After my sophomore year in college, I was working in my parents’ hardware store in Mulvane, Kansas. I was at a crossroads with my schooling and thought I might declare a major in political science and go to law school.
My parents were friends with a man named Jim Wampler, a photographer at the Wichita Eagle at the time, who stored a collection of antique cameras on the second floor of the building. I was talking with him one day about wanting a different job, about not knowing what I wanted to do, and he suggested I come to the newspaper and apply for a city desk clerk job. I loved writing , but newspapers had never occurred to me. I applied, exaggerating my typing skills, and was hired. The job: Answer phones. Monitor the police radios. Write obituaries. Obey orders. The job was one step up from a copy boy.
The reward was that I knew the first hour of the first shift that this was something I wanted to do the rest of my working life. It was an immediate rush. The news was addictive. The challenge was that there was no room for error. I learned quickly that misspelling a name in an obituary would bring down the wrath of the city editor, and that I had to question and verify everything. The third week, I walked out in tears, thinking I’d never be able to do the work. But I got better at it. The job set the course for my 30-plus years as a reporter and editor. Not just the course, but the high standards I was expected to meet. I learned the customer service skills I still use in my career today, as well as the ability to read people and ask them the right questions. And I was lucky to learn from magnificent reporters and editors. Learning on the job as I did was a privilege. I did change my major, but by the time I graduated a little more than two years later, I was working full time as a reporter.