Starbucks Via Instant – a failing-to-read-the-label odyssey

I generally make a pot of coffee in the morning. I am not particularly loyal to a roast, but tend towards Starbucks or Seattle’s Best brands. Sometimes, if the package is pretty and the price low, I’ll try something else.

I also keep a box of Starbucks Via Instant packs in inventory. Sometimes I don’t want a full pot, don’t feel like doing the work or it’s a busy morning and I won’t have time to leisure over the entire pot, so a Starbucks instant steps up to the cup for me.

This past weekend the shopping list contained the word coffee. I needed to resupply both the ground beans for dripping and the Starbucks Via Instant.

Me, being the antisocial type, and not particularly joyful over the time spent in a grocery store, was rushing.

I had just come from the pickle aisle, where my frustration had been piqued over the lack of Claussen dills, and was speeding down the caffeine-bean aisle.

Starbucks Columbian roast ground? Yep, in the cart, moving on.

Next, the Starbucks instant section with the three usual boxes of instant coffee on display. Ah, but this one is like three times thicker than usual! It must contain many more cute little packets inside. What a deal. In the cart it goes!

Now we move to the current morning. Wednesday, not that it matters. This household was not tack sharp this morning, following a full-moon sleepless night. One might assume I’d be making a full pot of coffee to get things restarted. But no, for reasons I cannot explain, I wanted instant. Perhaps I didn’t want to wait for the preparations and dripping to conclude? I don’t know, we’d need a study to know the darkest answer to this query.

But upon retrieving the new box of Starbucks instant that I had procured on this most-recent shopping extravaganza, I actually read the label: Starbucks Via Instant CAFÉ MOCHA!

It’s fancy hot chocolate!

The ingredients list shows, far down the list, after dried milk, sugar, caribou hoof and unicorn dander, coffee. What I’ve purchased is simply an overly-froufrou instant chocolate milk.

Frustration soon opened the door to curiosity. I have in fact been known to order a café mocha from a Starbucks barista. Sometimes I’m in that mood and I like the bev, so I didn’t open the window preparatory to a hasty jump, but proceeded instead to craft this new-found treat.

From the start, disaster loomed. I found the slit in the foilette package where I was instructed to tear. It tore easily — and with vigor. Such vigor in fact that a tiny powder explosion greeted my face. Fortunately, I was beside my sink, so that debacle was easily put at bay.

Being still un-awake, I failed to use the requisite amount of intelligence and dumped the entire packet into a mug. Dumped. I didn’t pour, I didn’t use any kind of gentle maneuvering whatsoever. I dumped.

Another cloud of dust to the face.

Another damp paper towel.

Another oath quietly uttered.

Okay now, the worst was over. I just needed to add the water.

To the fridge I went where cold, filtered water was on offer. The water slowly filled the mug while the magical Starbuckian recipe floated on top. The powder created a dense life raft atop, sealing off the top of the mug like a sarcophagus. Mr. Science could do an entire episode on the physics and hydrodynamics at play, but I was not amused. It was far too early for any kind of heavy thinking here.

For you see, I hadn’t yet HAD MY COFFEE!

I fetched a spoon and began to stir. Now, I’m no genius by far, but I have stirred a few things in my life. I’ve even used a whisk and a mandolin (that’s another story). And I’m a former trombonist. So while no expert, I am an experienced stirrer.

However, my experience in that area was not evident as I tried to incorporate the powders into the water. Or vice-versa. I stirred. I folded. I swished. I sloshed. I cursed.

After many minutes, and several escaped blobs of wet powder had created dark hut-looking blobs on the counter, I decided that some time in the microwave would get things mixed up.

My normal procedure for Starbucks instant calls for two minutes and thirty seconds of zapping in the ‘wave. So those numerals were touched into the machine and the start button was pressed.

I did some other morning chore while the machine did its business. When it became silent, I opened the door.

I am used to being greeted with steam and some evidence of hotness coming from within. But on this occasion, it appeared that nothing had happened.

I retrieved the cup and found it to be slightly warm. Not hot. And the mix certainly had not become a drinkable potion.

So I put the cup back in and beeped it for another thirty seconds. And another. And yet more. After some weeks a steamy condition existed and I was able to move forward. Or so I thought.

Back to the stirring. And cajoling. And begging. And mixing. And agitating.

Improvements were made in the consistency of the drink, but alas, the powder stuck like mortar to the sides of the cup, the spoon and angrily clung to the bottom like an Exxon sludge.

Evening was approaching so it was long past time to sit down and take a sip.


I cannot describe it as either bad coffee nor bad hot chocolate. It’s just awful. I’ve not personally tasted acrid chemicals, paint strippers or atomic waste since I believe such testing is better left to folks with the proper apparel and training.

But now, I believe I have.


Now, how to get this black cocoa plaster out of my mustache.

I need a drink.

Mr. Grossa: a shop, and life, teacher

Today I am thinking of one of my teachers. Jim Grossa was my high school shop teacher. I don’t know what brought him to mind today in particular, but he left some marks on my squishy and aimless 14-year-old-noggin that are with me to this day.

Mr. Grossa had a degree in Industrial Arts and in my general shop class taught woodworking and metalworking. I of course took the class because I was interested in woodworking. Though I ended up enjoying the metalworking as well, very much to my surprise. For a while I thought a career operating a spot welder would be just the ticket!

The This Old House TV show had just started, but our 30-foot TV aerial rarely was able to pull it in. I had seen a couple of episodes in other people’s houses and was fascinated to see “how” woodworking was done.

The only real exposure I had to seeing woodworking done was the occasional Shopsmith demonstration held at the local mall.

The opportunity to get into an actual woodshop and learn how to make things with wood was really exciting. And in the tiny, poor rural school in Gobles, Michigan, we actually had an excellent shop with good tools.

And a great teacher in Mr. Grossa.

Years temper the memories and my recollection may not be 100%. But I remember the lessons that have stuck with me all of the intervening years.

I remember on the first day of class, comprised almost totally of boys, rowdiness was the order of the day. Grossa (for some reason we rarely used the title Mister – he was just “Grossa”) shouted “Settle down!” over the commotion. He was a tall, thin man, probably not a whole lot older than us, with what would later be known as a Magnum P.I. mustache. The girls thought him handsome and often would stop to watch him walk away down the halls.

He went on to say that he knew some were in the class for an “easy-A” and others were there because they wanted to learn something. “Those of you who want to coast can do that, but be quiet and stay out of the way so those who want to learn can learn and so you don’t get hurt.”

I was in the “I want to learn something” camp.

One of our first lessons, before we were ever turned loose in the shop, was on how to measure.

It may sound way too fundamental, but it’s really important, and Grossa built upon this throughout the semester. But it’s where I had a real problem. Okay, I continue to have a real problem. To this day I have a devil of a time reading a ruler or tape measure.

I pretty easily understood that inches were broken down into quarters, eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds and so on. I got that. But seeing and counting those tick marks is a real challenge for me. I have to close one eye, squint with the other, and somehow point to and count the ticks to get a measurement. It sometimes helps if I lift my right foot off the ground and hum the theme to Gilligan’s Island.

Working in my own shop as an adult, I can take my time, do it three, four or eighteen times. But in class, under pressure, I sweated.

My completed checkerboard from shop class.

We had prescribed objects and projects that we had to make. One was a checkerboard. I remember Grossa showing us a sample of what we were going to make and I was terrified. I couldn’t imagine how even to start such a project and was afraid I’d flounder and fail.

But I likewise remember as the lightbulbs began to light up when he showed us the process. It all made sense!

One of the things Grossa taught me on that project was the value of a plan. To this day when I plan a project, it’s sketchy at best. I once took a drawing class at D’Art Center in Norfolk, VA to try to learn a thing or two so I could make better drawings for myself. I had fun and a helpful teacher, but it didn’t stick. My plans continue to be things only I can understand.

At any rate, Grossa said that any project we might want to tackle came down to a plan. Whether it was someone else’s plan or one of our own, the largest, most complex of projects came down to one cut at a time. True with woodworking or any other project or task in life.

Break it down he said, on paper and in your head, into steps small enough to understand and complete. You don’t build the entire project, you build it piece-by-piece.

At my age, that really was profound. And prior to woodshop someone could have used those same words to describe a process, but because it was something I was interested in, and making things with wood was something I truly wanted to master, it made sense, made an impression. It was a lesson made practical.

Having watched several of those Shopsmith demos in the mall, I was the most fascinated by the lathe. I have never been interested in carving, but turning something on the lathe is magical.

My completed bowl from shop class.

There wasn’t time in the class to get very good at the lathe, but I did learn the basics of how the machine worked, how to mount my work (this was before four-jawed chucks came to the world of woodworking – greatly simplifying and speeding up the process of turning wood). I learned about the major lathe chisels and types of cuts.

My lathe was positioned such that I looked out a large west-facing window. I had a view of the woods beyond and truly enjoyed spinning poor dead tree pieces to dust. I ended up making a really awful bowl.

Part of the problem was that my choice of wood was bad. It had lots of open end-grain so no matter what I did, I couldn’t get it smooth. While I wasn’t proud of the project, like I was the chessboard, I cherished it.

The final project for woodshop was a project of our choice. We had to submit the idea and a sketch and get approval from Grossa before beginning work.

Students submitted proposals for toolboxes, bird feeders and bird houses, cutting boards – the types of beginner projects you’d expect.

This is sort of what the loop would have looked like, hanging from a central post.

But my idea was wildly different. I had seen a towel rack that I wanted to make in a store. This rack was intended to hold hand towels in a bathroom. It had a central square post of about 1-1/2” square. On each of the four sides there was a smooth circle with an “arm” that was let into the main post. Hard to imagine what I’m talking about, eh? Well, it is hard to describe. And I drew crude drawings on paper and on the chalkboard to try and explain what the “thing” I wanted to make was.

Grossa was clearly lost – he didn’t understand what I wanted to build. But everything I described sounded like too challenging a project for my skill level. I was insistent that I wanted to make it and Grossa was honest with me: he didn’t fully understand it, he wouldn’t have enough time to really help me refine it; and I needed to “complete” my project in order to complete the class and be graded.

But bit-by-bit, the project evolved. He let me use some really excellent cherry wood from the inventory. Every time I work with cherry, I think of that towel rack. Cherry is beautiful wood, changes color over time and is great to work with.

Grossa regularly consulted with me. And as he’d taught, I had broken the project down into steps. And while he didn’t understand what I saw in my head, he could understand each of my small steps and thus help me to do them.

My project required four mortices to be cut into that main post. A mortice is a fairly advanced cut and, except for identifying it, was not covered in the class. But Grossa spent time with me to show me how to attach morticing chisels to the drill press, how to mark out the cuts, make and refine them with hand chisels.

It was a lot of hard work but in the end my mortices were actually pretty good.

The central post needed some kind of legs to hold it upright. We came up with simple legs with two 45-degree angles cut on them. One angle would sit against the post, the other against the floor. For the sake of time, Grossa suggested I screw them to the post, create counter-sinks and make my own plugs to fill the counter-sinks.

What was he thinking? Heck, what was he saying?! Countersink? Plugs? But he showed me each new process, often doing one and then setting me free to do the rest.

I suppose the fact that he’d show or tell me something and then “leave me to it” was a necessity of helping as many students as possible. But at the time I saw it as his confidence in me. He didn’t need to stand over me. He believed I could do a process, so he could move on to someone else. As a shy kid lacking in anything that looked like confidence, that meant a lot to me.

I’m sure my parents were sick and tired of my regular praise of Mr. Grossa and all of things he knew!

The next challenge was to make the rings that would actually hold the towels. It required a single piece of wood with a round outside, a hole cut from the center and a “tail” that would fit into the mortice cut in the main post.

