Feb. 18, 2017 marks an unpleasant anniversary. Rather than reflect on that moment and the ripples it sent through my life, I think more to the time leading up to it, which galvanized who I am today in my professional life.
Got my start in the newspaper world in May of 2001, at age 19, working for The Pendleton Times. I was hired for the summer after my sophomore year in college, but worked there whenever I could, as I moved through the second half of my higher education.
In those days the newspaper was still produced by printing out the different design elements from an ancient Apple Macintosh, cutting them out and waxing them so they would stick to a sheet the actual size of the newspaper. That sheet would then be taken to the printer, scanned onto an aluminum plate and reproduced on newsprint.
I loved it. It was like a jigsaw puzzle that you got paid to put together, and I was particularity good at it too. So much so that I switched majors from journalism to graphic design after that first summer.
[It was also during my first summer that I first put together the Treasure Mountain Festival guide, a publication that I still produce annually.]
After finishing school in Summer of 2003, I was hired full time, mostly to develop a website (which didn’t happen), but also to help with layout duties and advertising design.
Publisher Bill McCoy was already in his 80s when I first met him, but he still possessed a keen eye for newspaper craft. Although he had relinquished most duties at the paper by then, he still came in Tuesday mornings, cane and coffee in hand, to read over the week’s news and lay out the front page.
Perhaps it was because I came to know him late in his life that my opinion formed differently from others, but he always struck me as someone willing to try new things if the situation called for it. Co-workers who were there much longer than me knew him, instead, as someone who was very adherent to the continuity of the past – to keep things the way they had always been.
That said, he wasn’t one to pull punches either. I remember once complimenting him on the look of a front page a particular week. It was a genuine remark, but I knew he had struggled with getting it just the way he wanted. His gruff response, “Really? I think it looks like shit.”
He was my first mentor for understanding the creative and logical process of developing an attractive and attention-grabbing front page. I was in awe of the process, and dreamed of someday being the one to design the front page.
That day came sooner than expected. Bill had been sick in the days leading up to the Nov. 20, 2003 edition, and with no one else available, I was given the task of making the front page.
It was something I approached with raw enthusiasm, meeting early with editor Ed Tallman to figure out which stories were being written for that week, and visualizing a layout approach. I went out and took pictures of trees fallen in a recent wind storm, took a group picture of the members of the newly formed Chamber of Commerce for the lead, broke a story about Subway opening. Also, it was the week prior to hunting season, so obviously that was a front page story.
Early Tuesday morning I came into the paper and pasted together my inaugural front page.
It was a work of art, I thought.
I was so proud.
I should have guessed what would follow.
A few hours later, as the rest of the paper came together, Bill arrived as he always had. He had been feeling much better, but no one ever passed the message on to the staff.
Ed saw him enter and ran to the front of the room to explain the situation. Bill seemed unfazed by what could have been viewed as betrayal, and went to the back to the office to read the stories as he always had.
The guilt I felt that day still resonates, and all I could do then was quietly continue on with the rest of the paper as he read over the stories for that week.
Once he finished reading, he got up, and walked to the already-completed front page, sitting on a concrete table in the center of the room. He stared at it, emotionless, for several minutes. In that time, I decided I may as well approach – perhaps for a scolding or, at best, a sharp critique.
Instead he looked up at me and smiled. “Hell of a good looking front page,” he said.
I was relieved and flattered, but still shell-shocked by the morning’s events, and stood numb as I watched him slowly make his way to the front door.
That was the last time I saw him in the office.
I still saw him out on the streets or in the restaurants, and always had a pleasant conversation with him about what was going on with the business or with the community.
Ten years ago today, on Feb. 18, 2007, I was fired from The Pendleton Times. My raw enthusiasm had been forged into a sharp opinion of how the newspaper should look and read, and those creative clashes ultimately became deliberate insubordination. It took me years to admit that to myself, and until now to acknowledge it publicly.
Bill had little to do with the operation by then and had no involvement in the decision, but I never wanted to know if he endorsed it. In the times after that, I avoided making contact with him in public, and maintained that elusiveness until his passing in June of 2008.
I went on to work for the Moorefield Examiner, whose owner was a cousin of Bill’s. In the 10 years since The Pendleton Times, I have moved up to become the advertising and production manager at the Examiner. Among my many tasks there is laying out the front page – a task I hold as just as much of an honor now as I did that first time.
Aside from that, the traces of guilt are still there in every page I produce. The guilt that I robbed someone of the last thing they did to feel useful, and the guilt that someone had to step away in order for me to thrive.
This is a story I’ve never told anyone before, but one I remind myself of every day. Framed and hanging on the bedroom wall above my head is that actual front page paste-up sheet from Nov. 20, 2003. It’s the last thing I see at night, the first thing I see each morning, and serves as a guidepost to know that I am where I am because of where I started.