Learning from the masters

September 13, 1995|By Kay Mills

NOT LONG ago, I visited Baltimore after an absence of many years, lured, of course, by Camden Yards. In the old days, I lived near Memorial Stadium and on many summer evenings heard the roar of the baseball crowds through the open window of my second-floor apartment in a Guilford Avenue rowhouse.

Early each morning I would catch the bus downtown to work as a "rewrite" person or reporter, covering city schools or other beats for The Evening Sun, which will soon join Memorial Stadium as part of the city's proud history. Today I would probably try to walk to the paper, but unfortunately I wasn't as much into fitness then; that's what moving to California does to you.

Baltimore was a grand place for young reporters to learn their trade. People weren't jaded about dealing with the press, as I later discovered had happened to the officialdom of Washington. They would talk to you, give you great quotes and send you to someone else who would give you more great quotes and sharp insights. You could cover a black theater group one day, hear the moving stories of children handicapped by the rubella epidemic the next day, and, the next day, interview neighbors of a new city council member, Barbara Mikulski.

The Evening Sun was the snotty kid always trying to beat the snooty morning Sun. Morning Sun reporters had last names for first names, knew they stood a chance at a foreign bureau or Washington assignment and always got the leaks from politicians who wanted to read about themselves with their breakfast eggs, but we Evening Sun reporters were the ones who shoved their faces in it. Local news was our turf. We had Carl Schoettler, who could write rings around anybody else and from whom I learned not to be afraid of adjectives. We had Art Geiselman -- just listening to him work a source over the phone taught me lessons I never forgot. We had Dean Mills, now the dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, who could capture the sense of a local commune or track down a miscreant county politician. We had Jerry Kelly, who nudged many a politico into revealing key strategy or spilling some splendid gossip.

As a side benefit, there were real neighborhoods to visit -- and such food! For a kid from the suburbs who had never ventured into many ethnic restaurants, here was heaven awaiting discovery, which was why I always volunteered to make the Saturday sandwich run to the deli.

I learned several valuable lessons that I've always carried with me. Once, I posed as a substitute teacher to explore the city schools -- something I would not do today because I am not sure about the ethics of such a ruse. After two days, I thought I had enough material. No way, said my city editor, Phil Evans. He sent me back for two more grueling days. I was cross and discouraged because I was the one who had to face those kids, not Phil.

And, naturally, the story was so much richer for it. (Once he told me that my stories could be cut from the top. He was right, but I still write that way.)

Another lesson concerned the people I covered. Time and again, I found that the best stories were about the people down the block, around the corner, who got involved and made a change. It might be as small as getting a stop sign at a dangerous intersection or as large as forcing the city to take into account the needs of the poor. I learned to talk to average people in the neighborhoods who knew best the strengths and weaknesses of whatever program I was writing about, and I have continued to pursue that approach in the articles and books I write today.

I learned, while working for The Evening Sun, about the riches of the human condition and the persistence to try to tell that story. The Evening Sun goes down as of Friday, but it illuminated a lot of corners before setting.

Kay Mills, who worked for The Evening Sun from 1967 to 1969, later was an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times. Her most recent book is "From Pocahontas to Power Suits: Everything You Need to Know About Women's History in America" (Plume paperback).

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