Thursday, April 30, 2015

TWO YEARS INTO RETIREMENT, THE NEWSPAPER-CAREER MEMORIES, GOOD AND BAD, STILL FLOW

As I approached this day, April 15, 2015, the second anniversary of my retirement after nearly 12 years as editor of The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, and at the end of a more than 44-year career in the newspaper business, a flood of disjointed memories has been washing over me -- many wonderful and others not so much.

Over the past two years, the thing that has surprised me most is that I haven't really missed the job nearly as much as I thought I would. This impresses me as quite odd since I always regarded newspapering as more of a way of life than just a job. It was, at least for most of my career, something that you invested yourself in even though you knew that no matter how much you loved a newspaper, it would never love you back, and that as places to work, all newspapers sucked, but many sucked much worse than others.

Before I retired, I used to frequently say the once I did step out of the business I expected to die within three months from lack of stress.

Well, here it is, two years later, and I'm still here and what remains of the business for me is my memories, weird highlights of which have been almost magically washing over me since Tuesday.

It think that what sparked my Magical Mystical Memory Tour was a photo that popped up Tuesday on my Facebook timeline under the heading (oddly enough) of "Your Memories." It was a post I had put up on April 28, 2013, two days before my retirement. The post consisted of a photo of my barren-looking office at The Monitor after I had carted off about eight to 10 boxes of my personal stuff and a cutline. Here is what I had written:

"The only personal possessions now remaining in my office at The Monitor are my Monitor coffee mug, a few packets of sweet n low and what remains in the bottom of a Coffeemate container. Oh yeah, and 11 years and nine months of mostly great memories."

And, here's the photo:



Then, several hours later on Tuesday, the wonderfully witty Michael H. Price, who had been a feature writer and reasonably renowned film critic at The Fort Worth Star-Telegram before, during and after my tenure there -- first as business editor, then assistant managing editor-news and projects and finally night managing editor -- put up a Facebook post that drew comments from a number of former Starlegram staffers, many of them also named "Mike" or "Michael."

That immediately brought to mind the fact that will I was at the Star-Telegram, I was impressed at the overabundance of Mikes in the news department. There was not only Mike Price, but also, to name just a few, Mike Perry, Mike Strickland, Mike Gerst, Mike Norman. Here a Mike, there a Mike, everywhere a Mike, Mike.

I recalled thinking the if I walked into the newsroom and screamed "MIKE," more that half of the guys would look up, including even Sports Editor Jimmy Walker, who may not have been a "Mike" but sure as hell wouldn't want to miss out on a share of anything good that might be coming the way of the Mikes.

That was the first of the disjointed memories that have been coming not so much as long, drawn out episodes, but rather as quick and sometimes, often downright weird, snapshots of a more than 44 year career of doing something I truly loved.

Here is just small fraction of the other career recollections that have been rumbling in my head since Tuesday:

In another Star-Telegram memory, I recalled a mid-April 1985 afternoon huddled in the paper's small "wire room" with Executive Editor Jack Tinsley, Assistant Executive Editor Phil Record and several others as our news service teletypes clickety clacked away while we nervously awaited word on the winners of that year's Pulitzer Prizes.

Although the winners are supposed to be secret until actually announced by the Pulitzer Board, there always seems to be leaks. Two days before, I had been informed by two "sources" that Star-Telegram Washington Correspondent Mark Thompson was to be awarded the Investigative Reporting Pulitzer for his series revealing that at least 250 U.S. service men had lost their lives due to a design flaw in Bell helicopters built in Fort Worth for the military.

I was more nervous than any of the other assembled editors because I had relayed the information from my sources to Publisher Phil Meek, who had enough faith in what I'd told him to set in motion a plan for a celebration costing thousands of dollars.

That morning, however, I got calls from both sources who regretted to inform me they had learned that the Investigative Pulitzer would go to reporters at The Philadelphia Inquirer, NOT to Thompson. I decided to not pass THAT information along, opting to be fired after the announcement rather than earlier in the day.

As it turned out, my sources were right, Thompson didn't win the Investigative Reporting Pulitzer. Instead, The Star-Telegram was awarded the 1985 Public Service Pulitzer, journalism's highest and most prestigious award. The celebration -- which might be better described as a gala with two live bands, loads of catered eats and hundreds of bottles of champagne -- went off as scheduled and I kept my job as assistant managing editor for news and projects. What's more, I was left suspecting that Phil Meek may have had better sources than mine.

Another memory that reared up was from my tenure as metro editor at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. This one from a Monday in 1978, the day after we published a Sunday tabloid special section called "North Mississippi Justice," a massive investigative undertaking spearheaded by reporter Rick Tulsky, who later -- as a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer -- won the 1987 Investigative Reporting Pulitzer. The special section provided a very detailed, in-depth look into the circumstances surrounding the unsolved murders of numerous African-American men in North Mississippi and the Ku Klux Klan's apparent involvement in many of them.

