Saturday, August 05, 2017

"Will write for food" - Thoughts on retiring

Aren't newsrooms supposed to be beehives of activity?
Here's the view from my desk before the start of work.

Retirement. It's not just for old people.

After all, I'm not old - I think.

Yet, here I am - retiring from a nearly 24-year stop at The Buffalo News. I gave my two-week notice on July 24. This is my last day.

It's quite a shock to type that in some ways. After all, I've had a lifelong relationship with newspapers in general, and I do mean lifelong. Let me tell you about the journey. I gave the short version of the story to some of my coworkers yesterday; you get the long one now.

Start with a family story: When I was four, I went to the hospital when I had my tonsils out. (I looked up the date in my "baby book" - May 27, 1960. Do they still have baby books?) My grandmother hired a private nurse for me in the hospital, because that's what grandmothers who liked to spoil the youngsters did. Mom got a phone call from the slightly panicked nurse.

"Budd says he wants me to bring him a newspaper," the nurse said. "I asked him why, and he said he wants to see how the Red Sox did. What should I do!?"

"I think you should buy him the newspaper," said Mom, realizing that not all four-year-olds could read box scores - but this one could.

I read box scores and stories through childhood, and provided a clue about my occupational dreams by becoming the editor of my junior high newspaper in Elmira. Do they have junior high newspapers any more? When we moved to Buffalo in 1970, my daily reading material jumped several notches in quality. Now I was reading Larry Felser, who was in the Sporting News every week for football, and columnist Steve Weller, who was close to Jim Murray-class when it came to funny. Farewell, Elmira Star-Gazette. Hello, Buffalo News. It was like I was called up to the majors.

Like six million other kids, I was the sports editor of my high school paper, and like several hundred other kids I went off to Syracuse in search of a career in journalism. I must have been the only student at Syracuse that subscribed to The Buffalo News for four years.

I sort of stumbled into radio after graduation, in part because I could write. I paid my dues as a reporter, covering 142 events in one memorable year. I got to know the reporters from the Courier-Express and The News in those press boxes, hoping I could figure out a way to join their ranks - if I could get good enough. People like Jim Kelley, Milt Northrop and bunches of others set the bar pretty high. For a moment, it looked like it might happen. The sports editor of the Courier-Express told me that he wanted to figure out a way to get me on the staff soon, and I told him I was ready when he was. But sadly, this was the late summer of 1982, about a month before the Courier started on the road to folding. No sale.

I plugged along, left radio for a job with the Sabres for a while, but was out of work in 1993. That's when I got a part-time, temporary job from the News. That turned into a full-time, short-term temporary job when Bob DiCesare went on paternity leave - thank you, Bob. When the buzzer sounded on that position, it was hinted that I might have a good chance to land a full-time position when one opened up. After a stay at the Cheektowaga Times in the summer/fall of 1994, a spot at The News opened up - I'll always remember you, Lowell Keller - and I got it.

I didn't do every possible job in the sports department in almost 24 years but it wasn't for lack of trying. I covered the Sabres, the Bandits, running and high schools on the outside, and did rewriting and editing as well as serving as the "slot man" and "night sports editor" in the office. I also wrote Buffalo's sports history one day at a time, book reviews for the features department, a couple of travel articles, and jokes for a feature called "Five Spot." Coworker Greg Connors used the baseball term "five-tool player" to describe my work, while editor Mike Connolly called me a "utilityman." That puts me somewhere between Willie Mays and Ben Zobrist. I did very little writing about my two favorite sports, baseball and basketball, but I hit almost everything else. No matter what the subject, it was always a thrill to see my byline in the paper, or to write a clever headline that made people smile and attracted attention to a story.

This business can take a toll, though, no matter how interesting it is. The work schedule changed with the sports calendar each week, so I couldn't plan anything that was more than a couple of weeks in advance. Lisa Wilson once told me that we spent more family birthdays, anniversaries and holidays with each other in the office than we did with our respective spouses. I must have set a Ripken-like record for most Healthy Choice frozen dinners consumed in a career - probably 2,500 or so. Plus, you may have heard that the newspaper business is a little different these days, with instant deadlines and few true days off. I asked co-worker Kevin Noonan once why he was retiring, and his answer was, "It's time." Now I know what he meant.

