Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Remembering Russell Pierson

It has been almost 36 years to the day since my I stepped through the doors of the Lamar Democrat ready for my first day of work and excited about making $130 a week as the newspaper's sports editor.

At that point, my newspaper experience was limited to nine months as the editor of the Newton County News, a time in which I accomplished absolutely nothing because I didn't have the slightest idea of what I was doing and no one was there to show me.

The nine months ended mercifully for me and for the readers when I was fired, not for being a lousy editor, which I undeniably was, but for not being able to sell any ads, since I was also the advertising manager.

I was determined that I would make it in the newspaper business and that started when I arrived at w that the Lamar Democrat that first day.

It was a time of change for the Democrat. Only a short time earlier, the newspaper was purchased by Boone Newspapers and no one knew just what was going to happen. I was a new employee walking into a building where everyone was wondering just how many people were going to lose their jobs.

I have always been thankful I arrived when I did.

I was lucky enough to be inspired by my editor, Lou Nell Clark, to develop an in-your-face style of journalism that has suited me well ever since. Lou Nell was never afraid to take on the entrenched powers in Lamar and she had a great time doing it.

The typesetter was Dorothy Parks and she saved me from one mistake after another during those first few months. She was not only an expert on spelling and grammar, but she could spot factual errors in stories that slipped past editors and reporters. Thankfully, Dorothy is still around and still gets an opportunity to correct me from time to time.

And then there was Russell Pierson, the employee who had been at the Democrat longer than anyone, the composing room foreman.

In my youthful ignorance, when I learned that Russell had been with the Democrat for a quarter of a century and had helped with the old hot lead typesetting machine at the Barton County Print Shop next door, I thought he must be ancient.

In truth, he was about 10 years younger than I am now.

Russell arrived before everyone else every morning, put the coffee on and began searching through the copy that was coming off the Associated Press ticker. He didn't have to do it, but he always left sports stories on my desk.

He spent hours helping me learn how to build pages, where to put the photos, what sizes to make the headlines and his frequent laughter kept things light even on days when the deadlines were looming and there were still pages to be finished.

After my sports pages were done, I watched as Russell meticulously built page one to Lou Nell's specifications and took it back to the camera room so it could be shot and placed on the press.

When the press started running, Russell always picked up one of the first copies and took it back with him to read while he ate his lunch. When lunch was done, the work began again.

I learned a lot working with Russell Pierson.

I asked him question after question and he always patiently answered each to the best of his ability.

It was only a few years later that Boone Newspapers decided that it did not need Russell Pierson any more. It could save money by eliminating his job. He was the last of the old guard. Boone Newspapers eliminated Dorothy Parks' typesetting and copy editing job only a few months into my first stint with the Democrat. Lou Nell Clark left several months after that.

By the time the company eliminated Russell's job, I was managing editor of the Democrat and it was about eight years after I had first worked there. Even then, in the mid-80s, much of what I had loved about newspapers was gone.

The Democrat was no longer on the square where the action was, but had moved a block north. The newspaper was no longer printed in Lamar, but was taken to Nevada. It was no longer the smallest daily newspaper in Missouri, but was a twice-weekly.

The institutional knowledge that people like Lou Nell Clark, Dorothy Parks, and Russell Pierson had represented was gone, never to be replaced. The readers noticed, but to owners in another state, more interested in the bottom line than  in the preservation of community, it made no difference.

I thought back on those wonderful days in 1978 last week when I learned that Russell Pierson had died at age 82. I had seen him from time to time over the years, talking with him about his family and those days at the Democrat.

The last such time I saw him was at one of my book signings. We had a great conversation.

I saw him one more time after that. We talked, but I could tell that he did not remember who I was. After that conversation, I wondered what he remembered from those days of decades earlier and I thought about how horrible it would be if I no longer had those wonderful memories.

For some reason, I thought about one of the few times I had ever seen Russell Pierson angry. One morning, when he put some copy on the heater to dry, he noticed that there were long brown marks up and down the machine.

"Now what could do that?" he asked, and though he never raised his voice about anything, it was clear as he tried unsuccessfully to clean the heater that it was not going to be easy.

Though the heater still worked, he kept glancing at it, shaking his head and sighing.

Linda White, the advertising saleswoman for the Lockwood Luminary-Golden City Herald asked the Democrat's advertising manager Karen Garrison, "Are you going to tell him?'

Karen looked at me. "It was his idea."

We looked at Russell and knew that none of us would have the nerve to tell him what had happened the night before. Working until midnight and getting hungry, we realized Fastrip had already closed and nothing in Lamar was open.

The Democrat did not have a refrigerator and no one had microwaves in those days.

I did have some groceries in my car, however.

As God is my witness, I thought you could cook hot dogs on that heater.

It was a wonderful time to be a newspaper reporter, food choices notwithstanding.

I was lucky to have worked with some wonderful people and Russell Pierson was right at the top of that list.

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