Stumbling Into a Career

Stumbling Into a Career

Along with marriage, the choice of what occupation to follow is likely the most important decision we make in our lives. People often spend 40 years in a particular line of work, approximately 40 hours a week, so it is crucial that they actually enjoy what they are doing or at least don’t hate it. I’ve known many people who realized from a very young age what profession they wanted to work in someday and quite a few others who at least had solid ideas about possible career choices that suited them. Not me. I never felt called to any life-long kind of work while growing up, apart from fantasizing about becoming a sports star. I hadn’t a clue about a desirable and appropriate occupation until I was in my mid-to-late twenties. I toiled away at many low paying dead-end jobs and one good one that I enjoyed, working with younger people, but never considered it a possible permanent line of work. The idea of becoming a journalist someday never crossed my mind. Even when I was the news editor of The Gateway, the University of Alberta student newspaper, I enjoyed it but never thought of reporting as a possible career. And then one day, everything changed.

After some adventures that delayed my entry to the University of Alberta until I was nearly twenty-five years old, I became a very serious student for the first time in my life, earning my BA in political science, specifically political philosophy, which still fascinates me. My problem was that I was almost totally broke throughout my student days. I spent many months working at Edmonton’s Dominion Bottlers to save enough money to pay for my tuition and books for my first year, 1973. From then on, I always got some scholarship money, but still worked weekend nights at the new Students Union bar, Room at the Top (RATT), as part of the original staff, worked all summer at the University Bookstore, lived in U of A subsidized housing, and was still so poor that the women in the RATT kitchen comped me most of my meals, so I didn’t go hungry. My family was in New Jersey and would have helped me if I asked, but I was determined not to, even though I was so busted I only attended one movie (Dog Day Afternoon) in four years, which is incredible when you consider my life-long love affair with cinema. I went into graduate studies but concluded correctly after a year that I was not cut out for an academic career. I decided my best bet was to take the LSAT exam and apply for law school. At the time, however, I was flat broke again and desperately needed a source of income, as law school was very expensive and like most people who grew up poor I hated the idea of borrowing money.

The old Edmonton Journal building, circa 1980

Then one day I bumped into an old friend, who was editor-in-chief of The Gateway when I was news editor. She was working as a reporter at the Edmonton Journal and told me that If I was out of money she knew the paper was looking for a copy boy and if she recommended me, I would surely get the job. It wasn’t ideal. It didn’t pay a lot, but I needed the money and thought maybe if I lived on a tight budget I could save some until I found something more lucrative. The next day I went for the first time to the Journal newsroom downtown, applied for the position and was instantly hired.

I quickly discovered working in The Journal newsroom was very different from any other job I ever had. It wasn’t a disorganized place, but it was far, far more informal than most jobs, which suited me perfectly. Nobody seemed to care if you showed up a little late or left a little early as long as you did your job well. I quickly got to know many of the reporters, copy editors and others and found I was really enjoying myself because they were funny and smart and took great pride in their craft. It was far and away the most colourful place I ever worked – especially in those early days. My copy boy duties ranged from running to the restaurant across the street to get breakfast for City Editor Marc Horton, to going to the Journal library a floor below to find maps, photos or copies of old stories, or went to various other offices in The Journal building, for whatever was needed. I remember a copy editor asking me once to fetch him a map of Mauritania. When he started to explain where it was, I said, “yeah, I know. I know. I’ve been there.” The copy editors soon discovered that I was a remarkably well travelled geography buff who followed world and national news closely, so they didn’t have to explain much to me. By the way, copy editors don’t write stories, they edit them, write the headlines, choose pictures if they are needed, lay out the pages and if necessary, go back to the reporter and ask for changes. Without them the newspaper would grind to a halt.

There were some amazing characters at The Journal in those days, especially Barry Westgate, who was hilarious, profane, very sharp, quite kind to me when he was sober, and almost as nice when he was drunk after work. Barry could be incredibly gruff to strangers, but always referred to me affectionately as “the Kid”, apparently not knowing I was 30 years old when I was hired.

