Unusual reunion dredges up memories of early career

Tom WestI went to an unusual reunion two weeks ago. It was a gathering of most of the editors and reporters who worked at the Mankato Free Press in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It’s one thing for retirees to meet former co-workers regularly at a coffee shop. It’s another to attend a formal reunion with school classmates. But this event was somewhere in between.

This would be like, if you worked in a railroad switchyard for Burlington Northern, then switched to the Union Pacific after a few years or more likely, got out of the railroad business altogether, and went to work for a shipper. Then, 30 years later, you went back to a reunion with the Burlington folks from the start of your career.

In the newspaper industry, reporters and editors do one of three things: move up, move out or stay.

Some aspire to big city journalism like the Minneapolis or St. Paul papers. Others move on to free-lance writing or corporate communications or, rarely, something entirely different. Only a few never leave.

Just one person at the reunion still worked at the paper.

Of the 49 people on the invitation list, four are reporters for the Star Tribune. A couple of others are copy editors there. A few more work for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Many others do business communications work.

Journalism tends to attract people with a high level of idealism, people who actually think they can change the world.

It doesn’t take long in a newsroom like the one in Mankato to be disspelled of that notion. No other profession is crazy enough to take the sum total of its work output each day and reveal it for all to see and critique.

Even though most of the news reported in newspapers is positive, we are often accused of printing only the “bad” news. That’s because the bad news stands out, and is retained in the public’s memories longer. That’s the same for reporters.

I remember interviewing a plane crash survivor in his hospital bed in LeSueur. You may have heard tales of people blotting out memories of traumatic events. As he talked to me, I actually saw the process at work. He said things like, “I was trying to get away from the flames, and I crawled out the broken window. No, wait, I don’t remember that.”

Then, if I asked a follow up question, he really didn’t remember.

Another time, I was sent to Mapleton, south of Mankato, after two toddlers were killed in a mobile home fire. I didn’t want to be there. However, when I got to the scene, I learned that family members were in a trailer two doors down.

I knocked on the door and ended up with an incredible interview with some of the nicest people in the world. Far from being offended that I was intruding on their tragedy, they wanted the world to know about what great kids they had lost.

My first couple of years I covered politics, and once got to go to the White House with a group of Minnesota journalists to meet Vice President Mondale and President Carter, whom we interviewed in the Cabinet Room. Afterward, we went to a reception at the vice president’s mansion, and Joan Mondale, the vice president’s wife, who is also an art aficionado, gave me a personal tour, explaining some of the masterpieces on display in the residence.

The editor who gave me and the other reunion-goers opportunities like that was Ken Berg, a pipe-smoking, dignified soul who had the thankless task of trying to keep his rambunctious charges under control while calming down news sources who had done something they didn’t want publicized. He loved Mankato, and gave us enough latitude to put out a good newspaper.

He had a bulletin board in the newsroom, and a variety of clips went on that board, from the correct spelling of words like “renowned,” to embarrassing quotes by a co-worker, to commentary on the news of the day, most of it amusing, and some of it profane or what would be called “politically incorrect” today.

We not only worked together but played together. Ken included in the newsroom budget funds for city league basketball and softball teams, aptly named “The Typos.” We rarely won, but our enthusiasm never dampened.

Alas, because he died a few years ago, Ken could not be at the reunion, but we reserved a seat for him and a few others in memoriam at the “dignitaries table,” as we called it.

I had not seen most of those attending in 28 years. Our hair is more gray, more dyed or more gone. The lines on our faces are deeper and our waist lines mostly more expansive. But the laughter was the same.

The stories flew back and forth as if they happened yesterday. One reporter recalled taking our chief copy editor, “Dusty” Darling, to the emergency room, that Dusty insisted on walking into the ER, and that he died within a hour.

We reviewed an ad showing one of our reporters interviewing a monkey, and the story when Miss America was assaulted by Tater Tots while visiting a local high school.

Journalists, after all, are story tellers, and as we shared stories from our common past, they became only better with the passage of time.

Do you remember people from your first job? Maybe it’s time for you to hold a reunion, too.

Tom West is the general manager of the Peach. He may be reached at (320) 352-6569 or by e-mail at [email protected]

Comments Closed