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40 years of Rick being Wright: A journalist and his dream job

This isn’t about me, OK? It’s about the 40 years.

Here’s what happened. On Tuesday, I realized that April 11, 1977 was the day I became a full-time employee at the Albuquerque Journal. (I was 9 years old at the time, thanks for asking.) I texted my wife, Barbara, to that effect.WRIGHT-Rick_2012

Barbara being the proud, supportive spouse she is, she sent my boss, Randy Harrison, a voicemail. The next day, Randy sent me an email suggesting I write a Sunday column from the perspective of a guy who started at the Journal when Jimmy Carter was our president, Jerry Apodaca was New Mexico’s governor, Lavon McDonald was UNM’s athletic director, Norm Ellenberger was UNM’s men’s basketball coach and Bill Mondt was the Lobos’ football coach.

Of course, all that has changed. So has the way we produce the Journal sports section.

And yet, so much hasn’t changed at all.

Understand, please, I’m not retiring; didn’t mean to get your hopes up. This is simply a retrospective on 40 years in the Journal sports department.

April 11, 1977 was a Monday. The Journal’s lead front page story that morning had the United States pledging to invest millions of dollars into weapons development if the Soviet Union did not agree to de-escalate. It’s a wonder we’re all still here.

The lead sports story was Tom Watson’s victory in the Masters. Watson would eventually win another Masters and eight majors, and for years was considered the best golfer in the game. But in April 1977 he was sort of the Sergio Garcia of his time – widely viewed as a choker who couldn’t win the big one, even though he’d won the British Open in 1975. His Masters win in ’77 changed all that.

The lead local story that morning, and in fact the only one, was an account of Manzano’s 5-4 victory over West Mesa in the championship game of a city high school baseball tournament. The game was concluded Sunday after being interrupted by darkness on Saturday.

The story was written by Journal stringer Chuck Peifer, then a student at the Albuquerque Academy. Peifer eventually chucked a promising career as a sports writer and now is an Albuquerque attorney who represents, among other clients, the Albuquerque Journal.

I wonder if Chuck ever thinks he made the wrong career choice. Yeah, probably not.

At the time of my hiring, I was not new to the Journal. An Albuquerque native and a Manzano graduate, I’d worked in Journal Sports as a UNM intern in the winter and spring of 1975 and as a part-timer that fall and in the winter of ’76.

A true calling

I knew then that working in the sports department of my hometown paper was all I wanted to do. Back in those days, Journal Sports essentially was its own, self-contained newspaper. We had everything the paper at large had – hard news, features, columns, the occasional in-depth series or investigative report. And we did it all ourselves: wrote and edited the stories, laid out the pages, did nightly battle with the printers in the composing room. There was a romance to it, a mission almost, that made the crummy hours worth it.

Problem was, I could eat on a part-timer’s salary or I could pay rent, but not both. In February 1976, I took a job at the Alamogordo Daily News. That October, I left Alamogordo for the Los Alamos Monitor. In April, after an interview with Journal sports editor Paul Logan over dinner at a downtown cafeteria called the Royal Fork (one-and-a-half stars at best), I came home.

I was hired as a full-time desk man, charged on a given night with either page design – the slot – or copy editing – the rim. That was the only opening on the staff, and I was thrilled to get it. But the slot was a job that called for far more organizational skills than I possessed, and I can recall (though I’ve tried to forget) some nightmarish Friday and Saturday nights as wire and local stories poured in faster than I could process them.

Eventually, I asked for and got some writing assignments. Whether it was because Logan liked me as a writer or hated me as a desk man, or both, I gradually became more the former and less the latter.

Even now, though, everyone on staff draws some desk shifts. And that’s healthy. A reporter on deadline has one story to worry about; he should never forget that his colleagues in the office might have dozens.

Our delivery system back in ’77 was far less sophisticated then it is now. Behind the slot desk, a wire machine clacked away. Wire stories were ripped off the machine. Headlines and photo captions – cutlines – were affixed with a half-sheet of copy paper, and the copy then was rolled up into a cylinder and shipped via pneumatic tube to the composing room – the back shop – where typesetters – punchers – would convert them to newspaper-ready type.

