At Large: An accidental newspaper life

At Large: An accidental newspaper life

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This is the 807th and last weekly At Large column I will write. The series began in November of 1998, and I haven’t missed a deadline since. All by itself, that’s something to be proud of, I suppose. But actually, it was never my plan to begin the column, and I certainly never imagined I’d rumble on for more than 15 years. Figuring that I’d have to say something at least mildly interesting and certainly true in this final installment, I’ve been thinking lately about my lack of a plan, not just for the column, but for all the years I’ve logged as a newspaper writer, editor, columnist, and owner. I didn’t chart a course for any of it. It was all an accident — delightful, as it turned out, but unimagined and unplanned.

James Reston gave me a job as a feature writer at the Vineyard Gazette in 1972, after someone brought to his attention a story I’d written about living on my little boat with a big dog. A little while later, the woman I worked for left for a bigger, daily publication and a book writing career, and I became the managing editor. The learning curve was steep, but as luck would have it — and there is so much luck bearing on this tale — besides Reston, I worked under the guiding wisdom of Henry Beetle Hough, the Gazette’s hallowed editor, and Bill Caldwell, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary during his career as a columnist at the Record of Hackensack, New Jersey.

Henry’s reputation has over time parted ways with the workaday reality of this gentle but formidable man. He was not a summer visitor. His paper was not conceived as a postcard to summer folk who lived their lives elsewhere for most of the year, hankering all the while for their Vineyard vacation houses. He was a fully committed year-round Vineyarder, a member of the regional school committee, a bank director, the one who, with me, called the funeral directors — there were two in those days — early on Friday mornings to see if they had “anything for us” before the press began rumbling. And, he was the one who sat at the Linotype machine to set the late obituary in type. He meant his newspaper to be a tool for Islanders first, and then for others who loved the place and its land — and seascapes as he did.

Bill Caldwell taught originality and impeccable prose. His copy, which, in an odd and ironic twist, came to me for editing, though it needed none. No X-outs, no punctuation, spelling, or construction errors. Utterly perfect in every respect when he yanked it out of his typewriter and brought it to me.

Reston, the owner and publisher, whose archbishop-like presence led the great and powerful in the nation’s Capitol to genuflect, taught that beginning life as a sports writer and indulging a taste for flavorful sports metaphors and workmanlike, colloquial prose could make a columnist’s analysis of Washington politics and international diplomacy pleasurable and instructive to readers. He also taught newspaper office politics — a fervid, constant pastime in this business — at which he was clever and subtle.

In 1980, I left the Gazette, and it turned out that raising cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, hay, feed and sweet corn was next for me. But, six years later, I had a call from the founders of The Times and an offer. Five years after that, Molly and I bought the paper, and a few years after that, we met Barbara and Peter Oberfest, because our children went to the Vineyard Montessori School together. We and they formed a durable and successful two decades long partnership.

This column wasn’t my idea either. As I’ve told you on other occasions in this space, I began it at Molly’s suggestion. I had been writing a weekly editorial for several years before that — the one across the way on the Editorial page this morning is mine, another and final effort to get you to see things my way — but Molly said back in 1998 they often sounded bossy, and the subjects were boring. Well, no arguing with that. “Why don’t you write something more varied and occasionally fun,” she said. “You don’t want readers to think you’re a bossy, boring person.” (In the end, her hopes may have exceeded my grasp.)

But, as so much else over these many years has been, it was fun, and I enjoyed the unusual and enviable freedom to write what I liked on whatever topic I liked. Best of all, many of you were kind enough to say you enjoyed at least some of them. You stopped me in the market or the drug store or on the ferry to tell me so. On the other hand, some of you objected. A very nice Chilmark woman clipped a copy of one of the columns and mailed it to me with red pencil corrections to nearly every comma, capitalization, and word choice I had used. I’m sure she intended to be constructive, and she certainly was a diligent reader.

Her fading rewrite, pinned to the wall in my office, reappeared the other day as I took down the photos and cards I’d saved over all these years, including the bumper sticker someone gave me that said “MVTimes: Hateful Journalism Every Thursday.”

My colleagues over all these years have been numerous and varied. A few came and stayed. One preceded me on The Times, and she and one or two others have been with me for almost a quarter of a century — excellent, committed people of integrity and, yes, durability. There were tough times as well as triumphs. The ones who came and went quickly left their indelible marks too — the young reporter who, in interviewing for the job, failed to mention that he was dyslexic; the theater reviewer who, inflamed with artistic integrity that brooked no clumsy amateur performances, lumbered the grade school kids acting in the school play; the giggling summer interns who found most of their stories at the beach; the section editor who never met a deadline she couldn’t miss; the other one whose only skill was meeting deadlines; the California website geniuses who built a site that drained our treasury, exhausted our patience, and vanished, leaving us face to face with the fact that we were fools and had been taken to the cleaners.

Today, this happy accident has run its course. Peter and Barbara will navigate the next leg of The Times trip. Molly and I wish them and all of The Times folk great fun, accidental or otherwise. Newspapers by nature are carried along daily in the bouillabaisse of human events: births, deaths, tragedies, triumphs, fire, flood, politics, arguments, crabbiness, euphoria. We are exposed to it all. It’s the job, and thanks to you — readers, customers, newsmakers, colleagues, neighbors, friends, critics — it has been a terrific job to have. There is always smiling promise and great opportunity for someone like me — especially in your neighborly, encouraging, indulgent, and enthusiastic company.

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Comments

  1. Doug, I’m fairly sure that, old-schooler that you are, you are not familiar with the game of Googlewhacking. But as a logophile, you might find it worth looking up on some rainy afternoon and trying in the course of what I hope will be a long and enjoyable retirement.

    After savoring this column I googled the phrase, “bouillabaisse of human events,” and was completely unsurprised to find that according to the most powerful search engine in the history of civilization, your column contains the only iteration on record.

    Selfishly, I’ll miss this sort of thing. But I’ll grant that 807 “At Larges” is enough, and I know that hundreds of other Times readers would join me in wishing you all the best.

  2. Doug, the best of luck to you and your family. As Bill Caldwell’s
    great-niece (I was only seven when he passed), it is always an honor to
    see his name mentioned in homage. Thank-you for your time with the paper, and all the wonderful columns I’ve read over the years (summer Vineyard visits are a yearly tradition). It’s a joy to see quality writing- my uncle would be proud.
    -Kristen Caldwell