When we last left our hero (in my column last week), he was contemplating a life-long career in the printing business—and then he graduated college…. Within days after accepting my sheepskin, management of The Western Hills Press called me upstairs. I was told that, on reflection, they did not want a college graduate working in their print shop. The suits weren’t entirely clear why this was the case—I believe dread of unionization might have been involved—but they were insistent that I needed to join the paper’s newswriting staff. They were also insistent that Option B was unemployment. So I went with Option A.
The problem was my English degree involved zero journalism classwork. If you wanted a 2,000-word theme on British Romantic poets, I was your guy. Typing a simple calendar brief? Not so much. Dan Hopwood, Western Hills Press managing editor at the time, undertook my accelerated orientation. He handed me a stack of the obituary forms submitted by funeral homes and said, “Give me two-inch obituaries.” “How do I know they’re two inches?” He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Use a pica typewriter. Set your margins like this. Four lines convert to an inch of type. Eight lines is two inches.”
I transformed the stack of forms into eight-line obituaries and proudly dropped them and the forms on Hopwood’s desk. He tossed the forms back at me. “Give me one-inch obituaries.” I turned in one-inch obituaries. He tossed the forms back at me. “Give me three-inch obituaries.” “There’s not enough information on those forms for 12 lines.” “You know how to use a telephone, don’t you?”
And that’s how I became a newspaper reporter. Hopwood was the sort of person who read dictionaries from cover to cover for fun. He’d badger me to write headlines in three different font sizes over three different column widths and one to three decks.
He was relentless as a reporter. Hopwood had left The Press and was working for another newspaper miles away when a tornado slammed through White Oak overnight. I dragged myself out to the scene at dawn and found him already there, interviewing emergency crews and residents huddled on the street. He gave me his notes and his film and let me carry on while he went to work at his actual job.
Hopwood was also hilarious. He and his wife, Barb, hosted the annual “Thank God Basketball Season Is Over Party & Cotillion,” which was sort of a cross between the Algonquian Round Table and Animal House. Their neighbors are probably still complaining.
Columnist Roger Miller held The Western Hills Press together for decades. He was overworked and underpaid and strung along by the promise that one day he’d be named editor. He knew everybody and made sure to mention everybody regularly. He lived for coincidences, going into spasms of delight when he learned that my sister was graduating high school on her birthday, which was also our grandmother’s birthday.
Miller refused to use the same word twice in a story, so an item about a local football star involved his ability to “zing the October oval” and a column about a pastor’s yen for popsicles ended with a mention of “tundra cones.” He also used at least one exclamation point every column inch.
Nancy Taylor and I got hired about the same time. She actually had a journalism degree, so I paid close attention to how she did things. Our office had the kind of carpet that produces lots of static electricity, so I could shock people at will. If a visiting P.R. flack was getting on Taylor’s nerves, she’d yell, “Hand!” I’d shuffle in and shock the unwanted visitor on the nose. They usually took the hint.
For a couple of years, Pat Obert and I were sidekicks. She took the photos, and I wrote the stories. We almost got sued when we covered an outlaw motorcycle club funeral at a local cemetery. The cemetery’s attorney objected to my reporting that guns were fired during the burial, but Pat’s photos shut him up.
Hanging around the office was a high school intern named Mary Evelyn Wilson, who went by Mev. Hopwood affectionately christened her The Twirp. We had a saying in the office when a story fell through that, “Some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you.” Mev inscribed that saying—in ersatz Latin—on a coffee cup she made in pottery class. I still have it.
Starting out as high school interns and working their way into various editorial roles were Bill Koch, who had a long career with The Cincinnati Post and The Enquirer, and Chuck Melvin, who later went on to the Associated Press, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other distinguished posts. Sharing an office with them was like acting in an improv troupe. One day we’d have to sing every headline we wrote as a blues tune and the next day we’d debate whether chess counted as a sport or not, but the rules were you had to argue in falsetto. Somehow we got on a tangent where every lead sentence had to be translated into Neanderthal: “Sewers? Good!”
John Froschauer was a newly minted graduate of Ohio University when we hired him as a photographer. He taught me more about designing pages than anyone I ever worked with just by submitting photos with penciled notes indicating how many column widths they should run. If I followed his instructions, my pages looked great; if I ignored his suggestions, my pages sucked and he grumbled at me.
Froschauer endured any challenge to get the best photos. He showed up at my apartment in the middle of the 1978 blizzard because his camera froze. Although he accepted a cup of tea, he stayed only until the camera thawed and then trudged back into the deep freeze to shoot a Pulitzer-worthy portfolio.
I sent Froschauer on assignment one day with a young writer named Debbie Cafazzo. They got engaged a few months later. I count their marriage as among my greatest successes. She and another reporter, Jan Kipp, were close friends and, although only a couple years younger than me, were almost from a different generation. I was still stuck in the folk-rock 1960s while they lobbied me to re-evaluate punk. It was years later before I finally relented.
I believe it was one or both of this duo who stashed a plate of “enhanced” brownies in the break room refrigerator. I scarfed a couple one Saturday morning when I went in to catch up on some work. Although I wore an illegal smile the rest of the day, I managed to file a lead story and a sidebar on Green Township zoning.
Holding this crew together was receptionist Ruthie Summe, who addressed everyone as “Hon.” She telephoned all the local bars each afternoon and posted a list of their happy hour snacks on the office bulletin board. Based on this, we’d pick a saloon, buy a drink, and dine on what Hopwood called “noogies.” Drinks were around $2 for a double, and the noogies were free and filling—short ribs, pigs in a blanket, egg rolls. Thus fortified, we’d scatter to cover our assigned city council meetings.
In 1977, I was promoted to editor of The Western Hills Press. In that role, I inherited Henry Humphreys, who, after many years as The Enquirer’s classical music critic, had been sent out to pasture at the suburban weekly. We paid him just $10 a week for his column, but he kept the gig because record companies shipped us crates of free albums for review. Humphreys was not fond of medieval and renaissance music. When he learned I enjoyed those ancient styles, he’d send me his review copies, usually with a note: “For Greg Hand. Too many crumhorns.”
A year later, I departed The Press for reasons too complicated to relate in this space. When I left, management gave me a lifetime subscription. They stopped delivery after two years. Who knew I would outlast the paper?