An obituary for a living journalist
By ANDREW MCGINN email@example.com
This has all been Claudette’s fault.
There are some hard-and-fast rules when it comes to handling teenage boys who begin to fashion themselves class clowns.
The way I see it, a class clown is sort of like a mogwai, the adorable pet furball in “Gremlins” that can spawn into a grotesque, antisocial creature if specific rules aren’t obeyed — like, never feed a mogwai after midnight, and never get one wet.
Class clowns start out sorta cute, too.
But never, so help you Jesus, acknowledge one with praise.
That was Claudette’s mistake.
I was undoubtedly trying to rent something inappropriate on VHS one day after school at the Sierra Theatre when Claudette asked if I was “that McGinn kid who writes for The Quill.”
The Quill, you may recall, was what the Jefferson and Jefferson-Scranton student page was called for years in the Bee & Herald.
I was indeed that McGinn kid.
“I get such a kick out of reading your stories,” she informed me, totally unaware she was feeding a mogwai after midnight.
I left the Sierra that afternoon with “Faces of Death” on tape in one hand (“Banned in 46 Countries,” the box had promised) and a clear career path to follow — if writing was a way to be noticed, I was going to be a writer.
My newspaper career took me out of state and eventually into the pages of USA Today. I enjoyed experiences I never imagined possible for a kid from rural Iowa, like being present in John Legend’s hotel room in L.A. as he shaved, showered and dressed for his first Grammy Awards, and being asked to ghostwrite an autobiography for a member of ’70s funk legends the Ohio Players. (That I declined the offer is my single-greatest regret; I have to instead be content with being listed in his Wikipedia entry.)
And now my newspaper career is ending — right where it started.
This is my final week as editor.
For the past two years, I have been working toward a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, having come to a realization that society is more in need than ever of doers.
It has more than enough commentators, each of us vying from our seat in the peanut gallery for emoji reactions on Facebook. Everyone, it seems, is now a writer, a reporter, a publisher, a content producer, a critic.
Not everyone, however, can listen to an individual’s unique life story and make sense of it. That — more than an ability to turn a phrase or reference lines from “The Empire Strikes Back” — is what I quietly built my career on as a feature writer.
I’ve spent the past 22 years as a “professional” journalist/reporter/writer/enemy of the people; 22 years hustling for story ideas with the fear that I was only ever as good as my next story.
For that reason, my family decided it best that I focus all of my energy on finishing my master’s. (Oh, we’re not leaving town, just so you know. Our cheap house payment is what’s making it possible for me to quit!)
It’s been almost eight years since the opportunity to come home to Jefferson presented itself. The changes I instigated at the Herald were, I’ll admit, sudden and dramatic — like when “The Wizard of Oz” jumps from sepia-toned to Technicolor. And the new editor, too, looked like something out of Munchkinland with his slip-on Vans and comic book T-shirts.
It was too much for some.
Others, like Del Zmolek, Nicole Peckumn and Jim Wyckoff, immediately “got” our attempt at modernization and revitalization. They saw the value in presenting the community with different types of stories, and a different kind of storytelling. I can’t thank them enough.
Herald designer Rob Strabley and former designer Ben Ure were always up for a challenge, and brought even my weirdest ideas to life.
I’m honored that Matt Wetrich has entrusted us time and again to feature his nature photography.
When I left Jefferson for the first time in 1995, I never thought I’d be back. Never would there be an outlet for the kind of writing I wanted to do, I thought.
Simply put, I didn’t want to cover meetings or report on the doings of government, as important as that reporting is to a democracy. I wanted to tell stories of the kind I read growing up in the pages of Rolling Stone.
I found just that opportunity at a daily newspaper in Ohio.
There, my subjects included the rich and the famous (Bob Newhart, Stan Lee, Maya Angelou, Little Richard and scores of others); the weird and the wacky (self-proclaimed Bigfoot hunters and paranormal investigators); and those local folks deserving of wider recognition (a country singer whose lonesome cry was on par with that of Hank Williams, but whose career in the less-inclusive 1950s was doomed by his wheelchair).
I did one of the last interviews (if not the last) given by comedy legend Jonathan Winters, an Ohio native. I was covering the career of singer John Legend, another Ohio native, from before he even signed a record deal.
