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Schuyler County and Me: Part 4
In this installment, the author tells of a job that once again took him away from Schuyler County, but ultimately helped prepare him for the day that he started The Odessa File. This account previously appeared on SchuyLines in 2012.
By Charlie Haeffner
When I joined The Leader, I did so as an editor — more specifically, as what my new boss, Mike Gossie, called the Content Editor (with an emphasis on con. There seemed to be some confusion over that, since nobody had heard those two words back-to-back in a newsroom before. In any event, being as nervous as I was trying to settle into a new job, I was anything but content).
My salary was not high — just $300 a week — but that was $300 more than I had recently been earning, aside from my venture into the world of eBay. I had started digging out material from my days on the road selling sports memorabilia, and was marketing it on the then-young online auction service. I was practically in on eBay’s ground floor — and across time sold 1,400 different items.
Now, though, I was back at the craft for which I was trained, and which had never completely left my thoughts. I was working at a daily newspaper, employing words, providing a final editorial look every night at every key page, cleaning up typographical errors, rewriting weak headlines, and attracting warning words from one staff writer.
His name was Bob Rolfe, and he’d been with The Leader for decades. A former musician — he was in a band or two, I’d heard — he was now white-haired, white-bearded and carrying the air of a curmudgeon, grousing about anything when anybody was in earshot. He intimidated me at first, but I grew to admire and like the man tremendously; it turned out that he was a very intelligent individual with a robust personality who cared deeply about his community and the paper.
We started out shakily, though, when he called me over to his desk on my first day and said: “I’ve been writing here for many years, and it’s understood that what I write is what goes into the newspaper. You needn’t bother editing any of my copy.”
“Okay,” I said. “Understood.” And then I made it a point to carefully edit whatever he wrote, although he was a pro and needed only limited help. He apparently wasn’t watching, because he never said a word when I altered any of his copy. And for that I was grateful.
I advanced beyond the editing job within a year, working my way up to Assistant Managing Editor. Also earning the Assistant tag was John Kelleher, the man to whom I had first talked about a job at the paper.
My pay didn’t rise significantly with the title, however, and in fact I was now on the management level without access to overtime pay. Thus I was at loggerheads with the publisher, a man named William Blake, over the fact that I had been promoted while essentially gaining no financial ground. I also objected to the discrepancy between my pay and that of Kelleher. Our experience levels were similar, and our abilities, but Kelleher had arrived at the paper ahead of me and secured a better starting salary, and Blake wasn’t about to make up the difference. And so I learned quickly that life at a small-town, small-circulation paper was not very lucrative.
But I didn’t dwell on it very long; I would soon be having too much fun.
After several months of tedium as content editor — of editing page proofs, of trying to make the paper as “clean” (devoid of typos) as possible — I was now able to switch gears and start writing feature stories and series. My Assistant M.E. title gave me greater freedom, at least, to do what I wanted.
I eventually wrote two long series — one on lightly populated communities with odd, quirky names (we called it “Roads Less Traveled”), and one on the lakes of the region.
And I started writing columns. That practice began inadvertently with what I had intended as a complaint letter to somebody in authority after I was stopped on my way home one night by a police DWI patrol. Considering it had been years since I had had a drink, and considering the fact that my van at that time was a balky thing that had trouble negotiating any hill (the two officers who pulled me over said I was going 68 in a 55 on a sharp uphill grade), I found the stop unwarranted and outrageous, even though they didn’t charge me with anything. I was disturbed by the inconvenience, unnerved by the intimidation (bright flashing lights outside, and large flashlights playing off my face and off the interior of my vehicle), and incensed after the fact just thinking about it. So I did what I usually do when upset by something: I wrote about the incident, intending it as a letter.
Not knowing exactly where to send it, I showed it to my boss, Gossie, who after reading it in the privacy of his office came out to my desk and said: “This is the best column you’ve ever written.” I honestly had long put from my mind the fact that I had ever written any columns, but Gossie, a longtime Star-Gazette employee before taking over The Leader newsroom — remembered for me. I had been a weekly columnist while serving as Sports Editor at the Star-Gazette a decade earlier — and that practice carried over into the style of the letter. It indeed read like a column, and Gossie was insistent it run that way. I don’t have it in front of me, but it basically started out like this: “Imagine you are driving home late at night, at the end of a long work week …”
That column was the first of many, as it turned out. I was a little sheepish about writing them, because we had on staff a young man named Barry Svrluga, whose name I couldn’t pronounce without a stutter but who was an absolute wordsmith. His prose sang, and the fact that he was only something like 24 made the fact all the more remarkable. I figured he was heading toward a notable career, as long as he didn’t stay locked into a small-town paper. Sure enough, he left in about a year — moving on to a bigger stage (I don’t recall where at first) that led eventually to The Washington Post. He became one of the Post‘s outstanding sports reporters.