Again, a lot of sophisticated cuts to make. And again, Grossa helped me with each step. I probably used every tool in the shop to get those things cut. And it took forever. I got right down to the wire and never did the proper finishing. But Grossa encouraged me to finish – do what was required for the class. I could make it prettier on my own at home – he said he was confident I had learned enough to continue.

His confidence in me meant so much! He knew it was important to me and he just assumed I’d keep going on my own, during the summer and in years to come. It wasn’t just about him doing his job for a semester – he was coaching and encouraging me to use and develop a skill and hobby for the rest of my life. He surely was a great success with that.

I completed the project, though it wasn’t finished. I sheepishly took it home on the school bus at the end of the semester. I was embarrassed by it, but proud at the same time. I knew that people looked at that weird contraption and tried to say nice things, or teased me or whatever they would do. But when I looked at it I was proud of what I’d learned.

I had learned how to measure something, rough out raw stock, cut multiple items to the same dimensions, cut mortices, use the jigsaw, tablesaw, sanders, drill press, morticing chisels, hand chisels. So many skills and tools were now real world experiences for me – not dreams or magazine articles. A few months before it had all been unknown and mysterious. But Grossa led me to pursue my passion, and learn things without knowing I was learning them!

I made a lot of mistakes on that towel rack. I got frustrated. Pieces had to be discarded. I had to stop and start. I used some fancy language. But this is where Gross taught me perhaps the most-important thing. I have used this lesson throughout my life for so many things – most of which have nothing to do with woodworking.

When I’d make a mistake and get frustrated he’d tell me that it wasn’t a failure, it was a prototype. A failure was just a lesson, evidence of something you learned. You’d try again, taking what you’d learned from the “prototype”, make changes, maybe make more “prototypes”, but get better each time.

I still got frustrated and upset over my mistakes, but I quickly saw how true his words were! I tried to look at what went wrong, figure out why it went wrong and what I could do to start again. He was always so calm, friendly and positive. He didn’t hover or mother in any way, but I knew he supported me and had confidence in me…which helped me to build a little bit in myself.

Over the years I’ve taken classes and gone to specialty schools for a variety of woodworking skills. I’ve learned about cabinetmaking, woodturning, hand-cut joints, router techniques, finishing. And I’ve built out my own workshop and made hundreds of projects with wood. Without the skills and confidence gained from Mr. Grossa, there is no doubt: I wouldn’t have taken even the first step.

I always want to make nicer projects, more complicated work, items with fewer flaws and errors. But I enjoy the process, I enjoy what I learn from each project. And I have used the lessons and example of Mr. Grossa, my shop teacher, who taught me so much more than measure twice, cut once.


Some examples of the many things I’ve made with wood, thanks to a start from Mr. Grossa. No pictures of prototypes here, just evidence of lessons-learned.

The corner table

The sounds of the city are still here, but the straight-down steady rainfall muted, cleanses them. The buses, the horns, the squealing brakes less annoying through the hum of water hitting the sidewalk, the trash bins, the newsstand, the coffee shop canopy.

Rain now, but stormy weather is predicted to start soon and continue through the night. The thunder will come and as this Saturday morning moves to nighttime, street life will quiet its concert and even the commotion of the city will subside behind the weather.

I’m in my customary spot for a Saturday morning. Hah, but the day doesn’t matter. Since I’ve retired you may find me here any morning. Or afternoon or evening. Before I left my job counseling high school kids for college, this corner table and eclectic, hard and uncomfortable chair, was my vantage point on Saturdays. Now I can, and do, park myself here any time I wish.

I like this place, the owners, Meg and Bea. I like the coffee, the people, the atmosphere. It all agrees with me. And I like to people-watch. I’d say most of the people here are regulars, but Meg and Bea see a lot of new and passerby custom.

Meg and Bea are masters at instantly remembering patrons names. They just as quickly learn their usual orders. I’ve picked up a few names from my corner eavesdropping post. But even without names, I observe, craft make-believe life stories for those passing through. Stories based on the facts I overhear, mixed with my own whimsy.

My interest is piqued when former students come through M&B’s Bean House doors. In many ways my career was filled with the frustration of unfinished business. Around the 10th grade I’d start to get to know students and two years later they’d be on their way. They’d follow or not a plan and path that we’d put together. But more often than not I felt like a parent, but not quite so, sending a young adult into the world, without knowing how it turned out. Did they get that degree in electrical engineering and find a job in San Francisco? Did trade school and apprenticeship work out and lead to a plumbing business of their own? Did they marry, have kids? Did they leave the city? I rarely know.

But here, when I see a former student, even if I don’t remember their name or particulars, the loop is closed. I hear their idle conversation, their coffee order and I get some closure. They’ve made it this far at least. They’re succeeding, or trying.

Sometimes one of us will strike up conversation and I get the real details. We catch up on the intervening years. I’m proud.

It’s coming up on noon and my first cup of coffee has been nursed away. Road traffic is settling down and more people are making their way on foot. The bell over the door is dinging more frequently as folks take the impulse to warm up and dry off inside.

I think I hear the first distant thunder.

Raj catches my eye from behind the counter, mimes pouring coffee. I nod. He brings the pot out front and refills my cup, says he’s got a break coming and will be right back.

Raj is a kid from the neighborhood and has been working here a couple of years. He started in high school and now I guess he’s about 20. He has moved out of his parents and with a roommate rents a place a few blocks off this street. We talk often about his plans for the future.

“Hey, Mister-A, nice day out there, huh?” Raj jokes while pulling out his chair on the other side of my corner table.

“I actually like rainy and stormy weather. As long as I don’t have to be out in it, ha, ha.”

Raj grins and looks outside, takes a draw on his chai.

“I went by the Dev Studio last night.” Raj says, still looking out the window.

“And?” I ask.

“It’s, you know, it’s a lot to learn. The people there are so smart.”

“Did you talk to someone about the financing or classes?” I ask.

“Yes, they gave me a tour and I saw some classes. It’s very intense. They tell me I can do it, but I don’t know. They want my money after all.” Raj says, ever doubting himself, lacking confidence.

“That’s true.” I say. “They’re wanting to make a profit. But remember, we did some research, read stories in the paper and checked reviews online. Students say good things – the training is good and they get jobs. Reputable. I think we can say they’re reputable. The rest would be you – your study.”

“Yeah. Yeah. It’s a lot of money.” Raj says.

“It is. But it’s less than a college degree and for web design, it looks like having specific skills for a job is what gets you in the door. And without that foot in the door, you won’t be able to do what you want.” I try to encourage him.

I want to tell him what to do. It’s the urge I always had to suppress. My job, when I was working, was to, if not make a decision their idea alone, help them walk up to and shake hands with it on their own. So often I think I see the obvious way ahead for a student, but for it to be a success, it has to come from them.

“I think I’m going to sign up for the session-after-next. I’ll sign up. I’ll be in the class. But this will give me a couple of months to get my mind behind it.” He says.

I think he should start right away. I think the very next session starts in a week. But this is progress, so I leave it.

“That’s great, Raj! Do it – you’re moving forward!” I say with real enthusiasm. I raise my cup in toast. His smile is bigger now.

A customer has come in and has asked Raj about an order of ground beans. Raj says goodbye and returns to the counter.

There are usually more people about with their dogs. Especially on a Saturday. Stretching for the humans and the pups. The weather discourages that this day. Never having had a dog I wonder about all of those dogs and their “business.” Do they hold it for good weather or must their owners rush out into the flood and beg and cajole until the dog has relieved itself beside a muddied puddle? I enjoy the dogs, miss them today, but glad they’re not my worry.

The thunder is bigger now. I think thunder is made by lightning, I’m not sure of this. But I see no sparks in the sky. Dark clouds have given the sense that the clock is more advanced than it is. More thunder rattles dishes behind the counter, but no flashes. The intensity of rain has let up…still coming down, a little bit of wind, but not so much water.

Meg and Bea keep the place pretty simple and basic to coffee, tea and some baked things. They do sell beans, mugs, artwork. Bea said they don’t make any money on those other things, but they want to support local artists and give folks something to keep them busy if they’re waiting in line or for their order.

I fear the only time the artwork, and there are some very interesting paintings on display now, get no viewing except when the place is busy. And then the views are harried and impatient. When it’s slow I appreciate them. I should buy something.

It’s starting to feel a little hot in here. Close. The place has filled up. I get up and prop open the door. The substantial awning, normally offering shade to those who use the few sidewalk tables, keeps the rain from menacing us inside.

The cool rush of air is welcome.

As I kick into place the stone used to prop open the door I feel a tiny bit the proprietor. Several appreciative looks angle in my direction.

I re-take my seat, consider another cup of coffee.

The seat is uncomfortable. I wiggle around often to give my slight and bony frame fresh points to rest upon. Very few furnishings in here match. Some chairs are quite comfortable, but they aren’t at my table. I’ll take it upon myself to open a door, but don’t feel the authority to mess with the décor.

I will straighten a piece of artwork, however. I’ve been known to rearrange the mugs display after someone has made a purchase. Perhaps I’m too much busy-body for my friends Meg and Bea.

Two sweetheart teens come in now. They’re holding hands and talking to each other. At the same time. They stand just inside the door and shake like dogs to get the water off. I’ve not seen them before.

They study the chalkboard wall. They point, talk, shake their heads. Shortly, consensus reached, they head over to make their order: two mochas and they’ll share a peanut butter cookie.

I’ve suggested to Meg and Bea on several occasions that they need live music. Strings, maybe.

In the back there’s a corner that would work. They’d lose two tables, but a small platform could be put in.

Room for a guitarist or two. Or maybe someone playing keyboard.

The piped-in music is fine. It varies from okay to good. But live music would be a draw. There are many music students around who would crave the exposure.

Meg suggests the idea could work, but can they afford it: the lost tables and the fee?

Bea thinks perhaps they don’t need to pay, but just offer a tip jar.

I bite my tongue. Artists should be appreciated and respected. Even with a small stipend.

In moments they come to the same idea. I’m pleased.

But they’re not yet convinced. They’d have to audition people. Come up with rules for the style of music that would suit. And they don’t want it to prevent conversation in the shop. It can’t be too loud.

For not the first time, the idea has been discussed, but tabled. I hold out hope.

It’s become late afternoon and the rain has all but stopped. The clouds continue to be angry and thunder booms.

I watch through the front window to see a squirrel scamper from the leaves of a tree to snatch some dropped morsel of food. He quickly inspects what looks like popcorn in his long-clawed fingers before darting back to the tree and his home.

Taking advantage of the lull, in persons and rain, I stand, place my cup and plate in the collection area, give a goodbye nod to those working behind the counter, and take myself home.

The Business Drawers

Whether it be a set of china, a delicate spoon, a cookie jar, a hutch or dresser, the things that occupy the space with us become a part of our memories. Sometimes they’re just always there, a constant backdrop to the birthday party, graduation or marriage. Others are so used and integral that they are the actual bricks and mortar of a recollection.

Go to an estate sale or listen to someone reminisce about “grandma’s house” and you’re likely to hear stories about the objects that attach themselves to memories.

A recent move focused my thoughts on a piece of furniture in my life that doesn’t necessarily have specific memories attached to it, but it’s always been there. I’ve never seen another piece like it and it has a pretentiously formal name: the Business Drawers.

The Business Drawers got their start as a doll’s clothes dresser. It’s not uncommon to see antique miniaturized furniture items that were used as display models for furniture companies to sell full-size copies. They’re cute and fully functional and gave buyers a sense of the details and proportions for the dresser, buffet or table they might order. In the days before printed photographs, when line-drawn illustrations were the best way to convey a visual to a consumer, these dwarf samples did the selling.

At first glance, this little dresser may appear to be one of those samples. But it’s not. I’ve found many pieces similar to it, but no exact matches. It’s clear that for a period of time, these small pieces of real furniture were common accessories for children’s dolls.

This one belonged to my great-great-grandmother. My mother adored it as a child and at some point it was given to her.

