Monday, June 10, 2013

To a mentor ...

We've all had mentors ... people who have showed us the way, patiently or otherwise. One of mine died Sunday.

I was blessed, forty-one years ago, to have an office full of mentors. That's because as an 18-year-old copy boy at United Press International's Boston bureau (and the only one besides) just about everyone had an opinion about what I should be doing and how I should be doing it.

But three spring to mind above all others: Dave Haskell, Gil Peters and Richard Gaines. These were the guys who taught me how to be a reporter. They taught me a lot of other things we won't get into here, because, well, we're not going to and that's all there is to that.

They each had different ways of mentoring. Dave was a stickler on style. Gil observed me in action outside the office, at different venues, and would always offer constructive criticism about how to act (or, which was very often in my case, how not to act). He was also comic relief in those days and had a way of keeping my feet on the ground when I'd have preferred for them to flying all over the place.

I remember Peters one day, after an afternoon of watching me run around doing errands, asking me very sympathetically if I wanted a cup of coffee.

"Gee," I said, "that would be nice." Whereupon he threw a couple of dollars at me and said, "good, when you go out, get me one too."

I couldn't argue with him. That was the job. Which is why it always amazes me today, when kids come in to work their first jobs as interns, why they think they're above doing those kinds of errands. To me, it was always a rite of passage.

 This brings us to Dick Gaines, who died Sunday at the age of 69. One of my many errands during the course of a day was to go across the street from our office to the State House press room, where Gaines would give me his to bring back to the office. It became a trip I enjoyed making, because Gaines was a funny guy. He was, for lack of a better term, the "star" of our office in that he actually covered a beat (Massachusetts politics) and he rubbed elbows with all the principal players.

We got to know each other well enough so that we played tennis together a few times (no contest ... he'd always win in straight sets), and I remember helping him organize a UPI tennis tournament, where I didn't make it out of the first round.

Dick was always a rather flamboyant character. He made a hell of an entrance, he was cocky, unafraid to chap the asses of the bosses, and secure enough to know that in this realm, he had no match. Apparently, the folks up at the Gloucester Times thought the same thing too. He became a nationally-renowned chronicler of the fishing industry and won prizes for his reporting of it.

I don't want to get maudlin, even though when you hear about significant people from your past who have left this mortal coil, you naturally turn to reflection and reminiscence. I guess it helps you deal with it all.

But I'd like to share one story about Dick Gaines and his mentoring of me. In 1974, U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity, ruled that because the Boston school system was woefully out of compliance with mandates from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the most expeditious way to get the city in compliance was to order forced busing.

Nobody liked this. I'm sure even civil rights activists would have given anything had integration been implemented in a much less draconian way. Although I have no way of proving this, my belief is that Garrity was more than a little put off by the arrogance demonstrated by the Boston School Committee and took that into consideration when he made his decision.

I remember the night before schools opened in Boston, a radio commentator named Avi Nelson encouraged the people of South Boston to show up, to demonstrate, and to impede the implementation as much as they could. By this time, I knew I was going to be part of the "team" that went to Southie in the morning to cover busing. Dick Gaines would be going with me .. which meant that not only was he to report on one of the most divisive (not to mention historic) events the city had seen in quite some time, he was also going to have to babysit me.

I was not looking forward to this. I was 21 years old. I liked going to Red Sox games with Gil Peters, eating free food at Fenway Park, and walking around Boston at lunchtime. Going into Southie wasn't my idea of fun, and I didn't get a whole lot of sleep the night before.

My job was simple. It was to procure a phone. This was, of course, before the cell phone era. The drill was to go into some drug store, or restaurant, call the office .. get them to return the call ... and then just stay on the line until the reporter needed to dictate.

Of course, it wasn't feasible to just hang around on the phone. Gaines would tell me when I needed to get a phone. Meantime, I was to stick to him like glue. That was OK with me!!

I don't think either of us anticipated how ugly it would be. I was there the first two days and I actually saw a photographer get hit off the head with a brick someone had thrown, hoping to hit a bus. The wound raised a lump on the poor guy's head the size of a jumbo egg, and I was worried he was going to die. He didn't, but it scared the hell out of me. And a lot of other people too.

Dick and I were appalled. Here I was 21, and although I thought I was worldly, I wasn't worldly enough to digest this. I didn't know whether to run or to cry, and I knew I couldn't do either. But as appalled as I was, that's how much more incredulous Dick was. He was angry. And I never saw him angry.

Rocks and bricks weren't the only things flying around. Lots of N's could be heard above the roar.