But sheepish though I might have been, I kept writing, and ended up winning an Associated Press Association award as Best Columnist in New York State among small-circulation daily newspapers. I recall the moment when I learned of the honor: I was seated at a computer, scanning incoming messages from around the state, when the awards announcement came through. To see my name listed at the top of a category stunned me, and I thought for certain someone must be playing a prank. But I couldn’t figure out how that could physically occur, or who would conjure up such a thing, so I printed the message and took it to Gossie, thinking he could put the lie to it.
But he didn’t. He did a double take, smiled broadly, shook my hand and patted me on the back. “Unbelievable,” he said.
And so it was. Kelleher was similarly effusive, but the rest of the staff was a little cool toward me. I was, after all, a newcomer by their lights, and besides, the amazing Svrluga was on our staff …
But that mattered little. Ultimately, I traveled to Albany for an awards dinner to collect my prize — a plaque that I still have and still cherish.
Other state honors followed for Gossie, Kelleher and me. I got awards for my series and for a couple of writing ventures that Gossie and I combined to produce, and Kelleher (an exceptional writer of editorials) won in that category a couple of times. In the three years I was at The Leader, I believe the three of us accounted for eight or nine state awards.
Gossie encountered some medical problems early in my third year at the paper, and missed a few weeks of work. In his absence, it fell to Kelleher and me to interview prospective employees for a couple of job openings. And one went to a young woman from the east — Massachusetts, I seem to recall — named Tammy Leitner. It was a fateful decision, as it turned out.
Tammy was a confident reporter who loved the big stories, such as when former President Gerald Ford and former TV anchor Walter Cronkite were in the area, or when former Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro visited Elmira. Tammy was involved in all of those stories, and any others that seemed of import. She was both ambitious and talented. She even spent time in jail to soak up the atmosphere for a piece she wrote on inmates.
More importantly, as it turned out, she made a long-term connection with Gossie. Mike, upon his return to work, had asked Kelleher and me who the new girl was; she, being quite attractive, had caught his eye. It wasn’t long before they started dating. (This was not against any newsroom policy, but did not set well with the publisher.)
At the end of my third year at the paper, Gossie departed — he and the publisher had had one too many disagreements, and Blake had fired him. Tammy had by that time resigned, but remained in the area with Gossie. After he and The Leader parted ways, Mike found work out in Arizona, and moved west with Tammy.
She eventually tried out for, and earned a spot on, the Survivor network TV show, I think in its fourth season. My family, knowing her as we did, watched in fascination as she lasted about midway through the show before being voted off by the other contestants.
After the show, she and Mike got married out on the West Coast — Tammy had family out there — and among the wedding guests were the other contestants from Survivor. (I was not invited.) Tammy, meanwhile, rode the fame that accrued to her from that show into an electronic journalism career, hooking on as a reporter with a TV station in Arizona.
More importantly, Mike fought off a nearly fatal malady called Wilson’s Disease, whose symptoms struck him after he and Tammy had settled in Arizona. It was first noticed by a Horseheads ophthalmologist during a routine eye exam Mike underwent before heading west. When she told him she noticed copper deposits in his cornea, and that it might signal Wilson’s Disease, Mike shrugged it off, since he had never heard of it. It soon became very familiar to him as he battled for his life — a struggle he documented in a series of newspaper stories he wrote while undergoing an experimental treatment program at the University of Michigan Medical Center during the summer of 1999. He had found the program when the gravity of his situation had settled in and he had started online research. As I recall, a key to that research was a reference to the U of M program — a lead, as it were — provided by Tammy’s brother, a physician in California.
As Mike explained in the article, the disease develops like this: “Small amounts of copper — found in nearly every food — are essential as vitamins. Healthy people excrete the copper they don’t need, but Wilson’s patients cannot. Excessive copper accumulation attacks the liver and brain, resulting in hepatitis.”
During his stay at the medical center, I maintained contact with Mike, and wanted to visit him. He warned me away early in the process, for he was seemingly going downhill — had lost his sense of balance, had developed tremors; had learned, as he said, “humility in a hurry.” He said later that he came perilously close to dying — within days — but that the treatment took effect short of that, and he started back uphill. He improved enough so that I — along with my son Dave — visited him on an annual trip we were taking to Bois Blanc Island in northern Michigan.