I remember the day Barry, a handful of other Journal staffers and I headed after work for the races at Northlands Park to watch the horse that he and a few of the others owned. Their trainer told us the horse was having some very good workouts and suggested it was worth a shot to win at about 12-to-one. There is nothing as valuable as a little inside information at the track. We all bet on the horse, which won its race, leading to joyous celebrations and very healthy profits. The celebrations continued at the nearby Cromdale Hotel, a hard-nosed working-class bar. I remember well that date was the final day of Wayne Gretzky’s first NHL season and a noisy argument began over whether Gretzky or Montreal’s Guy Lafleur was the best player in the NHL. The discussion became very heated and a very, very drunk stranger stuck his head into the raucous debate and gave his opinion that Gretzky was the best. Barry, who also was arguing for Gretzky, angrily yelled at the guy to get the hell out of there and mind his own Goddamned business, calling him a ham and egger – one of his favourite put-down lines – in his harsh New Zealand accent. Then all hell broke loose. The drunk’s buddies rushed over to support him and there was nearly a bar-room brawl. Cooler heads prevailed but I’ll never forget the drunk’s whiny remark to Barry as his friends pulled him away. “But I was agreeing with you,” he muttered. There was never a dull day, or night, when Barry was around, especially after a few drinks.

Some of the copy editors learned I was planning to go to law school and suggested I should stick with the newspaper business. “You’ll make more money as a lawyer but you’ll have a helluva lot more fun as a reporter,” one said. I laughed but still figured law school was my best bet. I had to admit though that the newsroom was a wonderful, crazy place to work, with plenty of room for the independent-minded.

I learned a few weeks later that the newspaper had a basketball team called the Journal Scribes and asked around if they had room for another player. I was quickly welcomed onto the team and since I didn’t have a car, the night news editor Steve Hume, who later became editor-in-chief, lived closest to me so he gave me rides to the games. We would talk a lot as he drove to places like New Sarepta and after about three games he said to me, “what the heck are you doing as a copy boy? Would you like to be a reporter?” I said honestly that I had never seriously thought about it. He asked me if I would like to write a story and I hesitated, but said, “yeah, okay.” Steve instructed me to go to Marc Horton the next morning and tell him to give me a story and that if Marc didn’t give me one he would make sure I got one. I went up to Marc the next day, and told him what Steve said to me. He replied sure, no problem, and promptly forgot about it. I don’t blame him. He was very busy because running the city desk was a big job. I didn’t want to bother Marc again, or Steve, so I just let it slide.

A month or so went by and nothing came of it. I figured that was that. Then I went to my first Journal Christmas Party, which was a pretty wild affair – although not nearly as wild as the ones back in the 60s, apparently. But that’s a different story. I was surprised to run into a woman I knew well, Sarah, the former wife of a friend of mine, who was the latest girlfriend of assistant city editor Nick Lees, another true character – best known for being sent on an assignment in his younger days to interview a Playboy bunny and not coming back for a year or so. He worked for Canadian Press once he returned to Edmonton, before re-joining The Journal as a living legend. My photographer pal, Jim Cochrane, who joined Nick for many of his stories on trips around the province, once told me, “there are a lot of towns in Alberta we can never go back to.” On the dance floor that night Sarah asked me what I was doing for a living these days and I told her about my law school plans, my job as a copy boy and the story I was supposed to write that was never assigned. She said she’d make sure Nick dug up a story for me.

Nick Lees

The next work day in early January, Nick called me over to the city desk and handed me a press release about a wheelchair athlete named Ron Minor, who had just been named to the Order of Canada. Nick told me to interview Minor and write a feature story about him and gave me a few valuable tips. I noted a reference in the release about how Minor once got a flat tire on his wheelchair as he wheeled his way to the starting line of a major race. There was no time to replace the flat tire but instead of quitting, as most people would do, Minor raced anyway and amazingly came in third place, dragging a flat tire. I realized immediately that this brave feat perfectly captured the way he had responded to adversity throughout his life. It was an ideal example of the kind of story I later dubbed upbeat sobbers. Moving tales about people overcoming huge hurdles and achieving success. I was humbled just talking to Minor and hoped I’d captured the essence of what made him so inspiring.

