When I assumed the role of Texas Press Association president nearly 18 months ago, I wondered what I could possibly bring to the table. Age and wisdom? Maybe. Age and experience? I suppose. Age? Got it.
More than anything, though, I was determined to honor the rich legacy of my predecessors.
A day or two later it dawned on me: not only would I have 18 columns to write, but I would be writing them for a fairly exclusive audience of my fellow writers and journalists.
It was then that I realized I’d set the bar too high. My new, more modest goal was to write 18 columns that might be worth reading.
When I became Record editor following my dad’s death, I also inherited his responsibility for its editorial pages. Ben R. Ezzell’s Spur of the Moment column had anchored Page 2 for the last 45 years. It was the first thing most readers turned to – more urgently sought out and read, even, than the obits – and was widely “cussed and discussed” every week.
Several months passed before I found the courage to replace reprints of dad’s columns with something of my own. The topic that finally moved me to write that first Field Notes was my boots.
It was an inauspicious beginning, but offered this very green editor a gentle way to challenge a veteran county commissioners’ plan to use the old county exhibition center to house a new waste transfer facility – though his ultimate and unspoken goal, I realized, was to build a shiny new exhibition center.
“I have a wonderful pair of hiking boots sitting in my closet. Asolo’s, they are...top notch, full-grain leather uppers, water-proof, sturdy, shock-absorbing midsoles, low-impact Vibram soles. Nice. Bought ‘em about five years ago. Thought they’d last forever, and they probably will. But they don’t fit. They fit five years ago, they don’t fit now.”
Adapting a waste handling operation to restrictions imposed by a building which was designed for very different needs, I argued, “is an awful lot like trying to make my foot fit that boot...and frankly, my foot and I are against both of these proposals.”
I closed that first column acknowledging that I had ventured onto sacred editorial ground and that I was fully aware of the moment’s gravity. I admitted to our readers – and I hoped there would still be one or two – that I’d sought guidance in The Record archives, wondering what weighty subject Ben Ezzell had tackled when he embarked on his first weekly column.
I found the answer in the July 28, 1949 edition. “One of the occupational hazards of editorial writing,” he wrote, “and of newspaper work in general for that matter, is the danger of being trapped in your own logic.”
It seems that the editor had recently commented on the practice of business owners parking their cars along main streets, taking valuable space away from customers. Of course, the editor was caught just days later – you guessed it – with his car parked smack dab in front of the newspaper office.
So that was the beginning...the simple stuff of which small town weekly newspapers are made. Dad wrote about his feet of clay. I wrote about my boots.
I received a letter to the editor just a few days later. The writer was concerned about my boots, and suggested soaking them in water and wearing them in order to let the leather stretch. Sound advice which, of course, I never tried. I was just so relieved. I’d written a column and someone had read it.
A new transfer station was built a couple of blocks away from the exhibition center. Both still stand and serve their purposes well. And this is my 18th column for the TPA.
Over the course of my career, I’ve learned so much more than I ever imagined I would. A few things seem particularly worth sharing.
Editors are mere mortals who make mistakes and are wise to admit them – in print. Words matter, and have an impact we can’t always adequately or accurately measure.
The life of a newspaper is temporal, something we should acknowledge with humility and accept with grace. But the importance of reporting the news is timeless – and an increasingly urgent necessity in a world inundated with information, but in desperate need of the truth.
“Only bread and the newspaper we must have,” wrote doctor, poet and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Atlantic in 1861. “Whatever else we do without.”
Holmes wrote this at the start of the Civil War era, when the development of the railroad and telegraph transformed how wars were fought and the immediacy with which newspapers and illustrated weeklies delivered the news.
It was true then, and is truer still, today.
It has been my distinct honor to serve the members of this association, who work too hard and probably make too little money, but who have dedicated their lives to reporting the news.