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Schuyler County and Me: Part 3
The editor looks back upon his path to Schuyler County, where he has lived for more than 30 years. This account previously appeared on SchuyLines in 2012.
By Charlie Haeffner
SCHUYLER COUNTY, 2014 -- Toward the end of my run with the Star-Gazette, my course was altered by the return of one of the paper’s former reporters to a position of authority there. Richard Price was hired to be the S-G’s newsroom leader.
Price, formerly of Odessa — a man who, oddly enough, attended my college (Albion College in Albion, Michigan) for a semester while I was there (though we didn’t meet) — had been at the Star-Gazette when I first arrived, in 1980. At that point he was an investigative journalist who also, in an added role, taught in-house classes on how to write … or rather how to write well.
He left to work at USA Today in the Washington D.C. area as part of its cover-story team in 1982, the year of that paper’s debut. USA Today, like the Star-Gazette, Ithaca Journal, Binghamton Press and dozens of other papers around the country, was (and is) part of the Gannett newspaper chain.
He later became an editor and earned several promotions until becoming USA Today‘s Washington editor. Soon after, he was offered the Star-Gazette‘s managing editor post, with an understanding that the executive editor’s job would soon follow. He returned to Elmira in early 1986.
Upon his return, we found a rhythm in our working relationship that I found inspiring, and which encouraged me to spread my creative wings. And in that newfound drive to excel, I also found myself wanting more of a base from which to work. I wanted to do what Price and a handful of other S-G employees had done: I wanted to work at USA Today.
First, though, I had to earn my stripes, and Price wasted no time in testing me. He sent me in April of 1986 to North Carolina to the Greater Greensboro Open, where local golfer Joey Sindelar — of Horseheads — had made his mark on the PGA Tour with a victory the year before. I was to track Joey through all four days of the tournament and report back with a lengthy feature piece from each day. I was, in short, supposed to create an entertaining read that went far beyond the statistics … far beyond the normal sports story.
“We can get the usual coverage from the wire services,” Price explained. “We’re not spending money to send you down there for that.”
We would run the series immediately upon my return — after the tournament’s completion, spreading it across four days. We did not have email back then, nor did we consider it important that I take any modem along that would enable the paper to run each segment concurrent with the day being covered. We opted for delay. That way, we would give ourselves a little time to massage the text of the articles — and relieve me of the pressure to produce instant history.
But I was still on the spot, and in venturing south, I found myself not only far from home, but far from my comfort zone of working in an office setting. Accordingly, I worried myself through the weekend. I followed Sindelar, observed, took notes, absorbed the atmosphere, worried some more, talked to both my subject and a handful of Joey’s family and friends who had traveled there from Horseheads for the occasion, commiserated when things didn’t go his way (he finished way back, at even par) — and in the evenings constructed rough drafts of my stories back in my motel room.
I was not exactly brimming with confidence, but with Price back home at the helm, I shouldn’t have been concerned. The man knew his way around a story, and given enough facts, he could edit anything into winning shape.
After four days in the South, I ventured home. I had written the bulk of the text, but needed several more hours to get everything together. I rushed matters on Part One of the series — deadline was bearing down — and then slowed a bit for the other three, convinced throughout that this was going to be an embarrassing disaster.
But as I said, there was Price, who took my prose — which actually was quite strong — and with a few deft editing moves smoothed it into something resembling a masterpiece (or as close as I could come to writing one). Key among his moves was what he called “the nut graph” — a paragraph high in the story that encapsulated concisely, with an appealing turn of phrase, the gist of the entire narrative. He showed me how to do that in the first part of the series, and I followed his lead in the next three, improving (I think) as I went.
Finally, it was done. I had gathered the facts and constructed them. Price had taken my effort and molded it as any good editor might. And in the end we had a series that everybody in town was talking about. Sindelar, a popular figure — a young lion of great promise — had been covered in the local media as never before (and never again).
Months later, we reaped a reward — winning a New York State Associated Press Award for the series. Since I was the author, the award was in my name.
“Congratulations, big guy,” Price said to me when informing me of the honor. “Great job. But you realize, of course, that I made it better.”
I did realize that — in fact felt a bit phony about the whole thing, for the finished product, while very largely mine, had been improved in the editing process. It became in time an object lesson to me that editing was a key process in writing, and that awards — like actors’ performances improved by deft editing in a movie’s post-production cutting room — don’t always reflect accurately the nature of what led to them.
USA Today, in its drive to turn a profit on its books within a reasonable number of years, borrowed personnel in the 1980s from Gannett member papers, with those papers continuing to pay the salaries of the borrowed workers. Stints in the nation’s capital — or more correctly in the USA Today offices across the Potomac from D.C., in Rosslyn, Virginia — were for four months.