By the time we arrived in Ann Arbor, Mike was being granted a day off campus, and we — Mike, Dave and I, Tammy, a visiting Kelleher and a surprise visitor, a former Star-Gazette reporter named Ed Weaver — ventured into Detroit to see a major league baseball game: the homestanding Tigers against the Boston Red Sox. It was a stadium with which I was quite familiar, having grown up as I did north of Detroit. I had gone to many games there in my childhood, but none since. This was my last visit, for the stadium was being replaced soon after by a more modern facility. Mike, clearly pleased at having regained enough strength to do this, had a good time — as we all did. Afterward, we returned to Ann Arbor and dropped off Mike and Tammy. He was released the next month, and went back to Arizona and to work — but with the proviso that he would forevermore require drugs that break down the copper in his body. To fail to do so, he wrote, “will result in death.”
In the years following that experience, I was in sporadic email contact with Mike. Then, sometime after I had started The Odessa File — along about 2006 — the contact withered and stopped. I heard on occasion from Kelleher — who had landed a job as managing editor at a newspaper in DeKalb, Illinois — that Gossie was faring well. And then, in late 2011 — at a gathering of Star-Gazette alumni in Elmira — I heard that Mike and Tammy had recently split up, and that he was still working in Arizona, but had changed jobs. Someone said he was now working at a magazine.
I hope all is going well with him. He was one of those people who impacted my life for the better — who encouraged my writing, pushing me to improve, despite whatever self-doubts I harbored.
The publisher at The Leader, Bill Blake, came to Corning from the Midwest, in fact joining the paper as Gossie (who had grown up in Corning) took the newsroom reins. Blake was a career newspaper ad and business man, which is to say he had long been on the side of publishing that had little interaction with newsgathering and information dissemination. Accordingly, a sort of us versus them philosophy existed between The Leader news department and the publisher. We in news failed to get along well with him.
Gossie and Blake had meeting after meeting where they tried to mesh their differing viewpoints, and Blake often pulled Kelleher and me into those sessions. An example of the disparity: the local library was on a fund-raising crusade to try and right a shaky economic ship, and the effort was going quite well. We reported that fact, only to encounter an angry Blake in his office.
“What’s the idea of this story?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” Gossie asked. “The library fund drive is going well. We reported it accurately.”
But Blake — he might have been on the library board, and if not almost certainly had friends there — shook his head.
“This will only hurt the fund drive,” he said, jabbing his index figure down on his desktop to emphasize the point. “People will see that it’s going well, and won’t contribute.”
I took exception, and told him that we couldn’t ignore an ongoing news story — that sitting on it was no way to run a newsroom. He glared at me, and the meeting moved on to other subjects. It was not the first nor the last time we disagreed.
Rather than give the impression that Bill Blake was an unthinking bean counter — a man obsessed only with the bottom line — I should point out that now, having worn both hats as editor and publisher of The Odessa File, I don’t think I would have behaved far from the way he did had I been in his place.
It is natural in a newsroom to have an advertising-news rift — with the chip usually on the shoulder of the newsroom, hellbent as it is on getting news from often uncooperative sources, and at the same time suspicious of ad salespeople who often cater to those same sources. The newsroom fails to see (or doesn’t want to see) that the goal of the ad department is to keep the money flowing in so the editors and reporters can continue to do their jobs. What the newsroom never fails to point out, if asked, is that the ad department does not, by and large, fully understand the news or the philosophy behind it — and that if a basic understanding is present, the ad person almost certainly doesn’t comprehend what drives reporters …. the idealistic passion we bring to the game.
It is this chasm in viewpoint and understanding that creates friction between the newspaper’s two halves, between the monetary providers (the ad people) and the information providers (the reporters and editors).
Since starting The Odessa File, I have worn both hats, and have, accordingly, occasionally been at odds with myself, and compromising. For without ads, The File could not exist, but neither could it exist without providing the news. This does not mean I steer away automatically from news stories or columns if I fear they might offend an advertiser — but I do take the advertisers’ feelings and viewpoint into account before proceeding with whatever I am considering.
An example: I criticized a key advertising organization once, and upset it. That the organization stayed with me — “We love what you do … most of the time,” one official said — speaks volumes for the service The File provides. But I don’t fool myself; a constant harangue by me toward them or any other advertisers would do my bottom line no good. They would simply withdraw.
