Sunday, September 3, 2023

On-the-job learning

 I have allowed a significant date to pass unremarked. On August 17, fifty years ago, I worked my last day at the Flemingsburg Gazette before leaving for graduate school at Syracuse.

Lowell and Jean Denton, the proprietors, had hired me in the summer of 1968, after my junior year in high school, to allow Jean to take the summer off. The six years I worked at the Gazette, a weekly in Fleming County, Kentucky, with about 3,000 circulation, were a practical education, an apprenticeship, in newspaper journalism. 

I attended meetings of the fiscal court (the county council in Kentucky) and interviewed the superintendent of schools about plans for the coming school year. I profiled local worthies. I covered the beautiful baby competition at the Ewing Fair. (I did not determine whether it was accident or design that Mr. Pierce Million, who rented the public address system for the occasion, played a recording of "Born to Lose" as the mothers and babies crossed to the infield.) I Englished the social notes from the outlying communities. I did copy editing and proofreading. I took classified ads over the telephone. On Wednesdays I drove the pasted-up pages to the newspaper in Cynthiana that printed us, drove the printed copies back, helped with the Addressograph, bundled copies for mailing, and delivered the bundles to the post office. On Fridays I swept out the office and dusted the counters. Photography and page makeup were pretty much the only things I didn't do. 

I was reporter, columnist, copy editor, proofreader, clerk, and dogsbody. 

It was grand. Lowell and Jean were generous and indulgent in allowing me to make mistakes and recover from them, and the income from the job was a welcome help with my college expenses. Lowell was the practical partner in the enterprise; he did all the photography and dealt with all the advertisers. Jean was the literary partner, particularly fond of the work of Joan Didion. I was once assigned to profile a worthy and "lay it on thick." I attempted that, and Jean looked at it, told me, "We don't publish satire," and rewrote it herself. 

And I owe them my life's career. When, after abandoning the Ph.D. program in English at Syracuse, I approached The Cincinnati Enquirer for a post on the copy desk, the Flemingsburg Gazette was my only significant journalistic credential. (As an undergraduate and graduate student, I [cough] never took any classes in journalism.)

Lowell and Jean are gone, and I honor their memory, grateful that they were willing to take me, a skinny kid, a bookworm, into their business and allow me to learn it. Yes, I spent six summers at the Gazette, and they became the prelude to forty years in newspaper journalism.