Friday, May 27, 2011

Saying goodbye to the ost important person to never know my name

Tonight I find myself mourning for a man I barely knew, but whose leadership and personal drive provided me with some of the best years of my adult life. This afternoon, Frank Wood, former owner and publisher of the Green Bay News-Chronicle died at the age of 82.

To be clear, I only met Mr. Wood on a handful of occasions - a Christmas party one year, around the office a few times, nothing major and certainly nothing that he would remember I'm sure - but the wonderful community he created at the Chronicle was something I'll always cherish.

Strangely, I started working at the rival Press-Gazette in the fall of 1998 when I began covering Junior A hockey after being on staff at the school paper for all of a few weeks. I cringe now, thinking of the first game story (that hadn't even gone to press yet) that I brought in as a writing sample. Considering that without any actual training, I wrote and edited that scrap and then had the balls to present it as my one and only sample, I still have no idea why I was offered the job. They must have been desperate.

Despite this, I started small and kept coming back each week, picking up new skills as I went and by the end of the season, I was able to string together a few words without the editor having to strike whole paragraphs or sit me down to interview me in order to get readable copy ready for the morning edition. Everyone there was nice enough, but other than basic feedback it was a pretty simple pattern of come in, type, wait, get a pat on the head and be on my way.

The things I remember most were the simple size of the space - high ceilings, sprawling desks that were usually empty by the time I rambled in after hockey games and the ancient terminals used to enter the copy. The whole space could have been designed by asking anyone on the street to describe what a newsroom looked like. I half expected Clark Kent to wander by looking for a cup of coffee some evenings.

When the season ended there, I was asked by a friend to come and interview at her paper, which was the Chronicle. I should point out here that I was incredibly naive at this point and all I knew at this point was a.) The Gazette was bigger and b.) The Chronicle was willing to hire me through the spring and summer. I made the jump.

The Chronicle was certainly smaller and quirkier, starting with the building. The story I'd heard was that it was a converted convent and the narrow hallways flanked by what would have been old bedrooms seemed to back that up. At the heart though, were the people.

Melanie was the friend who brought me in after dropping hints and clips on the sports editor's desk. I've never known her to run at anything less than full speed for anything in her life and we've been friends for 13 years. Even then as a full-time student, she was an award-winning journalist who ran circles around everyone in the city. Even in her early 20s, Melanie was doing the things I still talk about, like the time she had herself locked in prison for a story and had a hard time talking herself out when the message was missed that she was in there voluntarily.

Tim was my editor who never had an off day in any sense of the term. If the doors were open, Tim was there and if Tim was there, he was always focused. Some of my fondest memories of working late nights there were of Tim, hunched forward in his chair rocking slightly, fidgeting with some knickknack on his desk and going word by word through the small copy agate in box scores for mid-season high school softball games. The dedication required to not only read each name but to remember individual players, their usual positions and their older siblings was nothing short of superhuman.

He did this every night for every name in every game. The dedication to getting every little thing right bordered on obsession and it made every one of us on his staff hungry to provide perfect copy every night, no matter how long it took.

Finally, there was Warren who ran the news department and was the man I worked for when I started branching out into public record work. While a totally different personality, his drive matched Tim's, though he took a different route to that end. Warren was a character who I remember cherishing new vinyl when he could find it and being one of the few true journalists I've known who had run for office instead of just grousing about the state of politics. I still laugh at the memory of a grammar lesson he taught me about the difference between something being thrown "off" a bridge versus "over" a bridge by tossing a Beanie Baby around his desk. "Mufasa is being thrown over the computer monitor," he said while throwing the lion in an arc back and forth in front of his screen. "Mufasa is being thrown off the monitor." I got the lesson.

These three people were just a few of the many great folks I worked with there, but they were all a product of Mr. Wood's vision for what a newspaper should and could be. The Chain Gang is a great book that outlines the fight for Green Bay between these two papers I worked for that I didn't read until I'd already jumped ship to the Chronicle. Most people in town still have no idea that any of this was happening, even now, but that book shed a lot of light on the culture I'd been invited into.

The push to keep two voices in the community - vaguely referenced in Mr. Wood's obituary today in the Press-Gazette - was a guiding principle for both the paper and its owner. While I joined after the dust had settled, there were still plenty of people who were there for the real fireworks. It was something that wasn't talked about, but it certainly was felt on a daily basis. We had to be better in every aspect of production because we felt that a better product was the only way we'd be able to compete for another week.

It was a need to be right all the time, from breaking news in major criminal trials to the name of a shortstop on a softball team in Pulaski, WI. It was a need to not only try, but to achieve and to feel like your one story made the difference between life and death for the paper. More than that, it was our paper, regardless if you were the owner, an editor, a star reporter or just the guy who took phone calls from coaches to format box scores at someone else's desk after they'd left for the day.

"Well, you tried" was never good enough which was felt throughout the organization and that started with Mr. Wood. He created a culture where bright, dedicated people could work together and produce what a paper should be as opposed to what it had always been. He gave us a space to get together every day to laugh and talk and disagree and bust our asses in the name of telling all sorts of stories. He let characters hire other characters and then find ways to all work together to tell those stories to our community with a sense of dignity and heart that I never found again at other newspapers I'd worked at.

For me, the Chronicle was an opportunity to work with the smartest kids in school and to be able to say that I found my place there and was able to thrive at the best newspaper most people never heard of. The vindication I feel from that accomplishment is something that I will always treasure.

Now Mr. Wood is gone and the Chronicle is gone, sold a few years ago to the company that had been held at bay for so long. I can't help but feel sadness in knowing that this man who provided so much for the community, for his friends and family and for his work family is now gone. I feel sadness that the new generation of writers looking for their place in the world won't have the option to work for one of Frank Wood's papers any more.

It's rare that someone lives up to the hype of the legends that surround them. Frank Wood fought Gannett and won for years where others had failed. He created a fine paper, staffed by good people who all fought for a common goal. He gave me a place to belong and feel that I was making a real difference at a time when I had lost my direction.

If he could do that much good for someone he barely knew, I can only imagine all he did for his family and the people lucky enough to call him a friend. Rest in peace, Mr. Wood. I will miss you on so many levels.

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