Great to see my old friend Michael Mercer!

An old friend sent me the above video. When I got home last night, I asked my wife to watch it without telling her why. She looked at it only a second before saying “Michael!”

Yep. The guy playing the “English teacher” at the beginning is Michael Mercer. Michael and I started out as copy editors together at The Jackson (TN) Sun in 1975, soon after I graduated from Memphis State. Michael got out of the business long before I did, taking a teaching gig at Auburn. Now he’s at another college in San Antonio, as he explained when I asked about the video:

The young lady featured in the film is one of my student-advisees at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. She’s a communication arts major concentrating in journalism — although broadcast like most of them do today. She asked me at the last minute to be in the video that she and the filmmaker — her boyfriend from another school in San Antonio — were doing for a video contest promoting San Antonio park recreation.

They didn’t win the contest but I thought they, too, did an excellent job. I was only familiar with the classroom scene where they asked me to  mouth a few words as an “English teacher.” Those other students in the video in the classroom are UIW students but not any of mine. We spent about an hour shooting various takes, angles, short bites. I was told it would only take about five minutes. Then a week later, my student asked me to wear the same shirt and pants for a scene they wanted to shoot minus the class in that same classroom showing me walking out the door after that “chill” comment.

No, most of my South Carolina readers won’t know Michael, but some of our former colleagues will see this, which is why I share it here. The fact that I can do so so easily — the fact that a student could even produce something like this — is testament to how the world has changed since Michael and I started out.

In those days, the copy desk was still a big horseshoe (or “elephant’s commode,” as one of my Tennessee colleagues referred to it), with the slot man (or woman) sitting in the center, distributing copy to those on the rim who would edit it and write headlines as assigned by the slot. The copy and headlines would then be passed back to the slot for checking before being sent to the composing room. Except that the editing wasn’t done on paper at this point. The text had been scanned and output onto a paper punchtape, which was clipped to the hard copy with a clothespin (without clothespins, we couldn’t have gotten the paper out). After an editor received the copy with attached tape from the slot, he or she would take it over to a Harris 1100 editing machine, and feed the punch tape into it. The copy would appear on a CRT screen, and the editor would use a keyboard to edit it. When done, the edited text would be output to another punch tape of a different color, which the editor would roll up the tape (using a little electrical device that was sort of like one of those handheld, flashlight-sized fans) and clip it back to the copy. That bundle is what the editor would pass back to the slot, along with a headline written in pencil on a hand-torn strip of paper.

A couple of months after I joined The Sun, I was pulling shifts in the slot, and I found I liked it so much that by the time I moved on from the desk, I was doing it most days. The job entailed what would have been three to five jobs at a paper the size of The State in those days. The slot not only supervised the editing process, but laid out the entire A section, monitored the wires and selected all wire copy, and oversaw the production process in the composing room. If a page was late, it was the slot’s fault. And in those days, things were so loose and informal at The Sun that an assertive slot (which, I confess, I was) could pretty much decide how all of the news in the paper was played, including local copy.

The day started at 5:30 a.m., and the whole first edition (which was more pages than you find today in The State) had to be out at 11. Then we’d grab a quick lunch before having the city edition out by 1:30.

Doing that job at the age of 22 gave me a lot of confidence that stood me in good stead in the years to come. And it gave me a taste for calling the shots. Which is why after that gig, I only spent a couple of years as a reporter before becoming a supervising editor. You can learn a lot by starting out in a small pond.

Michael followed a similar path, without being quite as power-mad as I was (you can probably tell in his brief appearance that Michael is a nicer guy than I am — which I’m betting is why he was cast in this film; I’m sure he’s the sort of teacher who might be students’ favorite). He was one of my assistant editors over the news reporters at The Sun in later years.

And now there he is, playing the “English teacher.”

One thought on “Great to see my old friend Michael Mercer!

  1. Burl Burlingame

    When I edited stories and laid out pages, I much preferred doing it all myself, from the story selection to trimming to hed and xcs writing to layout to graphic design, photo editing and assorted special effects, and I’m good at it. But more than that, I was fast and efficient. The style nowadays is to have separate copy editors do a different part of each page.

    Of course, once you get the laser proof, new eyes have to examine it.


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