It’s traditional that a newspaper’s editor-in-chief write a weekly column, usually on Sunday. Some do it more gracefully than others. Like the 900-pound gorilla, they write about anything they want, although many use the space to explain Why We Ran This Seemingly Stupid Thing in the Newspaper Last Week. In recent years, the job of explaining these things has fallen to the ombudsman/reader representative/public editor, and it seems I see fewer editor’s columns. Too bad. Even the atrocious ones are usually worth reading. I suspect many editors these days are such enthusiastic carpetbaggers, ticking off cities and newspapers on their career plan with cold-blooded efficiency, that they shy away from this job; they know anything they write about their current city will sound as sincere as the lead guitarist in the touring rock band down at the local arena, roaring, “Hello (checks note taped to back of guitar) Scranton! Are you ready to RAWK?!”*
All this by way of noting that Neal Shine, former publisher of the Free Press, died yesterday. I didn’t work for him. I met him once, at a Knight-Wallace Fellows event, and he was charming and gracious. But I felt I knew him, because I used to read his column, back when the Freep was passed around the newsroom in Fort Wayne. Unlike most editors/publishers, he could write.
After almost 34 years, I have made my peace with Jack Shook. It was a decision not lightly arrived at since I have a genetic tendency for simmering resentment.
But it seemed, somehow, the right time to set things straight and drop Mr. Shook from my selective roster of active grudges.
Grudges that are dated can distract you from the very serious business of dealing with contemporary resentments, so it is probably a good idea to purge the list from time to time.
It is not easy to sit here and admit to what might appear to some as a major character flaw. But I feel an obligation to expose a few minor truths about myself every now and then and keep the major character flaws a secret. I wish I felt worse about being an accomplished grudge-holder. The truth is, I have always felt that a good grudge can be a wonderful thing if you maintain a reasonable perspective.
A grudge that is bitter, corrosive or all-consuming is a grudge that has gotten out of hand.
A workable grudge is one you can call up on quiet winter evenings to fan the embers that have been cooled by the intervening years and bask in its warmth as you recall all the delicious details of the transgression. Control is vital.
In the 1920s a man sold my father shares of a worthless stock for $200. Whenever the memory of that unhappy transaction would begin to fade, my father would take out the worthless stock certificate and study it until the fraud was once again fresh in his mind.
When the man who sold him the stock died in the 1950s, my father studied the newspaper death notice for a while and then said: “I hope that when he gets to heaven, God asks him about the stock.” He never mentioned the incident again.
Which brings us back to Jack Shook.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to write like that? Look it over. There’s a chuckle, or a smile, in every paragraph, which naturally leads you to the next one, a little trail of bread crumbs that pulls you through to the end. You don’t get the pungent, flop-sweaty smell of someone trying to tell jokes, or impress you with their exquisite vocabulary. And yet, I bet it wasn’t particularly difficult for Shine. This is what storytelling is when storytelling is deep in your bone marrow. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that Shine was Irish. Jon Carroll, another Irish storytellin’ fool, writes like this. He can write about his grandchildren, his cats, the infinitesimal details of his life, and I’m reading every word. (Little Jimmy Lileks could take a few lessons. Not that he would.)
For a long time, the Free Press had a well-deserved reputation as a writer’s paper. I’m not surprised, with Shine making so many hiring decisions. He heard the music. May he rest in peace.
* Image stolen from an old “Simpsons” episode. Mea culpa.
Lance Mannion is another Irish storyteller who hears the music. He tells, or rather, remembers how I told, a particularly good one from back in the day, here. Hats off to storytellers, today.