I was back where it began, back in the Tampa Bay Times building on Friday, back where I started working for newspapers 41 years ago.
First, let’s be clear on this point. I never wrote for the St. Petersburg/Tampa Bay Times but I worked for the Times Publishing Company from 1972 to 1986. This is not a riddle. Let me explain: I started there as a part-time mail clerk, then added stringing duties for the Evening Independent sports department and eventually was hired fulltime by the Independent in 1977.
The Independent, which was owned by the Times Publishing Company, folded in 1986 and then I moved on to The Fort Myers News-Press.
I returned to the Times building to pick up two Rays’ tickets from Sharon Kennedy Wynne, a former News-Press colleague who now works for the Times. She graciously showed me around the newsroom and introduced me to several folks.
Memories flooded back, back to 1970s when I was a college kid pushing a mail cart on and off a freight elevator and through every department in what I recall was an eight-story building.
Into classified and retail advertising on the first floor and the composing room on the second floor, where Linotypes machines were still in use and up to the third floor newsrooms where reporters banged away on typewriters, writing stories on copy paper.
Any story longer than one page of copy paper had to be pasted together with the glue from the pots on every desk. A system of pneumatic tubes carried copy and messages between the newsrooms and the composing room. The presses were and are located in another building a couple of miles away.
In the beginning, I had nothing to do with any of that. My duties included pushing a handcart a couple blocks away in downtown St. Pete to the open-air post office where I filled a canvas mail bag or two or maybe three with the mail and returned to the mailroom off an alley behind the building.
Back then, kiddies, people couldn’t pay their bills online. They stopped by the office or sent checks through the mail. I learned to hold envelopes up to a light to see if checks were enclosed and then delivered those to either general ledger or accounting. Don’t recall after all these years where I delivered the checks.
I enjoyed the job, even arriving for work at 6 a.m. on weekend mornings to pick up, sort and deliver the mail. I got to know a little about how newspapers work and had the run of the place from the library to the newsrooms to the executive offices on the fourth floor.
I may have even had keys that got me into offices and the library during off hours. Not sure about that.
The fourth floor was where Times owner Nelson Poynter’s office was located. For many years, the Poynter name has been associated with the Poynter Institute in St. Pete.
To me, the Poynter name has always meant the courtly, kindly little gent on the fourth floor. He stood only about 5-foot-5, was in his 70s and always wore suits and bow ties.
If the Times Publishing Company then had – let’s pick a number – 1,000 employees, Mr. Poynter was at the very top, the owner and the visionary, the man who made the Times an excellent paper. I, on the other hand, was at the very bottom, perhaps ranked No. 1,000, a part-time mail clerk pushing a cart through the halls and popping into Mr. Poynter’s outer office to drop off and pick up mail.
I don’t think he ever knew my name but I recall that was unfailing courteous and always had a smile and a hello for me, even me, even the part-time mail clerk bopping down the halls and popping into his office.
If we had conversations it was nothing more than Mr. Poynter asking me how my day was going or if I liked working for the company. Whatever exchanges we had likely never lasted more than a handful of seconds.
But even know, 40 years later and 35 years after his death in 1978, I think of Mr. Poynter as an exemplar of a leader. Quite a contrast to some I encountered in a quarter-century at Gannett.
Here is example No.. 1:
It was the ground-breaking ceremony for JetBlue Park, the Red Sox new spring training home in Lee County. I was there covering the event, which was bursting with important local people such as county commissioners and business big shots.
I recall talking to the president of the construction company with the project contract when my paper’s publisher came by and said hello to him. I was standing right next to him and he said to her, “I’m sure you know this guy.”
He then gestured toward me. She ignored me and pivoted on her heels and went skittering off in pursuit of important people not lowly staff writers. The company president was clearly astonished and appalled by that rude behavior but had the grace and class not to say anything to me about it.
Example No. 2
It was the 1990s and I was in a small Italian restaurant in Fort Myers with a group of people. The paper’s executive editor and wife were at the next table in a narrow little room.
When my party arrived I nodded toward the editor, who ignored me. When he and his wife got up to leave, they walked inches behind my chair on the way out. I said hello again and he didn’t deign to nod or say hello. His wife just shrugged an apology as if to say I can’t do anything about his arrogance and bad manners.
I can’t imagine Mr. Poynter would have ever been so inexplicably and inexcusably rude as those two.
Anyhow, to wrap this up. Independent sports editor Bob Chick hired me fulltime and I started in January 1977. One morning during my first week fulltime St. Pete was hit by snow. Not much but enough that as I drove to work in the pre-dawn darkness I had to turn on the wipers to get rid of the snowflakes.
When I walked in the sports department, Bob said, “I knew it would be a snowy day in St. Pete before we hired you.”
Great line, Bob. And thanks again for giving me a chance.