This is my silver anniversary.
Twenty-five years ago today, I started working in Rochester, as a reporter at the now-defunct “Times-Union.”
Then, I considered it one of the happiest and most-blessed days of my life. Now, the years have only reinforced and enhanced that view.
In the rearview mirror, it has been a joy. And while I know that it wasn’t all sunshine and smiles, I have a hard time remembering any particulars of struggle or disappointment. I only remember the people, events and privileges.
It’s funny how close it came to not happening.
I had spent the four previous years in the Army, as a journalist and photographer. As my enlistment drew toward its end, I did a nationwide job search. In my mind, I wanted to work at one of those statewide papers in the Midwest or West.
Specifically, I wanted to stay right where I was – in Indianapolis. I had spent my entire enlistment there and I knew the region well and had enjoyed good success.
But I set a rule in my head: I would accept whatever job offer paid me the most. Period. Money would be the deciding factor.
I didn’t apply in Rochester hoping to get hired there or as the result of any desire to move back to New York. I had grown up 70 miles to the south, and I applied in Rochester as an afterthought, to mollify my mother.
And I was surprised to hear back. And to be flown out for a tryout, and offered a job.
Surprised, and a little disappointed.
I wanted the Midwest or West, and I wanted to roam an entire state.
The day I got back from the Rochester interview, I was contacted by what was then the big paper in Indianapolis. I went in and it went well and they offered me a job.
For $5 less a week than Rochester was offering.
I was in a bad spot.
I had made a rule to follow – take the job that offered the most money – but it conflicted with my desires.
I went back to the Indianapolis bosses and said I had an offer for $5 more a week and I wondered if they could match it. The editor asked where the other offer was. I told him. He became immediately indignant. Rochester was a Gannett newspaper and Indianapolis, then, wasn’t. Gannett didn’t have a great image in the eyes of the non-Gannett world and he was somewhat offended that I would take a Gannett job over a position at his paper.
He said his offer stood, but he wasn’t willing to raise it $5 a week to match what Rochester promised.
So I thanked him and called the “Times-Union” to tell them I was accepting their offer.
So, for $5, these 25 years have been spent in Rochester, instead of Indianapolis. Who knows the impact of that small decision made on that small basis.
I had gotten into the news business almost exactly five years earlier on a similar flukey resolution. Thirty years ago – next week, to be exact – I needed a job, bad. I was newly married and had no income other than chopping firewood with a guy from church.
So I made a deal with myself to apply for every job there was, and to accept the first job offered me.
I walked up and down several Main streets, filling out applications. I answered every ad in the paper or on the radio, no matter what the job was.
Which is how I came to apply for an open sports-reporter position at the Hornell “Evening Tribune.” And several other jobs, including being the manager of the Laf-A-Lot bar and restaurant on Loon Lake.
That was the one I wanted. I had a good background in food service management, and had run an operation far larger, so I thought I was a shoo in.
I was called for interviews running the Laf-A-Lot and writing for the “Evening Tribune.”
I knew nothing about sports or newspapering, and I knew a lot about food service, but both seemed to go well.
And both called back to offer me jobs.
But the newspaper called half an hour earlier, and was my first job offer, and I had promised myself I would take the first job I was offered, so I became a newspaper man and began a media career that has now fed my family for 30 years.
At the “Times-Union” and “Democrat and Chronicle,” I was very happy. I was given great opportunities and blessed with increased responsibilities. By the time I was 32, I was the daily metro columnist at the “Democrat and Chronicle.” By then, I was wildly and completely in love with newspapering and with Rochester, and I knew the significance and obligation of my role. I had the perfect job, writing each day whatever I wanted about whatever I wanted.
Two things happened there that refined my career trajectory.
The first was the simple advice of a wonderful editor to, “Don’t spare the lumber.” My desire was not to write opinion or do commentary, but simply to write, to write as beautifully and movingly as modern newspapering would allow. I wanted to be an Ernie Pyle or Studs Terkel – or Arch Merrill or Henry Clune. I wanted to follow the lead of John Steinbeck, who said that the writer’s job is to explain people to one another.