And so I understand much better now than I did then about the viewpoint and goals of Bill Blake, The Leader‘s publisher. Providing information to the public is a balancing act.
I understand now, for instance, why he destroyed 15,000 copies of a special section planned as an insert in the paper. It dealt with The Leader‘s 150th anniversary.
We decided to trumpet the milestone in various ways, with feature stories, old photos and special ads. I was assigned to write the definitive biography of the paper, but did so with the understanding that its approach, its tone, would fall to me — a bit of unflattering hubris. Unfortunately, Blake went along with my terms.
“I want to paint a word portrait that shows the paper as it really is — the heart of the newsroom over a 24-hour period,” I told him. “That means showing it with a few warts — with the frustrations and disagreements that go into putting a newspaper together.” I would surround that 24-hour period with an overview of what 150 years in the news business meant — what an accomplishment that is, particularly in a market as small as The Leader‘s with its occasionally shifting ownership. (The paper at that time was run by a Midwest chain, and has changed ownership twice since then.)
I proceeded to do as I said, and gained approval from anyone in the newsroom who read it; but Blake was not among those reading it. “I trust you,” he said.
In the article, alas, there were references to the paper’s often at-odds relationship with the chief economic engine of the city: Corning Incorporated. One reference in particular recounted a telephone call Kelleher made to Corning Inc. that ended with him slamming down the receiver and saying something that could be perceived as uncomplimentary. This was not intended as a direct assault on Corning, mind you; but it did paint in a rather harsh tone what was transpiring that day in The Leader offices.
Eventually, that story and all the other features and ads completed, we sent the pages to the press and 15,000 copies of the section were printed — and stacked in the mailroom, awaiting insert in the proper day’s paper. Then, and only then, did Blake get around to looking at it — to reading what I had written, and to perusing the rest of the product. And he did not like what he saw.
I heard upon my arrival at work the next day that he was unhappy — so unhappy that he had destroyed the entire stack of 15,000 sections, at considerable cost. And the word awaited me that he wanted to see me. I was certain I was about to be fired. This time, I was not combative.
It turned out that he had issue with three or four passing references to Corning Inc. in my article, and beyond that to some other features in the section. He was, in short, determined at that late date to oversee the product and pull it into line with his own vision.
I sat and nodded as he explained these things and asked me to rewrite those portions of my article that offended him — that he was afraid would offend Corning Inc. It was clear he was not about to fire me, as long as I did what he wanted. Which, not being a total fool, I did.
And thus did the 150th Anniversary edition come to pass.
I was, needless to say, working almost exclusively away from Schuyler County during much of my stay at The Leader, an employment that lasted three years. But the separation was interrupted at one point when Blake decided to try and bolster the paper’s circulation in Schuyler, and tapped me to tackle it. Accordingly, I worked out of my house, sending stories to the paper by computer. Alas, this only lasted about three months. We were actually making some inroads, but the Star-Gazette had dominated the circulation battle there for years, and our gains were incremental. I believe we started with a few hundred sales daily, and increased by about 10 percent. But Blake gave up the effort and pulled me back into the office.
I enjoyed the effort, though, and I have to think it whetted my appetite — led me, perhaps subliminally, toward the decision years later to publish The Odessa File.
I encountered some new friends in my three years at The Leader, and cemented previous friendships with Gossie and Kelleher. Alas, all good things come to an end … in this case fairly prematurely.
Kelleher, a jack of all trades and in fact a master of them all — reporting, editorial writing, photography and leadership — ran afoul of Blake when he told the publisher he wanted to cut back on his workload. A combination of all of his roles had pushed Kelleher to the point of burnout.
As Kelleher recounted it, Blake did not respond favorably, telling John that if he couldn’t do his job at The Leader — which meant all of his jobs — he should seek employment elsewhere. That’s not an unusual management move, I suppose, but in this case it didn’t work. Kelleher looked around, found a job way out in Indiana, and was gone within weeks.
Meanwhile Gossie, ever the keeper of the newsroom flame, kept running afoul of Blake. They clashed on policy, on personnel, over that 150th Anniversary edition, over the fact that Gossie was having a relationship with a reporter, and so on. It all came to a head one day during a closed-door session between Gossie and Blake. When it was over, Gossie exited Blake’s office, looking a little pale, and called me into a conference room.
“I’m done here,” he said without preamble. “Blake fired me; I have until the end of the day.”
