Friday, June 23, 2023

Insight: Four noteworthy names to remember

By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

The foundation of my career in journalism began one morning in January 1966 at the breakfast table in Rochester, New York when I was 12. My father knew I was interested in becoming a journalist someday and so he passed me the morning newspaper and a ballpoint pen and asked me to circle four names in the paper that morning and then tell him at dinner why I chose those names and why I thought these people would be great potential interviews for me.

Al Neuharth was the founder of USA Today
newspaper and former CEO of Gannett Corp.
I looked through all four sections of the newspaper and settled upon four names: Al Neuharth, Bubba Smith, Earl Weaver, and Carmen Basilio. When asked why I wanted to interview these four, I explained that Neuharth was listed in the masthead as the paper’s general manager and knew a great deal about how a newspaper operated; Bubba Smith was a standout defensive end for Michigan State University and was gaining notoriety as a potential NFL draft pick; Earl Weaver had just been named as manager of the Rochester Red Wings baseball team; and Carmen Basilio was a Rochester middleweight boxer who had once beaten Sugar Ray Robinson.

My father approved of my choices, and I went to bed that evening dreaming of becoming a reporter and sportswriter, never knowing what was ahead of me. I forgot about my list that day until a few years later. In the summer of 1972 while home from college, I wrote a freelance article for a weekly newspaper about booths that year at the county fair and had to stroll through the fairgrounds and interview several vendors. I happened upon an Italian sausage stand owned and operated by none other than Carmen Basilio, the now-retired boxer.

Basilio was very talkative, and his comments were the highlight of my article, which I showed to my father when it was published the following week. He reminded me of the newspaper list I had circled for him and encouraged me to continue pursuing my goal of becoming a writer.

Another decade passed and I was serving as the editor of an Air Force newspaper in Arizona when my supervisor asked me if I wanted to go and cover the world premiere of a new movie called “Police Academy” in Phoenix on a Saturday morning in 1984. I agreed and after a screening of the film, the press was invited backstage for interviews with some of the actors from the movie in attendance. I sat and interviewed Bubba Smith and quickly surmised that he was the same former football player who was on my list that day in 1966.

While working for Florida Today newspaper in 2002, the sports editor asked me to interview Earl Weaver, the Orioles’ Hall of Fame manager, who was signing autographs at the sports stadium there on a Saturday night. I spent about 45 minutes with him and wrote a lengthy article for the front of the Sunday Sports section of the newspaper about Weaver. Although the article was chopped down to about 8 inches for printing, it was one of the most memorable interviews I have conducted in my career.

By that point, I came to realize that I had completed interviews with three of the four individuals on my original list from 1966 and that I might have a shot at perhaps someday interviewing all of them. Al Neuharth lived several miles from the newspaper and had created and founded Florida Today newspaper. From time to time, he would drop by the paper to speak with its editors and contribute a weekly column. Before he retired, Neuharth was the Chief Executive Officer for Gannett Corporation, the world’s largest newspaper company, and was widely known as the creator of USA Today newspaper.

By 2012, I was now working as Managing Editor of Space Coast Daily, a digital paper in Florida and sent an email to Neuharth’s secretary asking if I could interview him. To my surprise, I received a phone call from Al himself, instructing me to show up at his home at 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday and he would agree to discuss his career with me.

I spent several hours with him in his office that day as he regaled me with fascinating stories about his life, the many newspapers he had worked for, and several of the Mercury 7 astronauts that were his friends. As I was about ready to wrap up the interview with Neuharth, I shared with him the story about sitting at the breakfast table in Rochester in 1966 and the four names that I had circled in the newspaper.

He smiled and walked me out to my car. Before I drove away, Neuharth, who died a year later at age 89, shook my hand and told me that my father must certainly be proud of me for finishing all the interviews on my list from 1966. I told him that my father had died in 1991 when his car was struck head-on by a drunk driver in Florida and that he never lived to see me finish the list.

Neuharth turned to me, winked, and said, “Wherever he is, he knows.” <

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