Judging by the information I’ve found online, originally it likely had a mirror on the back or some other adornment. It’s in quite good condition, with repairs through the years evident, including a more modern back, sans a mirror or towel rack.

The Business Drawers have been a part of my life since the beginning. Named by my mom long before I came on the scene, why that name?

The adorable little dresser, measuring 24” wide by 12” deep by 15-1/2” tall held the household correspondence supplies.

The top left drawer overflowed with pens, pencils and erasers – anything you’d use to leave your mark.

On the right side, the drawer held calculators, dad’s slide-rule, a deck of playing cards, S&H Green Stamps books and postage stamps.

The bottom drawer, which spans the full width of the piece, stored envelopes, stationary, writing tablets and a ruler.

Throughout my life, people see the Business Drawers for the first time comment and wonder. When its purpose is explained they directly see the wisdom of its purpose. It’s just big enough, not too so. It’s attractive and seems to work with any other furnishing. Its top provides a place for a desktop phone (not of much use these days, I suspect) or any other small décor one might want to display.

When my dad refinished it, he re-glued joints, but left earlier repairs made with visible nails, in place. My foggy memory tells me that when he did his work on it, there was no back at all – he crafted a replacement from plywood. It’s certainly not “historically accurate”, but is not seen and keeps the case sturdy.

At some point my mom gave the Business Drawers to me and I cherish it. In the new house it again holds pens, a few USB charging cables and pads of paper. Most “business” these days doesn’t rely on the kinds of things you’d store in a drawer, but the Business Drawers live on.

Likely more than 150 years after it kept a doll’s dress, blouse and stockings tidy, the form still of course would work for doll’s clothes, writing implements, sewing supplies or the hundreds of fine pieces and parts we dare not lose under foot.

Or even supplies for those, like my wife, who still send the occasional tactile thank-you, cheer-up or hand-written note.

It has lasted far longer than the original maker probably ever imagined, but this little chest of drawers remains useful, decorative and is sized just right.

The sides, each made from a single board, has shapely detail.

The simple detail of the apron.

Another view of the leg detail.


An old repair is visible on the top.

An example I found online that may reflect what a mirrored back may have looked like. The apron detail looks very similar to mine.

Aaron and Alina to Leave Utah

Aaron and Alina are leaving the state of Utah.

This is a decision that has been brewing for several months. Ever since Alina’s open-heart surgery and the long road to recovery that followed, we’ve been contemplating a move closer to sea level and cleaner air.

While our house being at an elevation of 4,000 feet, and popular places like Sundance Resort or Park City being thousands of feet higher, may not surprise, the poor air quality may. Utah, known for having The Greatest Snow On Earth and wide-ranging geographies from rugged and snowy mountain peaks, to amazing lakes, to the desolation of her deserts, is a hard place to take a breath. We have two cities in the top seven in the nation for poor air quality ( There are too many days when we cannot even see the mountains through the smog. Our eyes tear up and we cough. There’s the taste of metal in the air. Every other oil change reveals air filters clogged with particulate pollution.

Aaron and Alina made several trips to sea level in 2017 and Alina’s energy level and general sense of well-being were dramatically improved. Her heart worked more easily and her breathing was better.

There are other reasons as well. One is certainly the culture.

Aaron has been here for eight years (but has been travelling here on business since 1999) and Alina for seven. In that time  we have not been successful at integrating as well as we’d like. Friendships and social interactions are very limited here for those not a part of the LDS faith. Aaron was warned about this before coming, but at the time had so many built-in professional friendships that he didn’t fully appreciate the challenge.

Many of the friends we did have here came about through the people we knew and worked with in the newspaper industry. Many of those friends have been leaving the state as well for their own reasons, dwindling our associations further.

Another reason is the actual location of our home. Aaron moved here in 2009 and bought a new home that was only seven minutes from his software job at Digital Technology International (DTI). But the area has developed by leaps and bounds. About the time Aaron moved in, a new high school down the road opened. Our house is at the corner of a community and the main road to that high school — and now many other housing communities. Traffic noise has grown and grown. There are only a few hours on a Sunday that we can sit in the backyard and hear ourselves think. The noise and commotion has cut into our ability to enjoy our home.

And while our home was convenient to the job at DTI and the charming town of Provo, distances to our current/most recent jobs have meant nearly one-hour commutes each way. And for nights out (plays, concerts, festivals, etc.) we have to drive to Salt Lake City — and after our week of commuting we’re so weary of driving, it’s a chore we often don’t undertake.

With all of that, and other minor motivations driving us, we started to think about where we wanted to live. Alina’s job allows her to work anywhere, so that gave us a luxury. We considered many areas around the country. We want to be at a low altitude. We want good air. While we absolutely love our mountain views, we want more “green” in our lives. We want to be near a major airport because our family is spread around the globe. We want to be close to excellent healthcare.

We settled on the Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina area as the first place to investigate. With that in mind, several months ago we made plans to go and look around over the Labor Day holiday. We were going to investigate several towns and housing communities, just to get a feel for the area. It was to be a research trip. We had no intention to do anything concrete until the spring of 2018.

Alina lived in Greensboro, North Carolina for 12 years and Aaron lived in Norfolk, Virginia for 10, so the general area is familiar to us. And we have many friends in the area — friends who have stayed in touch during our years in Utah.

So our plane tickets were bought, hotel reservation made, car rented and plans made quite some time ago.

Then on August 22nd Aaron was laid off. Again. For the second time in a year-and-a-half.

When Aaron called Alina after getting the news, we almost both said at the same time: “Let’s pull up and move now.”

We immediately got  more serious about our research. With Aaron unemployed he had time to prepare for a move and do much of the legwork and research. And his generous severance package from Dealertrack gave financial cushion for the move.

The more research we did, the more excited we got about the Raleigh/Durham area. Quality of life, access to medical care, a huge job market, a growing economy, housing prices, potential outlets for Aaron’s woodworking, green landscapes: so many things argued in its favor.

Aaron of course is never going to be a fan of the humidity. But he also decided in the middle of this winter that he is done with snow. Other options may have avoided humidity, but too many other things would have been compromised.

About the same time we took note of houses in our neighborhood going on the market on Monday and being sold on Tuesday. The market here was looking really good. So we retained a local Realtor who confirmed that the market in our area is hot, and that we’re in a seller’s market. We went out on a limb and decided to list the house for sale. While we didn’t put the house on the MLS until the week after Labor Day, we’d met with the Realtor and made up our minds to sell — even before our research trip to North Carolina.

Now that we were going down the road to sell our Utah house, we needed to be more serious about our research trip. So we engaged a Realtor there to help us.

Over the long Labor Day weekend we saw literally dozens of homes and our agent drove us hundreds of miles around the area. She showed us homes and communities we’d found online, she showed us things we hadn’t discovered, and she educated us about the towns, areas and jobs. It was an intense weekend of learning.

Our decision to resettle in the Raleigh/Durham area was cemented. By the time we left we’d settled on the town of Pittsboro. It is a reasonable distance from Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. It is seeing major development with the construction of an enormous community of housing, shops and businesses called Chatham Park. The community has a strong artist and craftsperson feel — hopefully Aaron will be able to sell some of the woodwork that collects dust around the house.

Utah has been good to us. The mountains and deserts and amazing sights have strengthened and awed us. Through the jobs we’ve held we’ve learned and grown beyond belief. We’ve gotten to know some amazing people and our jobs have afforded us the opportunity to travel.

But now is the time to make a change. Aaron for years planned to retire at age 50. Maybe he will do that, and be the best house-husband he can be. Maybe he’ll find a great professional job. Maybe he’ll find a satisfying job as a shop assistant at the woodworking school in Pittsboro. There are so many possibilities and we are truly blessed to have the options to make this change.

Our house in Utah is under contract to a local couple. We have found a new home in Pittsboro that we’re purchasing. So we’re on our way.

Alina, Aaron and Gypsy will drive cross-country with the RV, staying at KOAs along the way each night. We’ll take with us the necessities we’ll need for the first few days in our new home. It will take us six days to get there. Aaron will drive the truck pulling the RV with Alina driving along in the Corolla…a pair of FM walkies keeping us in touch along the way.

We don’t know what lies ahead. But so many doors have been opened for us in the past couple of months, we are confident that this change is the right thing for us: for our health, for our quality of life and for the next phase of our lives.

Remembering dad on his 110th birthday

My dad in 1977.

My dad in 1977.

My old man was an old man.

January 30, 2017 marks my dad’s 110th birthday.

My dad was sixty years old when I was born.

Sixty years.

He feared that he wouldn’t live long enough to see me graduate from high school.

It’s common for people to have their last child before they were half my dad’s age.

My dad was older than many grandparents.

I knew my dad was older than my classmates’ parents. It was normal for me, though I knew we, and I, were different.

Shortly before I was born, my dad was laid off and decided to retire. My mom, 35 years younger than dad, was teaching fourth grade and finishing graduate school, so they decided that he would stay home and be a house-husband and mom would finish school and have her career.

That meant that dad got me up and ready for school and was there waiting for me when I got home (often with something fresh out of the oven for me to “test”).

We were close. We did chores together. We tinkered in the workshop together. We cut wood together. We worked in the kitchen together. We were together all the time.

During all of that togetherness, he told me story upon story about his life and experiences. It was just normal conversation for us — but was a history lesson and perspective to which most kids aren’t exposed.

Many children with attentive parents or grandparents learn from them, but having an older parent brought with it a deeper and richer view on history. Not to mention the ability to understand many lessons learned.

My dad was a quiet, caring, thoughtful man with a big laugh who was born to a German immigrant family. He used to joke that he was “born on the boat.” He was actually born in Wisconsin.

He only spoke German and after trying to get by in school, gave up at the fourth grade.

One day, at around age 13, my dad went home to find his mom with a man who was not his dad. His mom threw a kitchen knife, stabbing my dad in the arm. He ran out of the house into the street.

Afraid to return home, and his parents in turmoil after his mom being found out, dad went to live with a nearby aunt and uncle.

But dad was restless, not in school and disconnected. He felt like no place was his own. When his aunt asked him to go to the bakery for a loaf of bread, he decided to pass the bakery and keep going. And going.

A fresh teenager, he struck out on his own, running away from whatever stood for home at the time.

It was 1920, the start of the Roaring 20s and he was a 13 year old boy out on his own. He became a hobo, riding the rails. He traveled around the Midwest and East by hitching rides on trains, taking up odd jobs in towns along the way.

He and the other men huddled around fires burning trash and found items to stay warm during the winters. They also would drink stove fuel (Sterno), for warmth, from cans discarded by the workers on the trains.

Kalamazoo Asylum Water Tower (

Kalamazoo Asylum Water Tower. (

After a few years of such travel, one of the trains he was riding pulled in to Kalamazoo, Michigan. He looked out the door of the train and saw the most interesting water tower and decided that he’d stay in Kalamazoo.

That water tower belonged to the Kalamazoo Asylum — a hospital for the mentally ill. The tower, built in the late 1800s, stands today and is a unique landmark in Kalamazoo.

An example of the style of plates and cups my dad made prior to his retirement.

An example of the style of plates and cups my dad made prior to his retirement.

He eventually ended up working in the paper mill and worked his way up to management. When he “retired” he was working in a plant that made plastic cups and paper plates.

Dad worked from age 13 to 60. That’s 47 years. So not only did I grow up with a stay-at-home dad, who was born before electricity, airplanes or cars were commonplace, but one who had a lifetime of work experience to pass along.

By the time I entered the workforce I had earned a degree in business from the lessons dad taught me.

One of dad’s stories was about when they brought time-and-motion engineers into the plant. The engineers were brought in to record everyone’s work processes and to make recommendations to make them more efficient. What a joke dad thought all of it was.

The workers had to fill out cards for every task they did so that it could be tracked. Months were spent making changes in order to remove steps in the work. Management was very excited about the efficiency and savings that would result. But over time, that same management undid many of the changes that they spent a lot of money to make.