My first thought was that I should march into Blake’s office to tender my resignation, and mentioned as much to Gossie. But he urged me not to. I would, in all likelihood, be in charge of the newsroom, he said. Maybe that interested me.
It didn’t, but I decided that before making a decision, I would run the situation past my wife, to make sure I was doing the right thing.
After my meeting with Mike, Blake called me into his office. Just the two of us were present, with his door closed.
“You’ve heard that Mike is leaving?” he asked.
“Yes,” I responded.
“Well, good,” he said. “What I’m thinking is that with him gone, you could take over as Managing Editor on a trial basis.”
“Uh huh,” I said, and then I felt a little peevish. “And what’s to say that you won’t find somebody who better suits you, and then show me the door?”
Blake smiled at me a moment — and in that moment I understood that he would likely do exactly that: find someone better suited to his management style.
“Of course,” he said without verbally answering the question, “you’ll earn more money, commensurate with the responsibility.”
I had in the past argued with him about my salary, which had lagged $10,000 behind Kelleher’s. Gossie’s pay was another $12,000 above that — a standard $43,000 for the Managing Editor’s position.
“How much?” I asked, pretty much expecting to be lowballed, but needing to hear it.
“You’ll earn $31,000,” he said.
“The M.E.’s job is $43,000,” I said.
Blake just shrugged. “The job is on a trial basis,” he reiterated.
Now it was my turn to smile. “I’ll let you know,” I said.
The rest of the day consisted largely of meetings with various staff members, in which I told them I would, in all likelihood, be departing the next morning. I was confident that Susan would counsel my resignation.
And, of course, there was on that final day the matter of getting a newspaper out to the readers.
And so I finished out my workshift, went home, and broached the matter to Susan. She simply shook her head and said: “I’m surprised you didn’t throw his offer in his face. By all means, get out of there.”
The next morning, I went in early, a resignation letter folded inside an envelope in my jacket pocket. I hoped to clear out my belongings and leave before Blake arrived, because I didn’t fancy a scene. As it turned out, he came in much earlier than usual and, after settling in, walked the length of the newsroom from his office to my cubicle. I was on the phone, saying goodbye to one of my news contacts, as he approached. I simply reached in my pocket, extracted the envelope, and handed it to him. He took it from me with what looked like a shaky hand, and departed, opening the envelope and reading its contents on his return walk.
And he disappeared into his office, closing the door behind him. I completed my phone call, boxed the last few items remaining at my desk, lifted the box and — after taking one last look around the newsroom, with a nod to Bob Rolfe and a couple of other reporters — I exited through the back door, to the parking lot where my car awaited.
In retrospect, I feel blessed not only to have worked alongside Gossie and Kelleher, but Blake as well.
While Mike offered me inspiration and confidence, Kelleher — being the purest newsman I ever encountered, a person who lived and breathed journalism — offered me sage counsel. The last I knew, he was in Connecticut, having moved on from Indiana and then from an Illinois paper he had served as Managing Editor. I’ve lost track of him, although a Wyoming publisher contacted me a few years ago, asking about him; so he might have moved to the West.
And Blake, despite our differences, proved to be the most interactive publisher I ever encountered, and as such left me with positive examples I have employed in the management of my own business. He taught me to look at problems more than one way, to balance my approach to news with a caution that has served me well, and to remember the bottom line. For journalism, while a calling, is also a business, and can not function as freely as the idealists in the trade might like (and I was exactly that, an idealist, while wearing only the newsroom hat). It has its parameters, its boundaries.
Blake eventually left the newspaper, and the last I heard was teaching. I encountered him once a few years after my departure, when I was photographing the now-defunct LPGA Corning Classic golf tournament. He was a volunteer at the golf course, and spotted me as I walked by, called out my name, approached and gave me a big welcoming hug. I was a little surprised, considering our history — but I think he realized, as I have since, that we actually helped one another not only in the day-to-day operation of the paper … but perhaps to grow.
Two days after I left The Leader — this was in January 1999 — our area got hit with a big snowstorm, and I spent an inordinate amount of time shoveling my driveway and sidewalk clear.
The next day, I experienced a shortness of breath — specifically I had trouble drawing a full, deep breath. I was concerned about it, but being of the old school — don’t enunciate a problem, and it might go away — I didn’t mention it to Susan. But by the end of my second day of discomfort, she noticed me fidgeting while watching TV, and asked what was wrong.
So I told her.
She flew into action, getting me out of the chair, into my coat, out the door, and into our van. As she drove me to Schuyler Hospital, there were few words spoken, although I think she was muttering something about me being difficult.
