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Woodworking column: Missed my first deadline

Half a century ago, I worked as a bartender in the elegant old Hotel Eau Claire. Business was slow late at night and so I looked forward to having John, the assistant night manager, drop by to talk about life. He was elderly, stooped and had worked for the Boss Chain, an Iowa corporation, for years.

One night he told me how he had discovered Grant Wood, the famous Iowa artist, who lived in a town where my friend had worked. So then I asked him how he got hooked up in the hotel biz.

"I missed a deadline," he said, smiling.

John explained that in his youth he had hoped to make a career in journalism and with luck landed a job on a Chicago daily.

"We beat reporters didn't work too hard in those days. I was assigned to the press room of a Chicago police precinct. In those days Chicago had seven newspapers and each sent a reporter to that very precinct. Nothing much ever went on in our precinct, so we drew straws and the guy who drew the short one had to stay in the pressroom and keep track of the news that came in. And the other six, walked down the street to a speakeasy where we drank the day away."

One day, John drew a speakeasy straw and went drinking with his pals. ON THE VERY DAY THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY SLAUGHTER OCCURRED IN HIS PRECINCT.

"When we returned to the pressroom, the Chicago Trib reporter, who drew the short straw, called in a real scoop and the rest of us had nothing."

That's what can happen when you miss a deadline. Stories about such misses abound in the annals of journalism. One of my favorites occurred in 1941, when San Jose State College's football team was scheduled to play the Hawaiian team in Honolulu. It was a big deal for the little California college, so the journalism department scraped together airfare to send a student reporter to Hawaii to cover the game.

Dec. 7 dawned and the whole world heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On campus, the journalism department awaited an on-the-scene story of the attack from the fledgling reporter. No story came. On the following day, the kid arrived back in San Jose and his chairperson asked the kid "Where in the hell is the story about the attack?" The kid replied, "What attack? I went to the stadium and the game was cancelled!"

One more. Back in the 1950s, John Cowles, Jr., the scion of a famous publishing family, was cutting his teeth as a cub reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune. One morning, he left his mansion in Kenwood and before he jumped in his car to go to the newspaper, he discovered a dead body in his driveway. How could he miss such a deadline? Here's how: Instead of breaking the speed limit to the paper to file a story, he PHONED the newspaper, told them he discovered a dead woman, a lawyer's wife, lying in his driveway, with the address. Way over in St. Paul, the Pioneer Press intercepted the call (standard operating procedure), and wrote the story,

which was on the street before Cowles got to work.

So just because you're rich you're not necessarily canny. Tribune columnist Robert T. Smith liked to tell about his first day on the job.

"We picked up a police message that there was an auto fatality out on Highway 12. In those days it was a big deal. So the managing editor sent Earl, a canny photographer and me, a cub, out to the accident. By the time we got there, the wreck was cleaned up, the corpse hauled away. Earl got a blanket out of the trunk, told me to lie down on the berm. He covered me with the blanket, shot a picture and I made the front page of the Tribune on my first day at work!"

Such stories have made a big impression on me when it comes to deadlines.

For eight years I wrote a column for Grit, the national news weekly, 52 weeks a year. That's 416 deadlines. Not a one missed. I've been writing the column you are now reading for more than 19 years. That figures out to more than 1,000 deadlines, and I never missed one, even when I had major surgery, when Phil Pfuehler, my Beautiful Wife and Kevin Pechacek substituted for me. What a mensch I am!

Until last week, of course, when I missed my life's first deadline.

So just because you're poor, you're not necessarily canny.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426- 9554.