How many times I’ve seen similar situations in my working life. Big “new” ideas unleashed on the workforce, only to be abandoned for the next great idea. There’s often little follow-through and little consideration for what has already been tried. Well before the K.I.S.S. principle, dad taught me about the tendancy for people to make things more complicated than necessary and that the simplest way probably is the best.

I also learned from my dad’s many years of work experience to think about why people do things. I can’t remember how many stories he had about what people were going through, particularly during the Great Depression. Time and time again he would talk about people being difficult at work, but that they were struggling at home, trying to feed their family, trying to pay rent, supporting elderly or sick family, etc. He’d seen some really hard times personally and saw it in others and appreciated their struggles.

Another instance I remember was when we were camping and ran into a man my dad had once worked with. He was covered in scars and walked in a strange manner. I asked dad if the man had been in a car accident. Dad explained that that’s how the man came back from the war. He’d been a POW of the Nazis and they’d tortured and done “experiments” on him.

You never know what story or pain — seen or unseen — the people around you are dealing with.

Dad never lost his job during the Great Depression. Many around him lost their jobs, and unfortunately it was his job to let some of those people go. One evening in the mid-1970s, we were at the mall when a man and his wife approached us. The man said “Leonard, do you remember me?” Dad did remember him. Then the man said “Why did you let me go? I was a good worker, I’ve always wondered, why you let ME go.”

It was a very uncomfortable conversation and dad explained that he was given a list of names and if he didn’t let go the people on the list, someone else would do it — and his own name would be added to the list.

I don’t know how many people my dad let go during the Depression, but I know the pain of that era never left him.

I also learned from the things my dad wished he’d done better. I mentioned that he was laid off shortly before his 60th birthday. Dad was a company man and supported his employer (KVP Sutherland and later The Brown Company). But in the mid-’60s, the company was having financial troubles and began to systematically let go people so they wouldn’t have to pay them their full pension. Dad was one of many who were let go that way — getting a small fraction of the pension they had planned for. There were no laws to prevent it.

My dad was not a saver nor an investor. He trusted that one day a “good pension” would be waiting for him. That wasn’t unusual for those of his generation. Not only had they seen banks go under, taking people’s money with them, privately saving for retirement was not common. It wasn’t until 1974 that options like Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) became available.

So I grew up learning from dad that you work with pride — pride in your own reputation and work. You have to do everything in your power to be responsible for yourself. Take advantage of whatever benefits the employer offers, but understand that anything can happen. Even being a good saver and investor was no guarantee, but do your best to look out for yourself.

From my very first job, my goal was to put a minimum of 10% in savings. My first job was part time, I was going to college and I had very little. But he, rightly, encouraged me to start the habit because it would never be easier to start.

I’ve seen my own employers reduce benefits, eliminate pension plans, cut pay, put people on furloughs, or lay them off. Some of these things have impacted me directly, others impacted the friends I worked with. The lessons I learned from dad did not make the hard knocks easier, but they didn’t surprise me and I was as prepared as I could be.

While not directly related to my dad’s age, the fact that he was the child of immigrants and for all intents and purposes had no formal education, also had an impact on me. Especially when contrasted with my mom’s education.

Dad learned everything — language, very basic writing ability, mathematics — on the street and on the job. This has instilled in me both a hearty respect for immigrants who have so many hurdles to conquer, and an understanding that learning is life-long and everywhere.

In my book, despite a very hard life, dad was a success. He raised three great, intelligent and independent children from his first marriage, and me from his second. He was independent, kind, had friends, was liked and respected. He achieved all of that in the most non-traditional ways.

By contrast, my mother had extensive, formal education. She holds a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees plus many additional credits beyond her master’s. Her degrees cover K-12 education, special education, counseling, personnel management and communications. Formal education was a major part of my mom’s life.

Between the two of them, I learned from my parents the importance of a formal education: it can open doors, builds a foundation, and is more efficient than the school of hard knocks. That was balanced with an understanding that learning and training never end and that if I don’t know something or possess a skill today, tomorrow is a fresh opportunity to succeed.

Everyone’s childhood and upbringing is unique. We all have different things that have shaped us. Parents, teachers, relatives, friends, illness, injury, handicap, geography: all imprint and create the future us. I’m no different. But as I approach the midlife-crisis phase of my life, I’ve given even more consideration to how having an older parent gave me a perspective very different from my peers. From my view of history, to my interest in the music of the 1920s-1940s, to a sense that there really isn’t much new under the sun, an older parent is due the credit.

Not only was my dad old, and had seen a lot of history first-hand, we had time to talk about it. Almost any event or news story or “old” movie would give my dad an opportunity to tell me about things he’d seen.


For perspective, here are some things to consider about my dad and his time. Which in a way became my time as well.

When my dad was born in 1907 the average life expectancy was 45.6 years. Imagine that. Today people routinely live into their 90s. As I write this I’m five years older than the life expectancy of my dad’s birth year!

There were only 45 states in the union in 1907. Dad was 52 years old by the time we got to our current count of 50 states.

Think about the things that were invented, discovered or occurred after my dad was born. Keep in mind that in many cases they did not become commonplace nor widely known for years after they’d been invented or discovered. Consider the things that are so fixed in our daily lives — they simply didn’t exist!

The list is long, but I encourage you to read it slowly and consider life without any one of these things — not to mention ANY of them!

  • Indoor plumbing
  • Essentially any electric appliance (washing machine, blender, mixer, toaster, electric lighting, vacuum cleaner)
  • Helicopter
  • Cellophane
  • Neon lighting
  • Parachute
  • Radio
  • X-Ray
  • Sound film (talkies)
  • Refrigeration
  • Television
  • Paper cup
  • Crossword puzzle
  • Adhesive tape
  • Ballpoint pen
  • Transistor
  • Supermarket
  • Adhesive bandage
  • The recliner
  • Chocolate chip cookie
  • Phillips-head screw
  • Fiberglass
  • Xerography (photocopying)
  • Nylon
  • Twist tie
  • Coffee filter
  • The zipper
  • Antibiotics
  • Tape recording
  • Ford Model-T
  • Assembly line
  • Aerosol spray
  • Bakelite
  • Tungsten
  • Vacuum tube
  • Color photography
  • Jet engine
  • Fluorescent light
  • Air conditioning
  • Mother’s and Father’s Days
  • Prohibition
  • The sinking of the Titanic
  • Women got the right to vote
  • Income tax
  • World War I
  • World War II
  • Korean War
  • The National Park Service
  • Daylight Savings Time
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
  • Discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb
  • Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight
  • The Great Depression
  • The Empire State Building
  • Disappearance of Amelia Earhart
  • The Hindenburg disaster
  • The Golden Gate Bridge
  • Teflon
  • The draft
  • McDonalds
  • Bugs Bunny
  • The Pentagon
  • The Panama Canal

That’s quite a long list isn’t it? And dad saw all of those things become a part of life and history.

The Wright Brothers flew just four years before he was born, but airplanes were a rarity until WWI. It wasn’t until the barnstorming era of the 1920s that many people had even seen one in person.

Dad would later see men walking on the moon, and the Space Shuttle go to space and return.

Interestingly, dad never flew in a plane.

Another way to look at dad’s place in history is to consider the famous people who were born after my dad.

  • President Lyndon Johnson
  • Journalist Edward R. Murrow
  • Actor Jimmy Stewart
  • Actress Bette Davis
  • Actor Errol Flynn
  • Car designer Ferdinand Porsche
  • Writer Eudora Welty
  • Actress Jessica Tandy
  • Songwriter Benny Goodman
  • Adventurer Jacques Cousteau
  • Actress Lucille Ball
  • President Ronald Reagan
  • Actor Roy Rogers
  • Actor Vincent Price
  • Actor Hume Cronyn
  • Mathematician Alan Turing
  • Chef Julia Child
  • Olympian Jesse Owens
  • President Gerald Ford
  • Actor Lloyd Bridges
  • Actor Jim Backus
  • Jimmy Hoffa
  • Coach Vince Lombardi
  • President Richard Nixon
  • Boxer Joe Louis
  • Baseball player Joe DiMaggio
  • Actor George Reeves (Superman)
  • Actor Clayton More (The Lone Ranger)
  • Playwright Arthur Miller
  • Actor Frank Sinatra
  • Actor Gregory Peck
  • Actor Kirk Douglas
  • Journalist Walter Cronkite
  • President John F. Kennedy
  • Writer Arthur C. Clarke
  • Actor Raymond Burr
  • Columnists Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren
  • Baseball player Ted Williams
  • Writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  • Broadcaster Paul Harvey
  • Broadcaster Howard Cosell
  • Baseball player Jackie Robinson
  • Musician Liberace
  • Singer Nat King Cole
  • Author J.D. Salinger
  • Actress Maureen O’Hara
  • Actor Mickey Rooney
  • Writer Ray Bradbury
  • Actor Walter Matthau
  • Author Arthur Hailey
  • Writer Isaac Asimov
  • First lady Nancy Reagan
  • Actor Abe Vigoda
  • Comedian Rodney Dangerfield
  • Actress Betty White
  • Author Jack Kerouac
  • Comedian Redd Foxx
  • Actor Charlton Heston
  • Boxer Rocky Marciano

Dad’s life and experiences seemed normal to me. He grew up without electricity. Even gas lighting in homes was reserved for the wealthy. Almost nobody had ever seen an automobile when he was a child, but nearly everyone had a horse and buggy.

Homes were heated by coal or wood fires.

Ice came from central ice houses and was delivered by horse-drawn cart.

There was no radio nor TV — information came, slowly, from newspapers and magazines. For those who could afford them. Or were able to read.

Some other random facts from life around 1907.

  • 14% of U.S. homes had a bath tub.
  • 8% of U.S. homes had telephone (and most of those were in big cities on the East coast).
  • A three-minute “long-distance” telephone call cost $11 (nearly $300 in 2017 dollars).
  • There were only 144 miles of paved roads in the U.S. (I remember dad telling me how hard it was to travel in the early days. Roads, signs, rules were haphazard and you needed maps from various sources to make basic trips. I recently read an excellent book that methodically retells many of the things I already knew from my dad: — I recommend it).
  • The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower.
  • The average wage (average, not minimum) was 22¢ an hour (slightly more than $5 in 2017 dollars).
  • The average U.S. worker made $300 a year ($7,370 in 2017 dollars).
  • Over 95% of births occurred at home (in fact my dad delivered his first child, daughter Iris, at home in 1930).
  • The leading cause of death was pneumonia and the flu.
  • 20% of the U.S. adult population could not read nor write.
  • Only 6% of U.S. adults had graduated from high school.
  • Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at the local drugstore.
  • There was fewer than 230 murders reported in the entire country.

Everyone is unique. We all have a different way of growing up. This was mine and I’m grateful for it. There is not a single day that goes by that I don’t think of my dad.

In his early 20s, dad returned to visit his aunt and uncle — with that loaf of bread they’d sent him for a decade prior.

Dad got to see me graduate. From high school and college. He passed away in 1994 at 87 years of age.


Baby Leonard Kuehn.

Baby Leonard Kuehn.


Dad in his new jacket.

Dad in his new jacket.


Dad with his puppy.

Dad with his puppy.


Dad with his beloved sister Iris.

Dad with his sister Iris.


Dad and his sister Iris in Kalamazoo around 1929.



Dad in 1957. He was 50 years old.

Dad in 1957. He was 50 years old.


Dad, in his element, the kitchen. His sister Iris had hid around the corner and just jumped out and scared him -- thus the look on his face.

Dad, in his element, the kitchen. This was taken by his sister Iris at our house in Gobles, MI, in 1978. Iris had hid around the corner and jumped out and scared him — thus the look on his face.


Dad, with Iris' husband Cecil during a tour of the St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw, MI in 1978.

