A few years ago at Washington State University in Pullman, a student asked a panel of journalists how he could have a “long career” in our profession.
No doubt he’d noticed I was graying, balding and “seasoned.” And next to me was Butch Alford, then publisher of the Lewiston Morning Tribune. Now Butch has even a little more wear, tear and years on him than I do, and doesn’t look any better for it. At least in my opinion.
Anyway, Butch decided to take the question and noted that he started working at the Tribune, his family’s newspaper, about as soon as it was legal. And, with a twinkle in his blue eyes and crinkle around them, he allowed that he is somewhere around five decades into newspaper work.
But a long career in journalism? No, he said, his time at the Tribune seemed little more than an eyeblink.
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“If you want a long career,” he observed, “you ought to go into something like banking or selling insurance. Now that will seem like a long career.”
And I suppose that’s a long way of getting around to talking about the reality of my decision to retire from the Tri-City Herald after 35 years and from newspapering 43 years after I earned my first newsroom paycheck.
I owe the idea of becoming a newsman to a high school English teacher, Ed Lahey, who told me he liked my writing and would gladly read and critique whatever I wanted to give him. Sadly, my output was slim other than the required routine stuff of book reports, essays and such.
But I did at least figure out that I liked to write and began to consider how to make a living at it. And a couple years later at the University of Montana in Missoula, I decided to pursue a journalism degree.
Although I was crazy enough to love Latin almost as much and get a double major in journalism and Latin — to this day the only one I’ve ever run across — newspapering became my career and my calling.
After several years at the Helena, Mont., Independent Record, first as a reporter and then as its managing editor, I was back in Missoula in 1976 recruiting summer interns when the now deceased Warren Brier, one of my journalism professors and then dean of the j-school, asked “if I knew anyone who’d like to be city editor of a 32,000-circulation daily in Eastern Washington.”
I remember his question vividly because it changed my life.
Two weeks later, I was interviewing in Kennewick at the Tri-City Herald, accompanied by my fiancée Patti Ayers. And about two months later, I joined the Herald on June 28, 1976, as its city editor, a 28-year-old overseeing a reporting staff who probably averaged a good 10 years older than their new boss.
On July 11, Patti and I were married on the campus of Whitman College by George Ball, her former religion professor. He must have been good at his job, because we recently celebrated 35 years together.
At the time, I didn’t realize I had signed up long term for two families — one at home and one at work. For newspapering is a job that consumes all its faithful.
A 40-hour work week begun Monday was almost certain to pass by before I headed home on Thursday.
For the Tri-Cities, in my experience, has never been a sleepy news town. Among my most vivid memories: An Amtrak train derailment caused by an irrigation canal flood, a plane crash that killed everyone aboard, a chemical explosion involving nuclear materials, a horrific crime in which five people were killed execution-style, a mother who dropped her two young children into the icy Columbia River on a winter night, a record-breaking winter flood that washed over parts of our communities from Benton City to Dayton and the devastation the entire nation felt after 9/11.
But all that bad news is not what has lodged deepest in my memory. I didn’t stay here because there was so much breaking news to cover. My family and I stayed because of this community’s spirit and generosity.
When the Herald publishes a story about people who are down on their luck, facing a health catastrophe, burned out of their homes or any other tragedy, Tri-Citians have a tradition of sharing and helping out, no matter if they fear they won’t have a paycheck themselves next week.
No matter if their own home needs repairs. Or their own health is dicey.
We often squabble needlessly, argue endlessly and judge too hastily. But when someone really needs help, Tri-Citians find a way to open their hearts and pocketbooks.
This community cares about its people. So strongly that I’ve seen, heard and read examples of it hundreds of times.
My most memorable is a story you never read in the Herald.
The late Deb Pittman worked at the Herald as a reporter, then moved to a Hanford job with Battelle.
She was determined to ensure her teenage son would attend the best possible college, despite her illness and her knowledge that she was certain not to see him complete even his first year there.
Only a short time before her cancer claimed her, she called to talk to me about New York University, which one of my sons attended.
When I asked how she was doing, her tone brightened and she recounted all the wonderful Tri-Citians who were helping her with housework, laundry, cooking and the countless other chores we all face each day.
“When things are really bad, you can count on Tri-Citians to make them better,” she told me.
That’s why I’ve stayed at the Herald and lived here since 1976. Anywhere else would be a step down.
-- Ken Robertson retired Friday after 35 years at the Herald.