I was 18 and two months out of high school when I began writing for money.
Fifty-five years ago today at 10 o’clock in the morning I walked into the tiny sports department at the Asheville Citizen-Times, spotted sports editor Bob Terrell’s desk in the back corner. There were five desks in a room that couldn’t have been more than 15X15. I briskly walked toward him, my right hand extended to shake his.
I had no appointment, but I wanted a job. This was the only way I knew to ask. My background was not imposing: I was 18, a recent high school graduate and I couldn’t type. My previous jobs were in a paint warehouse and a fast-food restaurant. I had been a high school athlete and a good English student. I liked to write.
Bob listened patiently as I told him all that and ended with, “I’d love to work here with you.”
My mother suggested I give Terrell a visit, asking, “What do you have to lose?” I had no answer. “Besides,” she said, “this Bob Terrell seems like a nice man. I’ve read his columns.” He was a nice man. He hired me on the spot and I worked that night at a salary of $5 a night as a copy boy, a position that no longer exists and hasn’t for many years.
My first assignment was to practice typing and take hard copy (that’s stories type-written on paper) to the composing room every 30 minutes or so, in order for the stories to be set into type on lead slugs. Bob assigned Al Geremonte, the paper’s outdoor editor and an old World War II platoon sergeant who fought at Guadalcanal, to watch over me and teach me the ropes.
This is me in about 1981 as editor of a weekly paper.
I took to the routine quickly, loved the always-excited atmospheres of the adjacent news and sports rooms, learned to type by typing and started writing small stories initiated by people calling the department. Al had a blue pencil that he used on my two and three-paragraph pieces, tearing them apart, often leaving me crushed, but determined. He said, “Listen, kid, [he always called me “kid”], just write the way you talk and make sure you speak English and you’ll be OK.” I later learned that Al’s advice gave me permission to write in my own “voice,” something I have taught young writers for years now.
It was October before I earned my first by-line, a small piece, maybe six paragraphs, on high school football. I had never before–or since–been so proud. Mom showed the clipping to everybody she knew.
That’s the significantly-ripened me in front of the Citizen-Times building in downtown Asheville.
I have always felt something more than blessed that Mom suggested I go see Bob Terrell, that I did and that he hired me. Some years ago, I wrote a story about a job counselor who suggested that most of us land in our careers by sheer happenstance, like the theater major a friend of mine hired to be a financial advisor (she’s great at it, he says). I loved to write, even as a kid and entertained notions of teaching history at one point. But that wasn’t happening.
Listening to Mom wasn’t something I always did. This time, though, it was the right thing to do.