This was an assignment that I didn’t even consider at first, but the idea — the appeal — of it grew in me over time, and especially after Price’s return to Elmira.
He encouraged me toward that end, saying that four months in Washington would help me grow, and eventually I decided I wanted it. This did not go over well at home, where my wife, Susan, was resistant to any such change in our routine. But I was determined, and told her that if I got final approval from the paper and Gannett, I was going. And, as I hoped, the approval did come through. Then she objected to the timing: I would be departing in May (this was 1988), and our boys were in school well into June, so she couldn’t join me for more than a month.
Not that she even wanted to. The idea of living in a city, being away from Schuyler County, was unnerving to her. But I ultimately convinced her to try it for at least a couple of weeks, and see how it went. I would have a large apartment — provided free of charge by USA Today — with plenty of room for her and the boys. So housing was not an issue. And since I was taking one of our cars with me — I had parking provided free of charge at the site of the apartment building — I could drive up to get the family after school had concluded.
And so, Susan’s reservations aside, I left for Washington and USA Today — the start of four months that altered my perception of news gathering and contributed, in the end, to my departure from the business for years.
Washington, D.C. in the spring is a wondrous place, full of flowers blooming and an optimism rekindled following a long winter. It was, for me, a place of hope, for I saw it as at least a chance for a bigger career, one that took place on a national stage instead of a small-town one.
The apartment provided me was incredibly large for my needs. It had a bedroom, a large pull-out bed in a spacious living room, a kitchenette, a dining area, a bathroom and lots of closet space. I was provided the apartment along with a $125-a-week stipend on top of my usual salary. The apartment building was in an advantageous locale, within sight of the Kennedy Center and the Watergate Hotel complex up the street in one direction, and within walking distance to Georgetown in the other.
I settled in quickly, and partook of the local attractions — in particular restaurants and movie theaters in Georgetown, and an occasional bar when the entire group of loaners (the name affixed to those reporters and editors on loan to USA Today from Gannett papers) decided to party. There were a couple of dozen loaners there during my period of employment, mostly from areas east of the Mississippi. Every one of them, I believe, was younger than me; I was 39, and considered by them a bit of a sage, a man of many years and — I had never been this before — a safe haven.
There was a group of a half-dozen young ladies among the loaners who were 22 to 25 years of age, and they ended up gravitating to me — asking me to go with them whenever they ventured out. They wanted a male presence as protector — to dissuade unwanted advances. After we had gathered a couple of times to see the sights, one of the girls referred to the group as my “harem.”
But most of my free time I spent alone, or at least among the masses without specific company, wandering the streets and shops of Georgetown and taking the Metro — the D.C. subway system — to various points of interest. Georgetown was the center of my off-time world, though; it suited me. One shop in particular comes to mind — a rare-book business.
I had for years been a fan of novels by Larry McMurtry, starting with “The Last Picture Show” and moving on to “Moving On,” “All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Lonesome Dove,” among many. I do not recall by the time of my stay in Washington ever having seen a photo of McMurtry, nor did I know that he owned a rare-book store in Georgetown. It happened to be the one into which I wandered, and while there, browsing, a middle-aged man came into the showcase area from an office and asked if he could help. I said no, but we conversed about books for awhile, and about Georgetown. After a quarter of an hour or so I left, having bought nothing. It was not the kind of encounter I might normally remember, but something about it rang pure with me, and it stayed in my memory bank.
It was years later that I learned of the connection between McMurtry and the rare-book store, and not long after that I finally saw a photo of the author. Unless my mind has been playing tricks on me, I did indeed engage the great McMurtry that day — the pleasant man in the shop.
I spent a good deal of time at work, too, where I was assigned primarily to the Money desk. USA Today had four sections — Money (about business), Sports, News and Life. I was employed there as an editor, which meant I was expected to fact-check every little thing that could be fact-checked in every article shipped my way by the section editor, Glenn Holdcraft. There were three or four people from my loaner group working that task, too, in the same department, and writing headlines for the stories. We would all pitch headline ideas to Holdcraft, who would select the best of the bunch or write his own.
I learned quickly to shine, to stand out — to earn mention in the weekly in-house headline-writing competition (termed McNuggets) run by a longtime Gannett editor named Taylor Buckley. At the end of each week, he would announce the honorees, each of whom would receive a gold-colored refrigerator magnet with “McNuggets” emblazoned on it. I failed to win any in the first three weeks, but then one — and on occasion more than one — in each of the remaining 14 weeks, totaling 17. That was more than anyone else in the building, regular or loaner, amassed during that period.