The staff at the emergency room decided, from the symptoms, that I had experienced a myocardial infarction — a heart attack — and that another, bigger and possibly fatal one was lurking just around the corner. I had probably overextended myself with the shoveling, they said, plus there was the matter of all of that stress as I had left The Leader.
They gave me an oxygen tube and placed me in the Intensive Care Unit. While there, I called my mother, living in Florida, to inform her of my problem. I thought it might be my last conversation with her. After Susan left me for the night, I lay there awake, looking at the ceiling tiles, afraid to go to sleep — afraid I might not wake up again. That had happened to my father five years earlier. He had been suffering from Sleep Apnea, and was hospitalized for treatment, and fell asleep one night forever.
While I was pondering my fate, I was approached by a young, chirpy female carrying a clipboard. She had some questions for me, she said. I have no idea what time it was; sometimes hospitals have no such frame of reference.
I agreed to talk to her, and gave her some background information — address, family history and so on — but was taken aback by her first question. “Are you an organ donor?” she asked.
“What?” I said, not sure I’d heard right. But I had. And I thought the question not only rude but dangerously disruptive, considering my diagnosed condition. Additional anxiety couldn’t be a good thing, I reasoned.
“Are you an organ donor?” she repeated.
I sized her up, thought about reaching out and — if I were indeed near my last breath — taking her with me to eternity. But I calmed down.
“No,” I finally responded. “Now go away.”
And she did. And I was left to deal with the rest of the night, thinking I was no better than an organ farm, but wondering if I shouldn’t have been nicer to her. Finally I slept.
The next morning, Susan arrived and announced that she had lined up a ride for me in an ambulance to Robert Packer Hospital in Sayre. Her father was down there for a heart procedure, and she said that was the place to be. She was determined, and so I was wheeled out of Schuyler Hospital and into the ambulance. And away I went.
I was placed on the same floor that housed Susan’s father, Oakley. He had had a stent inserted to improve his heart circulation. My case was different; the doctors first needed to determine why I was experiencing the breathing problems. They poked me with needles and took blood and did all the attendant things that go on in hospital rooms, and told me that I had a choice: I could undergo a stress test or have a camera run up into my heart through a vein.
I’m not sure what the stress test was — only that it proved effective just 85% of the time. That’s what one physician told me, adding that a man who had passed one a couple of weeks earlier had been on his way home from the hospital when struck by a major heart attack; he died instantly.
“I’ll try the camera,” I answered.
I was awake for the procedure, laid out on a stretcher in front of a bank of TV monitors in a chilly room on a different floor. My right arm was extended out to the right, on a wing protruding at about a 45-degree angle. I was facing the monitors, wondering what I was seeing. I remember three monitors broadcasting pictures; at least one of them carried a picture of my heart, I gathered. Maybe they were showing different angles, I thought.
Two female doctors were attending to me, standing behind me, their eyes looking up in the direction of the monitors, too.
After some small talk, one finally asked: “I don’t see anything. Do you? What’s he doing here?”
The second doctor answered: “Beats me. I don’t see anything either.”
And that was about it. I was wheeled back to my room, and finally was visited a couple of hours later by one of the two doctors. She had good news.
“There’s nothing wrong with your heart,” she said. “In fact, you have the heart of a 25-year-old.”
That was good news, but it left the unanswered question, which I asked: “If it’s not my heart, what’s wrong with me?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “We deal with hearts here.”
A couple of weeks later and still suffering from breath shortage, I visited Schuyler Hospital for a lung test — really just breathing into a measuring device. I passed that test, too.
“Well, if it’s not my heart and not my lungs,” I asked, “what is it?”
“We don’t know,” I was told by the man who administered the test. “We only deal with lungs in this office.”
And so I pondered — and in my pondering realized that my back was causing me problems. Specifically, the top left quadrant of my back seemed to be unusually tight. So I visited a chiropractor, Carol Sue Adams. She allowed as how I certainly was tied up tight, and would need three or four visits to straighten out my mess. She managed to get my back to crack into alignment in a couple of places on that first visit — and much to my astonishment, my deep breathing returned.
My back had been the source of my problem all along. In the end, after seeing heart specialists and undergoing a lung check-up, my malady was a screwed-up back. It was an expensive lesson, to be sure, and one I was not soon to forget. On occasion the shortness of breath returns, and all I do is raise my right arm above my head, twist to the left — and presto, the back clicks and the breathing normalizes.
Sure beats a camera up the heart.