Dad, with Iris’ husband Cecil during a tour of the St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw, MI in 1978.


Dad signing a petition against the Gun Control Act of 1968. The Grand Rapids Press photographer didn't believe he was my father and insisted and crediting me as his grandson.

Dad signing a petition against the Gun Control Act of 1968. The Grand Rapids Press didn’t believe he was my father and insisted and crediting me as his “grandson.”


Dad and me getting ready to do some serious work.


Dad and his seven-foot-tall sweet corn in 1979.


Mom and dad at my high school graduation. 

My 30-year newspaper career has ended

I have blood in my veins, not ink. But after working for 30 years in the newspaper industry, some ink surely has mingled with the red stuff.

Newspapers have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. So many memories, experiences, adventures and friends have been my bounty because of newspapers.

A newspaper always has been there in one way or another. As a child it was the comics for me, the obituaries and recipes for my dad. He kept up on who had passed and on the recipes he might try to improve, by using the newspaper.

As an adult I worked at, visited and consulted with newspapers and helped to craft software solutions for newspapers.

On January 20th of this year the Chief Information Officer of my company asked me into his office. He informed me that my position, along with those of dozens of others, was being eliminated. I was offered a severance package and asked to stay until March 31st to help with my transition out of the business.

Today is March 31st and after 30 years my employment has come to an end.

It’s certainly not my choice. I had hoped to retire from the industry that I love. I’ve lasted longer than literally hundreds of my colleagues at three companies. They have been young, middle-aged and senior. They were bright, friendly, driven, focused and principled. In many instances they have been my extended family. They, like me now, have found their contributions no longer supportable. They’ve had to start anew, find a different way. They have faced the fear and unknown that is now my turn to shoulder.

Childhood experiences

I remember, even as a little boy, going into the front yard to retrieve the newspaper. It was one of my chores and one that I looked forward to.

We lived on M-40 highway in a rural area of Michigan, just south of a small town called Gobles. A driver for The Kalamazoo Gazette, our local newspaper, on his way between bulk drop-off locations, would drive down the highway and throw rolled-and-wrapped copies of the paper into subscriber’s yards.

Sometimes I’d be waiting for him with a little-kid wave. He’d give me a nod as our own bundle of stories and pictures came bounding across the weeds and sand that was our front yard.

The Sunday paper was of course the best. Filled with far more advertisements and inserts, it gave me hours of fun on a Sunday afternoon. Particularly when Christmas or a birthday approached, I crafted many fantasies about the BB gun, radio or flashlight that might go from a newspaper ad to my greedy little paws.

My grandparents, who lived about 90 minutes north of us in Rockford, Michigan, subscribed to the Gazette’s sister paper, the much larger Grand Rapids Press. When we’d visit I’d have stacks and stacks of papers to explore. The Press was exotic to me: it was a newspaper, but it smelled different, yet the same. It used different typography, more color and was many pages longer. I also enjoyed the better quality produced by the Press’ superior printing hardware.

My neighbor, Carl Gilbert, was a senior manager at the Kalamazoo Gazette. I rode the school bus with his kids. I didn’t have a clue of what working at a newspaper was like, but I envied neighbor Carl for his luck. He had several kids, a big house, acreage, a few cars and a barn — he had a life!

My first look behind the curtain came in the sixth grade when Mr. Gilbert came to my class. He talked about the workflow of the newspaper: how stories, photos and ads were created and became the newspaper. He brought with him the prior days’ newspaper (which I’d digested the night before), along with a few grids of pasted-up pages, some page negatives and printing plates! That day I felt like I floated amongst the clouds! A fixture in our home, the first thing I looked at when I’d get home from school and ditch my backpack, was the newspaper. Thanks to Mr. Gilbert, the magical had started to become reality.

Another Kalamazoo Gazette figure who was important to my newspaper habit was columnist Tom Haroldson. He was also known as “TV Tom” since he wrote a column about television. This was important to my pre- and early-teen self. We only received three television channels with any regularity or quality: The NBC affiliate WOTV channel 8, CBS came via WKZO on channel 3 and ABC by way of WUHQ on channel 41. When the weather was just right we could get the ABC broadcast from Grand Rapids, WZZM on channel 13. But TV was very important to me. I was challenged trying to balance my love of reading with wanting to stay up to date with what Andy Rooney was wondering about, the latest difficulty encountered by the Ingalls family, the criminals being tracked down by Detective Ironside and the drama unfolding at Moonbase Alpha on Space 1999. I also may have watched, and mimicked, the Swedish Chef. Once.

I loved reading Tom’s columns as well as a syndicated columnist the Gazette carried, Dick Kleiner. Dick’s column was of the reader-sends-in-question-Dick-answers-it format. Dick was snarky, short, almost rude at times. But he was answering the questions I cared about.

I still remember one reader writing in about one of my TV addictions: CHiPs. The reader wanted to know what kind of motorcycles were used on the show. Dick’s curt reply was “The boys ride Kawasaki 1,000 bikes.”

By the time I was in junior high school I encountered the woman who would become my favorite teacher and a huge influence on my future: my English teacher, Carol Brill.

Mrs. Brill was a firm teacher, in command of her subject. But she also was fun, friendly and most-importantly: a believer in her students. I know in retrospect that she, as much as possible, gave each student as much attention as she could. But to my seventh-grade mind, she taught the class only for me, only wrote lengthy comments on my work and encouraged only me. Of course that wasn’t true, but that’s how it felt to me.

Gobles Public Schools was a small, poor, rural school. The facilities, textbooks and supplies were old, tired and in short supply. But I had amazing teachers. For the most part I did not like school. I was an overweight, introverted, only child which certainly did not help. Surprisingly most of the educators stayed at Gobles for their entire careers, not “moving up” to larger, better-funded districts in nearby Kalamazoo. With rare exception I would say that the students who wanted to learn were well-tended to at Gobles Schools.

Seventh grade is when I started to write. We had to write in journals every day for Mrs. Brill. Many hated that assignment, but I loved it! In most cases we were free to write about anything we chose. As an only child who felt isolated from other people, the dialog I developed first with myself through my journal, and over time with Mrs. Brill through her comments, was critical. She fostered a love of reading and writing, and encouraged me to believe in myself. Nobody else gave me both a push to do more and a sense of promise and hope for a future.

Regularly I reflect on my days in Mrs. Brill’s classroom, the walls covered with posters of puppies, kittens and stuffed animals. She was an adult who treated me like a real person, with a voice and with possibilities. She taught me subject-verb agreement, how to diagram a sentence, how to tighten my writing and how to communicate more clearly. But she set an example and encouraged and strengthened me with her feedback and interest. I owe her a great deal for providing that foundation.

That self-confidence — both in myself and my writing — gave me the pluck to one day pull out my mom’s typewriter and send off a letter to the editor of the Kalamazoo Gazette, Mr. James Mosby.

I told Mr. Mosby how much I enjoyed the Gazette and the work of Tom Haroldson. I offered to him my services if he should ever need them. I told him that I was interested in government and current affairs and that Mrs. Brill could attest that I had a fine career ahead of me.

Lost to many moves over the years is Jim’s written reply, but the gist of it was a thanks for my letter, though he had no openings at the time. He encouraged me to pursue my interest in writing, to write every day, read all I could and get an advanced education. He was so respectful and “proper” to that naïve teenager. He made me feel like I was his peer and, oh well, they just didn’t have any openings. His affirming response encouraged me and only increased my esteem for newspapers and newspaper people.

When I was sixteen I transferred to a private school that allowed students to pursue a self-paced and self-directed education. Once a student had completed the requirements set forth by the state of Michigan for a high school diploma, you would be graduated. If you could complete those requirements and pass the tests, you were done — your age didn’t matter.

As it turns out my move to that school was very fortunate. The school was several miles beyond the school where my mom taught, so I would drive, drop mom off at her office, and then I’d go on to school. Shortly after the school term started my mom and I were involved in a serious car accident. A 1960s-era station wagon turned in front of us and I t-boned the behemoth. My mom, in the front passenger seat and not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown through the windshield. I was wearing a seatbelt but still suffered a bad back injury that later would put me in the hospital for surgery and stuck at home for months of recovery. Fortunately, due to the unique nature of the school I was attending, I was able to do my schoolwork at home.

During my recovery, I put all of my efforts into schoolwork. I was scared of my injury, didn’t feel well, my activities were limited and I just wanted to be done with school. I ended up finishing my state requirements in the spring, shortly after I turned 17.

I was free!

The college years

My focus then moved to college. I was active in our church, president of the youth group, and unsure of my college direction. We didn’t have much money and how to pay for college was a serious question. Unfortunate though that was, my parents had always told me they were not going to be able to “send me to college” – I’d have to work for it or find some other way. So I was not surprised nor let down as the time for college approached, but I still was not sure what I was going to do or how I would do it.

Through my church I took overnight trips to a couple of private Christian colleges: Cedarville College in Cedarville, Ohio, and Grand Rapids Baptist College and Seminary (now Cornerstone University) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Cedarville did not impress me at all. I was still recovering from back surgery and was miserable during most of the visit, but I knew it wasn’t for me.

My visit to Grand Rapid Baptist was different. For starters, I really liked the beautiful campus and the people were far more inviting and seemed more serious than those I encountered at Cedarville. While on my visit I learned about a media conference that was being held on campus. It was led by Tim Detwiler, a professor of communication and speech at the college. It was to be a multi-day conference covering communication, writing, radio, TV, newspapers, etc. As I recall, I signed up on the spot and begged my parents for the fee later.

I was impressed by a presentation from WZZM TV’s meteorologist Craig James. Craig didn’t talk about TV or weather, but about communication, journalism and mass media. One of the exercises of the conference was to write a radio spot and go to the college’s radio station, WCSG, to record it in the studio. Craig did a read-through with me and made some suggestions. I should have been nervous about the recording part, but I was more nervous about writing the script to time!

At the radio station I recorded my spot, which was for the Grand Valley Blood Bank. I had rehearsed enough so that I hit my mark almost perfectly. The station manager, Lee Geysbeek, said it was good enough to put on the air. For a brief time my spot was live on the air. I was 17 and had written and recorded a radio ad. Yeah, I was pretty pumped!

The next important thing to come out of the conference was when Detwiler approached me about attending school there and working on The Campus Herald, the school’s newspaper. He had someone lined up to be editor, but needed an assistant editor who would oversee the production and layout work. There would also be reporting and editing work involved – a jack of all trades position. There was a stipend that would go along with it – enough to be a major help toward tuition.

Throughout the summer I talked about going to school at GRBC&S and devised many schemes to pay for it. I sent away for numerous scholarship opportunities and even wasted money on a scam that would give me a test and return to me a list of organizations that would give me free money based upon my interests and aptitudes. What I got in return was a generic printout on green-bar tractor-fed paper of places around the country that had scholarship programs – some offering tiny sums, others with requirements that came not within a country mile of my situation (Daughters of the American Revolution had a $100 scholarship, for example).

Then my parents dropped a bombshell on me. They’d pay for my first year of college. Since they had prepared me for having to go it solo, this was a huge and happy surprise.

So that fall I packed off to college an hour away from home. An only child, spoiled, horribly introverted and shy, I thrust myself into dorm life (sharing a room with two other guys and a bathroom and shower with 60).

Apart from classes and a taste of independence, this was where I first got my hands on a waxer, border tape and layout grids. I knew nothing, but learned quickly from more senior students. I wrote for the paper as well. Our small staff did everything: we covered the sports, campus activities, faculty news, photography, design and layout. I learned and learned and learned!

The one thing we didn’t do ourselves was the typesetting and printing. Both services were donated by the printing department at Spartan Stores. We would type our copy and hand-deliver it to the Spartan Stores printing plant. We would return and pick up the cold-type galleys. After pasting up our pages we’d return to the printing plant with the flats. Yet another trip would see the editor and me loading the trunk of his Nova (which had only a vague idea of a suspension) with the printed copies.

