Reflecting on times gone by with loss of The Boss

It was December of 1976. I had been working as a gardener and in those pre-global warming days, there was no gardening to do in Ohio in December. I needed a job and my only marketable skill was I could write a little bit.

So I went to the Troy Daily News looking for a job. Joel Walker and Jim Morris were waiting for me.

Joel was the publisher and Jim was the managing editor in those days. They let me cover a few high school basketball games and then offered me a job for the princely sum of $120 a week. I took it. It was cold outside.

The pay might not have been all that great, but the opportunity was. I was hired as a sportswriter/reporter/copy editor/page designer. I probably would have delivered papers, too, if I had the time.

Joel and Jim — along with Associate Editor Harriet Heithaus, Sports Editor Dick Netzley and two copy editors named Paul Robbins and Kermit Vandivier – taught me the ropes of journalism. More accurately, they threw me into the water and one of them would throw me a rope and rescue me when I started to go under. You had to be a quick learner back then.

I bring this up because Joel died earlier this week. Jim passed away a few years ago, and Paul and Kermit have both been gone for a while. But Joel’s death makes it seem like the old book really is closed once and for all. He was The Boss, after all.

What times they were! Watergate and All the President’s Men were still fresh and everyone wanted to be the reporter who broke the big scandal. The TDN thought big in those days, too, mostly because of Joel and the newspaper’s owner, R. George Kuser Jr. We worked on a lot of ambitious projects both in reporting and photography. Most of them turned out well. I prefer to not recall the ones that didn’t. We attracted talented people. Some went on to notable careers elsewhere, some stayed home.

We covered big events and did in-depth series. The newsroom itself was a continual burst of energy, with “discussions” about everything from what stories to cover to what letters to capitalize. Paul and Kermit sat next to each other and about the only thing they agreed about was cigarettes. The blue haze that covered the newsroom was part cigarette smoke, part continual debate.

It wasn’t all good, of course. I look back at some of the things we tried and wonder what we were thinking. There were typographical errors and missed stories and impossible hours and fights with each other and with other departments in the newspaper.

But by far the good outweighed the bad.

It was an exciting time. Soon after I joined up, we started a Sunday newspaper. Then George built the new editorial department building at the corner of Plum and South Market streets. Then he built a new place on Marybill Drive for the presses.

Through all of this Joel, the publisher, was the person who made the big decisions. Mostly, he found the right people and let them do what they felt was best. When he suggested something, and it turned out to be right, he didn’t make a big deal out of it – you would see a little smile come across his face and then he would move on to the next thing.

The TDN was sold for the first time in 1998 and Joel retired. A new kind a management philosophy arrived at the paper.

I remember eating lunch with him a few months later at Taggart’s.

“You know what?” I said. “Everyone always used to complain about you when you were publisher.” Joel showed no emotion at all. He was good at that. “But,” I said, “you’re a real popular guy now. Everyone is saying, ‘Where is Joel when you need him?’”

He flashed that little smile for a moment, and then we went on to talk about other things.

Joel had been ill for quite a while before he died and it seemed almost like he was simply willing himself to stay around. When he set his mind on something, there was no way to stop him. Time might be the only thing that could finally get the best of him.

Hearing about Joel’s death caused me to reflect about those days. I didn’t really appreciate how special they were at the time. I do now.

So as that era fades away, I’d like to express my thanks for the times, the place — and, most of all, for the people who made it happen.