The next morning, I was sitting at the desk reserved for copy boys when I realized there was a very tall man standing in front of me. I looked up to see the legendary Journal publisher, J Patrick O’Callaghan, who smiled and warmly congratulated me for the job I did on the Ron Minor story. I was stunned. My close friend, Doug Spaner, was in Halifax doing his residency after graduating from medical school at the U of A. He soon got a letter from a mutual friend of ours with a copy of my story on which was scrawled A Star is Born. The next day my friend, Satya Das, who worked on the copy desk at the time, called me over to say he had heard the paper was going to offer me a job as a reporter. I found that hard to believe and didn’t hear anything more about it for a few days. Could it really be true? If it was, should I say yes?

Then one morning I was told that the aging managing editor, Don Smith, wanted to see me in his office. I walked in, sat down and after some small talk he asked me if I was interested in becoming a reporter. I said yes. I had nothing to lose. He then offered me the job and said I would be paid $225 a week. I said thank you, but told him he was asking me to take a pay cut. I was getting $220 as a copy boy plus an extra $15 a week for doing some work on the side for another editor, hence earning $235 a week. Don looked baffled for a minute and then said he had to think about it. I left and a few hours later he called me back in and offered me $250-a-week, which I accepted. Don was notorious for getting dead drunk over lunch every day so it could have been worse. That was what the newspaper world was like back in the day. I always suspected that some of the old-timers had a whiskey bottle hidden away in their filing cabinets, just like in Hollywood movies of the 30s and 40s. No doubt some of them did.

The following week I found myself sitting at the city desk with Horton, Lees and Assistant City Editor Linda Hughes, who would later go on to become the publisher, and was the best manager I ever worked for. The idea was for me to spend my first week on the desk learning how things were done. That first freezing January day we got a short press release from an Edmonton International Airport official noting that a plane blew a tire while landing that morning but no one was hurt. Linda asked me to call the airport spokesperson and see if I could flesh the story out. I talked to the guy, searching for an angle until he mentioned that it was no big deal because planes landing at the airport often blow a tire there in the midst of winter. I knew that was my angle and said thanks and goodbye. He called me back about fifteen minutes later to try and change his statement, but I knew he had unwisely let the truth out and quickly finished the story on deadline for the final edition, emphasizing the frequent tire blowouts. To my great pleasure my first news story under deadline pressure ran on the top of the city page in the final edition and got me some real plaudits. It was an exhilarating experience. Forget about law school. This was fun. I quickly realized that by pure luck I had stumbled into a job that I was perfectly suited to. I could spot interesting angles, ask the right, probing questions, and write good copy under pressure. I wrote the Ron Minor story on a typewriter but I punched out this second one on a word processor, perfectly bridging the old days and the new.

Six months later I went out drinking after work with the Journal’s ten summer students and discovered over a few beers that nine of them were being paid more money than I was. I was steaming mad and the next afternoon I got up the nerve to go to Smitty’s office, whether he was drunk or sober. I told him flat out that I knew only one of the ten summer students was making less money than me, even though I was a member of the permanent staff and that was not right. He looked at me strangely for a few seconds and said, “I thought you were a summer student.” I replied, “Don, you hired me in January, not in the summer, and I’ve been working here ever since. Besides, I’ve already passed my probation period.” He went silent for nearly a minute but eventually muttered, “well, that doesn’t mean we couldn’t fire you if you screwed up badly.” I replied that that was true of every reporter in the newsroom and added that he knew very well I hadn’t screwed up anything and I wanted more money than any summer student. After an uncomfortable delay he said he would check into things and talk to me the next day.