The work was not yet done as we had to distribute the papers on campus. Granted, GRBC&S was a small school (around 2,500 students in my day), but that allowed me to get my hands in so many aspects of newspapering.

The first semester of my sophomore year found me out of funds and therefore unable to continue at GRBC&S. I moved back home with the intention of finding a job and continuing my education at Western Michigan University.

WMU being far less expensive than GRBC&S I took out a student loan in order to get back in school.

The Kalamazoo Gazette

And I applied for jobs.

One of the jobs I applied for had a simple headline: “TYPIST.” The job was at the Kalamazoo Gazette. I had taken typing in high school and earned extra money in college by typing papers for other students. I was fast and very comfortable behind an IBM Selectric.

Not too long after applying I got a call from Dave Anderson at the Gazette. Dave didn’t talk much but in short said if I was interested I’d have to go to the Michigan Employment Security Commission and take a typing test. If my numbers were good, I’d be called in for an interview. He told me to just stop by the MESC office and tell them I was there to take a typing test for the Gazette.

(Dave ended up being very pivotal in my life – read more about him here:

That seemed odd to me. The MESC was where people went for unemployment assistance. And why wouldn’t the Gazette do their own typing test? But I went ahead and got myself to the MESC office.

It was a daunting process. Still afraid of my own shadow, I stood in line with a lot of people applying for, fighting for and otherwise trying to get help because they had no job. When my turn came I was nervous and the clerk was plenty harried and ready for her weekend to begin.

I told her that I was there to take a typing test for the Gazette. She handed me some papers and told me to fill them out and then get back in line.

The papers were the same ones everyone else applying for benefits was completing. They wanted all kinds of information – I had some answers, other questions tested my powers of invention.

After handing over my paperwork I was directed to an IBM Selectric. At least I think that’s what it was. The letters were worn off the keys, it sounded like a hay bailer and appeared to have been used for gunnery practice. It was a rough piece of equipment to say the least.

I did my test and felt like I did okay, but certainly not up to my potential. I couldn’t wait to get out of that place. It reeked of bureaucracy, despair and cigarette smoke.

Another call from Dave Anderson came several days later where he asked me to come in for an interview. I was nervous, scared, held no illusion that I’d get the job, but I’d get INSIDE the Kalamazoo Gazette for the first time!

The day of my interview didn’t get off to a great start. I thought I knew the best way to get to the Gazette building – I started at the Sears building and headed north. I misjudged the one-way streets, though. I had driven about four blocks before realizing I was headed the wrong way on a one-way street. Those other drivers, and the cop walking a beat, weren’t being neighborly with their frantic gestures, but I was too distracted to care.

I checked in with the receptionist and soon Dave came down to fetch me. He was a short, somewhat portly man in his 50s who used few words. He took me to his messy and cluttered office. He said the publisher wanted to see me, so he got on the phone to speak with the man. I was trying to take in all that I could while processing the idea that the publisher wanted to see me. For a typist job? Had there been a misunderstanding?

For the few minutes that I sat in Dave’s office, two people stopped by to exchange a few words with him. I immediately picked up on the fact that Dave was well-liked and respected. He laughed and joked easily.

Down to publisher Dan Ryan’s office we went. Dan was a major figure in Kalamazoo. I’m going to guess he was six-foot-six and in his late 60s. He was imposing but very friendly.

Dan almost ignored me – he had a matter to discuss with Dave first. Dan held a page from the paper and said “Do we know who is putting in upside down ads?”

Dave replied that he knew who it was and that it was a mistake – he’d spoken to the person responsible.

Dan replied “Okay.” Turning to me he said “A lot of advertisers would pay us a lot of money to run their ad upside down or sideways – but we don’t do that.”

I still remember so much of that interview. Dave and I sat in a gorgeous wood-paneled office, across from Dan at his desk. Dan asked me if I was related to some famous baseball player. I figured it was an ice-breaker and I was going to be stuck on that frozen lake because I knew absolutely nothing about sports nor about an athlete with my name.

Next he asked me what my dad did.

Next he commented on my typing speed. He implied that men usually didn’t type as fast as I did. I would soon learn that that was not really the case. The vast majority of typesetters and newsroom reporters were men – and they were fast. One male copyeditor in particular primarily used two fingers and he could set a keyboard on fire (or maybe it was from the cigarette he always had at hand).

I started part time in the composing room. I learned that the union “printers” had been bought out and were slowly leaving the company. The Gazette was hiring young punks such as myself to fill the void. It was an interesting time to say the least.

The union area was a separate room and non-union workers weren’t supposed to go in, use their waxers, scissors or other equipment. Some of the old timers were friendly and eager to share their trade. Others were at best cold, at times hostile and intimidating.

Dave started me on advertising paste-up. I got almost no real training – just what I’d learned at the Campus Herald. I was not prepared for the volume and complexity of work at the Gazette. Not to mention deadline pressure. I can’t tell you how many times my supervisor, Bob, would yell “Aaron! Can you catch this daily?” And yell he did! A daily was an ad for the current-day’s paper which meant you had to get on it fast because it was going on the press right away.

I did okay at paste-up, but I wasn’t great. Fortunately they’d hired me as a “typist” so it wasn’t long before they put me in front of an Atex terminal and started to teach me how to set type.

I learned from co-workers and from Dave. The Atex keyboard was an enormous, heavy mass of plastic and row upon row of keys. Many of those keys had no labels, or the labels they did have did not correctly predict that key’s function. It was overwhelming. I saw so many people plop down at one of those enormous keyboards and just go to work making it do things. I just knew I’d never make it. Years later I would be able to carry on a conversation, read an ad mockup and set type without any trouble whatsoever.

For some reason, I caught on quickly. And loved setting type. To this day I can’t explain why I had such an affinity for the Atex system. I felt at home at that keyboard and wanted to learn everything I could about Atex and the typesetting trade.

Within months Dave offered me a move to full time, which meant more money and full benefits – including tuition reimbursement.

At about that time the Gazette celebrated its 150th anniversary. We busted our asses putting out an enormous special commemorative edition, we hosted a public open-house and tours, Dave was interviewed by the local CBS station which did a story about the paper. I find it difficult to convey the sense of community, purpose and excitement during my first year at the Gazette.

I worked through many different roles and levels of responsibility. I learned how to operate almost all of the prepress equipment and perform most job functions: Autokon and ECRM scanners, video setters, laser imagers, plate makers, page cameras, Atex, and more.

One day one of the techs from the Booth Newspapers Computer Division, Pat Curtis (a character of the highest order) pulled me aside. He said “You may want to brush up on your Unix skills.”

He was often cryptic and everything was told with an evil or mischievous look in his eye. I asked him why.

He told me that we were getting the new Camex Breeze Display Ad system and that my name was being discussed for the role of system administrator.

This was encouraging and exciting, but Pat was a curmudgeon, storyteller and wasn’t afraid to get a detail or ten wrong. I wasn’t counting any chickens.

Since my only exposure to Unix had been at WMU on their DEC VAX system for an obligatory BASIC programming course, I was a little nervous if I’d be up to the task. That programming class was in a huge lecture hall with about 400 students. So between trying to follow in that large venue and having to do all of my work in one of the computer labs, I had a hard time grasping it. I did fine, but any successful navigation of the shell prompt I achieved was purely by the grace of my notes and helpful computer lab assistants.

But it wasn’t long before Pat’s prediction came true and Dave told me that I’d been selected and would be going to Boston for training. The training was to take place in October so I dropped out of that semester of college so as to not miss the opportunity. I lost all of that semester’s tuition and had to start those classes over during future semesters.

My decision to drop out during that semester was a risk and gamble that has paid off many times over.

The trip to Boston with Dave was my first airplane flight. It helped that Dave was a huge aviation buff, his older brother had been a flyer in WWII and he absolutely made that first flight a pleasure. I was still scared, but his enthusiasm and explanations of how the plane worked absolutely got me through it without an embarrassing incident.

That trip to Boston was huge for me. We met up with Larry from the corporate I.T. division in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The three of us worked hard all day in our training. I learned Unix very quickly, as well as Operating System Real Time (OSRT) – the proprietary operating system that Camex had developed. It was the beginning of my “tech” career.

I loved working on the Camex system. I developed several pieces of custom code shared with the other seven newspapers in the Booth Newspaper group.

My biggest accomplishment was a tape backup management system. Camex had assumed ads would run and be purged and new ads would be built from scratch. Perhaps if the Camex company had survived they would have crafted a better solution for backups, but at the time, we were limited by our meager disk space.

In the newspaper business it is typical for ads to be recycled each year. Bob’s Tailoring Shop is going to run a special on suit alterations for prom season. He’ll probably run almost the same ad next year, maybe with a price change. In most cases the advertiser gets a rate reduction if they run a “pick-up” ad – one that is picked up from an earlier run and reused. Of course for us, it saved a lot of labor and materials if we didn’t have to re-set all of the type, rescan the artwork, etc.

The code I wrote collected a batch of the oldest ads, archived them to tape, created a searchable index of the ads that had just been archived, and then purged those ads from the main database. In addition, we were one of the pioneers in the country to hide a tiny I.D. right in the ad – usually in the border. So if you had that code number, you could look it up in the index and then extract that ad from the tape.

That solution saved countless hours and dollars over more than a decade that the Camex Breeze system was in use.

I’d written macros and formats and other enhancements on Atex, and those were very satisfying to me. But the tape backup system was my first bit of real coding and the fact that my colleagues at other papers wanted it was a major boost for me.

Information Technology

Several years went by where I was both the system administrator for the Camex system and the team leader for the ad design operation at The Gazette. Then the next big opportunity came.

I had just finished earning my degree at WMU, a bachelor of science in Political Science with a minor in English/professional writing. All in all it took eight years to earn my degree since I was working full time and squeezing in a class or two when I could.

I forever will be grateful for the tuition reimbursement plan at the Gazette. When all was said and done, they paid for the tuition, I covered the books and parking. Not long after earning my degree, my friend and mentor Dave announced that he would retire. That’s when I received a major promotion to work in Systems (that being what Information Technology, or I.T., was called back in the day). In my new role I was responsible for the support and maintenance duties of Camex, Atex, the PBS circulation system, our accounting system, Macintosh desktops, backups, disaster recovery – the whole gamut of I.T. work.

There was a long period of training on all of the technology. I got my first pager. I worked crazy long hours, was on-call, was sent to some great remote training on great technologies: two rounds of Novell Netware schools, Macintosh OS training. I went to Bell Labs in Minnesota for advanced Solaris/Unix system administration training, went to California to Autologic’s Laser Imager school and more. I learned so much – formally and informally. I worked with an amazing group of people and learned so much.

When management decided to create its first remote bureau, in the adjacent city of Portage, I was assigned to the transition team. I helped to set up the office, computers, networking and other things required to make our storefront at Southland Mall a go. Later when the office moved farther south on Westnedge Avenue, I again was called on to pull off the move and configuration of the new and larger space.

Working with area funeral homes was another big project I got to work on. I visited numerous funeral homes to install and configure software and modems so that they could transmit obituaries directly into our Atex system. Obituaries are of course very important to families, they need to be accurate and meeting deadline is always a challenge. In addition, they are very profitable for the newspaper. By allowing funeral homes the ability to send directly to our database saved considerable time, prevented errors that occurred during dictation over the phone and gave them a better chance of hitting deadline.

The Kalamazoo Gazette was a special place. I am fortunate enough to have realized it at the time. Too often we fail to appreciate the good things until we have the clarity of hindsight. Not so with the Gazette and its people. We were small enough that everyone knew everyone. And working in a small I.T. department, I got to do everything (admittedly when working a 12-hour shift due to a head-crash on a washtub drive, I didn’t feel so blessed). But we were just big enough, and part of a large enough chain, to get in on new technology. It was a great time to be in the industry and with a great group of people. It was family. It was cozy comfortable. I was paid well, had benefits that today would make your eyes pop in disbelief and fully intended to retire from the Gazette (hopefully by age 50).

