I was at a bit of a loss about what to talk about when I was invited recently to speak at the Palo Alto Rotary Club following my Jan. 31 retirement as Palo Alto Weekly editor.
There have been thousands of stories, columns, editorials and adventures over my five decades of being a full- or part-time journalist. Pressed for a topic to meet a newsletter/announcement deadline, I blurted out: "OK. I'll talk about the Top 10 news stories I've covered."
Easier said than done. I began wishing I'd said "Top Three." For days, as last Monday's talk drew closer, the term "Top 10" cycled through my brain. I jotted notes, winnowed topics, compared interest, significance, and how I personally felt about the story. This was MY Top 10, after all.
At last I opened my laptop and began putting things down. But first I had to define "story," which can be anything from a single article to a continuing topic that encompasses many articles, columns, even editorials. Then I had to find a way to present all these stories within the allocated 30 minutes allocated. I'll hustle through some, I thought, so I have more room for the big Top Three -- also easier said than done. To keep myself on time, I turned to PowerPoint.
So here they are, in three parts -- working up to Number One as they do on TV:
Number 10 is a sad one of more than a half century ago, but it has echoes as timely as today's news. I was editor of the El Gato student newspaper at Los Gatos High School in 1957, under a great teacher/adviser, Elizabeth Girdler. A young woman, Connie, ran her car into a tree between Los Gatos and Saratoga at 85 miles an hour at 6:30 a.m. in her flannel nightdress. It was the same tree that killed a young man, also a fellow student, a year earlier in what was most likely a simple crash due to speeding and a slight dip in the roadway.
Connie had just been rejected for a part in the senior play. Two aspects made this a special story: A paparazzi-like group of journalists cornered the distraught father. One shoved a tape recorder in his face and asked why he thought she had done it. The father mumbled something about there perhaps being "a James Dean cult" at the school, as Dean's death was still recent.
The media pounced. With no effort whatsoever to check out his fantasy of grief, Connie's yearbook photo showed up on front pages nationally and in Europe with variants of the headline: "James Dean cult at Los Gatos High School." I was deeply angered at this act of irresponsible, incompetent reporting. It has stayed with me as a core guideline of responsible professionalism ever since. I'm still mad.
The second aspect was that we followed up on the story. We checked the cast lists of the senior play, the junior play, the sophomore skits and the freshman frolics over four years and found that most of the on-stage parts went essentially to the same group of kids, a kind of "drama clique" that had shut Connie out. We added up the cost of the drama program, printed an article, followed with an editorial that, as I recall, said a program that cost that much should be broader than benefiting a "handful of teacher's pets."
I soon had my first (of more than a few) meetings with the school principal, and very nice man named Fred Canrinus. His daughter 20 or so years later told me that he "followed your career" when I was still at the Palo Alto Times in the late 1970s.
For Number 9, I chose a different kind of story: "My First Newspaper War."
Desperate for a summer job between my junior and senior years at San Jose State, I jumped at a job Professor Lamar Mackey called me about on a Thursday morning. A publisher, he said, was desperately seeking an editor for a chain of weeklies in West Fresno County: the Mendota News, Firebaugh News and San Joaquin/ Tranquility News -- starting Friday morning. No way. Had a date Friday night.
But I pulled into Mendota before 8 a.m. Saturday morning, passed the scruffy office three times before finding it, and started the hardest 2 1/2 months of my life putting out three weeklies in an office with no air conditioning, a young publisher and his family, including his irascible 78-year-old father (a retired South San Francisco weekly publisher), a printer and a pressman younger than my 21 years and a series of drunken LinoType operators.
Yet the real story was how we put a rival publisher, a 20-year veteran of the Oakland Tribune, out of business after he purchased the Firebaugh Journal to the north. He had come into the Mendota News office when my publisher bought the chain, refused to shake hands, declared "This area's not big enough for the both of us," and stalked out. A jerk, in other words.
Soon after I returned to San Jose State I heard he turned the Journal back to the old publisher, giving up. I thought a lot about how a rank beginner was able to outmaneuver a veteran journalist who knew about everything -- and wasn't shy about telling everyone. My take-home lesson was that he made the locals feel small and "hicks," while my ignorant questions about simple zoning matters made them feel bigger and better.
Journalists should never let their heads outgrow their hat sizes.
My Number 8 story was "The First Manned Flight to Mars," while based in Mountain View for the Palo Alto Times in the mid-1960s. Part of my beat was Moffett Field and NASA, including Hangar One, science, a trip to Florida to watch the first solid-fuel rocket-assist launch and a five-part, detailed series on "The First Manned Flight to Mars." It never happened, of course. But it COULD have happened, back in the 1980s, I believe, according to the calculations of one scientist/mathematician.
The Mars-landing story was picked up worldwide by Associated Press and put the scientist who figured out how it could be done on the map, I was told later. "You really made his career," another NASA scientist told me.
Continued Friday, March 11, same place.