Sunday, July 10, 2016

My Friend the Hall of Famer

Dr. Donna Lampkin Stephens, a friend and former colleague from my newspaper days in Arkansas, was inducted into the Arkansas Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame during the weekend.

It was the 10th induction class and the first to include a woman.

Donna's a trailblazer, all right, but I find myself thinking of her as a girl — not because I am sexist (I don't think I am) but because, darn it, Donna was a girl when I first knew her. I suppose I will always think of her that way.

We both graduated from the University of Arkansas with degrees in journalism and went to work for the Arkansas Gazette's sports department. I got there a few months before she did after I spent a year and a half at a smaller newspaper in central Arkansas. I think she came to the Gazette straight after her graduation from the University of Arkansas.

I worked on the copy desk. Donna wrote articles. I know she covered other sports because all of our writers had to cover sports other than their specialties, especially during football season, but she was primarily a golf writer. I edited her copy on many occasions. She was not only a good writer, she was a meticulous reporter.

I came to realize during my time as a sports copy editor that some sports are more difficult to make exciting in print than others. Golf seems especially stuffy in print. The fact that the TV announcers providing commentary for tournaments speak in a virtual whisper doesn't help — whereas a story about a home run or a touchdown and the accompanying roar — or deafening silence — of the crowd can almost write itself.

As the great Red Smith once observed, people go to or watch a sporting event to have fun, then they pick up the paper the next day to read about it and have fun all over again.

If the tournaments Donna covered were banal, it was hard to tell from her reports.

Donna isn't the first of my former colleagues to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. She isn't even the second — or third. We had a very talented staff at the Gazette. Sometimes I feel like the third baseman of the '27 New York Yankees. I mean, the '27 Yanks are remembered as one of the greatest baseball teams of all time, and everyone remembers the stars, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, from that team. But who remembers the third baseman? (It was Joe Dugan, by the way. He had a great reputation as a defensive player, but he hit fewer home runs in his career than Ruth did in the '27 season.)

I understood my role, though. As a copy editor, my job was defensive in nature. It was up to me to prevent mistakes from getting into print. If my work didn't attract attention, I figured I had been doing my job. A reporter's job, on the other hand, is to attract attention. If people don't read what a reporter has written, he/she is not getting the job done — even if the copy editor does a first–rate job of catching misspellings and keeping factual errors from making it into the morning paper.

Donna and I worked together for four years before I left to pursue my master's degree. Donna remained with the Gazette until it finally lost its war with the crosstown rival Arkansas Democrat. Since then she has earned her Ph.D. and become a successful journalism professor. She has also done a lot of freelance work for my hometown paper — a paper for which I wrote some freelance articles when I was in high school.

And she has written a book about the demise of the Gazette.

Very accomplished — and thoroughly deserving of this honor.

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