Then one day I got a call from a colleague at the computer division in Ann Arbor, Ralph Butler. Ralph told me about a paper in Virginia that was looking for a person with Atex experience. Y2K was looming and was everyone’s nightmare. This Virginia newspaper needed help to support Atex while the more experienced staffers worked on Y2K readiness. Also, they had signed a deal with a software company from Utah called Digital Technology International to replace all of their front-end editorial and advertising systems. DTI was the first newspaper vendor to partner with Adobe on its upcoming page design tool that was nicknamed “The Quark Killer” as it was expected to put the leader in page composition, Quark Xpress, out of business. The code-name for Adobe’s product was K2. I’d seen previews of what was to become InDesign and was very excited about its prospects.

The newspaper was The Virginian-Pilot. It was well-respected to say the least. I had heard our page designers reference it often as it regularly won awards for the best-designed newspaper and was famous for its use of photos – it was a photographer’s newspaper.

I hadn’t thought of leaving the Gazette. I was happy, more or less. There were some things I didn’t like about my job: being on-call, working rotating shifts that included nights and weekends, changes in management (and philosophy) that I didn’t agree with, etc. But overall, I wasn’t on the hunt.

Ralph strongly urged me to send a resume – just for kicks. Maybe I’d get a free trip out of it!

I sent off a resume and was promptly contacted. Lo and behold, The Virginian-Pilot did in fact fly me to Norfolk, Virginia for a few days.

It changed my life.

The Virginian-Pilot

The Virginian-Pilot was a very large newspaper. But it had that same family feel to which I’d grown accustomed at the Gazette. When my future boss and a colleague met me at my hotel it only took minutes to feel like we’d known each other forever. Randy Jessee would be the manager and John Stackpole the other Atex specialist. They swept me off my feet like the prettiest girl at the dance.

I spent a couple of days touring the paper, meeting people, talking about the job and spent one evening with the A1 design team, observing their workflow, their POD collaboration methodology and just getting a sense for the place.

Near the end of my visit I was thinking “I don’t care if they pay me half of my current salary – I want to work here.”

At the end of my visit deputy managing editor, Nelson Brown, pulled me into a private office in the Sports department. Brown was Randy’s manager. Nelson said (paraphrasing from the best of my memory) “You’ve got a good thing up there in Kalamazoo, but we want you here with us. You’ll find the best people here and I guarantee you you’ll learn – you’ll have opportunities here. Randy, John and Mark, well, there aren’t any better people. And I see you fit in. As you go home I want you to think about one thing: five years from now, what will have made you a better person? Where will you learn the most?”

I was shaken. He was so confident about his paper and his people. He focused on the PEOPLE and the WORK. It wasn’t about money, benefits, perks, etc. None of that was mentioned. It was about quality of life and personal and professional growth. It wasn’t the first time Nelson would impress the hell out of me. He remains one of the highest quality people I’ve known.

Not long after my return to Kalamazoo I got a formal offer. I’ll admit we negotiated a little bit on salary, but they guaranteed me no nights, no weekends, no rotating shifts. I’d have a pager and be on-call but because they had such a large staff the likelihood of being called during my off hours would be slim. They’d pay for my relocation, put me up in an apartment while I house-hunted, give me generous time off right out of the gate, and had a pension AND a 401(k) like the Gazette. I’d leave a cube farm and have an office with a door.

I was ready to sign up but I spent a couple of weeks pondering. I’m a Pisces and am fishy just like my sign. It often takes me forever to make big decisions. And the decision to move was huge. I was still introverted and shy, but my time in Systems, having to interact with a variety of users, present at cross-paper meetings, etc. had given me more confidence. But I was still unsure of giving up the Gazette and moving. But to be honest – the quality of life is what hooked me. Having a regular schedule, no rotating shifts and no weekends. After 13 years I’d have a “normal” life.

I accepted the job and started another great association with great people.

And Nelson could not have been more right. At the Pilot I grew and grew and grew. Almost no opportunity was denied me. I was in on the ground floor of the DTI implementation and saw K2 become InDesign.

I saw numerous major shifts in technology. When I joined the Pilot we used an ancient Atex system for all but section fronts, where we used Quark Xpress running on Macintosh computers. We used Novell Netware for storage. The number of Windows computers could be counted on one hand. Some critical processes at the printing plant still relied on a Radio Shack TRS80 computer. Furniture in the newsroom was embarrassing: it was falling apart, taped together – a danger to life and limb and the occasional puppy that one designer brought with her on the night shift.

I got to travel as well.

The Pilot pioneered the use of digital cameras for news coverage. We covered the Sugar Bowl 100% digitally – the first news organization to do so. I was sent to New Orleans in advance of the Bowl to set up a Macintosh network in the press pool under the bleachers. When photographers arrived to cover the game I was in real-time communication with the newsroom back in Norfolk, Virginia. Photographers would run in, edit their images on Mac laptops using Photoshop and then I’d transmit them via FTP. We’d practiced back home but everything was new and had not seen the real world. But it worked. It worked with nary a flaw. And it was exhilarating.

I also attended, later became a presenter and ultimately vice president of the international DTI User’s Group. Each year I’d travel to Utah to teach other newspapers how we’d exploited our DTI system and to learn about new features coming. I also did my fair share of complaining about bugs and tried to influence future development.

I also experienced hurricanes (my house construction had to be restarted after a hurricane destroyed the framing, took down some of my best trees and left me living in an extended-stay hotel for months). Those same hurricanes had me staffing disaster locations or huddling in the safety of the Pilot’s bunker-like building to do my part to make sure we were able to keep the community informed during the crisis.

I was able to help launch new products and interesting new businesses. I learned. I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with some flat-out amazing people. People who were my friends and who were passionate about the mission of newspapers. I was proud to tell people where I worked. And I was proud of what I did.

My ten-year mark at the Pilot loomed and things had started to change dramatically. For a long time newspapers had struggled against other media. The Pilot had finally come to the point of layoffs, reductions and reorganizations. They did buyouts, offered early retirements, let people go, cut products and implemented extreme cost-cutting measures.

My boss quit. The CIO was let go. It got depressing and sad very fast.

That’s when I realized I needed to make a change.

Digital Technology International, Utah and Newscycle Solutions

To me the obvious option was to see if our vendor, DTI, could use me. I knew so many of the people at DTI through my involvement with the user group that I felt I had a good relationship with them already. So I sent a resume and an email asking if they had a need I could fill.

They did. It would be in the Quality Assurance department where I would work with Adobe products to write scripts to automate their installation and implement automated testing – something that as yet didn’t exist.

The benefits were not as good as the Pilot, but the Pilot was reducing those as well, having already dropped the pension plan. But my thinking was I’d get to focus more on technology that would be portable and meaningful within and outside the newspaper industry.

Plus I loved the mountains of Utah. Just loved them.

So after 10 fantastic years with the Pilot, I accepted a job with DTI. I loaded my Dodge Ram pickup, hitched a U-Haul trailer to the back and had my Virginia house listed for sale. Cross-country I went.

It was a good move. Things at the Pilot got even more challenging after I left. There were more layoffs, more reductions. I don’t know if I would have lasted – maybe, maybe not. Today, seven years later, there are few familiar faces left there.

Just weeks after I started working at DTI, there was a layoff. Talk about frightened! I was living in a tiny temporary apartment, my house in Virginia was for sale, I felt in limbo. Many good, senior people were let go. But I was spared.

I caught my breath and pushed on. Again, I got to learn. Automated testing wasn’t to become reality for more than five years, but I was able to go on sales calls and do demos, the biggest and most important to the Chicago Sun-Times. I continued to teach at user’s group. I was able to influence the software, test it, see features first, be the voice for customers and developers alike. By gaining greater exposure to our international customers, I got a more broad world view. My belief in the importance of newspapers was only made deeper by learning of the struggles our customers faced in less than open and fully democratic societies.

In 2013 DTI was purchased by an equity fund and merged with several of our former competitors to become Newscycle Solutions. Again, there were multiple rounds of layoffs and products were shelved.

I keep thinking back to Nelson’s advice, to consider where I’d grow. Excellent advice for anyone. But he was so sincere and so persuasive. His words have stuck with and guided me all of these years. He could not have been more spot-on.

And I say it to those reading this. No matter where you are in life, which fork in the road do you believe will give you the most growth, most opportunity, best chance be better? Better can be defined however you like. But I encourage you to not consider money. Quality of life, that’s the measure for me. It always has been.

And now, with seven years behind me at what is now Newscycle Solutions, the needle on the layoff wheel has landed at my name.

After having been witness to, and dodged, many layoffs in the past, I think I have already largely processed the likelihood of this day. I have felt shocked, but there were no tears, no explosive anger. Just matter-of-fact “it’s-my-turn” acceptance. So many people so much better than me, older than me, with far more challenging personal lives, have lost their jobs before me, that I truly feel lucky to have lasted as long as I have.

Newspapers have been a part of me all the way back to those first newspapers thrown into my front yard. Working in the industry was a dream. A dream that came true and was in so many ways better than I could have imagined. I met so many great people along the way and learned so much. I got to travel, explore and become a different person than that shy and reserved teenager who didn’t know what to do with his life.

I’ve been in the ink now for 30 years. I have loved most of it, had some pain and frustration along the way, and now it’s my time to bow out.

As of this writing I don’t have a job, but am looking. I am looking for something where I can use all of the skills that I’ve gathered from this incredible industry. And from the amazing people who gave me opportunities, took me under their wing, gave of their time and taught me over these many years.

Stop the presses.

Some photos from the journey


The front yard of my boyhood home from which I would fetch each day's Kalamazoo Gazette.

The front yard of my boyhood home from which I would fetch each day’s Kalamazoo Gazette.

The front of the Kalamazoo Gazette building during my tenure.

The front of the Kalamazoo Gazette building during my tenure.

The Kalamazoo Gazette's loading dock. This is where drivers would pick up freshly-printed newspapers to deliver.

The Kalamazoo Gazette’s loading dock. This is where drivers would pick up freshly-printed newspapers to deliver.

An Atex keyboard. If you read a Kalamazoo Valley Community College class schedule, Stewart Clarke furniture ad or a Libin's menswear, I probably set the type with a keyboard like this.

An Atex keyboard. If you read a Kalamazoo Valley Community College class schedule, Stewart Clarke furniture ad or a Libin’s menswear ad, I probably set the type for it with a keyboard like this.

A pair of Compugraphic videosetters. One of my jobs at The Kalamazoo Gazette had me arriving in the dark hours of the morning to operate these machines to produce the cold type that would be pasted up for that day's newspaper.

A pair of Compugraphic Videosetters. One of my jobs at the Kalamazoo Gazette had me arriving in the dark hours of the morning to operate these machines that produced the cold type that would be pasted up for that day’s newspaper.

The platemaking department at The Kalamazoo Gazette. Another one of my jobs was as a platemaking technician. It was one of my favorite jobs.

The platemaking department at the Kalamazoo Gazette. Another one of my jobs was as a platemaking technician. It was one of my favorite jobs.

This is me at one of The Kalamazoo Gazette's new Camex Breeze ad design terminals.

This is me at one of the Kalamazoo Gazette’s new Camex Breeze ad design terminals. On the screen is a full-color ad for JCPenney.

This is me at the Camex Breeze scanning station (left) and ECRM/Autokon laser scanner (right).

This is me at the Camex Breeze scanning station (left) and ECRM/Autokon laser scanner (right).

This is from an older Camex ad design terminal known as the Model 1351. It was an enormous, loud, tempermental monster.

This is from an older Camex ad design terminal known as the Model 1351. It was an enormous, loud, temperamental monster.

A pair of the Gazette's Camex 1351 ad design systems.

