Friday, October 14, 2011

Remembering the Old Gray Lady

Next Tuesday — October 18 — probably won't have much significance for most people.

Oh, I guess they'll have a party of some sort in Sarah Palin's home. It's Bristol's 21st birthday, and Sarah will have no excuse not to be there since she isn't running for president.

Like any other day on the calendar, October 18 has had some noteworthy events, although most have been, to borrow Lincoln's phrasing, little noted nor long remembered.

But tomorrow, a group of my friends and former colleagues will gather in Little Rock in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the final edition of the Arkansas Gazette.

For them — and for those of us who cannot be there in person but will be there in spirit — it is like remembering a departed loved one.

I am sure it will be a bittersweet occasion. Some of the folks who gather may not have seen each other since the Gazette went out of business, and others literally spent their lives in dedication to standards of excellence that had been long established.

For many who attended the University of Arkansas and majored in journalism — and studied reporting under the tutelage of Roy Reed, whose journalism career included tours of duty at the Gazette and the New York Times — we were prepared for eventual careers at the Gazette much like ball clubs groom ballplayers in the minors.

It never surprised me when one of us gravitated to the Gazette. Most of the time, it was more a question of when, not if.

I spent more than 4½ years of my life working on the Gazette's sports copy desk, but my memories of the Gazette go back even farther — to my childhood. I grew up reading the Gazette. It chronicled the events that shaped the world in which I lived.

I still have copies of the Gazette reporting that men walked on the moon and Richard Nixon decided to resign. My mother saved them for me in plastic bags to preserve them, but her strategy has had mixed results. The bags have failed to keep those papers from aging, but they have managed to slow the aging process.

I will always remember when I was offered a job at the Gazette.

It was a chilly, mid–December day. I had come in to take my editing test a few days earlier, and I was overwhelmed with awe at merely being inside the building where so many writers whose work I admired came and went every day. Working at the Gazette had been my dream, and — lo and behold — I found myself in its newsroom.

To say that I felt very small at that moment would be an understatement, but I pressed on and completed the test — although it was often tempting to look up and gawk at the reporters whose names I knew so well milling about. A few days later, after my test had been evaluated, I was asked to return. I was ushered into the office of one of the editors, who told me my editing had been unremarkable "but your headlines were exceptional."

He had to leave the office for a few minutes — I never found out why — and I glanced at the copy of the Gazette on the corner of the desk while I waited. Before long, I will be part of this newspaper, I remember thinking to myself. Nothing had been offered yet so I guess that was wishful thinking on my part — but it did come to pass a few minutes later.

When it did, I can honestly say I have never felt such jubilation in my life.

I raced to my car and drove home, eager to call my parents in Dallas and share the news. My mother was especially excited, having been an admirer of the Gazette at least since it publicly supported the integration of Little Rock's Central High School (and won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service), and my memory of that conversation is that she finished my sentences for me.

"I was called in for a meeting with Mister ..." I began.

"Patterson!" she finished for me and literally squealed with delight. My mother actually squealed! On the other end of the line, I was grinning from ear to ear.

The time I spent on the Gazette staff was not nearly as important as when men walked on the moon or Nixon resigned, I guess, although those years did include some noteworthy things to which most people probably won't devote much, if any, thought until such time as they stumble on to the accounts they find in dusty archives or on microfilm (if it even exists anymore).

But they were important at the time.

And that was what drove us.

We who worked for the Gazette — in my day and, I suspect, well into the 19th century — gave little, if any, thought to how our words would be perceived in years to come by future generations. Our motives were more blue collar than that, I suppose. We sought to keep our readers informed of what was happening in their world at that time. The future would have to take care of itself.

The Gazette had a proud history, and I was proud to be a part of it. Until 1991, it was known as the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi.

It began its existence in a place called Arkansas Post, Arkansas' territorial capitol in the southeastern quadrant of the state, in 1819. A fellow named William Woodruff printed the first edition.

Woodruff, who was originally from New York, was always a pioneering sort, and, when the capitol moved to recently surveyed Little Rock a couple of years later, the Gazette moved, too. When Arkansas became a state in 1836, the Gazette was the first to report the news.

For more than half of the 20th century, the Gazette was published by a man named J.N. Heiskell. I don't know if it was because of Heiskell's influence or Woodruff's, but the Gazette sought to be the Southern version of the New York Times. It wanted to be the newspaper of record — and it adopted many of the Times' quirky style rules and peculiar spellings in its style supplement.

The Times actually was younger than the Gazette, having been founded in 1851, and had been nicknamed "the Gray Lady." Because the Gazette was older and openly tried to emulate the Times, it became known as "the Old Gray Lady."

And, in 1908, the Gazette moved to the historic building that was its home for the rest of its existence — and then served as the headquarters for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.

Just seeing pictures of that building today take me back over the years to the time when it was a huge part of my life. The memories are as thick as flies, as James Earl Jones said in "Field of Dreams," so thick you almost have to brush them away from your face with your hands.

I wasn't there at the end, when hundreds of Gazette employees lost their jobs, but I was there near the end, when the Gazette was struggling in vain to turn back its rival in a vicious newspaper war, trying to do everything it could — even though most of us, I think, realized that the Gazette had missed its opportunity several years before.

By the time the powers that be at the Gazette recognized the Arkansas Democrat for the threat it had become, it was too late. Not even the sale of the paper to the Gannett Co., with its "deep pockets" (the phrase that was always trotted out to appease Gazette staffers who were worried about the paper's future), could postpone the inevitable.

Gannett couldn't forestall the Democrat. It did drive many of us away, though — to other papers, other states, other cities, other endeavors.

I enrolled in graduate school, got my master's degree and wound up teaching editing on the college level for a time — even though I was told that my editing was unremarkable when I was hired to do precisely that at the Gazette (it is worth noting that I was in my 20s at the time).

I'm back in the classroom again, teaching news writing as an adjunct professor at the local community college — and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't refer to something I heard that was said or a decision I witnessed that was made at the Gazette.

Some of the people I worked with in those days are no longer living, but I'm sure that those who are still around, whether they are in Little Rock tomorrow or not, would say that their time at the Gazette has had a lasting influence on their lives, too.

It was special. It may be the most important work I will ever do in my life. I'm proud of that, and I'm proud of the people with whom I worked.

I wish I could be with them tomorrow.

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