Newspapers, tragedy, life

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Dennis Forney. Trish Vernon. Vicki Davis. Mike Short. Lon Wagner. Kathy Emery. Gina whose last name I can’t remember. Deny Howeth. Chris Wildt. Cat Tanzer. Don Herring. Terry Peddicord. David Healey. Adam Wolle. Bill Hughes. Cheryl Mattix. Jon Springer. Drew Ostroski. Jeff James. Jeff Swinger. Butch Comegys. Anthony Farina. Jim DeCourcy. Wendy Gilbert. Joy whose last name I can’t remember. Craig Horleman. Jeff Gentry. Jane Thomas. Barb Tidman. And . . .

I spent a lot of time in small-town newsrooms early in my journalism career. With a lot of people. That paragraph up there doesn’t list them all, but it’s a pretty good sampling of the people I worked with at The Whale and the Cecil Whig – community newspapers in Lewes, Del. and Elkton, Md., respectively,

We were young, old, cheerful, grumpy, confident, shy, weird, clean, dirty, sleepy, experienced, new to the job, ambitious and good. Or at least we thought we were good. We worked hard, sometimes all day – reporting, writing, editing, pasting up, proofing, making a newspaper.

I thought about those years, and all those people when I heard about the shooting at the Annapolis Capital. I didn’t work at the Capital, but I know exactly what it was like and so do others in my profession. If you ever worked at a small newspaper, the attack that left five people dead was personal. It hit, hard.

For me, I imagined five of those people in the first paragraph dying at work and those that survived being forced to make sense of it all. I suppose this is how teachers feel after a school shooting.

The Whale published Wednesdays and Saturdays at the beach in Delaware. Dennis was the publisher. Trish the editor. Mike, Vicki, Lon, Gina and I were the reporters. Deny was the photographer, though we all had to take photos (I was terrible). Kathy kept everything moving up front. Chris was a cartoonist, graphic designer and de facto IT guy (my first experience with a Macintosh computer and something called a keeper). Cat did paste-up and made us laugh. The office was in the Midway Shopping Center between Lewes and Rehoboth Beach. There was a “night club” in the front of the parking lot, a waterslide/go-kart track in the back.

Fresh out of the University of Delaware, I had an odd mix of beats from police briefs to duck hunting. In between were football games, a pretty good field hockey team, the lifeguard Olympics (my lede went something like “David defeated Goliath, Onion beat Secretariat, and Assateague Island won the Lifeguard Olympics.”), foot races, boat races, bike races, photos of big fish, an IRS sting against the owner of a local restaurant empire, profiles of individuals under the banner Saltwater Portrait. Lon and I covered two murders involving teenagers. We were in our early 20s, and out of our depths, but we managed to tell the tales. The police officer probably shouldn’t have, but showed me a shallow grave in the woods where Doug Brockway died. I ran across “Reds,” a local character who followed the Cape Henlopen High football team – to great extremes – and should have gotten his life story. He died in a fire at his home years later. I covered small-town politics including Lewes Mayor Al Stango. He worked at the local gas station, and that was the best way to talk to him. Go to the station on Kings Highway, stand by the pumps and talk. Stango served for 24 years, maybe more, and could have been a character in a movie.

When we weren’t working we frequented The Front Page, a newspaper-themed bar in Rehoboth Beach. A guy who used to work at The Whale owned the place and it was cool, or we thought it was anyway. Back then, Rehoboth, Lewes and the rest of eastern Sussex County were true beach communities – as in winter and summer were decidedly different. The traffic went away, businesses closed for the season, red lights became blinkers, late-night dinner options changed considerably, everything slowed down. After covering a Lewes town meeting in probably February, I got pulled over for speeding and talked myself into a warning by saying I was in a hurry to get home to watch the television show Taxi. It also helped that I knew the guy who pulled me over, and that he would probably be doing something similar when his shift ended.

After two years at The Whale, I moved north to the Cecil Whig. The twice-weekly paper was going daily and adding staff. I was hired to write sports, eventually, but was assigned to the newsroom at first. As I did at The Whale, I did everything – news, features, phone calls, whatever. Don was the editor in chief. He’d worked at the Indianapolis Star – a real newspaper – and was as good with words as anyone I’ve ever known. He was old school, with paper layouts and headline counts, nut grafs and telling writers to keep working at it. He once told me my writing had too many commas and that maybe I should write shorter sentences. He was and still is right. He also let me write a feature story on the number of pick-up trucks in Cecil County based on reliable data from the MVA and unreliable data from me sitting in the center of several towns and simply counting.

