Vail Daily column: A lion in our field
My friend retired from The New York Times after a six-decade career and moved all the way to San Diego.
He loved the place and planned to enjoy the beach, the laid-back lifestyle, the whole cool Southern California thing. Finally!
He’d earned it, too. He began as a teen running errands for those guys with flasks in their desk drawers at The Toledo Blade. Eventually he worked his way to editor-in-chief.
He earned the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award for his coverage of the Vietnam War while with Newsday. Became executive editor of New York Magazine. Was managing editor of The New York Post. Had several positions including opinion editor at The New York Times.
He called The Times the apex, the gold standard, the Everest. It was the one place in America where you could practice pure journalism during a brief shining era with no pecuniary restrictions whatsoever.
He told me, probably while we were shooting hoops at a neighborhood park, about when as a new copy editor he doubted the spelling of a name of a prince in some country in the middle of Africa that lasted maybe a fortnight.
“Go find out,” his supervisor said.
So he did. The desk needed to know. Google didn’t exist. Money wasn’t an issue. They sent copy editors to learn what they could around the world, even to get some low-level prince of a banana republic’s name right.
Now that’s journalism.
We marveled, we schleps at the junior paper in San Diego, the North County Times. Close as we got to fact-finding missions was asking John. We figured he pretty much knew everything anyway.
Well, he knew everything except how to relax into that retirement he earned. His fantasy about the beach, lazy days, sunsets, fine meals, whatever? Lasted about a week.
“Please, dear God, I need a job,” he groaned to our executive editor. “Anything. Put me on the copy desk. I don’t care.” Or something like that. I wasn’t there yet.
They made him the business editor. Growling, editing, advising, reporting, railing, laughing, cajoling, gossiping, scolding, philosophizing, slipping into the currents of deadline like the rest of us — this was his element. F the beach.
Yes, as accomplished and urbane as a human could be, he also was fluent in newsroom. We were his people, even as we irritated and irked him with lazy reporting, turning in cliches instead of stories, all those errors made in haste and ignorance. So much to correct, and shape. We needed him. It was a match.
Ed Asner in character was a lamb to this lion, the real deal. But you felt like one too if he finally grudgingly nodded at you and said, “Good work, first class.”
He’s gone now, taken by a stroke a few years ago at 78, two days after what turned out to be his last column appeared. It was a tale about someone who died too soon.
Those columns. Not fair, all that talent condensed in one person. His columns were breathtaking, brilliant. The use of language, the story telling, the point. Sharp and bristling. Sharp and funny. Always sharp. The New York Times columnists are a drab, even dull lot compared to John.
I warble and screech in vain to reach for what seemed effortless for him, working words as if notes on the New York Phil’s lead violin. He still inspires me to keep reaching. Can you ask more of a friend?
Now, I gave as good as I got editing his work, too. He had pride, sure, but not an ounce of the prima donna. He knew writing is messy enough that even the best of the best benefit from the next set of eyes, ideally ones awed by neither resume nor legend.
We worked well together, if not always peaceably. Probably because we both fought for the best work. Each other if necessary. It was a high honor that he took me seriously.
He told this story about Richard Nixon. He met Nixon exactly twice, 10 years apart. The second time, Nixon, no longer president, said, “Hi John, how are you?”
Can you imagine how many people Nixon must have met? How busy his life had to be? And he remembered my friend’s name a decade later? Just like that. Easy. Now that’s a politician, John said, shaking his head in awe and maybe a little disgust.
I’m truly terrible with remembering names. It’s a real flaw. I don’t think John was great at it, either, and why we both were so amazed at Nixon’s ability in at least this one thing.
John was no politician, not in the slightest. But oh was he a journalist.
Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at email@example.com and 970-748-2920.
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