I started working in the daily newspaper business 40 years ago today.
I was living in Etobicoke then, and had gone downtown to the head office of Thomson Newspapers on Queen Street, hoping to get a list of papers so I could put my resume in the mail. Ask your grandparents, should you not understand that archaic term ‘mail’ in that previous sentence.
No journalism degree -- I’d majored in history -- but four years with Pro Tem, the student newspaper of Glendon College, which we always considered the main campus of York University.
Instead, I was ushered in to the corner office of Mr. M, who apparently did the interviewing personally whenever the Thomson chain had an imminent opening and some terrified kid wandered in off the street.
It turned out that the Woodstock-Ingersoll Daily Sentinel-Review was about to have an opening for a sports editor. I was interviewed, and Mr. M told me to catch a train to Woodstock the next day to meet the managing editor, Mr. W.
I saw Mr. M on and off over the next four years. It was usually bad news when he came to Woodstock. I remember one time years later, I went to the door of the managing editor, the one good one, R — Mr. W had long since been fired — and said to my boss, we all wanted to know, before we did any work that day, which of us was being fired, because someone always got fired when M came to visit. I found out later that Mr. M had been sitting in the office, just out of my sight. But I digress.
I’d never been to Woodstock, which is a city of roughly 25,000 on Highway 401 between Kitchener and London. As I came into the train station in the old part of town, the most prominent landmark was a giant checkerboard for the Purina pet food plant.
I later found out that the other landmark was on the main drag coming in from the 401, a life-size statue of Springbank Snow Countess, a cow which set the world lactation record in the late 1940s. No, I’m not making that up, but I had to buy many postcards of the statue over the years to prove to people that I was not making it up. I’m sure that at some point we must have done a story tracking down the wretched soul whose job it is to keep track of the lactation production of every cow in the world. But I digress again.
I hiked from the train station the four or five blocks up to the newspaper office, just off Dundas Street, which was the main drag. Mr. W was a gruff and humourless fellow with a thick Glasgow accent, who was quite miffed that Mr. M had offered me $100 a week — Mr. W would have given me $75. He told me to find a place to live, and to be on the sports desk at 6 a.m. on Monday morning. So much for orientation and training.
I went and bought a Sentinel-Review — no free copies for future staff — and started checking out people renting rooms. Once I told them where I was going to be working, several refused to rent to me, telling me I’d be fired in a week or two and then they’d have to run the ad all over again.
Finally, I found a tiny room with shared bathroom and shared kitchen for $12 a week from a widow whose kids had all moved out, about 10 minutes’ walk from the office.
Comes Monday morning, the sun not yet up, my several alarms all having worked, not that I slept that much the night before, after my parents had dropped me off at my lodging with my suitcases of clothes. I’d fiddled with my rabbits’ ears on a tiny black and white TV I’d brought as my sole entertainment, watched the Baltimore-Pittsburgh World Series, that last one before Roberto Clemente died barely a year later, that series in which Steve Blass pitched so well and within a year could never find the plate again. Google it, why don’t you?
I went in to the office at 6 a.m. Monday morning, where Mr. W was sitting at the wire desk. This was back in the day of teletype machines, which clackity-clackity spewed out enormous rolls of yellow tape, punched with holes that the linotype machines in the back shop translated back into the words that would be impressed into hot lead — sorry, ancient history.
There was also a printout, so the editors would cut the tape at the appropriate spot, and attach the yellow tape to the printout with clothes pins. Yes, seriously, clothes pins, which again are something your grandparents might recall putting to other uses.
So Mr. W points out the sports desk, tells me to grab the seat, and he’ll be over in a minute to teach me what to do.
I’m sitting there, and over comes this guy armed to the teeth with rolled-up yellow tape clothes-pinned to printouts, a pronounced limp, incredibly thick glasses, and he says, "Who the ^%$# are you?"
And I naively said, "I’m the new sports editor," and stuck out my hand to shake.
And he says, "I’m the $%%#@#& sports editor, get the ^%&*( out of my %^*^%#$ chair!" and starts throwing extra clothes pins at me. I’ve been a professional ink-stained wretch for all of five minutes, and clothes pins are bouncing off my face, and they hurt.