I took pride in that, and still do — although it did me no good in the end. But I will get to that later.
One of the regular editors — a talented young lady named Elizabeth Hurley (she took occasional grief over the fact that she had the same name as an English actress who was known to occasionally bare her skin for the camera) — was quite prim and proper, a sort of counterbalance to the youthful enthusiasm of the bulk of the loaner class. She and I hit it off, perhaps because I was, in fact, the old man of the group.
What sticks in my memory most about her is her reaction to a popular film of the previous year, “Dirty Dancing,” starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. She seemed put off by the very title, and had declined to view it in a theater — but the constant talk about it by other copy editors convinced her to rent it on video. She watched it, and what she saw left her baffled.
“It’s a horrible movie,” she said, or words to that effect. “It’s poorly made, and poorly acted. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.”
Which I thought rang true. I too believed the movie a rather thin effort, and couldn’t comprehend its popularity — but what I didn’t tell her was that it was nonetheless one of my guilty pleasures, much as “Road House” (another Swayze film) would be the next year.
I had been in Washington for a month and a half before I was able to bring my wife and two youngest sons down to join me — after school was out for the summer.
I drove up from Washington to Schuyler County — to Odessa — to retrieve them, and to see my eldest son, Bill, graduate from Odessa-Montour High School. He would be staying in Schuyler County, working that summer. My visit home was short — I was a Sunday-to-Thursday worker and had to get back quickly — and so we packed the car and made a hasty return to D.C., and to the apartment waiting there.
Susan was still not enthused at the idea. She had been inclined to opposition from the outset, but had agreed to stay in Washington for a couple of weeks. Upon our arrival, we settled her and the boys in, and then it was time for me to go to work, it being Sunday evening. Upon my return, I found that Susan had already made a friend. One of the members of my harem had stopped by to meet her, and they were ensconced in conversation as though they were old friends. The young lady was from West Virginia, and I think anxious for a mother figure. Susan filled that need.
In a matter of a couple of days, all of the harem members had checked in with Susan, who approved of them and of my oversight of their welfare. But that would be severely limited now, for my oversight turned to my family and their outings — which were many. We ended up in the ensuing days visiting museums and the Senate and the White House and all sorts of shops, moving about the city easily thanks to the Metro system. Entrance to the system was but a block or so from the apartment, which made access simple, and dropped us off nearly at our doorstep after hours of touring.
It was probably predictable that the two weeks Susan and the boys had planned to stay turned into a summer-long adventure. Susan became a fan of life there — doing her grocery shopping up the street at the market in the Watergate apartment complex, wandering around Georgetown, and attending events with me at the Kennedy Center. The highlight was an appearance there by Lily Tomlin, presenting a comedic concert featuring various characters she had made popular on TV and through her records.
I didn’t go on every outing, for my work schedule took me away around mid-afternoon and kept me busy well into the night. USA Today was set up on that sort of schedule so that it could publish a morning newspaper, Monday through Friday — but not in the traditional sense. It didn’t have a press, so we editors couldn’t see the paper coming off one of those huge devices; couldn’t fix any errors that might jump out at us as we held the finished product in our hands. No, the pages of USA Today were shipped by satellite imagery to presses at key locations around the nation, the regional locales selected to maximize delivery to as many readers as possible. We couldn’t see the paper until the next morning, when it was available in news boxes around the city.
My work constituted fully half of my D.C. adventure, if for no other reason than it ate up 40 hours of my workweek, plus the travel time from and to the apartment. It was a job of rhythm and patience and relationships, for I worked on a copy desk with the same half-dozen or so people night after night for five nights a week. As any good team does, we developed a working bond, if not a camaraderie.
There was, as I mentioned, the editor — a very competent, thirty-something man named Glenn Holdcraft who never really developed a rapport with me. He was inclined to joke around with the younger members of the staff, and invited a couple of them to his house for dinner with him and his wife. I think the fact that I was close to his age made him a little uncomfortable; it was in contrast to the usual (younger) loaners with whom he was accustomed. I wasn’t particularly bothered by his social choices — I was, after all, spending the summer off-hours with my family — but found our interaction a little cool and thus, on occasion, a little unnerving. But we worked through it, and he came fairly quickly to rely on my input, at least in the form of the headlines I was producing.
