I recognized the face immediately when it popped up on my Facebook page, a mom smiling between her two daughters.
We’ve been friends on social media for … well, since the advent of people telling journalists that social media just might be a good way to prop up the work life. Oh, say, a decade on my part. I’ve commented about special events down there in Atlanta for Michelle Hiskey, a writer of much note for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in print and online, staffer first and then other ways. I know she’s kept an eye on me, too, from her comments about stories, and of concern around my layoff from the big daily here in Syracuse a couple of years ago.
But this post was really something special. It alerted me of a story on the VOX Atlanta site about her. Hiskey has volunteered at the organization with the mission to help her city’s teens learn how to better communicate through writing for a couple of decades, and so they decided to write about her. And up top, she recalls how as a 15-year-old, she walked into the office of The Prince George’s Journal newspaper near her suburban Maryland home and met the sports editor.
That would have been me. There I was, her first teen writing mentor, as the story says. Her quote in the story describes it so well:
“He initially struck me as this wizened Yoda-like character. Actually, he was maybe all of 21 himself, fresh from the University of Maryland. But he taught me how to do the job and he believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself or my abilities.”
Seriously correct. Well, the Yoda part is her judgment call.
Thank you, Michelle. For having the smarts and confidence to come into the office that spring of 1979, for listening so well and working so hard, for giving me the honor of that mention on the VOX Atlanta site all these years later and making sure that I saw it with the Facebook tag. You were special then, and you are obviously even more special now.
And so I thought back …
That was quite the four years in my life, working at The Prince George’s Journal from May 1979 to August 1983. I interviewed for the sports editor’s job while wrapping up the final tasks at the University of Maryland in College Park and working part-time at the Washington Post. It was a twice-a-week suburban paper that my WaPo mentor, high school desk editor and part-timer honcho Michael Trilling (RIP), told me would make a fantastic first full-time landing place. I apparently nailed the session with editor-in-chief Lee Ewing, because he called me the day before graduation and asked me if I could start the day after graduation.
I was the only full-timer in the sports department. Ewing had also hired as new assistant sports editor, at 20 hour per week, my fellow U of M graduate George Van Daniker. The previous editor, Jon Pessah, was leaving for the daily Washington Star, but would stay one day to lecture us in the procedures to fill the Tuesday and Friday sports sections that covered the activities of all the sports of all the high schools in Prince George’s County, as well as the teams at PG Community College and features about local athletes that went on to play at UM. The Journal’s features editor, Phil Jacobs, also was a former sports editor. That was a comforting news.
Ewing and Managing Editor Don Beaupre would oversee his eager new sports managers. We’d report and write, and edit each other’s copy. I’d lay out the sections. And we’d be able to use freelance part-timers, within a budget, not a lot of money per story. Some of these writers were in place. We were welcome to hire our own.
Enter Michelle, who turned out to be a star her remaining high school years, and I’m not talking about the fact that she was a really good golfer on her Northwestern High School squad. Her writing was fantastic. She took every editing change to heart. A lead is like telling a little story to your friend, I said, and she got it right away. We were so sad to see her graduate and leave to attend Duke University. Duke! Maryland’s ACC rival! No. We were proud. I remember dressing up in my shirt and tie and jacket and going to her graduation party at her house and meeting her parents and wishing her well and giving her an Associated Press stylebook wrapped in the latest edition of The PG Journal as a going-away gift.
And Michelle went on to a great career at Duke, and much newspaper success.
Mark Stewart came from rival High Point High School, and he would come in and write a game story in what seemed like a blur. Seriously, the words flew from the young man’s fingers. He was the fastest writer I ever saw, except for … me. His copy was clean, too. Cleaner than mine, I’ll now admit. Clunky keying on the Selectric back then.
He graduated onto U of M, and I kept him on my radar. As assistant sports editor at The Syracuse Post-Standard, I endorsed him as a summer intern to my boss, sports editor Tom Boll. I remember how Mark impressed managing editor Mike Connor when he was the only reporter to get an interview with the winner of that summer’s Syracuse PGA Seniors Tournament because he jumped into the courtesy van and rode with the pressed-for-time champ to the airport. The last I heard, Mark was a sports reporter for the Milwaukee daily.
We hired Dave Fields, a spunky young guy whose father Tom “Colonel” Fields ran the Maryland Educational Foundation, the primary fund-raising arm for U of M athletics. Dave loved to hang out with George and I when we got done at the office and headed to the local bars, another newsroom tradition. Dave would carry a Dixie cup for which to aim the juices from his chewing tobacco. He graduated from U of M to Quantico, to follow The Colonel into the Marines. Semper Fi!
A year or so into our regime, the afternoon delivery Washington Star folded. We did not see this as a warning sign of things to come for our industry but an opportunity for ourselves. Jon Pessah went on to Newsday, my Long Island favorite daily. The PG Journal grew to Monday-through-Friday, as part of The Journal Newspapers chain that surrounded D.C., to step into that void. George was elevated to full-time, and we combed resumes and hired two full-time reporters. One of our hires was Jack Carey, a great friend who went on to become a notable sports writer for USA Today. Another was Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, who became first the sports editor of the Orange County Register and then of the Washington Post.
In the summer of 1983, my fellow 1979 U of M journalism grads and campus daily The Diamondback mates Tom Baden and Mark Hass gave me a call. They were rising star editors of the morning paper in Syracuse, with double the circulation of The PG Journal. They knew I was a New Yorker, and had transferred to Maryland from nearby SUNY Morrisville. They had that assistant sports editor’s position open.
That’s the way the game worked. I jumped. George got my job at The PG Journal.
Before I moved, I had stood up for George in his wedding to his beautiful wife Laura. After I moved, he stood up for me at my first wedding. By then I was sports editor, and he was assistant sports editor of his hometown evening Baltimore News-American. (After George left, The Journal Newspapers were sold by parent company Army Times Publishing — whose editor was Lee Ewing. The Journals ran valiantly for years, but then folded.) The Baltimore News-American folded, but George was wisely scooped up by its rival morning Baltimore Sun. But a half-decade ago, he was laid off from his assistant sports editor’s position. After a hard battle, he’s the assignment editor for a TV station in Washington, D.C. Yes, we trade emails.
My wheels stopped spinning professionally, save for my switch from sports editor to music writer and critic in 1991. I loved living in the Syracuse area, the small city conveniences combined with the big city sports and arts. And, oh, how I loved that damn newspaper and all the people who had also decided to stay there who surrounded me.
When and how was the last time you were taken back in memories by a social media tag? What are your favorite memories of a past job, and why? Can you draw a tree from people you worked with in the past, and if so, how high does it climb?