I spent the next couple of years doing odd jobs — helping my mother-in-law run her Odessa gift shop, Country Cards, trying my hand at substitute teaching (very briefly, for I was ill-suited for it), and selling some collectibles on eBay. I also produced a non-fiction book based on the state championship earned by the Odessa-Montour girls varsity basketball team in the 2000-01 season.
That book was intended as a collection of photos of the girls — shots from the season and from the post-championship welcome home. But it developed before long into something much more detailed — a compendium of the entire season in words, photos and statistics. I produced it in conjunction with a brother-in-law, Richard Bauman. We called it “The Glory Girls.”
It took up much more time than I had anticipated, and in truth cost me more money than I earned from it. But it was important to me in that it led me back to writing, and before long I decided to try a novel. I had written three of them years earlier, utilizing my summer experiences on Bois Blanc Island as a starting point for the plots, and this one employed the same locale peripherally. I conceived a general plot outline before I began writing, and came up with the title in no time: "The Maiden of Mackinac."
It required a lot of research, including delving into the language of the Chippewa — or Ojibwe — Indians, since the Maiden was of that tribe and did not, in her earliest days, speak English. Since she lived 700 years — or so her legend goes — she eventually did learn English, but the early parts of the novel required her to speak in her native tongue.
I loved the idea of the novel — a 700-year-old woman, the search for her by a newsman (now that I knew something about), and the unusual company she often kept: a giant talking turtle named Kingsley and a small, hairy, cave-dwelling and bug-eating creature known as a tajahenus. His name: Tobias.
It’s a story that kept me occupied for about 15 months — more time than I’d spent on any previous novel, and as a result my best. I ultimately self-printed 100 spiral-bound and numbered issues, selling some to a bookstore on Michigan’s Mackinac Island (where the Maiden, the novel claims, has long resided), and a few others to a convenience store on Bois Blanc, located just east of Mackinac.
That was the extent of the publication, until many years later, when my sons put the book in the Kindle world of electronic reading, opening it up to other readers — not many, but the hope always remains that it might catch on.
About a year into the writing — and rewriting, and editing — of "The Maiden of Mackinac," I started The Odessa File. That hastened the completion of The Maiden, since I found in short order that I didn’t have time for both. And so it was, in April of 2003, that I bid farewell to The Maiden and turned my attention fully to Schuyler County and everything that goes on there.
I had longed for years to operate my own publication, and had thought on occasion of starting a weekly paper to compete with the Watkins Review & Express. But I had always been stopped short by the knowledge that the Review & Express was a long-entrenched entity with a loyal following, and that the cost of paper, ink, printing and distribution were prohibitive for a startup operation.
The solution presented itself in November of 2002 when my youngest son, Dave, a student at SUNY Morrisville, was home on Thanksgiving break. We were discussing my possible future in journalism, and how it was clear that if I pursued that career again, I would have to do so alone, being persona non grata at the Star-Gazette and having burned my bridges at The Leader.
I explained the obstacles of a weekly publication, and Dave offered the simplest of suggestions — one that had somehow eluded me.
“Why don’t you just start an electronic paper?” he said. “No inks, no paper, no distribution. You can start a website pretty inexpensively.”
I looked at him, stunned. I realized he was right, and I knew in an instant that I would do it. I had the journalism knowledge, had had experience in photography, and knew the area — Schuyler County — well enough.
I knew a website designer from Tully — and paid her several hundred dollars to devise templates for me. That was something I knew nothing about, and I deemed the cost a bargain. That, and the expense in obtaining a digital camera — essential to getting the news out quickly to readers — were the only “major” initial costs.
Susan, skeptical at the outset, questioned even those modest expenditures, no doubt concluding that the website was a hare-brained scheme that would find me spinning my wheels and spiraling into failure. But I was determined, and mapped out a plan.
I would concentrate on Odessa and, to a degree, Montour Falls. And chief in my coverage would be sports at Odessa-Montour High School. It took me six weeks to get the templates from the designer and to secure a first, poor-quality digital camera. It could take portraits, I soon learned, but if there was any movement in what I was trying to shoot, the picture would blur. I would need a better camera if I hoped to capture action images on the playing fields. Accordingly, I bought a second camera, but it was still far short of what I needed; it captured some sports action effectively, but failed me more often than not. Alas, I was far from the point where I could afford quality equipment.
