You, the Columnist
By Dave Lieber
Dear Ann Kolson,
I read the obituary of your husband, Steve, in The New York Times the other day, and my heart sank(“Steven Lovelady, 66, Acclaimed Editor”).
You see, I have always tried to thank those who helped me learn the craft of journalism. Years afterward, I would write them letters. That’s how I thanked my high school journalism teacher, the editor who hired me for my first important newspaper job and the mentors I had along the way.
But I never got to thank Steve.
I know why.
I was terrified of the guy.
I realize that sounds stupid now, and I confess this to you and your daughters Sara and Stephanie in the hopes that I am one of many who, in recent days, have told you of the grand effect Steve, as an editor, had on their careers.
No doubt Steve would never remember the night of May 24, 1993 and what he did for me.
It came during my final weeks at The Philadelphia Inquirer after 10 years. I was writing my way up and out to get a columnist job elsewhere after years of paying my dues as a reporter. The only way I knew how to get that job was to write the hell out of every story I had. Page one was my goal, and I had more than a few in those final months, giving me the clips that I needed. But there was one – that night – that stands out.
Steve was the night page-one editor. His job was to pick out the jewels amid the pile of daily stories and massage them into front page masterpieces. That was the kind of story that our legendary top editor Gene Roberts yearned for to compete with TV and other newspapers. It was called “the talker.”
This, of course, was the same job Steve had held years before at The Wall Street Journal, where his talents helped make the front page feature stories in the WSJ such journalistic classics.
That night, the city editor sent me out to cover the wake of two brothers killed by a gunman. I guess it was because I was reading The Great Gatsby at the time, but what I wrote that night on a quick deadline was so Fitzgeraldian:
“There was a time, not long ago, when there was a certain majesty along the commercial strip of Frankford Avenue beneath the Market-Frankford El tracks. The clues are still there, in the fading storefront facades with their now- dirty decorative glasswork and cracked art-deco windows and once-proud rooftop parapets.
“It must have been a Frankford of folks dashing in and out of stores on breezy spring nights, of men tipping hats to ladies and children watching the elevated trains rumble meanly overhead without worrying what might be over their shoulder. It was a Frankford of dreams, a Frankford that Stacy and Russell Krass tried to walk toward, not from.
“Where others see only faded storefronts, skinny prostitutes on street corners and go-go dancers through darkened bar windows, the two brothers saw a flickering future that enlivened others with dreams of hope.
“And when both brothers, heirs of one of Philadelphia’s most famous clothier families, were gunned down Saturday night in the coldest of manner by two men, their neighbors and friends decided that maybe that future was still ahead, and not behind.”
I handed the story in about 9:30 p.m. Sat at my desk and looked across the Inquirer newsroom. Steve was in his office. The door was open. I had never talked to Steve one-on-one, but that night I collected all the courage I could muster and tapped on his door. He turned from his keyboard, looked at me, but said nothing.
“Steve, I just handed in a story about the Krass Brothers that I’d like you to see. It came out better than I expected.”
“I’ll take a look.”
I returned to my desk about 50 yards away and watched him lean back in his chair and read. He tapped the Scroll Down key until he got to the bottom. (That’s the image I most remember.) Then I watched him stand and walk out toward the city desk. He bent over, whispered into the night city editor’s ear and walked back to his office.
The city editor got up and came toward me with a frown on his face.
“I don’t know what the heck you just did, but now we have to re-work the front page cause of you. Good job.”
Steve never said another word to me. Nor I to him.
In 35 years of newspaper work, if you ask me what was my single favorite newsroom moment is, that was it.
You see, that night, I watched this little story of mine develop its own legs and literally walk across the newsroom on to the page.
And if you do it once, you can do it again and again and again.
With Steve’s approval, I knew, at that moment, that I could go on and make magic. Work hard enough to be a good columnist somewhere else. Live that columnist’s dream.
And within weeks, it all happened. I got a job at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where I still work as a columnist today.
But for the past 16 years, that little scene has replayed itself over and over inside my head.
Darn, I should have written Steve a note to let him know how that one little encounter gave me the confidence boost I needed.
Ann, Stephanie and Sara, I’m sharing this note with my colleagues at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for one reason. See, each of them has their own pivotal memories about the Steve Lovelady editors in their life.
Maybe this little note, one too late, could generate a few more thank you notes from them to their old editors who made a difference. We’re nothing without the editors who improve us, who teach us, who save us from ourselves.Dave Lieber is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has contributed regular columns about columnists to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists since 1995.