Last updated: August 17. 2013 8:35PM - 2190 Views

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Joe Butkiewicz


In 1982 I wandered into The Times Leader newsroom as a correspondent and a year later was hired as a staff writer.

During the next 30 years I had the opportunity to work in different jobs and learned many valuable lessons from co-workers, readers and even the people I wrote about. Before I bow out in a few weeks, I thought I’d share a few of the things I learned.

Thank you to Catherine McMahon, the Assistant City Editor who hired me way back when. The lesson? Take a chance on people.

Rich Connor was editor and publisher at the time I published my first movie review. In the middle of the newsroom after publication he mentioned aloud that he didn’t agree with my opinion. “That’s OK,” he added. “You keep on going.” His off-hand comment was carte blanche to give me the confidence to express an honest opinion for years to come. The lesson? Encouraging words have power.

Catherine McMahon, shortly after I was hired: “If you’re going to use a word like pachyderm you damn well better know how to spell it.” Lesson? Humbling words have power.

Dale Duncan, City Editor (and later executive editor and publisher), loudly: “This is a daily newspaper.” Lesson? Get it first and get it right.

Allison Walzer, Editor and mentor: “It’s OK to tell an angry caller that maybe we made a mistake.” Lesson? Admitting we’re human diffuses anger.

Businessman Albert Boscov on the opening night of the Kirby Center, tidying up the mauled refreshments in the lobby as the curtain was about to rise: “Nothing smells worse,” he smiled. Lesson? Even powerful and influential people lead by example.

The late jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who I was able to interview prior to his performance at the Kirby Center: “That’s a stupid question,” he snorted in our phone interview. Lesson? Don’t be starstruck; it was a fair question.

Managing Editor Cliff Schechtman, nudging me from writer to editor, his words echoing to this day: “Been there. Done that.” Lesson? Take a chance.

Allison Walzer, again: “Try to get one great thing in the paper every day.” Lesson? Aspire.

Chris Ritchie, Assistant Managing Editor/Development when I became an assigning editor: “Your day will be filled with decisions.” Lesson? Listen to experience.

Deb Withey, a Times Leader staff artist who went on to become a world class newspaper designer (and architect of the TL redesign in 2000): “Design supports content.” Lesson? Listen to experience.

Mark Contreras, the third publisher in my time here: “Don’t put off difficult decisions.” Lesson? Decisions don’t get easier as they get older.

The late Bill Griffith, Managing Editor : “Go get me some cigarettes and lottery tickets.” The lesson? If you say it in a gruff voice young reporters move faster.

Griffith, again. reaching in front of a reporter and hitting the keyboard “Period goes here.” The lesson? Stop messing around and finish the story.

Walzer, again. “Stick a fork in it.” The lesson? Stop messing around and finish the story.

Sports writer Jerry Kellar, who died in 2007: “Tell me Walzer isn’t coming back.”

Kellar was one of a few staff members who feared the strong-willed Walzer would return to the paper. The lesson? Reporters always complain and everyone worries about things that never happen.

Kellar, by the way, was also the most wickedly funny person in the newsroom and also had the biggest heart, which he often hid behind that sharp humor.

The late Columnist Hank Pearson, one of the best newspaper writers in my time, blurting out in the newsroom, apropos of nothing: “Is it OK to call Rosalind Russell a jar head?”

The lesson? The newsroom can be a dark and funny and strangely entertaining place and 97 percent should stay in the newsroom, not the paper.

An exception, apropos of nothing. Sports writer Paul Sokoloski responded “Cocoa Puffs.” The lesson? Know how to finish.

The late Van Rose, sports and country music writer, when asked to fill in on a news beat in a certain Wyoming Valley community: “I’ll bring back buckets of dirt just don’t ask me to write it” The lesson? Know your strength.

Pat McHugh, Publisher number four in my time: “The little guy is hiding something.” That’s an inside joke. And he was right.

Many people offered lessons in their daily work as much as words.

Ed Ackerman, Editor of our weekly, The Sunday Dispatch: The lesson of community and endless optimism.

Times Leader Feature Writer Mary Therese Biebel: No matter how onerous the assignment she routinely picked up the phone and immediately made calls.

Staff reporters from the late Marita Lowman, to Mary Ellen Alu, Sue Snyder and Jen Learn Andes - and a dozen others - all shared a basic quality: Good reporters ask lots of questions.

Staff photographer Aimee Dilger proves to this day that photographers hustle just as much as reporters and a photo can tell the story as well - if not better - than the written word.

Reporter Sheena Delazio: You get a person to dance by asking.

Former Managing Editor Dave Iseman: You can’t go wrong pursuing the truth.

And especially Chris Ritchie, former Assistant Managing Editor Anne Woelfel, Content Coordinator Joe Soprano, Features Editor Sandy Snyder and Editorial Page Editor turned copy editor Mark Jones, together the hardest-working, most dedicated and thoughtful journalists I’ve had the privilege to learn from. The lesson? The hard work of many hands makes the miracle happen each day. There’s just no other way to get something great in the paper.

Those weren’t easy lessons. But all good ones.

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