At the end of the syndicated News of the Weird column on September 9 was some sad news.
“It is with great sadness that we share the news of Chuck Shepherd’s death on Thursday, Sept. 8,” the note at the bottom said. “Chuck was the originator of News of the Weird in 1988; he stopped writing the column in 2017. His great wit and eye for the “weird” made the column a huge success and a favorite among newspaper readers. Andrews McMeel Syndication is proud to have worked with Chuck for so many years.”
News of the Weird was a touchstone for me as a kid. I read it every week, cut it out of the paper, and even showed it to friends at school. The column was as simple as it sounds: It just collected weird news items and put them in digest form. And because we live in a weird world, the column was never short on material.
There were certain bits that would appear again and again: Funny crime stories involving bumbling criminals. The distinctive phrase “a naked man claiming to be Jesus Christ,” which I remember appearing in the column more than once. And while many, many venues over the years have collected funny stories about unusual objects being removed from people’s butts, I know for a fact that News of the Weird was the first place I ever read about that. Its humor had a great appeal, I must say, to my 12-year-old self.
at some point, I think I realized that I have absolutely no idea who Chuck Shepherd was
The franchise later spawned several books, all of which I devoured, and certainly informed my career as a journalist. I’m now in my fifth year of writing a biweekly digest column about unusual crime stories involving Apple products, one that probably wouldn’t exist without News of the Weird.
For a time, there was a comedy duo called Hawk and Wayne, who performed an improv comedy bit on stage that was inspired by News of the Weird (sadly, no video footage appears to exist of it).
Shepherd retired from writing the column in 2017, thereby missing out on what may be the weirdest era that has ever been. But at some point, I think I realized that I have absolutely no idea who Chuck Shepherd was. I had no idea, for that matter, if he was a real person, a pseudonym, or possibly a shared byline by a group of writers who produced the column. If Shepherd had a body of writing work outside of the NOTW franchise, I was unaware of it. The column has run un-bylined for the post-Shepherd era.
“The reason for retiring is that I am simply exhausted, i.e., so many stories to process, slower-firing synapses with which to process them,” he wrote. “In fact, my synapses don’t so much “fire” these days as they kinda “lurch.”
In his final column in 2017, Shepherd shared some personal background. He had “worked for the feds in the 1970s in Washington, D.C,” and often taped “weird” news clippings to his door. Soon, he began clipping them, collecting them, and sending them to friends, in the style of a zine.
Later, that turned into a syndicated column that lasted for 30 years and straddled the analog and digital eras.
“Chuck Shepherd has worn many hats in his journey to becoming America’s acknowledged wizard of weird. He holds degrees from three of our finest institutions of higher learning: a B.S.. from the University of Texas at Austin, a J.D.. from American University, and an M.B.A.. from George Washington University,” the bio said.
“Among the jobs he has held are business school and journalism law professor, government bureaucrat and White House wonk, trade journal editor, practicing attorney, basketball referee and NBA statistician, night club revue producer and radio operator for the U.S.. Air Force, including a 362-day/4-hour/19-minute tour in the Republic of Vietnam.”
Did Shepherd work in the White House? I’d love to know under which president, some of whom were certainly weirder than others.
“Fortunately, I (thanks to Universal Press Syndicate) had quite a few clients who had become accustomed to having News of the Weird in their pages, and I continued to make a nice living off of it (and would have longer)–except I ran out of brain cells and now “retire” at age 72 . . . to live in Florida, where I aspire, of course, to keep out of the way of the many left-tail’ers who live here–avoiding them long enough to proudly depart this life on the very day that the Atlantic and the Gulf swallow the state! Yes!”
Following Shepherd’s death, I saw no obituary in any newspaper and no mention in the media aside from the note in the News of the Weird column (it is possible, in fact, that “Chuck Shepherd” wasn’t his real name, especially if he had a second career as an official in the Nixon, Ford or Carter Administration). At any rate, the author of the official Weird Universe blog stated that “I am honored beyond belief to have counted Chuck as a friend for nearly 40 years. His contributions to culture were immense.”
Chuck Shepherd deserves our gratitude, and mine personally, for delivering solid laughs for 3 or 4 minutes each week. Stay weird, Chuck.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.