Admit it: Writing 3,000 columns was fun


August 23, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

It was the year Charles Manson went to prison, the voting age was lowered to 18, the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, and I wrote my first full-time newspaper column.

Today, I write my 3,000th.

People often ask me the secret to lasting so long in the column-writing business.

Sincerity, I tell them. Once you can fake that, you've got it made.

Which is typical of people who work for newspapers. We use sarcasm to avoid revealing genuine emotion.

We don't like to admit the truth: That this is an incredibly romantic profession. It is fun. It is thrilling.

And I went into it because Roger Ebert got me drunk.

I was a college kid working at my student newspaper, the same paper where Ebert, the movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, had been editor years before.

He still had a subscription and, unbeknownst to me, had been clipping my columns and throwing them on the desk of his editor.

One day the editor called and invited me up for a job interview.

I went and I told him I didn't think I wanted to work for a newspaper. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. Write plays, maybe. Or books. Or be a cowboy. Something.

The editor thanked me for my time and I went back to school.

The next day Ebert, whom I did not know, called me.

"Nobody turns down a newspaper job!" he bellowed. "You take the train back here tonight!"

And so I did. Ebert did not bother to show me around the newspaper. Instead, he showed me around the newspaper bars.

I remember the evening imperfectly. I may have been over-served.

I do remember wherever we went the air was filled with words. Reporters talking about stories they had written or were going to write or their editors wouldn't let them write.

They talked about chasing down murderers and covering tornadoes and making fools out of politicians.

And everywhere Ebert would introduce me the same way.

"This is the kid who thinks he's too good to be a newspaperman!" he would shout.

Near the end of the evening, John McHugh, a wonderful reporter and writer, who had been born in Sligo, Ireland, and still spoke with a brogue, wrapped an enormous arm around me and told me I had no choice but to newspaper.

"You don't choose it, lad," he said. "It chooses you."

The bar closed and we spilled out onto the street. Ebert announced that since the last train had left several hours before, he and McHugh would drive me the 150 miles back to campus.

And so we blasted down the two-lane country roads with Ebert and McHugh singing Irish Republican Army songs at the tops of their lungs.

(Today, neither Ebert nor McHugh touches a drop, and I barely do, which explains why we are all still around to tell these stories.)

The next morning, I called the editor and asked if I could still get a job.

"What would you like to do for us?" he asked.

I would like to write a column, I said.

"Of course you would," he said. "But we've got something much better. It's called general assignment. And we'll even let you do it at night."

Eventually, I did become a columnist. And one day, when I had to sit down and write my 500th column, I came across this quotation by editor and author Stanley Walker.

I regret it mentions only men and not women -- he would undoubtedly include both today -- but it still rings with the kind of rueful sincerity that you can't fake:

"What makes a good newspaperman? The answer is easy. He knows everything. He is aware not only of what goes on in the world today, but his brain is a repository of the accumulated wisdom of the ages.

"He is not only handsome, but he has the physical strength which enables him to perform great feats of energy. He can go for nights on end without sleep. He dresses well and talks with charm. Men admire him; women adore him; tycoons and statesmen are willing to share their secrets with him.

"He hates lies and meanness and sham, but keeps his temper. He is loyal to his paper and to what he looks upon as his VTC profession; whether it is a profession, or merely a craft, he resents attempts to debase it.

"When he dies, a lot of people are sorry and some of them remember him for several days."

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