Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Chances. And a Lesson on Coffee.

A version of this essay was published in The Providence Journal on September 6, 2018.

Forty years ago Monday, having closed my Boston apartment, I packed my belongings and drove to North Adams, Massachusetts, a tired old mill city 100 miles distant. I passed a mostly sleepless night in a cheap hotel and early the next morning, August 28, 1978, I reported for duty as a reporter with The Transcript, a small daily newspaper serving the northern Berkshires.

After settling at my desk in the newsroom, where the clatter of manual typewriters was ceaseless and the cigarette smoke thick, I asked the staff if anyone wanted coffee.

About every hand went up.

“You’ll learn,” said city editor Rod Doherty.

On my $154-a-week salary, I did.

But that was the least of my lessons all those years ago. I learned journalism at The Transcript. And for that, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Doherty, who took a chance on me when there seemed no good reason to.


I had never taken a journalism course when I arrived at The Transcript, much less earned a degree in it. I only wanted to write, an obsession since grammar school that I’d fed at Harvard and after graduating, when I worked for Delta Airlines at Logan International Airport while freelancing news features and penning bad fiction (We sacrificed to send you to Harvard so you could load bags onto airplanes? my mother would say, but that’s another story).

The fiction didn’t sell, though the freelancing did tolerably well. Still, the income was hardly enough to pay the rent. So, during the spring and summer of 1978, miniscule resume in hand, I applied to newspapers throughout New England and beyond. Occasionally, a form rejection came back, but mostly, nothing. No editor wanted to hire a young baggage-handler, Ivy League degree notwithstanding.

Except Doherty, who invited me to an interview, then offered me the job.

I’m still not quite sure what Doherty, who went on to become the longtime legendary executive editor of Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, N.H., saw in me. Maybe he wanted that free coffee. Maybe it was the chance to yell “Hey, Hah-vahd!” across the newsroom, as he regularly did, to the amusement of all, including me. But there was no better teacher than Doherty. He gave me room to run, but not too much room. He was patient with my mistakes. He teased, without ridiculing, which was his way of challenging. He complimented when warranted, gave guidance when needed. Some fellow reporters who took me under their wing did the same.

When I left in April 1979 for The Cape Cod Times, where I spent two years before coming to The Providence Journal, I had completed a master’s-level course in my profession. Everything I learned during my brief time at The Transcript, another of the many newspapers that today are history, has served me well since. So thanks again, Rod, and my ex colleagues.

But there was something even more important that I learned from Doherty and the editors for whom I have worked since: Bill Breisky and Jim Concannon at The Cape Cod Times, and a succession at The Journal, including Chuck Hauser, Jim Wyman, Joel Rawson, Carol Young, Tom Heslin, Karen Bordeleau and now, Alan Rosenberg.

And that is: Give back. Encourage and support the young and the new. When at a certain level of professional achievement, mentor those who might desire and benefit.

So I have, at The Journal, and with other hats I wear as an author and director of the Story in the Public Square program at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center. Many of these folks have expressed their appreciation for what little I gave them. But they could really thank Rod Doherty, who first took a chance on a kid who bought a roomful of journalists coffee. Once.

-- 30 --

From August 28, 2018, through August 27, 2019, I will periodically post -- in no particular order and with no set number in mind (think: whimsy) -- some of my stories during my four decades as a journalist at three newspapers: The Transcript, in North Adams, Mass, now defunct; The Cape Cod Times, in Hyannis, Mass.; and since 1981 at The Providence Journal.

-- First up: "Fatal Foam," a four-part series co-written with the late Pete Lord, a dear friend, that was part of The Providence Journal's coverage of the deadly 2003 Station Fire that killed 100. The Journal's coverage was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

-- "Children of Poverty," an exploration of social injustice and disparity, a five-part series published in 1989.



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