I struggle daily with my students’ apathy, particularly my graduating seniors who sit in class in February (and March, April, etc.) with no idea or ambition of that they’ll do after high school. I can understand if they’ve decided not to pursue commercial and advertising art (graphic design; what I teach) but I wish they would decide on something!
I figured out early my senior year of high school what career I wanted to pursue: baseball. Like any high school jock I knew for certain that I was going to sign a contract and play professionally. I researched colleges (basically looking for warm-weather schools which had graduating catchers so I could step right into the starting lineup) and visited several in Florida before finally deciding. Unfortunately, It didn’t take long to figure out being “good” locally didn’t mean you were good nationally, and by my second year of amateur baseball (there wasn’t much college involved) I knew I had to find a real career.
Ironically, I also learned early my senior year of high school that I liked to write. My AP English teacher said I was good at it and encouraged me to study writing in college. I decided to follow her advice (albeit three years late) and transferred to a northern school which had a journalism major. It took me an extra semester to earn my BA before becoming a reporter and entertainment columnist for a small NJ city daily newspaper.
I was reminded of all this while watching a documentary on HBO this weekend. The show – Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists – chronicled two of newspapers most famous columnists. I love newspapers and the stories of the people behind the stories. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen “All The President’s Men” and “Absence of Malice,” and now there’s new ones, “The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee” and “The Post.”
But Deadline Artists was different. It struck closer to home because my late father-in-law – Larry McMullen — was a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News at the same time that Breslin and Hamill were in New York. There were a lot of similarities between dad and Breslin, although, for some reason, dad never received much attention outside of South Philly.
Pete Dexter, another columnist and colleague of Larry’s at the Daily News who found success as novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, was recognized in Deadline Artists. My father-in-law had a lot of respect for Pete, and often told the story about how Dexter was saved from being beaten to death by a crowd by boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb (you can read Pete’s column here). There was no picture or mention of Larry in the HBO show, but if the producers had asked Pete he may have enlightened them. I have a copy of Dexter’s book “Spooner” which he signed for dad in October, 2009. It says,
“For my friend, Larry McMullen – the best fit of newspaper, newspaper columnist and city there has ever been, and the way things look, will ever be.”
People in other Philadelphia media were also entertained and informed by dad. Marc Howard, a former TV news anchor in the city, said in Larry’s obituary, “I often told Larry he reminded me of Jimmy Breslin, the New York writer who, like Larry, wrote about the wonderful characters that populate the neighborhoods of great cities. But there was a major difference. When Breslin needed a character to further a story, he invented one. Larry never invented his characters. He found them, real live people who made South Philadelphia what it was and still is today.”
My father-in-law and I had many discussions about the newspaper business. He, like Breslin and the others, made brilliant writing careers without much, if any, post-secondary education. Hamill even admits he dropped out of high school at age 16. My father-in-law did attend Temple and was a die-hard Owls sports fan! “This is the job I was always meant to have,” my father-in-law would say about writing for the Daily News. He and the others new what they wanted to do, and then took the steps necessary to do it. It was that early realization that helped make them successful.
I wish my students showed the same initiative.