My favorite story about being a journalist comes from my first year on the job as a reporter for one of my two hometown newspapers (two-newspaper towns are now few and far between, Santa Fe, so count your blessings).
I had to go to the dentist, actually our family dentist (another anachronism), where the receptionist had known me all my life. I hadn’t been in for a couple of years because I’d been away at school.
She asked me if I had a job. I said I was a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat.
Her immediate response was: “Didn’t you go to college?”
And here I’d been thinking I had the coolest job any 21-year-old, recent graduate of a legitimate bachelor’s degree program could have. Basically thrown into the ocean of reporting on public affairs and left to sink or swim, I was at least floating and in any case having a blast among the sharks and fishes.
I was covering City Hall in my hometown, which at that time meant being at not just every governing board meeting – you were at every meeting of the planning commission, the water commission, the airport commission and, yes, the board of adjustment. In the era before “public information officers,” you walked around the building and could drop in unannounced to talk with the city manager or the planning director or elected officials passing through. Somehow I found all of this fascinating.
The newspaper also let me write about music and collecting unusual records from the cheapo “cutout” bins. I was even granted the choice gig of covering Johnny Cash when he came back to his home state in 1976 to visit his birthplace, ride a train (there is, of course, a substantial subset of the Cash song catalog devoted to trains) and give a concert at the local high school football field, part of a small-town Bicentennial celebration.
Geraldo Rivera, then still a fairly legitimate newsperson with ABC, sucked up all the interview time with the Man in Black and spouse June Carter Cash during the short train trip. Cash was asked about rolling on the rails through his rural homeland. Instead of talking about that lonesome whistle blowing his blues away or big black wheels a-hummin’, he mentioned that a train that was part of this very railroad company had run over and killed a relative – which was sad and real and the perfect story. (As music fans know, somebody getting “runned over by a damned old train” is part of the perfect country and western song, as described in a David Allen Coe hit from 1975).
OK, so I’m wallowing in personal and pointless reminiscences here. But I decided to start at the beginning before getting to the ending, specifically my retirement.
By the time this article is published, I will have stepped down as editor of the Journal North, where I’ve spent the last two decades of my career. So this is a goodbye, although at least for now I’ll be taking on a small role as hired help for the paper.
In all, I’ve been reporting and editing and opining in Santa Fe for about 28 years. My family and I came to New Mexico after my second Little Rock newspaper – the late, great Arkansas Gazette – lost one of the last full-blown newspaper wars, a circumstance that robbed me and others of continuing to cover the just-then burgeoning presidential campaign of homeboy Bill Clinton.
What’s a land grant?
It didn’t take long after we arrived in Santa Fe to know we weren’t in (Ar)Kansas any more.
I picked up the phone one day in the newsroom of the New Mexican, where I’d been hired to cover the Roundhouse, and the caller wanted to know how the paper would report on the 25th anniversary of the courthouse raid at Tierra Amarilla. I couldn’t pronounce Tierra Amarilla and had never heard of Reies Lopez Tijerina or land grants. All I could do was write down as much as I understood and pass it on to my boss and wonder why no one had ever taught me about a modern-day, armed insurrection in the United States.
I was working at the Roundhouse during this same period, in 1992, on what we used to call Columbus Day. I noticed a group of several dozen people gathered out front, called the newsroom and asked if I needed to cover a group of Native Americans who were protesting the 500th anniversary of European settlement in the Western Hemisphere.
I followed them as they marched to the Plaza to a slow drumbeat. There was a decent crowd there celebrating Columbus Day. Costumed girls were doing traditional Hispanic dances, with family members and others gathered at a stage in front of the Palace of the Governors. The protesters marched around the Plaza and made their way between the crowd and the stage. Parents of the performers, in particular, were angry at the intrusion and saw it as disrespecting the kids on stage. I braced for serious conflict if the protesters made a second pass, but they didn’t. Then something wonderful happened.
I was looking for people to interview and behind the stage I came across one of the protesters, a stylish young Iroquois woman from New York, engaged in serious but friendly discussion with none other than Roque Garcia, already established as a Santa Fe icon for the carnitas sold from his Plaza cart and his benevolent personality. These two people from different parts of the cultural divide proceeded to get to know each other and talk over the issues, with actual smiles on their faces. Imagine that.
After eight years of legislative sessions and New Mexico politics (no time here for details about Manny Aragon’s heartfelt late-night lecture after a chance meeting at The Palace, being on the campaign trail with Bruce King in a rural VFW hut where a picture of JFK still hung on the wall and being vilified in Pecos for what I still contend was a sympathetic description of how the local teen mariachi band serenaded King), I moved on to become Journal North editor.
Baptism by fire
Here, before I’d barely had time to warm up my editor’s chair, we were covering national stories involving Los Alamos – the Cerro Grande wildfire that burned into town and the Wen Ho Lee scandal, which ended with a federal judge apologizing to the former national lab scientist who’d been portrayed as a Chinese spy and held in solitary confinement.
Only by the grace of great reporters and photographers on my staff did I survive these baptisms by (literally, in one case) fire. Our Wen Ho Lee coverage by Ian Hoffman was singled out by The Columbia Journalism Review for avoiding the rush to judgment on Lee that other, bigger, national publications were guilty of. One of Hoffman’s successors at the North, Adam Rankin, blew the lid off a subsequent embezzlement scandal at the lab.
Our current group also has done impressive work – see Edmundo Carrillo’s detailed series of articles from 2019 about how now-convicted child rapist Gary Gregor was able to move from Utah to Santa Fe to Española as an elementary school teacher despite repeated accusations of improper behavior with his young female students and various reviews by local and state education agencies. Our great photographer Eddie Moore is a veritable local institution, knows everything about this town and seems to be loved by everyone he’s ever taken a picture of (OK, maybe not people in some of those pictures from criminal trials).
To all of the others who’ve helped me over the years, I’ll just quote from a late-career Bob Dylan masterpiece called “Mississippi:” “I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me.”
Our newsroom has always been small and it’s easy for people to just walk in, and some of these visitors are also memorable. My work weeks would have been a lot more boring, for instance, without talks with “The Colonel” – George R. Hawthorne, a retired Army Corps of Engineers officer with a long white beard and usually clad in a vintage military uniform, who died at age 95 in 2013. He stopped by the newsroom often to dispense tales of Santa Fe and Los Alamos history and in the process inevitably explain how one of our stories was utterly, ridiculously wrong.
The Journal North was and remains an unusually strong commitment to local journalism for a statewide paper based in another city, particularly in these times of shrinking budgets and disappearing news organizations. It’s something I’m proud of and thankful for. If the home-owned Albuquerque Journal was part of national newspaper chain, it’s likely the North would have been lost years ago, amid the double whammy of free internet news and the Great Recession.
So, yes, I did go to college. And I still appreciate the privilege of getting to do a job I wanted to do for so long.