The summer went by both slowly and quickly. It was the year of the drought, and the entire nation was caught in incredibly hot temperatures, with D.C. no exception and perhaps worse because of its proximity to the humidity generated by the Atlantic Ocean. Air-conditioning was prized above all else that summer, so outings were planned with care. But given the limited time frame of my family’s stay in Washington, Susan and the boys and I indeed ventured out to sample as much of the adventure as we could. The time seemed to fly by; but in terms of dealing with the intense heat of those months, time crawled. Every day was a withering challenge, its minutes and hours counted in baked skin cells.
But fast or slow, time ran out, and before we were ready, the kids had to go back home to school. I was still a month away from completing my stay, so I drove the family home and returned once again to Washington. And in the return I re-engaged with my harem, and partied perhaps more than I should have, and encountered the biggest hangover I had ever known. It was a turning point in how I treated my body, for the suffering was so intense that I determined that I would from then on eschew alcohol — never a constant with me, but seemingly a periodic problem when it came to observing moderation.
And so I embraced abstinence, and finished my last couple of weeks with a clear mind — touring as I had when the kids were there, and racking up in-house awards for my headlines, and enjoying my workplace, and absorbing as much of the Georgetown atmosphere as I could — until, at last, it was time to turn in my apartment key and climb back in my car and head north toward New York and Schuyler County.
I would like to say that something great came of the experience in Washington, but in fact it led to something of a disaster. I found myself, upon my return home, both happy to be with the family and dissatisfied with the fact that I was no longer working on a national stage. The very thought of working in Elmira at the Star-Gazette was more than I could deal with. I had left as Sports Editor and was made News Editor in my absence, but upon my return I had no enthusiasm for the job. Part of the problem was that the Executive Editor, Dick Price, had departed — gone, in fact, to work with the Gannett corporate office in Washington. And in his place was a Gannett career man who had management experience in the South. I didn’t know the man — had only talked to him long-distance – and I didn’t care for his management style, which was less interactive than Price’s had been.
And so I dallied for days, not digging in my heels to work. The new boss was tolerant to a point, but then spoke to me about my lethargy. We discussed changing my role in the newsroom, but that wasn’t the problem; it was me. I wasn’t, at that point, mentally equipped to handle what seemed a massive comedown, from a job at which I excelled and into one which I disdained. I wasn’t ready to report on small-town life after having sampled the world of big-time journalism.
Accordingly, I contacted Price in D.C. to see if he could help get me a permanent slot at USA Today. He tried, but was not in an advantageous position to succeed at the effort. I was in touch too with various editors with whom I had had contact in my four months in Washington, but none of them seemed able to help either. The fact that some of my loaner group had managed to secure full-time jobs there encouraged me, but that was illusory. They had succeeded in staying, one mid-level manager finally told me, because of their youth or their gender or their ethnicity. The government was campaigning for equality among minorities and women — and the fact of youth was in play because the younger workers could be paid less than those with more experience.
“You’re too old, too white and too male,” the manager — a white editor of roughly my age — told me when I tried to enlist his aid.
And so it was that the door to the one place I wanted to work was not open to me. I had to either screw my head on straight and re-engage journalism on the local level, or I had to get out entirely. I couldn’t fill space at the Star-Gazette without being productive.
But I simply was incapable of re-engaging, of finding the energy and the will to pick up where I had left off months earlier. And so I opted to resign, posting my notice on the door of Price’s successor one Sunday afternoon. I picked that day because there would be little if any activity in the office, and certainly no Monday-to-Friday Executive Editor. I didn’t want to deal with him or anyone else; just wanted to separate myself from that whole operation; just wanted to go somewhere and heal from the professional body blows I felt were raining down on me. There was, it turned out, one reporter in the office that day, watching as I packed a box with my belongings and posted the envelope with the resignation on the Executive Editor’s door.
“What’s that?” he asked, knowing full well from the packing activity that preceded it.
“Resignation,” I said.
“Whoa,” he said.
To which I responded: “Indeed.”
And I left the building, joining the ranks of the unemployed — a foolish action, without doubt, since I had no other job lined up, but one that even today I see as having been necessary. It was time to move on, to try something else.
To say that the move went down smoothly at home would be an exaggeration, for both Susan and I were unnerved by the prospect of life without a paycheck. She was back in school, pursuing a Master’s degree in Special Education by this time, but was not yet producing a planned-for income.
After a day or two of my unemployment — as I groused about the inequities of life and gave thought to ending my drinking hiatus — she pressed the issue.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
I had, in the preceding three years, been engaged in a hobby that offered some hope in that regard. I had started collecting sports cards, with an eye toward selling them — and buying others, and selling them — at memorabilia shows that were rising in numbers and popularity across the nation. I had a closet full of sets and single cards of various stars of baseball, football, basketball and hockey.
