Forty years ago this month, I wrote my first newspaper column. I was working as a summer reporter for a Los Banos newspaper when my editor suggested I write a column.
I agreed. I forget now what the topic of that column was, but I realized I liked writing it. It gave me an opportunity to “talk” with readers personally, using the pronoun “I,” which I could never use in my news reporting.
It also gave me the chance to express my opinion, which I likewise didn’t do in my reporting. I decided early on, however, that I would avoid political opinions and instead express my perspectives on more mundane things like traffic and baseball.
When the summer ended and I returned to my regular job of teaching, the publisher, Bill Brehm, asked if I’d be willing to stay on part-time to write a column or a story each week. He even said he’d pay me $35 per column to do it. Back then, for a dad with three kids and a limited income, that was big bucks, so I said yes.
It didn’t take much persuasion. Newspapers seem to always be in my blood, going back to when I was a small kid. Soon after I learned to read, every day I read the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Tribune, two newspapers to which my family subscribed.
In college I joined the newspaper staff, even though my college didn’t offer journalism courses. The staff had essentially zero supervision, so older students trained younger students in the art and skill of reporting. I realized I liked writing for a newspaper as much as I liked reading one.
By my junior year I agreed to be the paper’s editor, and I further realized I like the camaraderie of my fellow journalists as much as I liked writing. I did very little editing, however. My job was primarily working with other newspaper staff members to decide what we wanted to cover each issue.
Fast forward to 1983 in Los Banos, 16 years after finishing college, I was back in the newspaper world writing a weekly column. Looking back, I don’t regret that decision one bit. In fact, I’m thankful I was given the opportunity.
I’m thankful that each week for the past 40 years I’ve been able to have a conversation with my readers. That’s the way I look at it. I imagine a reader getting The Westside Express, turning to my column, “listening” to what I have to say and then silently responding, “I get it. I understand what he’s been through or what he’s thinking.”
That’s been my unwritten theme all these years, sharing what I believe I have in common with my readers. Sometimes it’s frustration or irritation. Sometimes it’s joy or even excitement. Sometimes it’s a feeling of being confused or puzzled. And sometimes it’s a reflection, a thought that seems to make sense to me and I hope makes sense to the readers.
Over the past 40 years I have been blessed by editors and publishers with the freedom to write about anything I choose. Sometimes it’s local–about a person, place or event in my community. Sometimes it’s universal — about life in general.
I’ve also been blessed that many newspaper readers seem to enjoy having a “conversation” with me. I appreciate getting letters or emails that say something like, “That’s just what I was thinking.” I like encountering people around town who say to me, “I appreciated the column you wrote this week. I understand.”
I also enjoy, believe it or not, readers who write and say, “I disagree completely with what you’ve written, and here’s why.” Letters like that broaden my view of life.
I’ve particularly liked writing about my family, although Susan (my wife of 30 years) and Sandy (my wife of 22 years) would disagree about their names appearing so often in my columns. My daughters and son have also been patient with me, although I’m sure they’ve gotten tired of seeing their names in my column.
I also like those columns where I pay tribute to a local person, often someone who might otherwise go unnoticed, sometimes a person who has recently died (the toughest columns to write).
Writing columns for me often is therapy. If I encounter a situation which irritates me or an experience that troubles me, I can write about it. Probably the best therapy I had during the past 40 years was writing about my wife Susan after she died in 1999, when I tried to express my grieving, which everyone who has lost a spouse shares.
Two years after that, I experienced therapy of a different sort when I was able to write about my experiences with a good friend who was willing to share her life with me, my wife Sandy.
I’ve kept many of my printed columns, going back to 1983, which includes a lot of paper filling up a few boxes — and a lot of words. Considering I write an average of 900 words a week times 52 weeks times 40 years, that comes to approximately 1,872,000 words in print. Yikes!
Every so often I’ll pull out one of those boxes and read through old columns. I’m surprised at how much I’m the same guy I was 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, for better or worse. My sense of humor, weird or eccentric as it often is, has stayed the same.
My overall feeling having written a column for the past four decades is gratitude. I have appreciated publishers and editors who have stuck with me over the years. I have appreciated the readers who have stood by me. And I’m grateful that the good Lord has given me the aptitude for, and the enjoyment of, writing.
I could end by saying, “Here’s to the next 40 years!” But I don’t think I’ll live to 117. But I hope to keep writing as long as my brain and fingers work and until someone gives me the hook and kicks me out the door. When that day comes, I won’t mind, because I know it has been a good, and often wild, ride.