This post is an indulgence in nostalgia. Those allergic to nostalgia can rummage in the archives or wait for me to return to contemporary journalism.
It was 40 years ago on this date that the Fleming Gazette* came out with my byline on a front-page article and on a column inside. The owners, Lowell Denton, the publisher, and his wife, Jean Denton, the editor, had engaged me for what was to be the first of six summers as writer, columnist, copy editor, copy boy, circulation clerk, mail handler and general dogsbody. Jean preferred to take the summer off, and I in 1968, having just finished my junior year of high school, was her substitute.
The Gazette, with a paid circulation of about 3,000, plus what people stole from the racks, was published in Flemingsburg, the county seat. It was one of two weeklies. The rivalry with the Times-Democrat was a friendly one, and the two papers shared a small printing plant with an elderly Goss press. It was still a hot-type paper at that point, and I carried all the copy from the office to the plant for one of the Linotype operators to set it in type and make galley proofs for me to correct.
I worked as a reporter, attending Fiscal Court meetings, agricultural field days, fairs, and other events. (I unaccountably left out of my account of the Ewing Fair one year that the man operating the public-address system, either by accident or design, played a record of “Born to Lose” as mothers with infants processed to the infield for the beautiful-baby contest.) I wrote profiles and features.
Seated at a desk in front of a manual typewriter, a sheaf of yellow copy paper in the drawer and a copy spike at my side, I wrote the stories I had reported, wrote my own column, chronicled the activities of local notables in Jean Denton’s “Jottin’” column, edited and Englished the country correspondence (social notes form all over), read proof, took classified ads over the phone, typed up mailing stencils for the Addressograph, fetched Coca-Colas from the gas station across the street, helped address and bundle the papers for mailing, and swept the office floor. There were some miscellaneous duties as well.
It was a complete introduction to journalism at the ground level.
It also became an education in technological change. It was not long until the paper went offset, abandoning the Linotypes. Lowell acquired Justowriter machines. The Justowriter was an electric typewriter that made a punched tape. The operator typed in the copy, canceled the line whenever there was a typo, and fed the punched tape into a second machine. The second machine produced a galley of justified type, omitting the canceled lines, which could then be cut out with an X-Acto knife and pasted on a mockup page. It was, for the time, sheer magic.
The Gazette contracted with a larger newspaper in Nicholas County for the printing, so once a week I drove the finished pages to Cynthiana, where plates were made and the papers run off the presses; then I drove a carload of Gazettes back to Flemingsburg for the afternoon session with the Adressograph and the post office.
It was a small staff. Marie Arrasmith (nee McIntyre, a distant cousin), was the bookkeeper, Justowriter virtuoso, and gatherer of miscellaneous information, some of it printable. Jerry and Bonnie Fleming, before they branched off on their own, worked with ads and paste-up. But it was Lowell and Jean who were the dominant personalities.
Jean had the literary bent. She had studied journalism at the University of Kentucky — Lowell had majored in agriculture — and she was a relentless reader. Though we had few political opinions in common, Jean being one of the most devoted followers of Richard Nixon in the United States, we respected each other’s views. More important, we shared a relish for Joan Didion’s essays, for murder mysteries and for books in general.
Though Lowell was not literary, he was indefatigably curious. His reading was unsystematic but wide-ranging, and nearly every day he mentioned some new fact or phenomenon that had caught his attention. But reading was not his principal source of information. Jean read books; Lowell read people. He could, and would, talk to anyone as he went around town soliciting ads and conducting other business. Most story ideas in the paper were his, rising from encounters with people or tips he had picked up.
Both Lowell and Jean were uncommonly kind and generous. They encouraged me. They excused my adolescent posturings and excesses, in prose and in person. They paid me a wage that paid a significant chunk of my college expenses.
And, though none of us realized it at the time, they gave me a vocation and a career. Journalism is a craft that one learns through its practice, and through Lowell and Jean I had a substantial apprenticeship. When, in 1980, after six years of graduate school, I turned to the realities of making a living and applied for a position on the copy desk at The Cincinnati Enquirer, I already had a grounding in journalistic values and the elements of editing.
When Jean died a few years ago, it was as if I had lost a beloved relative, an aunt who had been unfailingly supportive. Lowell, though deafness has cruelly hampered his exchanges with other people, is still out and about.
I owe them both a debt of gratitude I can never adequately express.
* Since renamed The Flemingsburg Gazette. Now ably operated by Garry and Danetta Barker.