And I found myself in a bizarre feud with actor Justin Chambers, yet another Ohio native, just as “Grey’s Anatomy” became the hottest show on TV.
I remember Chambers’ publicist upping the ante to our paper by offering to fly a reporter and a photographer to visit the “Grey’s Anatomy” set, an enticing offer. But there was a catch: It could be anybody but Andrew McGinn. To his credit, my editor held firm: just because I hadn’t written the puff piece they wanted (the cause of the feud) didn’t mean I was in the wrong.
After an interview with one particular comic book artist, he said he was going to name something for me in an upcoming comic. I thought he was full of it until I saw the November 2003 issue of “Captain America” — in one panel, Cap walks under a street sign reading “McGinn St.” As someone who used to buy “Captain America” monthly at Walt’s Hallmark, this was better than a Pulitzer.
The opportunity to come home and take over the Herald as editor arose with almost perfect timing — daily newspapers were struggling, and our son was just about to start school.
Suddenly, telling stories became personal, as I was free to seek out people I had always wondered about growing up — people like decorated Green Beret Bill Kendall, whom I remember bagging groceries at G&M, and country picker Don Muzney, perhaps the only welder at Parker Industries to ever grace the Grand Ole Opry stage.
I also had a forum in which to prove or disprove family lore, like Bob Feller pitching against, and then for, Churdan’s semipro baseball team in 1935; a true story that surprised even Rick Morain and his brothers. (At the time, he was secretly signed to the Cleveland Indians.)
Some stories provoked ire, like a 2018 profile of Helmut Maiwald, a retired farmer in the Adaza area who has since passed away. A native of what today is the Czech Republic, Maiwald had been conscripted into the German Luftwaffe as a paratrooper at 16 during the final, desperate days of World War II.
When I found out that a veteran of the other side was still living, and in our area, I immediately made arrangements to go visit.
Only toward the end of our three-hour interview did I ask Maiwald, then 90 years of age, what he thought of the current political climate in the United States.
Here’s the thing — had Maiwald said that the United States wasn’t sliding toward fascism, and that the libs were way off base with their looney comparisons of Trumpism to Nazism, I would have written exactly that.
Instead, he said the opposite.
I figured that if anyone had the moral authority to comment, it was the guy who had actually been in the Hitler Youth.
Nevertheless, some people didn’t want to hear it. So I won’t mention that the story went on to win a state feature writing award from the Iowa Newspaper Association. (Oops. Just did.)
In looking back, there are simply too many stories to single out as noteworthy. They’re not noteworthy because of how I wrote them. They’re noteworthy because they brought recognition to those deserving of it.
They’re noteworthy because they shored up money for local veterans to take Honor Flights to the nation’s capital. They’re noteworthy because they brought back a flood of memories for those who read them, and because they catapulted two homegrown bands into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
They’re noteworthy because they proclaimed to the world that just because we’re from small-town rural Iowa doesn’t mean we can’t do significant things.
They’re noteworthy because they dared to take a warts-and-all look at the community, from the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Greene County in the 1920s to the legacy of alleged sex crimes by a local priest.
They’re noteworthy because they spotlighted diversity of thought in a community sometimes assumed to be devoid of diversity.
I was only ever the facilitator.
I wasn’t interested in using my position to achieve any certain level of status. I just wanted to tell stories.
Believe it or not, though, the bulk of my work as an editor has been decidedly unexciting: regularly changing the spelling of “Gallop” Road in the police report to Gallup Road; trimming down press releases; and seeing that someone had the Beatles’ “Golden Slumber” played at their funeral service and correcting the title to “Golden Slumbers” (hey, you’ve had a former music reporter as editor for the past eight years).
Still, the late Shorty Tasler once sat down in my office and noted with appreciation my willingness to overlook class distinctions in who I wrote about. Let’s just admit it: the Jefferson we both knew was divided for years between the haves and have-nots. Jefferson was always strangely classist for a town of 4,100 in the sticks.
“You write about everybody!” Shorty said, a declaration that I took as the highest of compliments.
Some people will undoubtedly be glad to see me go.
The old librarian, Shirley Clark, once mailed a letter to the editor. Like, I mean, she literally mailed a letter to my home.
In it, she said there was no longer any “news” in the newspaper, and that she didn’t get any of my “Star Wars” references.
So, friends, allow me to leave you with one last “Star Wars” reference:
Live long and prosper.