Dick was fuming. He called all the school children who had boycotted (or were told to boycott) being bused out of Southie to other schools "street urchins," and his preferred term of endearment to the adults who encouraged this was "f'ing rednecks."

The first day I was there, I couldn't articulate thought. I mean, I understood the unpopularity of busing. Nobody liked it. But on the other hand, the school department had 10 years to come into some kind of compliance with the civil rights act and at the 11th hour it faced the prospect of having all its federal funding taken away from it because of gross negligence in implementing the mandates. This is why Garrity had to act.

The whole incident made such a profound impression me that in a Persuasion class in college, one year later, I got hold of the decision, dissected it, and delivered a speech on it in front of the class. I even had to dress up in a suit, too, because, as part of the exercise, I was supposed to be a person from the NAACP giving the speech to a room full of people from the group ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights), which was the anti-busing group that sprung up in Boston ... and a whose tactics often went just to the edge of violence.

Day Two was worse than Day One ... and this is that day that Dick Gaines not only mentored me but he saved me from an ass-whipping. Both days, Dick would let me stand with him as he interviewed different people, and he was so incensed by what he was seeing that, on a few occasions, he got confrontational with the "urchins and rednecks" he had to talk to. That just made things even more tense.

I have to say I admired him. I'd have loved to have had the guts to do what he did. But I was scared to death and all I wanted to was get out of their alive -- both days -- and not draw attention to myself.

But of course, that's not me. I've been known to wise off and say things at the worst possible times. And ultimately, I couldn't help myself. As the buses started rolling up the hill to South Boston High at the dawning of Day Two, there were three high-school age kids standing there yelling "Go home, Niggers. Get outta here,  Niggers. Go home." Stuff like that.

I'd heard the word once to often, I guess. In that setting, it wasn't simply a racial slur. It was out-and-out assault. And I suppose you have to be in a situation to understand that.

I turned to Gaines, and said -- obviously a bit too loud -- "Chrissakes, when's George Wallace going to show up? This is like one of those Wallace rallies I used to watch on TV."

All of a sudden, the three kids spewing "N" invective all over the place surrounded me, and one of them started poking his fingers in my chest. Now, understand, I was dressed in a shirt and tie that came right out of the Bad Seventies Catalog. I couldn't have stuck out more. This kid, who looked to be about 16 or 17, and a whole lot tougher than I was, just kept poking and jabbing and saying things like "yeah, what are ya gonna do about it, pussy."

Guilty as charged. I wanted no part of him or, at that moment, South Boston in general. All of a sudden, Dick Gaines sensed danger and, I swear, made himself as big as grizzly bear.

"Hey, was anyone talking to you, asshole?" roared Gaines. "No. Nobody's talking to you. Shut the F* up and leave us alone."

I'll never understand why, but the kid backed off. Boy, was I grateful. Dick should have gone back to the office and said to himself, "Krause is definitely not ready for prime time." That's what I'd have done.

Instead, he went back to the editors and raved about how professionally I'd acted (maybe he thought I showed admirable restrained not to haul off and belt the kid, but truthfully, I was scared into paralysis). Maybe he realized that he visibly demonstrated how repulsed he was by all of this whereas I, for the most part, stood there with my mouth open wanting to cry. I don't know. But I made a hell of an impression on him ... one that he shared eagerly and enthusiastically with the guys back at the office.

We remained friendly until he left UPI to join the Boston Phoenix as its main political writer. And then, as with all professional relationships that end, we lost touch.

Thanks to Facebook, I am friends with Peters, Haskell and Warren Talbot, another great mentor from those days. One day two years ago, I happened to see something from the Gloucester Times on line with byline Richard Gaines. I asked some people I know up there, and sure enough, it was one and the same. We exchanged emails and then never corresponded again. Like everything else, life took its turns and we weren't on the same bus.

Death is always terribly sad, especially when you consider he should have had a lot more living to do. Sixty-nine is not old anymore (not to mention it's only 10 years older than me).

I consider it a privilege, though, to have been mentored in an era when journalists took their work, but not necessarily themselves, seriously. I bemoan the the proliferation of internet blogs where anyone with an opinion -- whether it's based on fact or fantasy -- can just fire away with the knowledge that there are no more checks and balances with it comes to veracity and accuracy. Guys like Dick Gaines, Dave Haskell, Gil Peters and Warren Talbot made me understand that if I was writing for the public, I owed the public the due diligence to check my facts and make sure I had them in order before putting the -30- on the end of the story.

Once I found out Dick worked for the Times, I read a lot of his stories. One thing I never had to worry about was their veracity. I took it on faith.

Cheers, Dick from SK-BH.

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