It’s about 7:30 on a Thursday night in early autumn, and I’m sitting at a manual typewriter in the newsroom of one of the two newspapers in my town – both newspapers, owned by the same company, are in the same building.
I am 17 years old.
I’m there because I received a letter from the newspaper company, which invited me to join a group the company was forming for high school kids who had shown an interest in journalism. (I had checked off “writing, journalism” as a career interest on a survey that was passed out in school. “Best-selling novelist” somehow wasn’t on the list.)
The program is sponsored by a division of the Boy Scouts of America, though it’s open to both genders and no one has to wear a uniform or (especially lucky for me and society at large) try to start a fire. The idea is for this group to meet every two weeks at the newspaper building to get a taste of newspaper work; there’s supposed to be more to the program than that, including a field trip to the local forestry school.
I liked the idea of joining the program, and when I tried to sell the idea to my parents, it seemed to be a ridiculously easy sell. Only years later will I realize that they jumped at this opportunity on the chance that it might eventually result in a job for their nerdy and phenomenally uncoordinated bookworm of a kid.
On this Thursday night, I’m sitting in the newsroom with a lot of other people my age. We’d already officially joined a couple of weeks before, and this is the second meeting. And while we’re upstairs in the newsroom, our parents are downstairs, watching someone from the Boy Scouts present some kind of charter to the newspapers’ PR guy.
And as we would-be journalists sit at our typewriters, a real-life news guy named Dick Beaudet is talking to us, doing his best imitation (intentional or not) of Perry “Don’t Call Me Chief!” White, Clark Kent’s boss. (A few years later, I will learn that Dick’s subordinates call him “Chiefie” and he apparently doesn’t mind.)
Dick’s spiel goes something like this:
“All right -- you people are going to write a story tonight. Only you won’t have to go out and get the facts, because I’m going to give them to you now! And whoever writes the best story will get it published in tomorrow night’s paper!”
He then proceeds to give us the who, what, where, when and why about the charter ceremony taking place downstairs. Then he tells us to get to work.
I’ve never written a news story in my life, but I’ve read a lot of them. Having somehow learned to read at a very early age, I’ve long been fond of newspapers and as a tot was known to grab the evening paper before my grandmother could get to it.
Matter of fact, I used to look at the ads and ask my mom things like, “What’s a J-A-C-U-Z-Z-I?” My aunt once told me that I was doing this during one of her visits, and my grandmother warned my mother that I might someday ask, “What’s M-O-D-E-S-S?”
“Oh, he already asked that,” my mother said.
“WHAT? Well, what did you say?”
“I said, ‘Oh, those are supplies, dear.’ That satisfied him.”
Which explains why, when it came to intrepid investigative reporting, Woodward and Bernstein never had anything to fear from me.
But as I sit at the typewriter on that Thursday night, I don’t seem to have a really hard time putting the words on paper. I’ve never heard the term “inverted pyramid,” but I somehow know that when you write a basic news story, the important stuff is supposed to go at the top, followed by the rest in descending order of urgency.
So I hand in my six paragraphs (or was it five?), eventually rejoin my parents and go home.
When Friday night’s paper arrives, there it is at the top of the front page of the second section, stripped across five columns, above a big ad.
It’s not exactly as I wrote it; I think one or two words have been changed (and for good reason), and five or six paragraphs of background copy have been added, but it’s my story, and the stuff I wrote basically got in the paper the way I wrote it.
And for the first time I see these words in print:
By Mark Murphy.
I am sure of very few things in this life, but I do know this: Any writer who claims not to remember his or her first byline – and the accompanying thrill – is lying through his or her cursor.
I’d like to say that as the weeks go by, the newspaper program fulfills all its big promises, but that’s not the case. The main reason seems to be that the person nominally in charge, who is Beaudet’s boss, has dumped everything on Beaudet, who on Thursday nights has enough trouble trying to put together the advance pages for Sunday. Years later I will learn that Beaudet getting dumped on by his boss is an occurrence as rare as the setting of the sun.
The group, which had maybe 70 kids at first, dwindles as it becomes clear that the program isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and they get bored. One member, who seems a bit old for a high schooler – and smokes cigars, to boot – storms out one night after Beaudet gently (for Beaudet) informs him that no, the group is not going to be publishing a literary journal.
I never get another byline as a member of this group, though one night Beaudet hands me a press release from a state senator and asks me to turn it into a story.
A few weeks after I hand it in, he comes up to me.
“You Mark Murphy?” he growls in full Perry White mode.
I tell him that I am, and he hurls a tearsheet at me and walks away.
It’s the rewritten press release, cut out of the paper – published pretty much as I wrote it, though with no byline.
The program ends shortly before my senior year ends. I go to college and afterward am lucky enough to get a job on the copy desk of the morning paper. Beaudet is still working nights for the evening paper. Sometimes I have to talk to him for professional reasons. He never mentions that I was a member of his group, and he treats me as a fellow pro, a fact that still makes me proud.
Many years later, he retires, neither of us ever having brought up my membership in the high schoolers’ group.
I send him a card congratulating him on his retirement and finally thanking him for his gruff kindness during my high school days.
Not long after, he comes up to me at a company clambake and thanks me for the card, saying it meant a lot to him.
We don’t talk long – he’s no longer gruff, but he’s a long way from touchy-feely, and I’m fine with that, and for once I’m proud of myself for sending the card.
That’s the last time we ever talk; not too long after that, he is gone.
As I write this, I’m sure I am a lot older than Dick was when he was bellowing at us high schoolers and trying to get the Sunday advance pages out while grumbling not too quietly – and not particularly caring who heard him grumbling – about his boss.
And during the express train ride from my teens to my 60s, I suppose I’ve tried to follow Dick’s example, mentoring other copy editors and interns. For long before the phrase “Pay it forward” became popular, Dick, whether he meant to or not, somehow taught me to do just that.
But even if I could “pay it forward” into the next millennium, I could never fully repay what I owe to Dick Beaudet.