I've had several reasons recently to think about why I make a living doing what I do - why journalism has always intrigued me and why when I come back from a week's vacation, I don't feel I've come home until I hear people yelling into phones and at each other and the sound of pecking at keyboards across a newsroom.
Then the other day I heard Charlie Carver died.I was 19 when I first walked into Charlie's newsroom. I remember the day clearly; it was a Saturday, and I learned later that Charlie always worked on Saturdays. On that particular Saturday it was only Charlie, the city editor, one older reporter and me.
I'd never met Charlie and wasn't sure which one he was, but since he was sitting in the middle of the room at a desk that looked somehow more official than the others, I walked up to him, clearly nervous, and said, "Are you Mr. Carver?"
"No. Who are you?"
Since I'd been hired more or less over the phone by the city editor and told to report to Charlie Carver, who now seemed not to exist, my nervousness was turning to panic. Maybe I had imagined the entire conversation and I didn't really have what I'd always wanted: a full-time reporting job at a daily newspaper.
I mumbled something to the effect of, "I'm Marilyn Larsen. I think I work here." At that point, I wasn't any more sure about the first statement than I was about the second.
"Well, I'm Charlie. Can you write a headline?"
Ah, relief; at least I was where I was supposed to be. But the relief was short-lived.
I thought I could write a headline. I'd written my share just out of high school at a weekly paper and then as editor of my college newspaper, but I soon learned I couldn't really write a headline - at least not to Charlie's satisfaction. I spent that first Saturday learning one basic fact: I didn't know nearly as much as I thought I did.
In those early days of my career, it seemed I was the youngest person around - the youngest cop reporter, the youngest person covering political campaigns and County Commission meetings. And maybe because I was the youngest person in the newsroom, Charlie took me under his wing, in his gruff sort of way.
But it wasn't always a comfortable place to be. Charlie was a demanding boss. Reporters started work at 7 a.m. (I'm not sure what time Charlie started; he always seemed to be in the newsroom - was there when I arrived, ate a homemade sandwich at his desk and was still there no matter how late I worked.)
If I slipped into my desk at 7:05, I could expect a typed note from Charlie telling me he expected me to take 25 minutes instead of 30 for lunch to make up for being late.
But those were the small things. Charlie spoiled me for every other boss I've ever had. After Charlie, I expect the people who supervise me to know more than I do, to be talented and committed journalists, to have high expectations and something to teach me. I don't have much patience for bosses who fall below Charlie's standards.
Way back in those early days, before computers and pagination and offset presses, when we typed stories on typewriters and had to shout above the noise of huge machines that dropped metal letters into galleys that were covered with ink and had to be read backward and upside down, Charlie was the epitome of a managing editor.
He was a skinny, middle-aged man who loved to tell off-color jokes to shock the young reporters but who could spell any word you could throw at him and who could turn a mediocre lead into a good one by changing a few words. He managed the staff, did all the work we now have copy desks to do, wrote poetic headlines and made deadline nearly every day.
He was tough. Today it seems newspaper editors spend most of their days in meetings; in Charlie's newsroom there was no need for meetings. Charlie told you what to do and you did it. Everybody knew what was expected, and if there was a question about what story would lead the page or how hard a reporter should push an elected official to get a story, you could ask Charlie and find out in a second.
Maybe it wasn't the best way to run a newsroom, but to me it seemed to work extremely well. Decisions didn't take weeks and results were immediate. So were consequences when somebody made a mistake. With Charlie, you always knew where you stood and whether your work was good enough.
And I've never worked with anyone who was as much fun.
One Saturday during the heady days of the space program, Charlie walked out of the wire room and announced, excitedly for Charlie, "Well, they've updocked."
I was concentrating on a headline but looked up innocently and fell headlong into the trap: "What's up dock?"
He laughed till he cried. I fell for all his jokes, even the ones I could see coming. He appreciated my gullibility, though he knew sometimes I was faking it.
Charlie had seven children and a garden bigger than most people's entire yards. He always did all the Christmas shopping for his kids and later his grandkids. He showed me how to start tomato plants indoors in tall beer cans so the roots could get really long before you set them out in the spring.
Charlie is one of the reasons I love journalism. From him I learned a lot more than how to write a decent headline; I learned it's important to find the truth and write about it even when it's hard work; I learned you have to argue over the important issues but not over everything; I learned it's OK to have fun once the work is done.
And while I was getting a priceless education, I also learned to love Charlie. Thanks, Mr. Carver.