And I think I was good at that.
But one day I wrote something that took a swipe at a politician or policy, and the editor came over very pleased and said, “Don’t spare the lumber.”
And I didn’t, and the response from readers and bosses was very positive. I have continued to pretty much do that since.
The second development showed me, heartbreakingly, that I didn’t have a future in newspapering.
It was one year in a Gannett-company writing competition. They had a column-writing category and I had had a pretty good year, doing well in other competitions and raising the profile of my column significantly in the community and in the company.
So I entered the companywide competition with guarded optimism. I had had a good year, and a writer from Cincinnati had had a good year, and I figured that he and I would fill the top two positions.
On the day the winners were announced, we all gathered in the publisher’s theater for a big satellite broadcast. They started with third place and the man from Cincinnati took that.
Then second, and it was me.
I was happy and grateful, and eager to see who had taken first, as apparently there had been a strong writer in the company who I hadn’t noticed.
Then they announced the winner, and I knew right then that I was in a field that could not be my long-term home. The winner for best column writing was not a columnist, but rather a copy editor, who had just started doing a weekly piece about being gay. She went on to have a good career, but at that point, there was nothing to recommend her writing or story-telling ability beyond the fact she was saying, “Hey, look at me, I’m gay.”
And I figured that if the political correctness of a writer was more important than the ability of a writer, then I – a good writer who happened also to be a conservative, white, Christian, heterosexual male – had no hope.
And I knew I needed to start developing an alternative career.
Which took me to broadcasting. Television I planned, radio I didn’t plan.
Which is the last significant fluke of these 25 years.
I was writing a daily metro column at a fairly good sized newspaper. I was, for a time, the youngest person in America doing that. Everything was aces.
Except with my mother.
She simply could not grasp any usefulness for or significance to newspaper writers. My face and name were in the paper every day, often on the front page, I was winning awards, and she couldn’t care less. It wasn’t a real job in her mind.
One day, a friend of hers got a morning-delivery car route with the “Buffalo News” and my mother called excitedly to say that this friend thought that she could get me a route too – so that I could have a real newspaper job.
Like any child, I wanted to impress my mother, and I clearly wasn’t doing it with my regular job.
At this time, whenever she and I would speak, she would tell me about listening to a radio talk show host out of Boston named David Brudnoy. He was on at night and she listened and she thought he hung the moon.
So it occurred to me that maybe if I was on talk radio, she would be impressed with me.
So I contacted the boss at WHAM radio and suggested that the next time his talk host took a day off, he ought to have me fill in. I had done some music radio during my first year in newspapering, and I had done a lot of MC stuff when I was in the Army, so I figured I could muddle through. I told the radio guy it could be a stunt, to bring newspaper readers to the radio station, and I knew that if I got to fill in a time or two it would thrill my mother to hear me on.
I don’t believe she ever heard me.
The radio guy liked the idea, but she died before anything substantive was done.
But the introduction was made, and the opportunity came, and after filling in for free for a couple of years, and searching the country to hire anybody but me, the station eventually got stuck and had to put me on fulltime.
And for almost 20 years I’ve been on the radio, running my mouth.
My career has been wonderfully successful, allowing me to earn a living beyond my class and education. I have recently signed a new long-term contract to continue doing shows in Rochester and Syracuse, and begin doing a Utah and Mormon-themed podcast on iHeartRadio.
I continue to look for new opportunities, in writing and broadcasting.
But this isn’t about looking forward, it is about standing for a moment on today’s plateau – 25 years in a town I love – and publicly acknowledging my incredible blessings and debt of gratitude. Rochester has been my home and I am loyal to it. I will not leave. I may add other jobs, but I will never leave this job. And if this particular employer eventually tires of me, I will find another here in town.
Because this isn’t my anniversary, this is our anniversary. For 25 years the people of this region have tolerated me and fed me. They have read my stuff and listened to my drivel. On good days and bad, this town has been my hometown, and I have every man, woman and child here to thank for that.
So thank you.
Twenty-five years ago today I was awestruck.
And it’s only gotten better since then.