I don’t know how many of you are following the comments, but my ex-Columbus Dispatch colleague Bob Sohovich left one below that needs greater distribution:
Bernie Karsko, 65, died this afternoon of an apparent heart attack while driving to have lunch with fotog Charlie Hays. I talked to Bernie yesterday and we were discussing the obit of Harry Franken, who died two weeks ago. Bernie remarked that you had written his obit in 1983 and he would like it published, tho he doubted today’s staid editors would value it as he did. I understand the reporter working on his obit has your copy. Bernie admired your writing ability and keen wit.
Oh, my. The death of my first city editor (never “metro” editor) leaves me with mixed feelings. At times, I adored Bernie; other times, well, I didn’t. The passage of 20 years tells me I wasted too much time on the latter. Bernie was the sort of character it’s increasingly hard to find in our business — the proverbial gruff eccentric, an oddball that once flourished in newsrooms all over the country. He was renowned for taking greenhorns under his wing on the night shift and making them into real reporters. I don’t know if the process worked with me, but we got along. Soho’s right — he did admire my writing ability and keen wit, and to the extent that I disappointed him in my reporting, I know I pleased him in the little jobs he threw my way as sort of his personal court jester.
If he wanted a funny caption for a wire photo, I wrote it. If he wanted a fake memo to leave for someone he was playing a prank on, I could mimic memo style. If he wanted me to chase some preposterous angle that probably wouldn’t make it past the copy desk — does the Memorial Tournament lead to increased business for local strip clubs? — I was his go-to gal. We had fun.
He was renowned for his fashion sense, or lack of it. He wore the same outfit every day — Sansabelt slacks (he had them in all colors and sizes), short-sleeved polyester dress shirt and nondescript tie. He wore a flattop haircut before, during and after its time in the sun. One of the sports writers called him “Nimitz.” If he liked you, and if you were female, he’d let you rub your palm over its bristly surface. He owned a Jaguar XKE, which he only drove in the summer, and only if the streets were dry and the forecast fair. Legend had it he left it in his will to Jeff Borden, who also worked for him; I guess we’ll find out now.
But the biggest thing you needed to know about Bernie was this: He was a gambler. A happy, unapologetic, just-this-side-of-compulsive gambler. A lifelong bachelor, he had no wife or kids to answer to, and so he would bet on anything. I mean: Anything. Sports, the stock market, whether the next person to walk into the newsroom would be male or female. During the baseball strike, they said he would turn on the weather channel and offer over-and-under action on the wind velocity. He ran a pool on who would be named director of the Clinic, the newsroom’s annual year-in-review meeting/torture session/drunkfest. “I’ve got $5 that says…” was a phrase you would reliably hear from him several times a week. He dangled sawbucks under the noses of his staff, telling them he’d give it to the first one to get the word “panties” into a story and past the copy desk.
James Thurber, another Dispatch alum, wrote an essay about his first city editor at the paper, Gus Kuehner. It’s in a collection that’s now out of print, but I have a copy of it and I understand why a former Dispatch executive editor decided Bernie was Kuehner’s reincarnation. In the essay’s best passage, Kuehner gives his cub, Thurber, an assignment: The morning daily had been flogging a story on a “ghostly wreath” that was said to appear at a certain time in a window of a house on the east side, and cars were lining up to see it every day at nightfall. “Thurber,” he said, dropping the clipping on his desk, “Crack this miracle and bring me back the pieces.”
Thurber cracked the miracle in a day; the ghostly wreath was a byproduct of the glassmaking process, nothing more. Just a trick of the light. That was the sort of story Bernie loved, the kind of talker you could pitch for Page One to leaven the usual mix of legislative and courthouse news. He also loved hard news, stories about lawbreakers and sleazebags from the cop beat.
One year, the police finally caught up with a serial rapist who had been terrorizing women in two neighborhoods for years, breaking into apartments and assaulting them in their beds. Bombshell: It was a prominent doctor. Double bombshell: Another man was in prison for some of the rapes. Triple bombshell: When you laid their mugshots side-by-side, they could have been twin brothers, AND they had the same last name. Our court reporter cracked that miracle, and the story was so double-secret it was hidden in the computer system, so that no one on staff could blab about it. The story about the innocent man’s release ran through all the editors, the publisher and several lawyers, and it started like this:
“When Billy Jackson told his little girl he didn’t do the crimes he was going to jail for, she believed him. Now everyone else does, too.” A copy editor changed “didn’t” to “did not,” and then accidentally deleted the “not.” The paper was rolling off the press before the mistake was caught, and the Teamsters made lots of overtime rounding up all the incorrect copies for destruction. Karsko faced down the copy editor in the newsroom, demanding to know why she felt she had to monkey with a story that had already been read by every significant person in the building. “I don’t know,” she said. “I just liked it better that way.”
He made a sign: I JUST LIKED IT BETTER THAT WAY, and taped it to his desk, in her line of sight, where it stayed all day.
Today, he’d be the one in big trouble, not her. Management doesn’t work like that anymore. The changes were already coming even then; when he went to training or seminars with editors from other papers, he complained that he couldn’t get a card game going, but everyone got up early to go jogging together.
He wasn’t a perfect editor or teacher, but he was awfully damn good at what he did. I hope Borden gets the keys to the XKE from a probate lawyer some months down the road. I hope Bernie gets the send-off he deserves. And wherever he is now, I hope he’s dealing stud to a table full of people who appreciate everything about him.
UPDATE: The obit is up on the Dispatch site, but they have a pay-for-content site and you probably won’t be able to get it. Obsure reference to Yours Truly:
Former Dispatch assistant city editor Carolyn Focht, who knew Karsko for 40 years, said he particularly liked a line in a beforethe-fact obituary prepared by a Dispatch staffer in 1983: “Karsko�s iconoclastic haircut was not only his signature, but his symbol for the oddball life he led.”