I guess I won’t beat around the bush: You have started to read my final Answer Man column.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking — or, at least, those of you who seem to follow me religiously. Ha, ha. April Fools. Always the jokester. OK, you’ve had your fun. Now c’mon already, get on with the next question.
Sadly, for you I have to lay an (Easter) egg today. After having celebrated my 50th anniversary of writing for this paper on Tuesday, I am unplugging my keyboard, folding up my iPad or whatever the heck it is that journalists do these days when they retire.
Believe me, this is a tough decision. I made the choice three months ago, and I’ve found myself occasionally waking up at 3 a.m. to fight back pre-retiree’s remorse ever since. Will I be able to stand not having this creative outlet? And, has it really been 50 years already since I made that spur-of-the-moment decision that would change my life forever?
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You see, this whole thing was never supposed to happen. When I started high school, becoming a writer had never entered my mind. Mathematics was my thing. (Even in college, I would take three semesters of calculus just for fun. Struggling math majors hated me.)
But one day in the spring of 1968 my sophomore English teacher, Lilian Jossem — who also was one of the state’s most respected prep journalism advisers — came to class on a mission. The News-Democrat needed a new sports correspondent. In those days, one man ran the paper’s sports department, and he needed a student from each of the then-four city high schools to cover the major sports. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it provided fantastic training for budding journalists.
Anyway, baseball season was about to start, and the West correspondent had apparently become more focused on girls and graduation than writing. A replacement was needed pronto. Would anyone like to try his hand, Miss Jossem asked. What the heck, I thought. Bylines in the city paper sounded cool. Without further thought, I joined the other two boys in my class and threw up my hand. For reasons I’ll never know, she picked me. And even though I looked more like a 15-year-old chess nerd than a football scholar, I passed muster with Sports Editor Art Voellinger, who was so desperate that he even agreed to retype my hand-scrawled submissions until I could take a typing class.
So on March 27, 1968, my first byline appeared in the BND, a 5-1 Cahokia win over my not-so-Mighty Maroons. I’ll never forget how seeing my name in bold, black capital letters for the first time even choked up my dad, and he did not get emotional about a lot of things. For the next two years, I churned out eight, 10 stories a month for first $25, later upped to $30.
Now you might have thought that the pay coupled with having to pound away on my Smith-Corona 12 at midnight on Friday nights would have quickly convinced me to find an easier and more lucrative profession, but, a half-century later, here I am, having been through changes younger readers will have to research in old journalism texts. I mean, I started out with a gluepot on my desk, pasting together pages of triple-spaced copy with handwritten corrections until they were sometimes yards long and ready to be set in lead on Linotype machines. And, get this: Even when we did get our first computer system, they entrusted me of all people to boot it up at 6 every morning when I came in to work on the afternoon sports pages.
Of course, I am often asked if I had ever thought of moving on. Well, yes, I did. In fact, I almost made what would have been a horrible error of jumping to the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat, but finally decided to stay. Guess I enjoyed (pardon the ego) being a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
The primary reason was the variety. I tend to get bored easily, and being pigeonholed into a narrowly defined beat as I likely would have been on a big-city newspaper did not appeal to me. Here, I could mix entertainment stories with my passion for science and medicine. I wrote about religion, education — even an occasional food column. I was able to write about trips to Russia, China and Paderborn, Belleville’s German sister city. I interviewed people I never dreamed I would talk to — Jimmy Doohan and Mark Lenard of the original “Star Trek,” legendary 1960s satirist Dr. Tom Lehrer, Michelle Shocked, Boots Randolph, Cherish the Ladies, to name a few of my favorites.
But it was March 1, 1987, when I found my true love: The Answer Man. As someone who could spend a half-hour tracking down an obscure clue for a crossword, I knew it had my name written all over it as soon as Pat Kuhl, my editor, suggested it. More important, it fulfilled a need for why I chose this business in the first place — knowing I could make an immediate difference in readers’ lives even as I continued to satisfy my own curiosity. You see, I honestly don’t consider myself all that brilliant, but I usually am good at research. So for just over 31 years, I have answered what I estimate to be perhaps some 8,000 questions dealing with everything from the name of Betty Boop’s dog to how fast rigor mortis sets in.
It’s times like these, though, when I wish I were more like my father. He worked in foundries all his life and could not wait until the day he could retire. For me, retiring is far tougher than most people know, but I finally decided I needed to explore new avenues..
Fortunately, the paper turned out to be very, very good to me. I will spend the next six months jetting off to Israel, Italy and Egypt, not to mention another around-the-world jaunt. Yet, I know I greatly will miss doing this column, and, even more, kibitzing with the Bill Crafts, Joe Reicherts, Cathy Stoltzes, Bill Heartys and countless others who have supplied me with an endless stream of absolutely fascinating questions. I am sorry I couldn’t answer them all, but I hope most of those I did proved entertaining, enlightening and accurate.
Thanks everyone for such a fantastic run. If you want to write me, try firstname.lastname@example.org. Who knows, I might even answer a question or two, but, for now, 30 y’all.
Answer to Friday’s trivia: Chocaholics searching for the ultimate challenge should have been at the LeAcciaierie Shopping Center in Cortenuova, Italy, on April 16, 2011. There, they would have found the largest chocolate Easter egg ever made — a 15,873-pound monster with a circumference of slightly more than 64 feet at its widest point. (By comparison, the largest chocolate bunny tipped the scales in Brazil just last year at a puny 9,359.7 pounds — although nibbling off the nearly 15-foot-tall rabbit’s ears still would have been a quite a challenge.) Here’s more Guinness records for your holiday enjoyment: I’ve seen Easter egg trees around the area but nothing that would compare with the one they decorated in 2007 in Rostock, Germany, which boasted 76,596 painted chicken eggs. If you like rabbits, you may have to visit Steve Lubanski and Candace Frazee’s Bunny Museum in Altadena, California, which, according to its latest count, has 35,427 bunny-themed items. (www.thebunnymuseum.com) The largest Easter egg hunt offered 501,000 hidden eggs at the Cypress Gardens Adventure Park in Winter Haven, Fla., in 2007, but the most entrants in a hunt were the 12,773 who took part in London’s Fabergé’s Big Egg Hunt from Feb. 21 to April 1, 2012. For more eggs-traordinary marks, see www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2017/4/these-10-egg-cellent-records-will-put-you-in-the-easter-spirit-468855.
A blessed Easter and Passover to everyone.