Clippings by Angelo: Secret of a father’s editorial voice
When I look back on it, Dad was a gentle teacher.
But it wasn’t innate; it’s a skill to learn.
Looking through old photo albums, he appeared somewhat of a brash, cigarette-smoking young editor fresh from the Army Air Force in WWII, through Northwestern University at Chicago on the GI Bill and over to Melbourne, Australia, on a Rotary Scholarship. Then 26, fit with dark hair and a handsome profile, he wooed a 19-year-old beauty with gorgeous wavy black hair and porcelain skin — formerly of Oklahoma — and married her in a nighttime candlelight affair in one of the city’s big churches (covered by several of the newspapers). They returned to Kansas where they would make their start — he as a night editor of the Wichita Eagle-Beacon; she as a new wife and mother.
Their world was ahead of them and had all the promise of the country’s rise following its leading role in WWII.
The year was 1949-1950. They had their next son 11 months later, and me 18 months after that. At 22, Mom had three hellion sons, Dad had purchased a very small weekly in Humboldt, Kansas (population 2,000), we were living in an upstairs downtown apartment over the newspaper office, and they worked nonstop for the first five years of my life.
As hellions, we climbed on and slid down the 2×6 supports off the back exit stairs (20 feet off the ground), ran into the field to gorge on mulberries, rode our tricycles unsupervised around the downtown square, slid down the apartment stairwell to the Main Street sidewalk on sofa cushions for seats, and visited Mr. Smith at the corner grocery, service station and meat locker.
We loved the meat locker. In the 100-degree heat of a smoldering summer day, we’d run down the block shirtless, barefoot and in shorts, dart into the store and beg him to let us dash into the coldest locker room — filled with frozen sides of beef hanging from hooks — and stay there until we’d squeal with the near panic of frostbite and run back out into that hotbox of a little town that was our home until I turned five.
My fondest memories are of long nights driving mail sacks full of the weekly newspaper to the various rural post offices in our parents’ 1956 Ford coupe. The three boys were in the back seat; baby sis in the middle up front, and Mom would be turned around leading us in song after song … ballads, fun ones she and Dad knew, and her favorites from Australia:
“Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree,
Merry, merry king of the bush is he,
Laugh, kookaburra, laugh, kookaburra
Gay your life mustbe.”
You probably have to know the tune to get the sense of how fun a song it is, but trust me, when you’re a kid just singing the word kookaburra (a bird similar to a kingfisher) is fun, and making the song a round was always a hoot!
We didn’t have television back then, so Mom and Dad read to us, told us stories, probably had us try to write the alphabet or something similar-aged kids do in pre-school today. I moved to Bowie, Texas, when I was five, so missed kindergarten and went straight to first grade in a new town 60 miles north of Dallas in 1958.
Dad had bought a bigger weekly paper; then made it twice weekly. He won lots of statewide journalism awards. Did well. We played football and baseball a lot. Rode bikes. Fished in farm ponds, shot at quail, killed snakes and big, red ants. Dodged tornadoes, finally got a black-and-white TV in the early ’60s. I traded baseball cards, loved Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, mowed lawns to save enough money to buy a wooden Mickey Mantle bat. We played flies and skinners a ton, and a lot of football.
And we went to church and Sunday school; a photo showed me at 10 holding a cardboard shield in a parade that said “Onward Christian Soldier” and I held a sword at the ready. Odd, now that I think about it, but telling.
In those years Dad taught us how to run fast; how to box (he did in the Air Force and he’d slap-box us silly), play ping pong and catch a ball. He’d challenge us to push-up contests, regular and vertical ones up against the wall. It was a long time before we could ever match the number he could do, but we eventually did. I learned to do a standing back flip at 8; we played Superman by jumping off the first story roof of the house. Later on I set a school record for push-ups and pull-ups; brother Emerson was a weight lifter and star defensive safety who hit the other guys really hard, so we heard. Dad never pushed; just set a challenge early on, made it fun, and let us be.
We moved back to Kansas in 1965 when Dad bought the family daily newspaper in Iola. He would have been 41. I was 12. A couple years later it was a time of rebellion and unrest. Dad made a game of reading the morning papers (he got three) and having current events quizzes at dinner that night. We always ate dinner as a family; always. Then we’d all do dishes together after, then homework. Occasionally we’d gather around his chair and he’d read something special to us. He had a great reading voice.
It wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes with my middle brother, who had a knack for getting into trouble. I have no doubt Dad had a few regrets in those years, but it most likely taught him humility. He learned from life and taught us to do the same.
He taught us tennis, debated the news and the Vietnam War. I went off to KU in 1971, joined several protests, had long hair and went barefoot to class. The war ended in 1973, and I dropped out of college that January and hitchhiked to California via Colorado in winter. Mom refused to give me a ride to the edge of town; I walked to Dad’s office with 80 pounds in a backpack and Army duffle. Dad got up from his typewriter and walked with me outside, gave a hug, told me to be careful and went back to work. I walked to the edge of town and stuck out my thumb.
No ill will, but he wasn’t going to encourage me. He knew when to push and when to let go.
Next January I enrolled at KU again, and went through journalism school in three semesters and a summer to get my degree. After graduation I went west to ski bum in Colorado in winter and rock climb in summer, and spent a summer as a wilderness guide in Alaska. Four years later, Dad called to say there was a paper for sale nearby in Kansas and that it was a good opportunity. I took it and he mentored me as a newspaper editor and publisher from the time I was 26 and until he died on April 24 this year — a fortuitous and loving 33-year rite of passage.
In those last three months, at 88 and after cancer surgery to remove a large tumor on his spinal column, we had time to reflect and talk. In all those years, he had rarely gotten angry with us; had never tried to be our best friend but was always there for advice and a helping hand if the struggle warranted it. He was a romantic who loved to cuddle and show affection, and by example showed us how to express those emotions and be comfortable with them. He knew how to put the petty squabbles aside and live life with exuberance and joy, and taught us the same.
Perhaps the hardest lesson to teach is to live with grace, but even in those last few days with him we all learned new and deeper lessons in that as well.
And there he was: once the young strapping man with the world as his oyster, now with loved ones gathered around as he held court as the family patriarch from a hospital bed.
My sister wrote, “His peace in dying came from knowing he’ll continue to live in our hearts.” And so it was. In the end, it wasn’t about lessons learned or taught, politics or business, or places seen. It was about love, family, friends and community, and knowing you had done right by them.
There is grief, of course, and it can be confusing at first because the heart is pained by the loss, yet happy for the memories; confused because it’s not sure how to process that missing element in life — that steady hand that won’t be there. And you feel small because it shatters the myth of being invincible. Dad passed on a belief we could do almost anything if we truly wanted it, but not beat this. Death is humbling. We’re but moments of time in its wake. That’s not fear, it’s resigning to the inevitable — the step before the last breath.
Still, it’s sad to silence voices that ring true, and I can’t help but think Dad would have been pleased to hear his colleagues compare him to the legendary Kansas editorialist William Allen White, opining at Dad’s service a couple weeks ago that his “editorial voice rang all across the state and region” and that he could write “tough editorials without being boisterous or rude.”
“He could really write biting editorials with a calm voice,” a long-time colleague said. “He didn’t have to raise his voice.”
His secret? He learned that good research and facts spoke louder than emotion. He had become, all 5’ 8” of him in his withered down frame, this gentle giant of a man.
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