Not long ago, a former colleague interviewed me by email as an assignment for a class in graduate school. The first questions were, “What is your background and education? How did they prepare you for the editing job you hold today?”

My answers:

Looking back, I believe my entire upbringing fed into my previous and current editing jobs. My father would read to me in bed when I was little. My parents later told me I would make him read my favorite story over and over again. It was "Johnny and the Three Goats" (or "Fwee Goats" as they said I pronounced it) on page 96 (nine ee six) of the first volume of a set of children's stories, My Book House. My brother, who was four years older, taught me to read for myself — maybe even before kindergarten — using a flashlight under the covers of our cots in the attic of our summer cottage at the Morningside College music camp where my father taught piano. We were supposed to be asleep. If I recall the title correctly, my first book was The Blue Pony.

As I grew older I worked my way through the My Book House set by myself. I also worked through some, most or all of another set of books, The Book of Knowledge. I started with the fiction — I still seem to recall a Charles Lamb story about how roast pork was discovered by a Chinese farmer whose barn burned up — and later gravitated toward the nonfiction included in the set.

My parents subscribed to The New Yorker and saved every copy, I believe from the first issue, in our attic in Sioux City, Iowa. I would go up there and read them — first the cartoons, later the funny stories, and finally the longer articles. I read the great E.B. White, James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, and even John Hershey’s memorable article on the devastation at Hiroshima. (I also developed the odd temporary trait of not laughing aloud at the funny things as I thumbed through these magazines alone in the attic.) Meanwhile, my parents read Jane Austen to each other, and before we could open our presents on Christmas Eve my father read aloud from Charles Dickens’ tale of Mr. Pickwick’s Christmas, along with the excerpts from the magnificent King James Bible about the birth of Jesus. So I grew up surrounded by, and learning to love, words.

Not surprisingly, I was always good at reading and writing and spelling, and I probably was on the high school paper although I no longer remember that very clearly. Anyway I worked on the Brown Daily Herald when I went to Brown on a scholarship. In my senior year I interviewed for jobs with a bunch of forgettable people and one unforgettable man, the late Leslie Moore. He was the executive editor of the Worcester Telegram & Evening Gazette, which were separate papers them — one morning and one evening. His practice was to make the rounds of the more selective New England colleges every year to recruit fresh, and inexpensive, talent. We immediately clicked and I took a job there for $70 a week.

It was a fine training process and many of its graduates went on to distinguished careers in journalism. We youngsters were assigned to bureaus around Worcester County under senior people who stayed put. They got the plum assignments like covering the Rotary Club luncheons and playing golf with local bigwigs (at least as I recall it) while we young reporters did the heavy lifting because the important things happened at night, like high school basketball games and meetings of the Boards of Selectmen. I was assigned to the Spencer bureau, covering that town and others nearby. We would come back and file our stories for the morning Telegram by teletype and then rewrite them, or at least put a nu lede on them, for the afternoon Gazette. We learned tricks like updating car-crash stories with the lede “Police today are investigating . . .” We would put the Gazette stories outside in an envelope for the Telegram delivery truck drivers to pick up in the early hours and take back to the office. The bureaus also had Speed Graphic cameras, and we were taught to use them and to develop and print our own photos.

It was a thorough grounding. Among things we wrote were obits and wedding stories. Although we did not have to go to weddings and funerals, we did learn how to spell stephanotis, because for some reason all the brides in central Massachusetts carried that plant or flower or whatever it is down the aisle. Les Moore also set up a course in Speedwriting shorthand, which I have found valuable ever since. At some point I got a call from the Gazette State Desk, whose editors told me I produced clean copy and offered me a job on that four-person desk. It involved arriving at the Worcester office at 6 a.m., opening the envelopes from the bureaus, and copy editing and writing headlines for their stories. Also I started to lay out section fronts at the Gazette. I was good at that, too, and after a while I began to fill in on the News Desk, which was a two-man operation on a six-day paper (the Telegram was seven but had a different staff using the same desks at different hours.) Eventually I even filled in as news editor, selecting stories for and laying out page one. By the time I left two years later, Jimmy Lee, a Gazette copy editor and its entertainment columnist, quipped that mine had been the fastest rise since Linc Stoddard was an office boy. Lincoln Stoddard was the son of the publisher.

I think the only time I ever went through a personnel department, known today as Human Resources, was when I decided I wanted to move to Washington and applied at The Washington Post. I got interviews and, again because of my copy-editing skills, I started on the rim of the U-shaped city copy desk, working at night. I then moved to the Business section, later the National, Foreign and Outlook desks, mostly as an editor but doing stints as a reporter, including space and science. My bosses apparently thought I was a better editor than a reporter, because I kept going back to that.

They were probably right. Reporters were characterized in The Boys on the Bus as “shy egomaniacs,” and I suspect that while that may be true of good reporters, good editors are just a bit too shy. Anyway it was skill in handling copy that got me into an opening at the Toronto Star as features editor, and it was from there that I got into management.

Copyright 2010, J.V. Reistrup

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