And here I am as a tyro journalist, at about the same time

baby journalist

I ran across this picture during the same search that produced the one of Dylan and The Band.

Evidently, I did not take this. I don’t remember who did.

Anyway, that’s me front and center looking at the camera, with the Groucho mustache, the circa 1965 Beatles hair, the octagonal wire-rims, the distinctly big-collared 1970s sport shirt, and the white Keds. This was in the newsroom of The Helmsman, the student paper at Memphis State University, probably around the same time as the Dylan/Band picture. So somewhere in the 1973-75 range.

This was during my stint as either editorial page editor or news editor of the paper. I say this because I’m turned away from the manual typewriter and evidently pencil-editing someone else’s copy instead of writing. I’m sitting in the slot position of the copy desk, the standard U-shaped desk that an editor I worked with after graduation called “the elephant’s commode.”

Dan Henderson, our fearless leader.

Dan Henderson, our fearless leader.

But we didn’t really have a formal copy desk and slot man. There were four or five kids, of whom I was one, who were the core of the paper and made everything happen, with other contributors coming and going. Another of the inner group is in the background at far right, his finger in his near ear as he tries to hear someone on the phone. His name was Oran; I forget his last name.

I don’t know what the long-haired guy standing in the doorway of the supply closet is looking at; he seems to be just grooving on a spot in the ceiling.

Note the detritus of a paper-based publishing system. Aside from the typewriters, there’s a pencil sharpener, a tape dispenser, a stapler, and several pots of rubber cement. The rubber cement was for gluing all the pages, or takes, of a story together into one long, continuous strip of paper. The piece was sent to a commercial print shop several miles away where the paper was put together, and which we had to visit to proof and let the pages go.

The newsroom was small. Whoever shot this is standing in the middle of it.

Dan pretends to point to something on a piece of copy I'm pretending to edit. This was for the yearbook. Notice we didn't make the slightest effort to groom for the occasion.

Dan pretends to point to something on a piece of copy I’m pretending to edit. This was for the yearbook. Notice we didn’t make the slightest effort to groom for the occasion…

The closed door behind me is the Inner Sanctum of whoever was our chief editor at the time — probably the late Dan Henderson, who was later an assistant managing editor at The Commercial Appeal. Oran was to work for them later, too, in a rural bureau in West Tennessee. Those bureau people weren’t in the Guild, and were treated like dirt by the people in Memphis. One night, Oran called in his story, and the editor took it, and asked all the questions he had while editing it, and then said, “By the way, we won’t be needing your services any more.” Yeah, he was fired. He had moved out of Memphis and set up residence in some dinky town for the sake of the paper, and that’s how they let him go. Sayonara, pal.

Some would say that’s a good argument for unionizing reporters, since it was the fact that Oran was not in the Guild that let him be treated this way. For my part, I think there’s something about Guild papers (The Commercial Appeal was the only one I ever worked at) that created an unnecessarily adversarial relationship between journalists and management, so the powers that be took out their hostility on the ones they could take it out on. But that’s just my theory…

13 thoughts on “And here I am as a tyro journalist, at about the same time

  1. Norm Ivey

    Amazing album cover for Brad and the Bloggers (or whatever your once and future band will be called). The roof-gazer and the Keds hooked behind the legs of the chair seal it.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Note that I added a couple of images. That’s because I found a scanned copy of the 1975 yearbook online. From the description of our staff:

    The fall semester staff of the Helmsman was likened by some to a can of mixed nuts. There was the Hemingway nut (Brad Warthen), the Manilow nut (Kini Kedigh) the Dylan nut (Jasmine Malvezzi), the money nut (Clay Bailey) and other assorted nuts.

    Serving as successive chief nuts during the fall semester were Susan Taylor Madonia and Dan Henderson. Henderson, as editor, carried the Helmsman staff into the spring…

    Last time I looked, Clay was still a reporter at The Commercial Appeal. Dan, who was an A.M.E. there, died young — was found dead in his apartment. I forget what he died of. Dan was never the healthiest guy, but he was brilliant, and creative. He wrote a lot of science fiction on the side…

    Go to the page from the yearbook, and note the sharp difference between the way the business staff looked and the way we looked. Being grubby and too cool to care was just our way. James Owen was the one crossover guy, appearing in both pictures — but in the back in both, as though comfortable in neither world…

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      I’m sorry, but The Helmsman sounds like one of those fried seafood places where the only sides are fries and cole slaw, and they have Jell-O as a dessert option.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Well, WE liked it.

        The Helmsman was the cool paper, the one run by students without any adult supervision. The Statesman was the journalism department lab paper, which no one wanted to work for for a single minute outside of required course work. I was so determined to avoid the two required copyediting classes, run under the iron fist and capricious guidance of an assistant professor named L. Dupre Long (who at night was a copyeditor at The Commercial Appeal), that I waited to take them both over the summer before I graduated in August. The Statesman was Leon’s (that’s what the L stood for) baby, and he was EXTREMELY particular about everything that went into it.

