Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Memoirs from the Fourth Estate

As most of you know, this blog originated many years ago as an actual print op ed column in the Daily Princetonian. I was the first regular faculty columnist for the paper, and I treasure still a friendship with several of the editors for whom I worked. I am out of the swim of campus life, and I don’t read the paper on a daily basis; but occasionally I grab a free copy on my way out of my morning swim. I did so last blog day.

Dominating the front page is a story obscurely headed “Student groups look past hummus debate.” It’s on to the Baba Genoush debate, one presumes. The other top story is about close student elections, with the following lead: “In most of the races in this fall’s USG elections, challengers received two to three times fewer votes than winners.” Think about that sentence for a minute, and then make a quick estimate of the number of votes secured by the loser of a two-way race in which the winner got 500 votes.

I write this in affection, not censure; for I well remember my own travails as editor of my college paper, the Sewanee Purple. The Purple was in my day a mere weekly, and probably still is. My job as editor was to try to scrape up enough minimally plausible copy to fill out its pages, and especially its editorial page, for each issue. In short I shared the task of every other newspaper editor in the world, and with them usually failed. “All the news that’s fit to print” is actually best measured in teaspoons, not truckloads.

Copy deadline was, I think, Thursday. That gave the typesetters in the old press building a day to do the linotyping. We would come in on the weekends, usually late Sunday night, to do the composing. This meant carefully measuring the column inches of set type slugs, then actually devising and setting by hand the eighteen point headlines—usually in Caslon Old Face italic. From this period dates my earliest interest in hand presses and letterpress printing. There was also a great deal of “leading”—especially for the editorial page. Leading meant trying to disguise, with carefully disposed white space, the fact that we had insufficient copy to fill a page. The art of head-lining was also largely spatial—making the lines come out even--but we also went for the snappy and the alliterative.

My academic life was twice endangered by my journalistic activities. In my time a French married couple, both art historians whom I by pseudonym will call the Delandiers, joined the faculty under what was then a rather experimental arrangement. They shared a single faculty line, with Monsieur D teaching three-quarters time, and Madame D a quarter. Since then the shared appointment has in certain institutions become accepted as a take-it-or-leave-it administrative practice for retaining or even attracting professional couples in a tight job market. But it was new to us then and, moreover, news. I put my ace reporter on the case, and he wrote an interesting article in the same hard-hitting style as his celebrated three-column “Supply Store Parking Lot in Temporary Closure for Asphalt Repair” of the previous week.

Unfortunately, however, I had most unusually delegated the task of headline composition to a friend, a great man, alas, no longer living. I didn’t even see the final front page until I came upon some lewd jocks guffawing over it at breakfast:



Remember, this was more than fifty years ago, in a church college in Tennessee. The dean, who was big on decorum and in fact overused the very word, was sure he had unearthed a plot to overthrow both throne and altar in a single typographical sally. I pled innocence, and then the Fifth, since I wouldn’t name my buddy, who was already on Probation. I thought it helpful, though the dean did not, to suggest that the Delandiers, being French, were likely to take the broader view. (In fact, they did).

The Right Reverend Frank Alexander Juhan (1887-1967)

A second episode at first seemed likely to end my academic career before it had fairly begun, but actually turned out making me Too Big to Fail, so to speak. The Chancellor of the University at that time was the Right Reverend Frank Alexander Juhan, Bishop of Florida and Sewanee football hall-of-famer from the first decade of the last century. His great friend, and the college’s most generous benefactor, was Jesse Ball duPont. Mrs. duPont was an old style Southern aristocrat, as FFV* as they come, who claimed George Washington’s mother as her distant relative. Not of less significance to our story, she was the widow and heir of Alfred I. duPont, and a chief administrator of a very large philanthropic endowment. The duPonts had at some point removed from Delaware to Florida, and in her widowhood Mrs. duPont, a loyal daughter of the Church, had been very helpful in advancing the good works of the athletic bishop.

The bishop and the philanthropist sometimes visited Sewanee together, usually in a context (such as the dedication of yet another of Mrs. duPont’s gift buildings) likely to make news. On one such visit the Purple photographer got a lovely shot of the two standing together in admiration of a new (as I recall) athletic facility. Headlines were one of my editorial specialties, picture captions a second. We had just that week read for a class several poems by Robert Browning, including one that particularly caught my fancy, “Love Among the Ruins.” It’s a sort of Victorian version of “Ozymandias,” only much mellower. A passage in it seemed to me perfect as a caption for this photo: “And the monarch and his minions and his dames, viewed the games.” I did this with an innocence of intention I shall be prepared to defend before my Maker on the Last Day.

Mrs. Jesse Ball duPont (1884-1970)

At my fiftieth reunion, in 2008, a classmate presented me with a rare treasure, a pristine copy of the issue in which this appeared. Unfortunately I have put it somewhere so safe that I cannot at this moment retrieve it. Within the first hour of the paper’s distribution, the Director of Development (i.e., chief fund-raiser) saw a copy and panicked. He set about—at first single-handedly, then with the aid of his own office minions and dames—to gather up every copy on campus. (I believe the run was about a thousand). But by then several copies, escalating in value with the velocity of a Madoff stock, were in “private hands”—including those, unfortunately, of the dean. He called me in and, hesitating betwixt rack and strapado, established instead a kangaroo tribunal at which I was to appear the following day. I might have been rusticated, and that quite soon, were it not for the power of the vox populi.

Heretofore I had little evidence that my fellow students gave a tinker’s damn about the newspaper over which I and a few friends labored so assiduously in private camaraderie. But nothing so enhances the value of a commodity in the eye of the public as being told that they must under no circumstances have it. By noon the missing issue was an Issue. By the time of the evening meal it was a First Amendment Issue. There was a street march, with metaphoric torches and pitchforks, to the house of the Suppressor. He had to appear on his porch and explain himself to a potential lynch-mob. He explained that fund-raising is tricky, delicate business, and that it ill accords with undergraduate high-jinks. He agreed to pay for a complete new and amended edition. I did a plea-bargain in which the kangaroo hearing was cancelled in exchange for my letter of explanation to the bishop and the heiress. I was, for a day or two, the most famous newspaper editor in all of Middle Tennessee.

*First Families of Virginia.