Byline

thetorch002During college, I thought I was going to be a journalist. I started writing sports for the school paper. First I wrote about fencing of all things, then basketball, then track. This was the end of my freshman year. I was getting the hang of being a student and two of my suitemates were fencing. They complained that the school newspaper, The Torch, never covered them even though they were having a pretty good season. I wrote a couple of short articles. I remember them losing to Brown, but then beating MIT. I have the clips somewhere. I liked seeing my byline, “Bill Trippe, Torch Staff Writer.”

The next fall I was the co-editor of the sports department. My friend Dan MacAlpine and I would put out an 8-page sports section in a weekly paper that ran 24 or 28 pages. If you know student newspapers, you know this is some serious work. We were shaped by the Boston Globe’s coverage and style. This was the glory days of Will McDonough, Peter Gammons, Leigh Montville. They were sharp and smart and caustic. We wanted to be them.

We would go big with the best story, stretching the section-opening picture across the tabloid page. We had a talented photographer, John Gilmore, who loved sports, and we would pick something dramatic—a runner gasping across the finish line, straight on, or a guy diving for a loose ball, his chest and chin hitting the court. We had a great advisor, Greg Stone, who had been a journalist and the first one on the scene when Mary Jo Kopechne died at Chappaquidick. Don’t tell; show, he would say. For sports, he had the best advice. Take us there. Imagine your reader didn’t get to the game and really wants to know what happened. It was the perfect advice for a sports writer in 1978.

The next year I was the managing editor. I wrote less, focusing instead on driving the newspaper to completion each week. We had two typesetting machines, Compugraphic 7500s, a Compugraphic 7200 headline writer, and two developer machines. It was a messy, error-prone process. There was no WYSIWYG in those days. The 7500s displayed a line of text at a time, a light would glow when you had 10 character left, and finally a warning would sound when you had three characters left before you had to decide where to quad.  The headliner showed nothing. You wrote the headline on paper, then used a chart to decide how many inches the headline would run at your chose font size. Usually the font size would win and you would rewrite the headline before you composed it.

I supervised the two young women who did the typesetting. I changed the photographic paper when it ran out. I kept the chemicals fresh in the developers. When something hiccupped in one of the machines—and things were always hiccupping—I would fix them. Fixing them consisted of replacing one or more the big printed-circuit boards. Sometimes the machines told me which ones to replace and sometimes I just guessed.

The paper came out on Friday. Wednesday night was our time to get most of the paper done, and we often worked late into the night. The campus center would be empty by then, and we would turn music up loud, drink, and work. I remember Hugh Masakela’s “Grazing in the Grass.” It would pick everyone up. More stories would get finished and edited. More copy would come out of the typesetters, more pages would get laid out.

The goal was to get most of the paper done by the end of Wednesday night and use Thursday to tie up any big or late-breaking stories. We were students. We weren’t breaking Watergate, but we did have some serious stories. We had three girls die in an off-campus car crash. We had $4000 stolen from the ticket office after a Tom Hayden talk. We had a student murdered and end up in a cranberry bog. We did some good sturdy writing about the school budget, the search for a new president, deans taking leave and new deans coming in.

We had to be done at 7:00 pm on Thursday. A truck driver from the printer would come and collect the pages, which we would organize into a portfolio for handoff. If Wednesday night had been fun and energetic, though, Thursdays were a grind. Some of us were hungover, most of us had class. We weren’t good that year at getting the final things to bed, and if the driver arrived and we weren’t ready, we were charged extra, and if we were really late the paper wouldn’t be dropped off at the campus center early enough on Friday morning. Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMass-Dartmouth) was still a commuter school then, and the difference between having the paper distributed around campus at 7:30 a.m. versus 9:30 a.m. could mean 2000 of the 5000 papers wouldn’t even get picked up off the stacks. It was demoralizing.