The Monday following Sunday's publication of the special section, I started getting the "how-dare-you" phone calls, lots of them, from irate white readers. All of whom were upset not about the murders, but about the fact the we had exposed the racist reasons behind their having gone unsolved for years. Finally, after probably answering at least 100 calls, I had had it. The next call was from an ignorant (there, I said it) sounding woman with a very heavy Mississippi drawl. It went something like this:

CALLER: I'm tired of this, y'all are turnin' this into nothin' but an (n-word) paper. Nothin' but stories about (n-words) and pictures of (n-words). Everywhere I look nothin' but (n-words). Y'all ain't become nothin' but a bunch of (n-word) lovers.
ME: Ma'am, sorry but I really don't care to listen to this any longer.
CALLER: Why?
ME: Well, because I'm black.
CALLER: (After a protracted pause) Oh, uhhhh...I'm sorry (Click).


I never knew whether she was sorry for what she had said, or sorry for me because she thought I was black.

That memory churned up another, somewhat related recollection, of the mind games I was sometimes forced to play with then Clarion-Ledger owners Robert Hederman Sr., who was publisher, and Thomas Hederman, who carried the title editor-in-chief. Both, though well educated (Tom even had a masters degree in journalism from Columbia University), were inveterate racists who would from time to time call me downstairs to their offices to grouse at me over the number stories and, in particular, the number photos we published regarding "minorities" engaged in something other than criminal activity. I think they liked to use the word "minorities" to pretend to themselves that they weren't really racists. Typically, I would just nod my head, say "I understand" and then go back upstairs to continue ignoring with they said.

However, after one particularly brutal downstairs session, I decide to put an end to such discussions which I knew were bogus because it was quite obvious to any objective person that the paper still ran far more stories about and photos of white people than black. So, after being drubbed while I remained silent for at least 30 minutes, I finally spoke up. "I guess what you're saying is that number stories and photos we publish dealing with white and black people should reflect the racial demographics of the city?"

Mr. Bob and Mr. Tom -- as they were referred to, in Southern fashion, by every newspaper employee -- readily agreed that that was precisely what the wanted..."to be fair." Apparently, they did not realize the Jackson's population was, at that point, somewhere between 48 and 49 percent African American.

I promised them that I would do a thorough study of the paper's story and photo coverage whites and blacks compared to the local demographics and get back to them on Monday of the following week.

That weekend, I took home two months worth of newspapers to perform an extensive story and photo count with the help of a brand new bottle of Wild Turkey 101.

First thing Monday morning I went downstairs to inform Mr. Bob and Mr. Tom of the results of my perusal of the two months of papers. They listened intently and smiled as I informed them that contrary to prior beliefs, during that period just barely 30 percent of the stories and photos the paper had published dealt primarily with black people.

I concluded my presentation saying: "It appears -- in accordance with what you told me last week that you wanted the story and photo content to be more representative of the city's demographic breakdown, which is now about 49 percent black to 51 percent white -- that we need to work harder to increase our number of stories about and photos of our black residents."

Mr. Bob quickly responded saying: "Uh, uh, no, no, that's all right. I think we just need to proceed as we have been doing."

I went back upstairs and never again heard another word from either of them regarding our percentage of white to black coverage.

Of course, when you're hit with a flood of memories, some are of embarrassing moments. During my career, one of the most embarrassing moments came on the night, in 2003, we started up the new, very expensive,"state-of-the-art" Goss press installed at The Monitor's new, more than 100,000 square-foot building.

Although neither the newspaper's then General Manager Stephan Wingert, who over saw the construction from start to finish and is now publisher, or then Publisher Olaf Frandsen had at that point ever been party to the installation and start up of a new press. I had. While I was there, new presses were installed at The Clarion-Ledger, at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and at The Morning News in Florence, S.C.

I learned from experience all three of those installations that, no matter what, when you first try to kick those new presses into high gear, SOMETHING is invariably going to go wrong. Therefore, it's usually a good idea to run them for a couple of nights putting out the paper before you make a big public announcement and invite a bunch of local dignitaries in for the GRAND start up.

I passed that information along to Stephan and Olaf, who carefully listened to what I had to say and then ignored the advice, relying instead on assurances from the still on-site Goss technicians who anticipated that things would go smoothly and glitch free right from the git go.

Boy, were they wrong.

The night -- after a large, ill-advised front-page story in that morning's paper proudly announced that the next morning's edition would be printed on the much-heralded new press -- the monster was fired up to produce the actual run of the paper for the very first time. Our beautiful new, totally computerized, state-of-the-art press room was crammed full of local muckety-mucks, one of whom was even accorded the honor of pressing the start button.

At first things went fine with the presses running at slow speed and everyone was all smiles and back slaps. But as the speed began to pick up, the web breaks started happening and the Goss techs started tinkering. It seemed like the more they tinkered, the worst things got.

As it turned out, the first edition of The Monitor, printed on that much-heralded new press didn't get delivered to readers' homes until well after 3 p.m. There wasn't a steak big enough to soothe that newspaper black eye.

Oops, told ya so.