Ultimately, I moved over to sports. The Whig hired Anthony out of Florida to be the sports editor. He’d covered minor-league baseball so was miles ahead of the rest of us. I became the assistant and we added – at various times – UD graduates Jon, Drew, Craig and Jeff James. Some stayed, some didn’t. We covered five high schools, a community college, the occasional Orioles and Phillies game while working – roughly – the 4 p.m. to midnight shift cranking out a paper Monday-Friday. The schedule meant we worked Sunday-Thursday nights, then covered games Fridays and Saturdays and piled up vacation time we couldn’t take.

We learned how to work the AP wire service (internet before internet) after many failed attempts – and one guy parking the paper truck in front of the satellite dish in the parking lot. We dealt with coaches both gracious and grating. Basketball legend Charlie Givens scared us, then won us over. Or maybe we won him over, I’m still not sure. He’d played at Elkton’s segregated Carver High in the 1960s, coached one of the best teams I’ve ever seen at Perryville (Arty Hollingsworth, Chris Loveless, George Patchell and . . . crap I can’t remember the rest of the starters), served on the Elkton town council, became an assistant principal at Elkton High where my boys attended, retired and is back coaching basketball at Elkton. He’s who I think of first when I think about basketball coaches.

At some point, I ate dinner at the home of the Elkton High football coach whose son was the starting quarterback at rival North East. Elkton ran a blitz-happy defensive scheme. I think Elkton won and everybody lived through it, but I thank the Russells for the experience, the pasta and the family time. I covered a Phillies game the day after Terry Mulholland threw a no-hitter and will always remember the kindness of catcher Darren Daulton, who stood by his locker and talked to me about what it was like to catch history.

Anthony got promoted, so I did too and as the sports editor I wrote less but stayed immersed in the job. Too immersed, but that’s how it was. I once kicked a hole in my office wall while ranting about something. But only once. The job was awful and great at the same time. I loved working there. There are few feelings that match the sound of a printing press cranking up – and making the building shake – 30 minutes after you finished doing your part to get the paper ready.

Then I went to horses. They were always part of my life, but I didn’t write much about them until we started Steeplechase Times in 1994. The spare-time project was printed at the Whig, using all the skills I learned there, and ultimately became full-time. Steeplechase Times begat The Saratoga Special, and everything I do today but none of it would have happened without the first two stops after college.

If I’d have stayed on the path, I would have probably moved on to a bigger paper. Lon went from The Whale to a paper in Harrisonburg, Va. and eventually to the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. I sent resumes to those papers and others. Probably sent one to the Capital too. Maybe I’d have stayed there. Dave Grening, who writes for the Daily Racing Form, worked there early in his career. So did racing writer John Scheinman.

Any tragedy should matter, but this one hit close to home. It’s what I do, or what I did anyway and might still be doing.

The shooter was angry with the paper over a story, which is nothing new. People have always gotten angry at newspapers.

At The Whale, readers loved the Wednesday edition. It was more established than, and twice the size of, the Saturday paper. Interview subjects would ask, “Will this be in the Wednesday paper?” If you said Saturday, they got disappointed. We learned to be vague . . . ‘Ehh, that’s not really my call. Dennis and Trish make those decisions.’ I wrote a feature on Jimmy Allen, a basketball player who made it from Cape Henlopen High to the Boston Celtics, and his mother was mad at me for putting it in the Saturday edition. Olympic runner Vicki Huber’s grandmother yelled at me about a story. Coaches took exception to things, so did politicians. I always worried that guy with the tax troubles would find me after we published the contents of the IRS tapes.

At the Whig, Don got into it with the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Really. They had a problem with him, said he didn’t portray them in a positive light. Don responded that that was impossible. So they picketed the paper. We came to work while the Klan marched in front of the Whig building – white hoods, signs, the whole bit. Jon blared rap music from his car stereo as he pulled in. I remember walking up the sidewalk, crossing through the line and going to work. Like, ‘Oh well, here we are.’ They left, eventually.

I can’t help thinking it would all be different in this era. Especially now.