I always liked meeting the truck on Friday mornings. A few of us would grab bundles and walk them around to the lobbies of the main campus buildings. I would still be slicing a bundle open and people would queue up to grab a copy. It was like being a paper boy but where you had written and laid out the paper too.

By the end of that junior year I was pivoting a bit. I was working on the student literary magazine and radio station and was freelancing for a daily, The New Bedford Standard-Times. At first my stories for the Times were sports reports, but then I started doing light news from campus—profiles of students and professors. I learned some things from the city editor who gave me the assignments. I learned how to write a lead paragraph, how to stay with the active voice, how to pick the right quotes. I still remember him taking the opening paragraphs of the first few stories I wrote and just lopping them off. Tough editor love.

Toward the end of that year, I was asked to write a story about a medical ethics class that was being taught by a favorite professor, a Jesuit priest with the perfect name of Thomas Aquinas Wassmer.  Wassmer was a big personality who had that piercing Jesuit intellect. I remember him saying in another class )to a pair of nuns no less), “And what of the incestuously impregnated girl with the traumatized fetus? Would you make her carry the fetus to term?”

I didn’t get that kind of quote from Wassmer for the story I wrote. As I recall, instead I had him in the classroom, probing students on a moral quandary. A young father is dying of kidney disease when he and his wife come up with a way to save him. He will impregnate her, they will abort the fetus, and then harvest the kidneys to save the father. Wassmer challenged the class to debate this. I captured some of the discussion in the article.

I turned it in on a Friday and my editor called me in on Saturday. They had been planning to run it in the Sunday religion section, but now he had good news and bad news. The good news is that they loved the story and were considering it for page three of the main section. The bad news was that it might just be too much for the readership. The editor suggested we call Father Wassmer and ask if he was comfortable with the profile and the classroom scene I described. We called. I read the article to him. He loved it.

I sat while he made the edits on the green screen and let me read the article one last time. I was 20 years old. He had likely been writing and editing for longer than that. I knew he was going to file the story however he wanted to, but he was mentoring me. My editor rewrote my lead, of course. I had been overly clever and dropped right into the classroom scene without framing it sufficiently. His version was much better than mine.

I made $25.00 for a story back then, plus something like .18 a mile. My guess is that I probably wrote a sports story that week. Those probably took me the length of the game and an hour to write. The Wassmer story probably took me the better part of a day, but if I picked up a check for $50 and change that week, I would have been rolling in it. My share of my apartment cost me $75 a month and I had almost no other expenses.

I used to go to a bar in downtown New Bedford in those days, Burt’s Uptown Grille, though there was nothing uptown about it. Beers were .75, and if some of the real reporters were there, I never bought my own. Like the city editor, they were all guys twice my age and older. They weren’t shy about telling me something I got wrong in a story, but they didn’t rip me the way they shredded each other. I think they liked having a kid around

Sometime in my senior year, though, I decided to not become a journalist. I got a taste of more reporting at the Standard-Times when my editor gave me stories that had these things called “deadlines.” When an economics professor died, I just couldn’t turn a real obituary around fast enough. My memory tells me I turned in something woefully incomplete and a real reporter had to finish it. It was clear daily newspapers were simply not for me.

In my senior year I did every kind of writing that came my way. I had moved on from sports, but did short features for the Standard-Times and the Fall River Herald. I did some publicity writing for my school and for a federal energy saving program in New Bedford. I did more school radio and did some news freelancing for a real radio station. I covered a fatal car accident late one night—another way God told me to not become a journalist.

I jammed all of these things onto my resume year after year. I did some decent writing. I chased work and money around every corner I could find. Perhaps it was the ignorance of youth, but I pitched things to anyone I could find. I recently uncovered an old notebook and I had pages of story ideas and the names and phone numbers of editors form newspapers small and large, general magazines, specialized ones. Apparently I pitched a story about chemical waste to a couple of papers. At another point, I was trying to develop a story on solar homes and have notes from a call where I was rebuffed in my attempt to talk to then-Governor Dukakis.

What chutzpah. Sign that young man up.

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