Another, personally more embarrassing moment came while I was editor of The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., involving a political endorsement I was obliged to write for a candidate for the Lincoln Land Community College board of trustees. At the time, the newspaper was owned by now defunct Copley Newspapers, all of which were required to endorse only Republican candidates -- so much for the "liberal media" myth. Although I make no bones, particularly now, about being a lifelong Democrat and liberal, it was sometimes not too awful having to endorse some Illinois Republicans like former Congressmen Ray LaHood and his predecessor Bob Michel, both of whom were good, moderate politicians. LaHood went on to serve as President Barack Obama's first Secretary of Transportation.

However, the Republican candidate for the Lincoln Land board of trustee was not cut from the same cloth as Michel and Hood. At this point I no longer remember his name, but he was an assistant director of the state Department of Human Services.

To be honest, under most circumstances I would not have been all that upset about being force to endorse a community college board of trustees candidate who I probably wouldn't vote for on a bet because, frankly, that was an elected position I really didn't care that much about.

However, in this instance, the circumstances were anything but normal. In this case, the GOP candidate was under federal indictment for directing millions of dollars in state contracts from his department to a computer services company operated by his wife that did not properly perform the work as specified in those contracts but still collected the money. At first I spoke out against endorsing him but was finally forced to do so by SJ-R Publisher Jack Clark. It was not one of my prouder moments in journalism.

Fortunately, the candidate was convicted and went to prison before he could take his seat on the community college board of trustee.

I think ever newspaper probably gets more than it's share of callers who are mad. I don't mean readers who are angry and want to take the paper to task for something that appeared in that day's edition. I mean mad, nuts, borderline or certifiably insane. People who live their lives in some bizarre alternate universe of their own making.

For many of us working at The Louisville Courier-Journal & Times in the mid-70s, one of the most familiar telephone wackos was a woman known to us only as "Dixie." For some reason, a lot of her calls used to find their way to me. Over time, Dixie apparently decided we were pals, maybe because I usually tried to be polite and listen to her at least for a little while before saying I had to go and maybe also because I once made the mistake of giving her my name.

Dixie was never nasty or threatening. Instead, she was almost always frantic because "they" were after her because of the "secrets" only she knew. Mostly she called when she was sure that "they" were hiding under her house waiting to either grab her when she came out or were trying to saw their way up through her floor. "They" also sometimes sent her secret, threatening messages over the country music station she listened to regularly.

At the time I was getting the frequent calls from Dixie, I was the county government reporter for The Louisville Times, the now-defunct afternoon edition of the sister papers.

One afternoon when I was working feverishly to finish writing a rather complex breaking news story for our final edition I got a call from Dixie who said she was at they very moment receiving one of those radio messages from "them" and she wanted me to hear it for myself. I told her as politely as I could that I really didn't have time to listen to the message because I was trying to meet a deadline, but she would have none of my excuses. She turned the radio up full blast and put her telephone receiver down next to it.

"Please, Dixie, hang up the phone and call me later when we can talk," I screamed into my receiver. But, it was no use, she couldn't hear me over the radio. So, I hung up on her and waited a few minutes make a much need call to a source on my story, but when I did, instead of getting a ring tone, all I heard was Dixie radio still blasting away at maximum volume. This was back in the days before you got an automatic disconnect a second or so after hanging up your receiver. After picking up the phone several more times in an effort to place my critical call only to find the music still blaring, I finally moved to the desk of one of my fellow reporters who was out in the field, made my call and finished writing my story. For the rest of the day, I kept picking up my phone receiver only to find the music still playing. It wasn't until sometime after 4 p.m. that Dixie finally returned to her senses and hung up on her end. I was pissed.

The next morning, I called a police detective friend to see what I could do about Dixie. I told him, without naming her, that I was getting phone calls from a head case and related what she had done to me the day before. He asked if I felt that she was a threat. I told him no, and explained that she mainly called seeking help to protect her from the people hiding under her house waiting to harm her.

"Ah, sounds like Dixie," my detective friend said.

"Yeah, that's her name, Dixie. How did you know that," I replied.

"We get calls from her, too, coming into the Detective Bureau. She's harmless. We usually just let her talk for a few minutes and then promise that we'll send someone out to check on those guys under the house. That usually satisfies her for a while,"  my detective friend told me.

"We accord her more courtesy than we might to other crazy callers because of what she's been through," he added.

He went on to explain that Dixie had been one of the Bataan nurses who was captured by the Japanese after our besieged, beleaguered, starving and nearly out of ammunition troops finally had to surrender the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines at the start of World War II. He said that she and the other nurses were interned in prisoner of war camps in the Philippines where many of them were beaten and raped. Dixie, along with many of the other nurses, was eventually transferred to Japan where she was interned until VJ Day, he said.

"We're the battling bastard of Bataan, no mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam. No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces, no pills, no planes, no artillery pieces. And nobody gives a damn, nobody gives a damn" -- Frank Hewlett, 1942.

After that, every time I got a call from Dixie,  I treated her with renewed respect, listened for a few minutes to what she had to say and then promised I would call the police department and have them send someone to her house to scare away the men hiding under it. That always seemed to satisfy her and we'd hang up on good terms.

As I sit here now, thinking about Dixie and the dreadful memories she must have had, I'm getting depressed.

But, my recollections of her, also make me grateful for the multitude of mostly wonderful memories I have of my more than 44-year newspaper career.

-30-


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