Over comes Mr. W, tells G the erstwhile sports editor that he’s just been named the new wire editor, and takes him to the wire desk. Eventually, Mr. W came over and showed me a few basics, and somehow I got two sports pages out that day.
It turned out that Mr. W wanted to fire G, because he didn’t fit the image the paper had of a sports editor. Like I did, either, you’re thinking, and I can’t disagree with you.
First things first. Mr. W had wanted to fire the wire editor, and move G over there so he could make a mistake that would get G fired too. The wire editor had made a series of mistakes, the fatal one being that word of Khruschev’s death had come across the wires just as he closed up the paper — it was an afternoon paper; again, ask your grandparents — and the wire editor decided that if he opened up the paper again to get that major news in, that he’d be late getting across the street to the Royal Hotel for the 50-cent lunch and 15-cent draft.
Someday I’ll tell you about the trial of the guy who burned down the Royal over Christmas two or three years later, sitting on the toilet and holding a lit joint up to the ends of bare wires sticking out of the wall in the washroom just because he was curious to see what would happen. But back to 1971.
Mr. W needed to have Mr. M find him a new sports editor, to get the chain reaction going. So after I’d come to Woodstock on the Thursday, Mr. W had fired the wire editor on the Friday afternoon, then sprang the news on G on Monday morning that he’d just changed jobs.
That first morning, I was still unaware that I’d be expected to work 80, 90, 100 hours a week without a penny of overtime, that I would never hear one single word of praise over the next four years, and that there would be a revolving door on every job in the building.
It’s a particular management style, never praising, always demanding more and more and more — if you work 14 hours, why didn’t you work 16? If 16, why not 18? Why wouldn’t you work a 20-hour day? Are you not dedicated to the profession? Can this newspaper not count on you?
But all that was still ahead, as were endless games and practices with Senior A and Junior C hockey teams, countless minor hockey league and high school sports teams. It was the next spring that I got introduced to fastball, which was a mania in southwestern Ontario, where every tiny village had lights at its ballpark. I didn’t cover Tillsonburg sports, because that would have required a long distance phone call, and Ingersoll sports were left to George Hayes, the former NHL linesman who had an encyclopedic knowledge of area sports and who wrote every story and column longhand with the most beautiful handwriting you could possibly imagine. I could sit for hours with a milkshake or two and hear George’s stories about being on the ice with Gordie and The Rocket. Anyway, back to our story.
Came lunchtime that first day, and the staff assembled at the Royal for the cheap lunch, generally a slab of brown mystery meat under gravy, with a lump of dry mashed potatoes and a scoop of canned corn or peas. G took a pass that day, and I introduced myself to my new colleagues. One reporter, B, whose main talent was coming up with ways to dump his work on other people, told me, "We all like G, so don’t expect any of us to like you."
I think I got back to my room just before midnight that first day, absolutely exhausted.
A couple of weeks later, G made some trivial mistake, giving Mr. W the excuse to fire him. G was the sole family breadwinner, his wife stayed at home with a young child who had considerable physical challenges, and G put all that to Mr. W when he was fired.
Mr. W merely snarled back at G: "I’ve got a newspaper to run." And G replied, "You and Clark Kent!" as he picked up an Underwood typewriter, hurling it at the wall, where it gouged a hole that may still have been there when I left in April of 1975.
By then, I’d somehow survived sports, and survived the Ingersoll news bureau, and survived being city editor, long enough and well enough that the big leagues were willing to give me a chance, and I joined The London Free Press.
At that point I was on my third managing editor, and had my final interchange with Mr. M a few weeks after going on to LondonOnt. I’d heard that the Sentinel-Review had won an award for layout of a special section, that the managing editor had taken credit for it, and it was hanging in his office.
I wrote to Mr. M, pointing out that I had done all the work on that special section, with my last uncompensated overtime of my three and one-half years, and heard later that the publisher had taken the award out of the managing editor’s office on Mr. M’s orders and hung it up in the newsroom.
Forty years ago today.