A scared journalist turns to his mentor: Chuck Yarborough
First, I should apologize for not having written sooner. It’s no excuse, but the past 40 years have been kinda busy. I hope you weren’t holding space in The Baytown Sun for that Channelview Municipal Utility District board meeting story.
Just for the record, I went from our paper to the Galveston Daily News to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times to the Abilene Reporter-News to the Houston Chronicle and finally here, to what I hope is my last stop, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.
I suppose I should tell you some of the adventures I’ve had along the way – pretty funny stuff that ranges from near-fatal encounters with bouncing 40-foot bowling pins to standing in the pit into which Nebuchadnezzar supposedly tossed Daniel to flying with the Blue Angels to catching a Lake Erie Captains curve right in the . . . well, you know.
I will tell you those things, too, if you like. But first, I need to talk to you about something that happened the other day in Maryland that made me think of you, after all this time:
Somebody killed five of us, Preston.
When we met, you were exactly the same age I am now, 61, and you told me this would be hard, that it would have to become a passion because it would never be just a job. And you told me more people would bash us than love us.
But you never told me anyone would kill us.
When I walked through the doors of The Baytown Sun in that tiny suburb of Houston in 1978, I had two thoughts. The first was that I was working for a real daily newspaper, even if our circulation was only about 20,000. The second – and I didn’t realize until just a few days ago how prophetic and ironic it might be – was how much the building resembled a funeral home.
I fell in love with the profession because of you, and that’s the truth. You were THE Preston L. Pendergrass, Tennessee native, World War II veteran and a former Cleveland, Tennessee, reporter who broke into the business as a cub reporter with an interview of the judge in the Scopes Monkey Trial on the anniversary of that legendary battle between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan.
You told that story a time or two, and like most young kids, I’m sure I rolled my eyes. But it sank in, like your lessons on grammar, AP style and story organization. The one that I still haven’t mastered is what you always used to tell me when I overwrote: “The ’30′ needs to be moved up.″
For the uninitiated, “30” was how old-school journalists ended a piece.
When I started at The Sun, we had only recently upgraded to IBM Selectrics from old Royal manual typewriters. We had to write on special paper that you edited with a red felt-tip pen. I don’t remember my first story for you, but I DO recall that when you were done with it, it looked like it’d gone 10 blood-soaked rounds with Lizzie Borden’s ax.
You handed it back to me, and you must’ve seen my crestfallen face.
“Not bad,″ you said. And then, just so I wouldn’t get complacent, you followed it with, “I’m going to make a reporter out of you if it kills you!″
It didn’t, but there were times I thought it might. And I think the last 40 years are proof that you did what you set out to do . . . for me and scores of other wannabes who passed through the doors at The Sun. And though you “allegedly” died in 1992, you’re still doing it.
One lesson was about newspapers and nut jobs. Apparently, we’ve attracted them since Ben Franklin’s first edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729. You claimed you got that straight from Ben himself, but I THINK you were kidding.
So, nut jobs, crazy letters to the editor, angry callers and today’s equivalent – anonymous commenters – have always been newspaper constants.
But not outright murder.
Oh, we had our share of excitement in Baytown. Remember the fire the kids who broke into the paper one night set on my desk? They told the cops “there was just soooooo much paper.″ We had to take up temporary residence in a vacant building outside of town, so in true newspaper smart-ass tradition, we called it “The Best Little Warehouse in Texas.″
Then there was the time someone sugared the gas tank in my then-wife’s MG Midget in the paper’s parking lot. Or Liz Cruthirds having her first epileptic seizure while writing up one day’s police reports and her deadpanning, “I had a fit over that story″ in the ambulance when she came out of it.
Or the time when I had an accident on the way to cover a political speech, got the cops to take me to it after the remains of my truck were towed away, and then came back to the office that night to take high school football agate, only to be told by publisher Leon Brown “We’re not paying″ while blood was still dripping down my leg.
None of us liked Leon, who was a shoe salesman before he married the daughter of the previous publisher.
But then there was you – and you were what newspapers were all about. Sure, I learned style and writing from you. Even more, I learned compassion.
I had a wife and a new baby. I was having to pay off a wrecked truck and never could get the MG fixed. I made $200 a week, and qualified for Section 8 housing and food stamps . . . and you knew it.
I will never forget the day you walked in and dropped a bunch of dress shirts onto “sooooo much paper” on my desk. They were still in shrink wrap, with the pins and paper collar stays and JC Penney price tags.
“Here,″ you said. “These don’t fit me anymore.″
Some idiot killed five people who cared like you, Preston, five journalists who put others ahead of themselves.
We newbies came out of school knowing the sacred five W’s that describe “who″ is in the story, “what″ it’s about, “when” it happened and “where″ it occurred. But you taught me that the last W was the most important: “Why” did it happen?
If the angels can get you some stationery (see, that spelling lesson took, too!) ,can you write and tell me?
Tell me why.
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