Forty years ago, I figured on April 16, 1979, that The Item, my hometown paper, might be but one stop along the way to — if I dare sound a note of conceit — greatness.
Forty years later, I am well into the back nine and the 19th hole looms on the horizon.
Wednesday, my colleagues marked the occasion of my 40th year of employment at The Item with a pizza luncheon and I was asked by those around me to highlight certain aspects of my career. I have to admit that for a guy so used to putting his opinion out there, torpedoes be damned, being the center of attention can make me nervous and a little tongue-tied.
But it turned into a nice conversation, and I’d like to recount some of it here.
My most memorable story with which I was involved happened only 2½ years after I got here: the Second Great Lynn Fire on Nov. 28, 1981. I was the editor on duty. Bill Kettinger, one of two reporters, and I showed up at exactly the same time (2 a.m.) and saw flames shooting out of a fully-engulfed old shoe factory. When we got upstairs to the second floor, and were able to get a better look. It wasn’t just one building involved. There were several, and it was spreading like, well, wildfire. It fit the classic definition of “conflagration” in practically no time.
The Item Building was close enough to the scene to get a good look, but far enough away that there was no danger of it spreading to the top of Spring Street. So all the city officials, fire and police officers, those who’d invested in the urban renewal project involving the buildings, and even television newsmen used our building as a headquarters. In no time, we had a full complement of our own staff members, all of them rousted out of bed by yours truly — some extremely unwillingly.
I almost burned my face off running down Spring Street to get a better look.
Eventually, Time Magazine devoted an entire page to the fire, with the photo looking like a bombed-out structure in Berlin at the close of World War II.
The saddest story I’ve been involved with has to be the night four former Lynn Classical athletes — one of them, Abel Marquez, our football Scholar Athlete of the Year the previous December — died in a horrific auto accident in Peabody in 1990. That is followed closely by the traffic death of Lynn Tech’s Rick Drislane in 1987, who, just a week earlier, had scorched Northeast Regional for more than 200 yards in the final football game of his career.
You see a lot of sadness in this business, and you have to steel yourself to deal with it. But in these two instances, there just wasn’t enough steel.
The most memorable person I dealt with in my 40 years was John Moran, who was my managing editor until he died unexpectedly Feb. 8, 1990. Thinking of him, even today, brings a smile to my face and a lump in my throat.
“The Big Guy” made me believe in local journalism, and made me understand that I could achieve my dream of being the next Mike Royko (columnist/author from Chicago) right here, in my own environment. He used to call me “absent-minded Steve” because in any construct, I’d completely forget the most important instruction. It took a lot of doing on his part, and I’m still not completely cured of the affliction, but he made me at least aware that extraordinary effort was required for me to “dot all my I’s and cross all my T’s.”
With John, the ride was never dull. He was a news junkie, and his passion was contagious.
Tom Dalton (former reporter, all-around great guy) called me on that Thursday afternoon to tell me John had died while on vacation in Florida. It is still one of the most impactful days of my career.
I don’t have a “proudest moment,” per se. More to the point, my proudest moments occurred over the 40 years I’ve been here. I once met a family whose son was on his way to a college visit. He had with him a scrapbook, and his mother told me that at least seven or eight clips in that book were stories by me. She told me I had no idea of the effect I had on young people due to what I did. She was right. I didn’t. And I hope I don’t sound too self-satisfied when I say I have a better idea now.
That makes me proud.
I have the good fortune of being the Mike Royko of my realm — a local columnist with carte blanche to tell you exactly what I think, torpedoes be damned. Like Dorothy said at the end of the “Wizard of Oz,” I realize my heart’s desire was, and is, in my own backyard.
It’s been a great ride. And the best part is I’m nowhere near ready to end it.