"I spent years sitting a few feet away from Ruth Newhall and it was a creepy-crawly hell, like she was the principal and I was the token juvenile delinquent."
Writers ask me to read their prose. They ask what I think. Really, they mean, "I've written this. I'm betting the farm it's great. Please confirm my giddy delight in myself."
I used to do that with Ruth.
She's 90 Monday. She is cute. She is fearsome. She is one epic woman to whom I owe more than one can repay.
The Mighty Signal has been more than a rock to me. It is a continental land mass, this central orientation in my life, outlasting marriages, pets, cars, ranches, homes and the lifespans of friends. The hair and waistline go. The byline is eternal. Done correctly, journalism is adventure.
I learned that from Ruth.
You take these 26 little ink insects, place spaces in between and arrange them just so. They can start revolutions. They can win them.
Vowels. Consonants. Pick a few, line them up and you have somebody's name. Somehow, lives and souls get attached to a name printed in 10,000 newspapers. Follow with more alphabetics and you can ruin someone. Send them to jail. Make somebody laugh or weep or make them mad enough to kill you or, worse, place a death grip on your phone ear during deadline.
"Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. I see. Yes. Uh-huh. Sorry. But..."
How many reporters and editors have had lopsided conversations like that?
In the early 1970s, I had already been working a couple of years as a stringer, helping my best pal and Signal Sports Editor (capitalized back then) Phil Lanier cover the local prep beat.
Which consisted of one school.
When Lanier quit, I thought I'd be the automatic shoe-in for his job. I was cocky. I was also young, which meant I was essentially illiterate, spiritually bankrupt and embarrassingly unfunny.
I've told the story before, that although I was the only English-speaking applicant for the sports editor job in 1974, I sensed Ruth had her doubts about hiring me. It's not that I'm any great reader of moods or people. Ruth just said, rather darkly, during the interview:
"You know. I've never liked you."
It's nice to know where you stand.
She hired me.
The sports editor was required then to write a weekly column, cleverly titled, "Sports Editor's Corner." The Signal used to be housed in these pitiful little maroon bungalows that looked more like a nooner motel than home to the savior of the First Amendment. I spent years sitting a few feet away from Ruth Newhall and it was a creepy-crawly hell, like she was the principal and I was the token juvenile delinquent. I had spent my early life charming elementary school teachers and the local high school into granting me an Official Reluctant Diploma Out Of Pity. But Ruth I could not fool. She had my number. She knew what I was thinking. She knew what I had been thinking. She knew what I was going to be thinking.
I would drop my column in her wire basket, which was frequently inhabited by the office black feline, Momma Cat. I'd return to my desk, sit down and pretend to be busy. Head down, I'd steal glances at Ruth while she read my work. She was everything I wasn't. Educated. Worldly. Formidable. Mature. I just ached for her to pat me on the head and fawn over my mediocrity. I am so glad she didn't.
Ruth ran a gladiator school for writers and I survived it.
Ruth taught me toughness. Which is different than harshness. She taught me speed and accuracy. I was blessed and didn't know it.
After 16 months of probation, she read one of my pieces and said, flatly, "Not bad."
After nearly a year and a half and hundreds of stories, "Not bad." That was a step in the right direction.
I quietly went outside and jumped in the air. Houston, we have Verbal Contact.
I was part of that swashbuckling enterprise back in 1975 where we produced much monkey business and a lot of good journalism. Agriculture was still the number one industry here and in that cramped, dusty little sidestreet office, Ruth shared with me the following:
"Satire is best written with a feather. Not an anvil."
She said it with the disinterest of a zen master. To this day, I still wrestle with that truism. One writing tip. One lousy how-to of practicing decent English composition. Today, I am proficient as a writer. I am light years away from mastery.
And that is fine. Process.
Ruth Newhall is about excellence. She is about perfection. I think the first 10 years I knew her, I used to flee from those qualities, cut corners. Now, well. How right was she? How much of a better man am I for knowing her?
Her husband, Scott, was the pirate prince of journalism, famous and larger than life. A friend of mine once talked about leadership and noted that it's all about answering the question: "Would you follow this guy into battle?" With Scott, there'd be 10 of us and 10,000 of them and we'd stand down in the valley, looking up at the surrounding hordes, thump our chests and confidently announce, "We're going to kick your butts."
And we would.
I loved Scottie. But he could be a stinker and I often thought someone from the archdiocese should motor up to Newhall and give Ruth whatever you give when you make someone a saint for the way she handled her rapscallion and hot-tempered newspaper partner/husband.
She was grace under pressure.
There is a part of Ruth that is just plain sweet and, if you went looking for it, she'd punch you in the nose. She is relentlessly wicked, a quality I admire in people. She is funny. At the tail end of the All Man's World, she was a force of nature.
Ruth used to write a column called, "The Gossip, by Mimi." Mimi was her mother's name and it could be heaven and it could be a pure, serial-killer extended torture if those 26 letters of the alphabet were arranged to spell out your particular name, address and deed. Scottie wrote spectacular, death-to-traitors editorials appearing where editorials should be above the fold on the front page. It was looking over someone's shoulder while the Old Testament was first being written.
But you didn't want to get written up on page A2 in "Mimi." A few deft and disemboweling strokes from Ruth's pen and you could watch the entrails of your career fall limply about your shoes.
You know why I am so ever grateful to Ruth?
She is one of the few persons in the world who actively encouraged me to grow up to be me.
