Monday, July 6, 2009

Bob Terrell: A Remembrance of a Beginning

That old Underwood typewriter in the foreground of the above photo is similar to the one I was presented as a rookie sports writer--and the youngest person in the newsroom, meaning I got the oldest typewriter--in 1964. In the photo below, Bob sits in the press box at McCormick Field, home of the Asheville Tourists. Oh, could I tell you some stories ...

About two weeks ago, in the middle of June, the man who gave me my first job in the newspaper business died at 80 after nearly 60 years of writing every day. Bob Terrell was a beloved columnist of a type that rarely exists any longer: he was of the people, his people, the people of the mountains of Western North Carolina.

I never really thought of Bob as a hero or as anything above the crowd, though I always respected him as a storyteller and as a man who produced. He not only wrote his column nearly forever, but he produced about 70 books (many of them column collections, but many not). He was a good guy, a man with a terrific sense of humor and a man who understood those around him about as well as anybody could. He was not complicated and he saw right and wrong in vivid color. When Muhammad Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay and refused to enter the U.S. Army ("I ain't got nothing against no Viet Congs"), Bob was livid and banned the boxer's name--in any form--from the pages of the Asheville Citizen-Times sports section. This was at the height of Ali's career.

He was always for the government, against those who opposed it, for God and against behavior that he considered anti-Christian. Very clear on every point, always. I didn't always agree with Bob--I didn't generally agree with Bob, in fact--in many things, but I always liked and respected him and thought he was held in proper esteem for a guy who made a mark.

Following is a piece of a chapter of my book, Burning the Furniture, dealing with meeting Bob for the first time and getting my first job at a newspaper. He didn't have to hire me. He did, though. I remain grateful 45 years later.

***

Anybody who has ever worked in a newsroom, especially a newspaperroom, understands why people who have been called “ink-stained wretches” generally considered other work beneath them.

The first time I walked into a newsroom—a late August afternoon in 1964—I couldn’t see enough of it in my view shed. I turned around, and looked at people and machines; listened to clattering, urgent noises; smelled cigarette smoke and coffee and paste and an asphalt- and oil-tinged breeze off the parking lot, As it wafted through open metal-framed windows. I wanted to touch something, and knew instinctively that a final level of stimulation would complete this sensual feast.

As I sat in front of Bob Terrell’s editor’s chair in the sports department as he interviewed me for a “copy boy” job, my head continued to roam. His office had walls only rib high and above that I could see the activity at the city desk; I could watch reporters type and argue on telephones simultaneously; I saw the AP wire editor as he tore copy or watched AP Photos as they rolled out of their machine in magical fashion, making a screeching noise. At one point, I heard Bob say, “Dan, are you listening?” and I realized I’d strayed from the interview. I said, “This looks like so much fun. I want to do it.” I think the depth of sincerity of that innocent pronouncement from an 18-year-old who’d barely ever held a job got me a desk, a chair and a typewriter that I didn’t know how to use, starting that day, that minute.

The pay was $5 a day no matter how many hours were in that work day, and Bob wanted me to work every day until I could type well enough to write. Every day, no matter how many it took. He wanted me in the office at 4 and out at midnight. I was to type the whole time that I wasn’t carrying somebody else’s copy to the composing room—I was, after all, a copy boy—and he didn’t care what I typed. As soon as I had a feel for the keyboard, regardless of how fast or accurately I typed, I would begin with briefs, then headlines, then captions. I would learn layout and be responsible for putting the paper out. All this before I could cover a game, conduct an interview, write a news or feature story.

Bob put the old warrior and outdoor editor Al Geremonte on me as my personal coach. Al, a Boston native and former platoon sergeant who’d fought at Guadalcanal, carried a blue editing pen and wore it out on me. He called me “Kid” in a thick Massachusetts-Italian accent and told me newspaper stories when he wasn’t teaching me newspaper skills. I learned later that the stories are—in the long run—as valuable as writing, editing, layout and all the other things I had to learn to do. He gave me structure and purpose, a framework for a career.

Every day I came in, for the longest time, I passed through the door with the same wonder at being here, the sensual overload, the feeling that I was supposed to be in this place at this time, and that something good was in store for me.

It seemed only minutes before I could type well enough to get other assignments, slowly at first, then almost nightly for a while. I hadn’t been at the Asheville Citizen for more than three months before I put out a paper by myself for the first time. I drew sports pages on layout dummies, read AP and local copy and corrected it, typed headlines, captions and all the rest, in a slow, careful, halting manner as I looked for the right keys. Al and Bob and Richard Morris and the one or two others who worked in the department up and left one night, saying, “It’s yours. Do it right.” And I did. Al had taught me how. I wasn’t even nervous about it.

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