Beyond photography, I had another problem: I needed to get my product known, but doing so proved no easy feat. The first night I had the website operational, I attracted three visits, two of them from me. The third visit was by a friend I alerted to it. On succeeding days, I tried to spread the word by circulating flyers at local basketball games — it was the middle of the winter sports season when I launched on Dec. 29, 2002 — and by posting some on community bulletin boards.
Then I crafted a press release that I sent to the Star-Gazette, Leader, Watkins Review and the two Elmira TV stations. The S-G responded by running an article about my website — a story that attracted enough attention to improve the number of weekly visits to The Odessa File to about 400. One of the TV stations also sent a reporter to Odessa to interview me, although he was a bit contentious. Before we started talking on-air, he asked me, as though mystified: “Who do you think you are? What gives you the right to do this?”
I was surprised, but maintained my composure. “The Bill of Rights,” I answered, “same as for you.”
He was miffed, but conducted the interview itself professionally — and I thought it would give me the boost I needed to get a significant number of Schuyler County residents to visit the site. Alas, before the station could air my story that night, most of the county was hit by a storm that knocked out power for hours — through both the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. Very few people — and maybe nobody — in Schuyler saw the report. And so I didn’t get the lift I had sought.
But I stuck with the website. I could afford to because Susan had a solid income from her teaching contracts with area counties that placed her in homes with special-needs youngsters. She made good money, at least by our standards. We had grown accustomed over a period of years to living pretty much hand to mouth; now we had a little breathing room.
Eventually, over the course of the first 10 months, the number of visitors to the site grew slowly, until it topped 1,200 a week. I was concentrating on Odessa and Montour, with stories from Watkins Glen limited to those that affected the other two communities. Advertising was accordingly quite slow in building; in fact almost non-existent. I was primarily dependent on donations — but they failed to grow to a stunningly large level … and, for that matter, never have. No more than 2% of readers contributed donations in the early days, and the percentage today is more in the neighborhood of one half of 1%.
But I learned to work with that — recognized that people were paying for internet service and were accustomed to paying no more than that; that they could visit just about any site they wanted free of charge. While I considered making The Odessa File accessible only through subscriptions, I jettisoned the idea quickly. I didn’t want to limit the number of readers; I wanted as many as possible.
So it came down to advertising. I needed some, but obtaining it was difficult at best. I tried — and a couple of salespeople I employed tried — without success to attract the interest of businesses through cold calls; through walking in cold and trying to sell the business owners on the product. Undeterred, I bore down, worked harder, and got almost nowhere. The income was very small, and the hours long. Eventually, discouragement started to set in; I was pondering the wisdom of continuing.
And then I met Watkins Glen High School teacher and Athletic Director Craig Cheplick — and the world of The Odessa File was never the same again. It soon was on its way.
Let me explain how that happened with words I used in a speech four years ago at a banquet at which I was presented a Community Spirit Award by the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce.
One individual is more responsible than anyone for The Odessa File having lasted this long. And that’s Craig Cheplick. Chep isn’t here tonight. He’s overseeing the wrestling tournament at the (WGHS) Field House. But I’ll say this anyway.
I met Chep about nine months after I started the website — when I went up to the Odessa-Montour High School to cover an O-M girls soccer game against Watkins Glen. He was leaning against the fence that surrounds the soccer field — and as I passed by he asked me if I was the guy who produced The Odessa File.
I said yes, and he said he had recently been appointed Athletic Director at Watkins Glen, and was interested in getting coverage of his athletes on my website. I said I wasn’t interested — that I had enough to do without tackling something so daunting as another school … one full of athletes I didn’t know.
But Chep was persistent and insistent. He called me three or four times over the next week, and I finally agreed to go down to Watkins and photograph a soccer game. When I did, I was so warmly received by the students that I tried another sporting event … and another … until I was hooked.
Chep is fond of telling visitors to the Field House
that The Odessa File started there. He will probably even tell you, if
you give him the chance, that the website was his idea.
Chep drew me in to this community, and became a mentor, and helped devise such features as our Athlete of the Week award, our All-Star teams and our Top Drawer 24 team that honors scholar-athletes who are also outstanding citizens. He has been invaluable.
That, in a nutshell, was it: The File prospered because Chep dragged me kicking into the Watkins Glen sports scene. Before long, I was up to speed on the athletes and the teams at Watkins, and started covering other stories in the community. A year later, the advertising started to fall into place — but not before disaster struck on the homefront … on my homefront.
My wife, who had contracted cancer once before and had seemingly fought it off, fell victim again … and this time couldn’t escape.
(Next: The Odessa File years, full of heartbreak, struggle and growth.)
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869