“Follow me,” I told Susan, and led her to that closet, and opened the door. There, shelf after shelf was full of boxes of those cards, all sorted into sets and sport, each box clearly marked with script identifying its contents.
“This collection,” I told her, “is now inventory. I’m going to do some shows.”
“Shows? You think you can make enough money doing shows? And won’t you have to travel?”
Indeed I would — to points across New York State and up and down the Eastern Seaboard, mostly on weekends. Work, once again, would be taking me away from Schuyler County, regularly and for days at a time.
“Enough money?” I answered her. “I don’t know. But we’ll find out.”
As it turned out, I did make enough money to keep us going, although I’m not sure how. My net income seemed to be negligible, but cash flow was steady, and that — along with tapping into savings — seemed sufficient to pay for food and for utilities, not to mention our house payments.
I won’t detail this period, other than to say I was on the road a good many weekends, visiting such places as White Plains, Boston and Richmond, Virginia — setting up tables chock full of cards and magazines and other sports-related items (wirephotos, bobbin’ head dolls, and so on). I was interested in buying anything I could sell for a profit.
Susan in time earned her Master’s degree and embarked on a career as a Special Ed teacher with various agencies, and ultimately worked on her own under contract with governments in five counties. So our dependence on my card-show income faded, and I turned my attention to other pursuits: writing a novel (difficult at best), being a housedaddy (spending time with the boys) and trying, periodically, to find a regular job. I attempted to rejoin the Star-Gazette a couple of times in those ensuing years, but was firmly turned away — my own fault, for I had broken my father’s maxim to “never burn your bridges behind you” — and so figured I would have to find an entirely different career path.
Along the way I wrote one abysmal novel — “It’s cliche-ridden,” one friend told me — and then one that was more engaging, but structurally handicapped. Finally, I sat down and wrote one called “Island Nights,” originally “Summer Nights” and based on summers I had spent on Bois Blanc Island in Northern Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac while a young boy.
The novel struck a chord with a couple of friends who read it, which encouraged me to write a sequel called “The Islander.” Since the sequel was set, in part, in the present day, I decided I needed to revisit the Island. Accordingly, Susan and I scheduled a trip in October 1995 and spent five days there — blessed by sunlight and warm weather where snow could conceivably have dominated, the Island being fairly far north.
After I wrote the sequel, I turned toward an emerging technology, an online print-on-demand service that was developing along with the youthful internet. And so I published the two books — and learned a resounding truth: without proper marketing (in other words, without a market), books will die on the vine. And so my many hours and days and weeks writing them yielded little to no income.
I really needed something else to come along –some stroke of luck that would overlook the fact that I was way too old now, and still just as male and white as before. I needed providence.
And I got it, in the form of a man who had once worked for me in the Sports Department at the Star-Gazette, and who was now, as 1996 was dawning, ascending to a management position at the Corning Leader, a newspaper rival of the Star-Gazette. His name: Mike Gossie. His position: Managing Editor of The Leader — the man in charge of the newsroom.
His ascension followed by mere weeks a visit I had paid to The Leader, a sort of feeling-out effort that I decided might bear fruit since another of my former Star-Gazette co-workers — a reporter-editor named John Kelleher — had landed a job there after a stint at a Pennsylvania paper. I had reconnected with Kelleher on that visit, and been told by him that nothing was available unless I wanted to apply for the Managing Editor vacancy that was about to occur.
It was the first I had heard of the opening, and while it got my attention, I figured a background check with the Star-Gazette would likely turn off whoever was hiring — and, besides, I didn’t have the confidence to tackle such a role. The pay would have been nice, but I wasn’t ready for that much responsibility and pressure. I did, however, file an application for a lower-level job, on the off-chance that one might open up.
I didn’t have to wait long. Weeks later, I received a phone call from Gossie — a man with whom I’d once had a good working relationship, but to whom I hadn’t spoken in years.
“How would you like to work at The Leader?” he asked me.
“The Leader?” I responded. “What do you have to do with The Leader?”
“I’m the new Managing Editor,” he said. “I start this week. Kelleher tells me you’re looking for work, and we have an opening.”
It was an editing job. A young woman who had worked there for a few years had just announced she was moving away.
“When do you need me?” I asked.
“How about this week?” Gossie answered.
I had a number of matters that needed tending to at home, and factored them in.
“How about next week?” I said.
“Sounds good,” said my new boss.
And just like that, I was back in journalism.
(Next: Life at The Leader, my “heart attack,” and the birth of The Odessa File.)
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Odessa, New York 14869