Glenn Laxton, a remembrance

By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

One of the last e-mails I received from Glenn Laxton opened with the salutation “Hi-Yo Silver.” It was signed “Chief Full Brain.” This was so typical of my high school cohort and longtime friend. Glenn was a contributor to just about every issue of the former Your Smithfield Magazine, which Ron Scopelliti and I published together for nine years. Glenn continued writing for The Smithfield Times until his death last month.

In the public’s collective mind he is best known for his more than 40-year career in radio and television, where he won an Emmy award and numerous accolades, interviewing senators, governors, sages, ordinary citizens, the notorious and the obscure, as well as the famous and the infamous.

In 1982 he covered the Claus Von Bulow trial in Newport live as the lead reporter for WPRI Channel 12. He also broadcast to a national audience on CNN every day for the duration of the trial. His work earned him an Emmy. Over his career he won many accolades, including an award for his magazine writing that he said meant as much to him as any.

While still at Hope High School in Providence he was already showing signs of the many-faceted personality that would distinguish him professionally, socially, and among those who knew and loved him. Almost disarmingly reticent on first meeting, he was affable and cordial, but reserved, allowing deference and humor to be his calling card, rather than the self-importance and egotism that is often displayed by those of lesser achievement. He genuinely liked people and wasn’t afraid to show it; in fact he couldn’t repress it.

At Hope we were both young men from suburban, semi-rural communities that had yet to build their own high schools, he from Lincoln, I from Smithfield. We had that in common, and we both loved sports. I played hockey. He favored baseball and was a boxing fan. He was also a lifelong fan of the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, corresponding with Stan Laurel from age 11, becoming an expert on the pair’s work, and taking part in fan conventions and the like through much of his life.

Glenn might have been best remembered in high school, though, for his leading role in the senior play, a comedy called It Happened in May. A photo from the play in the yearbook shows him shouting into a telephone, an image that evokes memories of the deep, commanding voice, already in evidence, a tool that would later distinguish him from the pack in his broadcasting career. It was his instrument, and he learned how to use it to great effect in the various avenues he pursued, including acting in films, singing with the a capella doo-wop group The Pink Tuxedos, and reading from his own work at book signing events.

He was the writer of Hidden History of Rhode Island: Not to Be Forgotten Tales of the Ocean State, and in addition he co-authored Rhode Island: A Genial History with Paul Eno. Glenn also recently completed his third book. He was brought together with Eno by Al Klyberg, the former Executive Director of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

“Glenn often walked through old cemeteries, taking cues about interesting people from their epitaphs. Combined with his many years of enthusiastic and dogged research, this gave him stories I had never heard of. Glenn hadn’t yet retired from Channel 12, but he quickly agreed to collaborate with me on a book, which became “Rhode Island: A Genial History,” Eno recounts.

“As a writer I like to do things my way, and I had never before agreed to collaborate with another writer. But Glenn was easy-going and wonderful to work with. Soon after we began, I observed: ‘Glenn, are you really a reporter? You’re too nice.’”

He certainly was that; nice and also endearing, albeit a little impish. He loved to give people nicknames. His wife Linda was Lindy-Mae. I was The La or Swami Sasso or sometimes Sir Laurence of Smithfield. His son Adam tells of how his Dad would send him e-mails with unusual but plausible-sounding sobriquets. Adam would respond in kind to these practical jokes, but the ever-inventive and waggish Glenn actually fooled his son a few times into believing he was someone else.

Glenn played the piano and one of his idols was Jerry Lee Lewis. At his wedding to Linda he entertained the guests at the reception by playing an enthusiastic rendition of “Great Balls of Fire” complete with his foot on the keyboard in homage to his hero. Photos of him with “The Killer” (Lewis’ nickname) were among his proud possessions.

The music of the 1950s and 60s was a true passion of his. Once at a live doo-wop concert in Providence that we attended together several years ago with other high school alumni and members of his wife’s family, I learned just how deep his love of the music went. During intermission, Glenn and Danny Vargas, one of our classmates from Hope, were challenging each other with questions about groups of the era. Neither could stump the other. They not only knew all the singers and which parts they sang; they knew their record labels, and information like the year of release, the producers, the studio musicians and other minutiae. It was kind of breath-taking.

Glenn consumed life’s offerings with gusto. There was no denying that he loved good food. He would spontaneously call me up suggesting we and our mates get together immediately for a spur of the moment dinner at a local restaurant, and half an hour later the four of us would be enjoying a meal we hadn’t anticipated.

Once he and I were heading to an assignment for the magazine with him behind the wheel. Without warning, he suddenly swerved into a small shopping center and lurched to a stop. Leaving the motor running, he jumped out of the car and dashed into a take-out place that specialized in chicken legs to go. “You’ve got to try these drumsticks. They’re great,” he called as he hurried into the shop. In a flash he was back with two legs that looked big enough to have come from a rooster on steroids. He passed one to me and tucked into the other one, a big, contented smile on his face. I followed suit. He was right. The chicken was delectable.

Toward the end of his career at Channel 12, Glenn created a feature called “Not to Be Forgotten” which was dedicated to reporting on little known historical events or the notable actions of people who had slipped out of view until he lifted them up from obscurity. It was very popular.

More than once it was cited in the eulogies at his funeral, its title offering a perfect metaphor for his life. For sure, Glenn Laxton is someone not to be forgotten.