        We had a comic strip we ran in The Helmsman that featured a villainous character named “El Depraved.” Get it? So did the administration. In the only instance I recall of the Establishment trying to influence our paper, I got called into the department head’s office to discuss it. I can’t remember what we ended up doing in response…

        1. Elaine M.

          I actually worked on both papers and found the experience to be both enlightening and rewarding. I was there on the papers from 1971-73 (I think, may have been 1972-73). At any rate, each had their own strengths and weaknesses. I, however, did not shy away from L. Dupre Long’s classes. He was tough and direct and got me ready to work immediately afterward. He did not sugar coat anything. He dealt with us like we were already working at a commercial paper. I liked that. The Helmsman (I was there for the name change, think it was The TIger Rag beforehand) was another story. It was fun and gave me the chance to be outrageous if I wanted to. It did get a little more contained after the name change. The school seemed to want us to be a little more “dignified?” Who knows. During my tenure there (TR days), we had an editor that was extremely gifted and also a bit of a rebel. We did an issue of the paper on April 1 called The Existential Whole Earth Cosmic Rat (the rat being illustrations by Henry Bailey). We ran a story about this student who became the university president. The whole issue was totally fake in the real sense of the word and not like today’s supposed fake news. Poor editor got called into the administration office. At any rate it was such a super time to be a student. The world was expanding leaps and bounds and we were at the early years of no-holds-bar journalism. I am so grateful to all of the instructors I had there and what they taught me (or didn’t). Dr. Williams book was a staple in many programs across the U.S. Only regret? That I did not take more courses outside my track (i.e., feature writing, PR, etc.). Would have added to my early credentials. Got the experience over several years, nonetheless. Oh, Brad, we did have some supervision. Remember Ron Speilberger? He was around as I remember. Not sure if he was an actual supervisor, but he did work with us. Go L.D.! Was lucky to have you for much more than just one class. Also remember others but don’t remember how to spell them. Oliphant, Bannister or Bankester something, Thomas, etc. Some classes good, others were not an interesting. But L.D’s classes? Never a dull moment! Always challenging. Forever in my memory. And, that mustache, glasses and a bit of a devilish smile.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              To elaborate… after I saw her comment from 2018, I reached out and wrote to her in some detail about Memphis State days. Here’s what I sent to her:

              Elaine, I just now saw your comment on my blog from 2018, about a year after I wrote that post looking back on Memphis State days!

              Sorry I missed it back then. It was during a hiatus from the blog — I was going nuts at the time serving as communications director for a gubernatorial candidate (Democratic nominee James Smith), and your comment came in the intense last weeks of the campaign. I wasn’t really blogging then — both because I had zero time, and because I didn’t want any of my opinions getting the campaign in trouble. So I guess when I finally turned back to it, there had been a lot of other comments after yours, and now I don’t remember seeing it.

              Anyway, I loved that you mentioned Henry Bailey, that wonderful, wild, diverse talent. I hadn’t thought about him in awhile. I knew Henry, and had some dealings with him, but he wasn’t with the Helmsman when I was an editor there. He may have already started working at the Press-Scimitar at the point.

              I’m glad you liked Leon. I got along with him pretty well, most of the time. But there was always a bit of a barrier there, maybe because he thought of me as one of those Helmsman ruffians. Also, I found some of his judgments kind of random. I wrote a column about student government, and he praised my first one to the skies.

              Then, when I turned in my second one, he said it was disappointing — and to my eye, it had the same laudable characteristics as the first.

              My last interaction with him as a student was pleasant, but very Leon. His editing class was the very last grade I got at Memphis State, and for me, it was high stakes. I had been a real slacker the first couple of years of college, but had buckled down in the last couple of years, trying to pull my GPA up from the point where I was on academic probation (see, I wasn’t kidding about being a slacker) to where I could boast a B average and graduate cum laude.

              And it all came down to that one grade. If it was an A, I would make it, exactly, with a 3.0. If it was a B, I’d fall short. And it was all up to Leon; the judgment was largely subjective.

              And to find out what the grade was, I had to go see him in person — it wasn’t posted on the wall or anything.

              So I went to him, and he sat me down, and gave me a long lecture about how I was an underachiever — that I had a lot of ability, but I didn’t live up to it. And if I wanted to succeed in journalism, I’d have to do much better. And so forth. Very Leon.

              And then he told me he had given me an A. So I liked him very much at that point…

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                As I recall, I wasn’t listed under the modest ranks of “cum laude” graduates at graduation several days later. I think you had to have earned it as of the semester before to be listed. The programs for graduation were probably already printed when I had my little conference with Leon.

                But I knew it, and I was pleased with myself. I had been a slacker for so long that I was proud of the 3.8 or so I had those last couple of years. Yeah, I had to pull the cumulative WAY up to get that 3.00…

                1. Elaine Millen

                  Looking back at the time period when I was at MSU/UM, it was during a very life-changing era. This was the late ’60s and early ’70s. Everything was shaken up by the push back against the “establishment.” It was a magical time and one that I cherish till this day. We changed how things were seen, reported, shared, spoken about, etc.

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