The following morning I was called into his office and he announced, “you’re right, you aren’t a summer student.” I am not making this up. He then added that as a result he would give me a raise to match the highest amount being paid to any of the summer students. I said, “no way.” I knew the highest paid summer student was getting $275-a week and I told him I wouldn’t settle for anything less than $300. He looked hard at me for a few seconds and I thought maybe I’d gone too far, but there was still always law school and besides I can be a stubborn SOB, especially when I know I’m right. I also had a card up my sleeve. I knew from the usual newsroom sources that it was O’Callaghan who told Smith to offer me the job in the first place, so he was trapped. Besides, I was doing very well as a reporter and he knew it. He sighed and said okay. I could tell lots of Don Smith stories, but my favourite one is the time he phoned in on a weekend to tell us there had been a slight earthquake in Edmonton, which we already knew of course. As I noted to a colleague, “I’ll bet that is the first time in decades Smith felt the earth move.”

I decided to celebrate with the summer students and hit on the idea of having special t-shirts made up for them. I cannot even draw a straight line, but I went to a store that designed t-shirts and described what I wanted. Give me a drawing of a bear cub with a lit cigarette hanging out the corner of its mouth, wearing an open collar and a loosened tie straight out of The Front Page or His Girl Friday, banging out a story on an old-fashioned typewriter, I explained. Above it I wanted the words “Journal Cubs.” I was going to get 10 shirts but the minimum was 12, so I added my pal and fellow reporter Darcy Henton and myself. I had the T-shirts numbered 1 to 12 on the back with the names included and passed them out to the cubs on our next after-work trip to the bar. They wanted to know what the order of the numbers meant, but I said there was no real order, which they accepted. In fact, the names and numbers were in order of how much each one was being paid, with one exception. Darcy should have been getting number one, not me, but I grabbed it. Hey, I paid for the shirts. I like to think I would have made a good lawyer, but I learned fast that I was definitely cut out to be a reporter.

12 thoughts on “Stumbling Into a Career

  1. Another terrific installment of A Backpacker’s Journey. I’m amazed at your powers of recall, Tom. I’d love to see you write more about those days, and characters, at the Journal. Who knows? It might even make a great book!

  2. Thanks Deb. I do have a very good memory, but I’ve been telling these stories to friends for years until finally Donna pressured me into creating the blog and sharing the stories. I used the public library to track down the yarns I wrote for The Journal from Belfast, Libya, etc.

    1. You did Marc, but I didn’t mind. It’s not like I was being run off my feet. I thought you were a terrific city editor and a great guy, and still do.

  3. Wow! That was a tiptoe through the old tulips story. Your ability to recall details is awesome. It was such a fine time to be part of the newsroom. Great post!

  4. What a wonderful walk down memory lane, Tom! Even though this piece was before my time at The Journal, I certainly worked later with most of the folks you mention. Now, I bet you could write a great blog on your days covering the courts!!

    1. Thanks Diana. It seems I am turning this into a travel plus journalism blog. Since all the stories about reporting are getting lots of likes and shares I definitely plan to do more. I was the reporter who covered the Grant Notley plane crash, which was a pretty big story in which I get a very lucky break and scooped every other media outlet. I also have sone crazy travel stories to go, especially a series about crossig the western Sahara on the back of local trucks.

  5. Good stuff, Tom!
    Keep it coming …
    I remembering reading your earliest stories. Very lively! And I’ve followed you ever since and look forward to whatever comes next.

  6. Thanks Allan. I liked the criminal justice beat I created partially because cop stories and court stories are virtually the only ones where you can capture drama and also where there is great scope for investigative stories, which became a speciality.

  7. A perfect snapshot of how it was in the newsroom back in the olden days. I almost fell out of my chair laughing when I read your bit about Don Smith — now that man was a piece of work! Westgate was also special, as was Keith Ashwell. A great read, Tom. Thanks.

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