Whether strolling the halls of the state Capitol or visiting homeless shelters, he reveled in his public role, and he and his wife were called "one of Iowa's most elite power couples" by the Chicago Tribune. A collection of Mr. Borsellino's columns, "So I'm Talkin' to This Guy . . . ," was published last year.

Besides his wife of 20 years, survivors include their two sons, Raj and Romen Borsellino, all of Des Moines; and his mother, Josephine Borsellino of the Bronx.

Mr. Borsellino once wrote of how his idol, Dylan, brushed him off at their then-only meeting and refused to shake his hand. Last month at the benefit concert, Mr. Borsellino was taken backstage, where Dylan gave him a harmonica and a copy of his autobiography -- and shook his hand.

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