I was allowed to take chances. Make mistakes. Grow. Learn. Attack. Write in the three basic styles small, medium and large and apologize to no one for it. I still have lumps on my skull for all the whacks from her zen pica pole. I have authority issues. I am lucky to be alive for the lines I have crossed.
When Fred Newhall Woods, Scott's cousin, was arrested for that infamous Chowchilla bus kidnapping episode in Central California years ago, I engineered a practical joke. I forged a memo, on an actual typewriter, stating that the Newhalls would be asking all Signal employees to kindly donate 25 percent of their paychecks for FNW's legal defense.
Everyone, including Ruth, thought it was funny.
Scott went well. It's what happens when anti-matter and matter collide. He turned inside out. He turned into 3,011 little Scott Newhalls limping around (Scott had a wooden leg) he was so mad. Ruth warned me in time and I hid out from my own job for two weeks, literally crawling in on my hands and knees to sneak past Scottie's office to deliver my stories.
We had a sweet little teen-age typesetter who was frightened to death of the Newhalls. Again, The Signal was situated in a series of buildings, with the composing room across the street. The girl panicked one afternoon when Ruth called her to pick up some stories. To whom did she turn for help? Me. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha.
I told her that Ruth was completely deaf in her right ear and partially deaf in her left. Further instruction followed that the girl had to walk up behind Ruth, bend over and scream into Ruth's partially good ear: "I'VE COME TO PICK UP THE COPY!"
The girl's shout nearly knocked the then-editor of this paper onto the floor. Ruth came up verbally swinging. That poor little underpaid and terrified typesetter. I imagine her huddling in therapy somewhere today, still crimson and stuttering from the bout.
I have so many stories. Ruth frequently quit. Justifiably. Being editor of this rag is a 20-ton load. One of Mrs. N's replacements we drove out by chanting in the newsroom: "Baby Ruth! Baby Ruth! Baby Ruth!"
What can I say. It's sometimes a biker bar around here.
Another editor, in Mrs. Newhall's honor, made a large sign and hung it on the side of her desk "EDIT RUTHLESSLY."
Ruth used to let me drink beer in the office.
Those old 6th Street bungalows could get like a sauna in the Newhall summers. Saturdays, I was frequently the only person in the office. As the tradition had been handed down to me, the sipping from a lone, tall can of Olympia in a tastefully unmarked brown paper bag was not frowned upon behind locked doors.
We had a Shakespearean cliché of a reporter who worked for us back then, 3 parts water, 97 parts slime, 40 parts mincing, 12 parts fawning and no discernible spinal column. Come Monday morning, the little cheese weenie (and worse, an out-of-towner) snitched to Ruth about me drinking beer the previous Saturday.
In front of me.
Ruth didn't even look at him. She said, "As long as he makes deadline and there are no mistakes and he doesn't throw the empties at the editor, he can jolly well drink what he likes and I suggest you mind your own damn business and quit being a tattletale."
Ruth, my hero.
I would follow you into battle.
The Mighty Signal has mostly lived in odd locations. In an old wooden hotel. Now, in this office building amidst 100,000 car lots. It costs a quarter instead of a dime. It's a daily, not thrice-weekly. All the desks in the editorial department today are metal and plastic except for one. It's Ruth's old desk from 6th Street.
I sit at it now and write things.
There is this long line of editors, dating back to Ed Brown in 1919 when the valley had 500 souls. There was A.B. "Dad" Thatcher, a pair of Truebloods and a baker's dozen more of lead dog wordsmiths, many I still claim as friends. More than maybe anyone, I know all their work intimately. Much of it is heroic. But I can confidently tell you Ruth Waldo Newhall is the best damn editor to work for this paper.
Ruth was the vigilant one. She rooted out crooks and charlatans. She patted community backs. She helped move a train station and start the local historical society. She threatened to murder the previous historian, Jerry Reynolds, for bad spelling. She arranged for quietly-donated bags of groceries and frequently pointed out the emperor had no clothes and, gracious lady she was, would loan the fallen man a bathrobe. She played the piano, was a really darn good cook and opened her Addams family mansion to thousands. She found an error in the dictionary and made them correct it.
I would write about what miracle has come into this world to bless a Santa Clarita family or what body has departed this hokey little drama. Ruth would see through it as balogna and chop it down to the more succinct: "Births and Deaths." She would give the honorable opposition free space to share their views.
Ruth Newhall was the golden link in this newspaper's chain of simple stewardship. She stood tall and guarded this valley.
What is so immensely fun about this is that my dear wicked friend, tormentor, fencing partner and conspirator Ruth Waldo Newhall positively despises these long-winded Bacchanalian praises. I think she suspects when someone points out how wonderful she is or hands her Yet Another Valuable Trophy, right around the corner someone is going to ask her to cut a check.
Ruth turns 90 tomorrow. She was born 15 minutes short of the Fourth of July.
Odd, though. It's her birthday and she is the one who has given me the gifts, presents I can't even begin to count. Career. Calling. Adventure. Sweet nostalgia. Sanctuary. Office supplies. Speed and patience. When to pick your mischief and how to administer it kindly, with a feather, not an anvil.
I'm sure she's going to read this. I can see the twinkle in the eyes before the blow. "John. The story in The Sunday paper. It was nice but so frightfully long." I fall to my knees in The Reporters Who Know Ruth Prayer, beseeching all deities real, jungle and imagined let there not be a single typo.
And it is R-u-t-h isn't it?