Local copy was typed on IBM Selectrics on white bond paper, then fed into a scanner system. The scanner was a treacherous thing; if the printer ball of your typewriter was dirty (old toothbrushes were kept on hand for cleaning purposes) or if the paper wasn’t set firmly enough against the back of the typewriter, letters could be blurred and bizarre things could result.

Hello, Karkl?

One of the first stories I’d written for the Journal as an intern was a feature on a Highland wrestler named Karl Dunlap. Presumably because of poor typewriter maintenance on my part, the scanner read the young man’s name as “Karkl Dunlar” and other variations. Corrections didn’t come up in time for the early edition, and Journal readers in Gallup, Tucumcari, Farmington, Clovis, etc., might have wondered why Mr. and Mrs. Dunlar had named their son “Karkl.”

On game nights, reporters Bart Ripp, Frank Maestas, Roger Ruvolo, Russ Parsons and an army of stringers would flood the office – the stringers spilling out of Sports and onto desks occupied during the day by staffers from other departments. When Ripp, Ruvolo or Maestas went out of town with the Lobos, after the game they’d simply pick up the phone and dictate their story to one of us in the office.

Maestas was a master of the craft. “I could dictate 20 inches on two flies copulating,” the late, great one used to say, though he didn’t actually say “copulating.”

Over the years, the scanner and the wire machine have been replaced by a succession of computer systems. Story lengths, headline counts, etc., now are done for us. Sports staffers no longer lay out the pages; that’s done by the design desk. The back shop, where non-union newsroom employees had their nightly struggles with union printers, is long gone. The sports staff has expanded, though in recent years that trend has reversed in response to economic realities.

Rarely, if ever, does a reporter dictate a story over the phone – a lost art – thanks to portable word processors. Home and away, I transmit my UNM football stories via email on my I-Pad. Geoff Grammer, our UNM men’s basketball beat writer, does the same.

Change of venue

In 1985, the Journal left its windowless downtown newsroom and moved to its current, spacious digs on Jefferson NE. While exercising the employee’s God-given right to gripe, many a Journal employee has been known to say sarcastically, “That’s OK, everything’s gonna be fine once we move to the new building.” But, the truth is, 32 years later, it’s still a nice place to work.

So, then. Why am I still here?

First and foremost, the world is full of people who retired too soon. My wife and I don’t want to be two of them. Still, though, there’s the work itself.

“I haven’t worked a day since I left the sawmill,” my colleague and assistant sports editor Ed Johnson often says. EZ Ed, by the way, is approaching the 40-year mark himself. If he chooses to write a retrospective of his own, it will be far better written than this one.

I never worked in a sawmill, but I did work in a furniture warehouse one summer while in school. I know what EZ is saying. As jobs go, ours is more fun than most. If you love sports and love to write, what could be better?

As well, there’s the people. With little effort, I came up with the names of 48 full-time sports staffers with whom I’ve worked. I probably missed a few, so the number might exceed 50. Then, too, there’s the scores of stringers and part-timers who’ve passed through, the page designers, the photographers with whom we work on a daily basis.

Notable graduates:

• Andy Katz, UNM men’s basketball beat writer (1990-95), now a senior college basketball writer and on-air analyst/host for ESPN.

• Wayne Wanta, slotman (early ’80s), now one of the nation’s pre-eminent professors of journalism (Oklahoma State, Missouri, Oregon, Southern Illinois, Florida) and a published author.

• Russ Parsons, reporter/copy editor (late ’70s), published author and the recently retired food editor at the Los Angeles Times.

I’m sure Andy, Wayne and Russ, like the aforementioned Chuck Peifer, don’t regret their long-ago decisions to leave the Journal. If I wanted to feel bad about my career, I’d have plenty of options.

But I don’t. This has been my dream job, and, truly, these 40 years have flown by.

Now, about the next 40 …

Rick Wright watches from the sideline during the University of New Mexico spring football practice on Friday. Wright marked 40 years with the Journal last week. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

Rick Wright watches from the sideline during the University of New Mexico spring football practice on Friday. Wright marked 40 years with the Journal last week. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

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