Luckily for me, writing is a skill that can be done on an occasional basis. I can write some more books and cover games, etc. as a freelance writer, and I will. But I don't have to do anything. "Gee, I'd love to cover that girls lacrosse game, but I'll be in Paris that week."

In the meantime, let me salute a few people. Sports editor Howard Smith changed my life for the better when he hired me. I went from a guy who just missed landing a civil service job at City Hall as a clerk/typist to a sports reporter/editor who was earning a good salary. I'll always be grateful for that. Howard was succeeded by Steve Jones, one of those bosses who was such a good guy that you'd run through a wall for him. Steve came up with the idea of writing a daily item on local sports history, which was amazingly popular by my standards and turned into a book. Steve also let me cover the Bandits when Tom Borrelli died - still miss you, Tom - and that turned out to be a great experience. For starters, the people were terrific - everyone in the league couldn't be more cooperative. Then, there were some bonuses. For example, I covered playoff games. I must tell our Bills and Sabres' reporters what that's like. And I just might be the only sportswriter in town who covered professional athletes who earned less money than I did. 

More recently, I've shared the high school beat for the last two years with Miguel Rodriguez. We haven't been Woodward and Bernstein on the job; more like Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. Yes, I'm Felix. If Miguel isn't the hardest working person in the building, he's in the top five. And he's always good for a food tip before you visit the concession stand at a high school football game. Then there's Jim Wojtanik, who arrived just after me and probably has worked with me more than anyone else. Day after day, Jim has concentrated on getting the section out on time and without mistakes. He's never failed to be a professional. Jim also was the unofficial morale officer, the guy who ran the office pool for the Kentucky Derby and bought pizza when staff birthdays came along. He's indispensable. Who knew I could respect a Yankee fan so much?

They are part of a larger group of sports department workers. You know some of them by their bylines. You don't know the clerks who take phone calls, the photographers who take such great pictures for stories, and the layout people who package everything to look so good. They all made my work better, and it was appreciated.

Getting back to financial matters for a moment, I probably wouldn't be ready to retire from The News without the fabulous work by the members of my union. I received $6 per hour from the Cheektowaga weekly. The negotiating team made sure that union members had a good salary through the years to go along with a lot of professional satisfaction. (Footnote: One longtime union leader and old friend, Phil Fairbanks, gets serious extra credit for introducing me to my wife.)

Finally, the whole editorial staff doesn't simply have writers, editors, photographers and layout specialists. They are miracle workers who make magic happen all the time. When I mentioned I was working for The Buffalo News to a stranger, he or she immediately assumed that I would be fair and professional. The reputation of the rest of the staff always preceded me. Allow me to tell a couple of stories about this group that are typical.

One night at 9:45, a story came on the wire about the Bills that was new and noteworthy. Remember, in this town, if the team's kicker gets athlete's foot, it goes on page one of the sports section above the fold. I called Vic Carucci, told him what was going on, and what our deadlines were. Ninety minutes later, he had confirmed and written the story clearly and fully - with quotes. I could tell that story about any other reporter on the staff, with just the subject switched.

There are heroes in the office too. One night I was monitoring Twitter on a Friday night when my feed exploded at 6:30 with the news that Ryan Miller hadn't taken the ice for the pregame skate a block away. Therefore, a trade seemed likely. Jim Wojtanik looked skyward for a moment, may have said a bad word, and tore apart the sports section to reflect the deal that was confirmed a short time later. The story was fully covered by our reporters at the game, who had to do it while keeping an eye on that contest that was taking place at the same time. We all came back the next night, and again I spoiled Jim's night at 5:30 p.m. by telling him there were reports that Pat LaFontaine had resigned from the Sabres' front office. Here we go again - same new layout, same great coverage. The Sabres should work so well together.

The point is that this sort of effort happens constantly at newspapers. It's not called "the daily miracle" for nothing. Reporters and editors like to complain, but they always come through when it is necessary - and it's always necessary. It was always a privilege to work with such people, and they often inspired me to at least try to go that extra mile.

No matter what happens to me in retirement, I'll admire the work of my now ex-co-workers at The Buffalo News from a distance. As you know, journalism matters now more than ever. Wherever the stories and photographs from The News are located - paper, tablet, phone, etc. - I'll find them and continue my 47-year reading streak.

It's been an interesting ride. I'm glad I was able to take it.    

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