Over the last couple of weeks, some kind folks have asked what the biggest change has been in my 25 years at the Northeast Times, and it gets me thinking.
Hmmm. I suppose it’s that I don’t goof around and raise as much hell as I used to here. And on Saturday nights I’m usually snoozin’ by 10.
That’s when I realize they’re asking about technology and stuff. Oops … stupid me!
May 9 closes a quarter-century run for me as editor of the Northeast Times, a personally enriching and glorious run that I don’t measure by anything I’ve done, but rather by the remarkable people — some still in this Trevose building, many spread elsewhere, a few who have left us forever — who have given me a cardboard box full of wonderful memories to chuck in the back seat.
Initially, I wasn’t moved to do a “farewell column.” Too many good things have spurred the Times’ growth over the years that I won’t ever be able to take credit for. But then I figured maybe I should do a farewell column, simply because I fret about the future of newspapers these days, and perhaps in 2550 when Franklin Mills is being knocked down to make way for a regional government launching station that will send colonies of Northeast Philly residents to Jupiter, this edition will be unearthed, and someone will marvel that there really was a paper called the Times that chronicled life in the Northeast for years and years and years.
To be honest, so much of those 25 years … I can only recall it with a haziness akin to driving up 95 to work on a fog-enshrouded morning. But I doubt I’ll ever forget March 1, 1987, the day Lou Chimenti, the executive editor of the Smylie family’s Northeast Times, gave me the chance to leave a South Jersey newspaper — where the editors were ensconced and becoming the fossils that I myself have become — and boss people around in my own newsroom.
What a wonderful 35th birthday gift!
The Times was on Frankford Avenue in Holmesburg then, just above Rhawn Street, in a narrow and crumbling white stucco building that I figured had to have been built around the time of the Louisiana Purchase. I just remember arriving for the job interview and peering out my car window, unsure I was at the right place, thinking, “I hope that’s not it, it looks so … so … condemned.”
It was the right place.
A week later — my very first day — immediately established the tone for why I’ve wanted to be here all these years. I felt good that morning. Figured I’d wowed my new, young staff with my personality and knowledge shaped by 12 years in the business, and I was ready to tackle lunch.
Rich Bradley was the young managing editor, a talented but pain-in-the-butt little rascal who wore a stud earring long before guys even had the brass to do that. I think he also invented “Let’s Haze the Editor.”
“Where can I eat that’s fast?” I asked Bradley.
“Well, there’s a Roy Rogers restaurant. Just go onto Frankford Avenue, turn right, and walk two or three blocks … you’ll see it.”
Seven blocks later, this Roy Rogers still was nowhere in sight. So I kept walking, block after block, thinking surely it had to be the next one, feeling very much like Peter O’Toole in the movie Lawrence of Arabia as he meandered across the desert in search of water, but at least Peter had a camel. And finally there it was, Roy Rogers, roughly a mile from the office.
I know that some people may call that trek stupidity. I prefer to call it optimism. Either way, as I wiped my glistening forehead with a napkin and bit into my Roy’s Double-R Ranch Burger, I took out my small writing pad and pen.
“Note to self: Fire that kid.”
Yes, it was an endearing place. But it also established a 25-year journey that I will remember most for remarkable colleagues in all our departments — in my newsroom, in advertising and business, in production, in circulation — who shared the goal of growing a wonderful Northeast Philly newspaper that had been an heirloom of the Smylie family for 65 years, until they sold it with reluctance in 1999. I wish I could take time to name them all. But I’d be like the guy who wins the Oscar for Best Totally Obscure Foreign Film and has 266 people to thank — and then the orchestra music suddenly builds to a crescendo, his clue to get his butt off the stage.
I will say there’s a little Oscar I’m taking with me. It’s a miniature version of the Times front page embedded in a glass cube, a Pennsylvania Newspaper Association honor for having been selected as best statewide weekly in our circulation category a few years back. We were fortunate to have won that award twice; I gave the first cube to former owner Bob Smylie, but I need to keep this one, not as any trophy, but simply as a memory.
I’m grateful to all at this paper who have enriched my life. I’m grateful for so many young journalists over the years, so into this business and so eager to learn, because they kept me young too. I’m grateful for the loyal readers and advertisers who’ve believed in the Times. Grateful too for Northeast Philly, such an amazing coverage area with so many stories to tell. I’m especially grateful that I could work in jeans.
Of course, there is always unfinished business. And there are worries, whether it’s the fragile future of newspapers, or a new generation of journalists wondering when opportunity will knock, or even if the Northeast Times can keep fighting in this unpredictable era for newspapers.
I think I’ve done all I can do.
So I’m pleased to offer best wishes to Lillian Swanson, a veteran Philly newswoman who came on board as editor this week to help our publisher, Perry Corsetti, and owner Darwin Oordt keep the pages turning here at the Times.
I do need to express my affection for some longtimers who have devoted huge parts of their lives to this paper, and their names are familiar to many: managing editor Fred Gusoff, reporters Tom Waring and Bill Kenny, and our community editor, Joyce Ruggero.
I just cleaned out a lot of years of stuff but didn’t keep much, only because sentimentality has a way of making the suitcase too heavy. Besides, most of it is stored in my head and in my heart.
And as time passes, my friends, that will bring me the best feeling of all.
Thanks for making it happen.