Dr. Know Remembers Cincinnati’s Original Good Doctor, Albert Pyle

Jay Gilbert reminisces on Albert Pyle, who was the first Dr. Know and Cincinnati’s go-to detective for all things weird.

I’m sorry to hear of the passing of Albert Pyle, the original Dr. Know. What advice did Mr. Pyle give you when handing off his baton? I realize you don’t do personal questions, but consider: My question is local, it’s rather inconsequential, and you know the answer. So it qualifies, right? —WHAT WAS UP, DOC

Your logic is undeniable, even though it intrudes on the Doctor’s aggrieved weeping for Mr. Pyle. In other words, you have me by the bawls. Please, do not moan! A tortured pun is surely “what Albert would have wanted.”

The process began with a simple lunch invitation. We met at Paula’s Café on East Fourth Street (another lost Cincinnati treasure), where Mr. Pyle carefully sized up his potential heir. It was probably our shared hairline that did the trick. He was forthcoming about his methods for uncovering what may appear to some as minuscule and pointless information but which he saw as essential Cincinnati. He also gave advice on the proper way to approach a source: softly. Some people, he warned, especially in government, will clam up when contacted. They fear they’re being targeted by an investigative journalist sniffing around for a scandal. You need to reassure them, he said, that the Doctor never, ever works that hard.

Did Albert Pyle establish the formal and patronizing persona of Dr. Know from the start, or did that develop over time? I guess I’m wondering how much of the character was—and under your tutelage, continues to be—a reflection of his own personality. —ALTERED EGO

Should one shudder at the accusation of being characterized as “formal and patronizing,” or might one, after careful deliberation and reflection upon the question— having come, after all, from an average reader such as yourself—deign to call it flattery? Well, let us consider…

Photographs of Mr. Pyle reveal his regular practice of wearing bow ties. This is a tell. A bow tie is as clear a cultural signifier as a Metallica T-shirt. The “formal” categorization, therefore, carries some heft. We furthermore have it on good authority that Mr. Pyle’s ties were always self-tied; a clip-on would be appropriate only at Olive Garden. Is that “patronizing?” Well. We must clearly separate, however, the Doctor’s persona on the page from the one in the flesh. Mr. Pyle was universally admired as a personable and gregarious presence, equally in touch with Homer’s Odyssey and Homer Simpson.

You didn’t really answer the question about whether Albert Pyle started this column in 2008 as the Dr. Know we know or as someone different. In its style, how does his very first column compare to the ones we see today? —NOT HERE THEN

One may begin to suspect that the Doctor has fabricated this month’s questions rather than relying on reader submissions, something that neither he nor his predecessor has ever considered. Ahem.

The column debuted in October 2008. It first addressed the typical confusion of a Cincinnati newcomer over the corporate name Fifth Third. Explaining the 1909 merger of Fifth National Bank with Third National Bank, the original Doctor (not yet referring to himself in the third person) volunteered a reason why the new name was not in numerical order: “Third Fifth sounds disastrously like someone settling into a serious binge.”

Another reader asked to settle an argument—this desk’s eternal burden—about whether the song “Hang on Sloopy” is the official anthem of Ohio. No, it’s “Beautiful Ohio.” “Hang on Sloopy” became, Mr. Pyle made clear, Ohio’s official rock song in 1985. We are the only U.S. state that’s created such a category, something he noted as “almost groovy.”

Despite Mr. Pyle’s real job as director of the downtown Mercantile Library for more than 20 years, it was your current Doctor who discovered that his former institution has our town’s oldest perpetually operating telephone number (513-621-0717; it was simply 717 in 1895). We mortals, alas, do not operate perpetually. All of us here at Cincinnati Magazine mourn the loss of Albert Pyle, comforted only by the knowledge that someone in Heaven is learning how to properly tie a bow tie.

Dr. Know is Jay Gilbert, radio personality and advertising prankster. Email him your questions about the city’s peculiarities at drknow@cincinnatimagazine.com.

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