A pair of the Gazette’s Camex 1351 ad design systems.

In the Gazette's ad design area, an Atex terminal (left) sits adjacent to a Camex 1351 system (right).

In the Gazette’s ad design area, an Atex terminal (left) sits adjacent to a Camex 1351 system (right).

The computer room at The Kalamazoo Gazette. My friend, the late Ron Laugeman, keeps his eyes on things.

The computer room at the Kalamazoo Gazette. My friend, the late Ron Laugeman, keeps his eyes on things.

Racks containing the Gazette's Atex system which ran on the DEC PDP/11 minicomputer system.

Racks containing the Gazette’s Atex system which ran on DEC PDP/11 minicomputers .

300 megabyte washtub drives in the Gazette's computer room.

300 megabyte washtub drives in the Gazette’s computer room.

Racks containing the Gazette's Texas Instruments minicomputer accounting system.

Racks containing the Gazette’s Texas Instruments minicomputer accounting system.

This scary mess was the result of the Gazette's computer room being woefully too small. It housed a pair of Novell servers for the photo and text archive, the PBS circulation system, the Associated Press hardware and much more. Yes, I did know how to work with all of those systems. Phew!

This scary mess was the result of the Gazette’s computer room being woefully too small. It housed a pair of Novell servers for the photo and text archive, the PBS circulation system, the Associated Press hardware and much more. Yes, I did know how to work with all of those systems. Phew!

The Gazette replaced the Compugraphic Videosetters with Autologic 3850 laser imagers. These systems would eventually move the Gazette to direct-to-negative processes.

The Gazette replaced the Compugraphic Videosetters with Autologic 3850 laser imagers. These systems would eventually move the Gazette to direct-to-negative processes.

At the Gazette one of my Systems jobs was to print miles miles of reports in the printer room. This room, adjacent to the accounting department, housed numerous heavy-duty line printers. On Saturday nights, printing bundle tops for the Sunday paper, these printers would all be humming, turning the room into a furnace.

At the Gazette one of my Systems jobs was to print miles of reports in the printer room. This room, adjacent to the accounting department, housed numerous heavy-duty line printers. On Saturday nights, printing bundle tops for the Sunday paper, these printers would all be humming, turning the room into a furnace.

My desk at the Gazette just before I left for The Virginian-Pilot.

My desk at the Gazette just before I left for The Virginian-Pilot.

The Gazette's Goss printing presses.

The Gazette’s Goss printing presses.

The Gazette's underground newsprint supply.

The Gazette’s underground newsprint supply.

The reels of newsprint on the base of one of the Gazette's press units.

The reels of newsprint on the base of one of the Gazette’s press units.

During my time at the Gazette we added on to the building in order to add more press units. This allowed us greater printing flexibility and more color positions.

During my time at the Gazette we added on to the building in order to add more press units. This allowed us greater printing flexibility and more color positions.

A view from the top of the Gazette's presses, down into the reel room.

A view from the top of the Gazette’s presses, down into the reel room (during the press expansion construction).

The Gazette's mailroom where printed papers would be married up with inserts and bundled into zones for delivery.

The Gazette’s mailroom where printed papers would be married up with inserts and bundled into zones for delivery.

The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia.

The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia.

My new office at The Virginian-Pilot.

My new office at The Virginian-Pilot.

The Virginian-Pilot POD: editors, reporters, photographers and designers huddle to make the major decisions about that day’s front page. (Photo by Julie Elman).

The Virginian-Pilot newsroom. Atex terminals everywhere! (Photo by Randy Jessee).

More of the Virginian-Pilot newsroom (I’m the balding one in the center). (Photo by Randy Jessee).

Section fronts and color pages at The Virginian-Pilot were designed using Macintosh computers with Quark XPress (this was before all publishing systems were replaced by DTI). (Photo by Randy Jessee).

The Virginian-Pilot was a partner with local TV station WVEC. Nightly newscasts originated from the Pilot’s newsroom. (Photo by Randy Jessee).

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune where I spent some time with the DTI sales team to present our latest software offerings.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune where I spent some time with the DTI sales team to present our latest software offerings.

Me, making some important point, at one of the DTI User Group meetings. (Photo by Carl Davaz).

Newspaper professionals gather from around the world at the DTI User Group meeting. (Photo by Carl Davaz).

Another sales demo, this time at The Chicago Sun-Times.

Another sales demo, this time at The Chicago Sun-Times.

The view from the room where we did our demos at The Chicago Sun-Times.

The view from the room where we did our demos at The Chicago Sun-Times.

A party at DTI to celebrate our new logo design.

A party at DTI to celebrate our new logo design.

A bowling outing with my team from DTI.

A bowling outing with my team from DTI.

My cubicle at my new office at Newscycle Solutions.

My cubicle at Newscycle Solutions.

A grill-out last summer at our Newscycle Solutions office.

A grill-out last summer at our Newscycle Solutions office.

A grill-out last summer at our Newscycle Solutions office.

A grill-out last summer at our Newscycle Solutions office.

One of the amazing Utah views from my office.

One of the amazing Utah views from my office.

I am a believer in the mantra “everything for a purpose.” Ahead is the trail, what lies around that curve is anyone’s guess!

A Father’s Kitchen Legacy

Leonard Kuehn KVP Sutherland Magazine Article August 1953I venture to say that all parents leave some sort of impression on their children. Good or bad, if a parent is present, something gets passed along. My experience there is not unique.

Most people who have even a mild interest in cooking collect recipes with which they have achieved success. They are the go-to recipes for good-tasting creations that garner guest approval. Again, not a unique experience.

This past weekend my wife and I were going through her own recipe collection to make selections for an upcoming party. Seeing her clipped and annotated collection reminded me of my father’s, stored away in a memory box in the basement.

Dad loved to cook and bake. Within our family and circle of friends he was recognized for several creations: cake donuts, whipped cream and banana cake, and vanilla ice cream. Many of my best memories of time spent with my dad involve me sitting on a counter top “helping” him (I developed a special skill in the beater-licking department).

The brief article above was published in his company’s employee magazine more than 60 years ago, in August, 1953. At that time I suppose it was a novel idea for a man to be in the kitchen, and baking no less. It was the common everyday of my dad for me.

My dad, who never went to school, had the most basic of reading skills and wrote with a crude, block print, recorded his recipes on scraps of paper. As the article above states, he kept the records of his kitchen work in a wooden box. In the 1960s he transferred that collection to a small binder. By the early 1970s that binder was overflowing and he moved to a larger one.

We RV camped a lot and he wanted a recipe book just for camping: a collection of recipes that were suited for whipping up in the outback. Our RV was a Terry model so he called the cookbook Mrs. Terry.

The Mrs. Terry cookbook was Intended to be a small collection. Over time, however, it simply became home to the overflow of items that would not fit in the main book.

Today as I peruse dad’s collection I remember the hours spent cooking with him, the flavor and texture of his donuts, the rich vanilla-infused whipped cream of his whipped cream and banana cake and the brain-freezing joy of his hand-churned ice cream.

The haphazard collection of clipped and hand-written recipes, complete with misspellings, errors and marginal commentary reaffirms my dad’s kitchen legacy and the man, and foodie, I’ve become.

My meager collection of recipes is on a computer, I’m more likely to wing-it when I’m cooking, watching cooking programs on TV is how I like to relax and I’m a sucker for a cool kitchen gadget. All thanks to my dad’s legacy.

(Click on an image for a larger view).

Leonard Kuehn KVP Sutherland Magazine Article August 1953

A photo shot for the magazine article.

Leonard Kuehn KVP Sutherland Magazine Article August 1953

A photo shot for the magazine article.

A photo shot for the magazine article.

A photo shot for the magazine article.

Leonard Kuehn KVP Sutherland Magazine Article August 1953 02

A photo shot for the magazine article.

Leonard Kuehn KVP Sutherland Magazine Article August 1953

A photo shot for the magazine article.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Dad’s primary recipe collection.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

The Mrs. Terry cookbook.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

This isn’t going to be pretty!

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Each alphabetic section has its own index.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

This recipe originated with Better Homes and Gardens. Dad rewrote it to group preparation methods together.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Complete with arrows, boxes, and instructions here, there and everywhere, somehow he made it work.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

The index page for Section C indicates recipes that had been removed. They simply didn’t stand the test of time.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Any scrap of paper, even a union Absentee Notice card, could be put to use.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Dad went to the effort to measure the temperature output of the “Left front burner on medium.” 300°F

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Dad proudly pasted the “professional” recipe along with his notes for “fixing” it.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

In case you wondered, this was the “good” donut recipe.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Another donut recipe. Good? Passable? Decent? We’re left to wonder.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

When our strawberry patch produced, this freezer jam recipe would be put to use.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Oooh, these pancakes are not only “very good” but they’re also “Great for camping!”

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

I can not convey to you how amazingly delicious dad’s pickled watermelon was.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

This recipe page shows the remnants of ancient cello-tape. This one was also a winner — even for camping in the woods!

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Dad’s dandelion wine. I sure did not enjoy my job of dandelion harvester.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

And then there was wine from the bitter and tart rhubarb plant.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

The importance of dad’s recipe book is proved by the back pages which include vital information about his kids and grand-kids.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Further evidence of the place his recipe book held in his life, more family birthdates.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Seriously, how many family recipe collections include blood types and dates of military service? Leonard Kuehn’s did!

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Oh, let’s not forget the names and addresses of distant family members not seen for decades!

David Anderson, my mentor

I had a mentor and his name was Dave Anderson. While he had a common name, he was an uncommon man.

Dave hired me at the Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper in the mid-1980s. He had spent most of his career as a typesetter/compositor. When computerized typesetting, or cold type, came on the scene Dave, with his curiosity and expertise made himself a key player in the burgeoning technology side of the newspaper business. Back then it was called “Systems”, what we now call I.T.

I had long wanted to work at the Kalamazoo Gazette, my local newspaper. I grew up in a rural area and had a carrier who would toss rolled newspapers from his pickup while speeding down the road. Later we graduated to having a plastic tube to receive our Gazette, which arrived in much better shape having not been thrown across our rough or snowy Michigan yard.

Even as a youngster I was fascinated by the newspaper. When I was old enough to work I applied for several jobs at the paper. I was ignored sometimes, denied others and at least once very constructively turned away by the editor, Jim Mosby. I was not deterred because my desire was so strong.

One of the Gazette’s executives, Carl Gilbert, was our neighbor and he paid a visit to my sixth-grade classroom. He showed us pasted-up pages, page negatives, printing plates and other gear from the world of newspaper production. Who knew that fewer than 10 years after that classroom visit, I would actually be shooting pages, burning plates, hollering “REPLATE!” to the pressroom and becoming familiar with many jobs within the newspaper.

But it was after responding to a rather generic ad for “TYPIST” at the Gazette that I met up with Dave. Dave had only recently left his highly-respected and important position in the Systems department where he managed the computerized writing and typesetting system called Atex. His new role was as manager of a department called Production Services which comprised the people who set type for advertising, did paste up of display and classified ads and later the paste up of the editorial content.

Dave asked me in for an interview. Because he was new as a manager, his first few hires were done under the supervision of publisher Dan Ryan. Ryan was a WWII veteran, locally famous, stood nearly seven feet tall and was an imposing man. But Dan had one of the biggest hearts and I quickly respected and liked him. But when I went into his office that first time I was nervous, in disbelief and unprepared for what would follow.

On the way to the interview I had driven three blocks down a one-way street – the wrong way! Fortunately I had no accident or constabulary contact, but I was shaken, stirred and sweating.

I entered the Gazette’s front door and the receptionist called for Dave. I had a few moments to work off the nerves from my driving mistake and to put myself together for what was maybe my fourth job interview ever.

Dave took me to his tight and cluttered office just outside the climate-controlled computer room. He said only a few words and then we were called to Dan Ryan’s office. Once in Dan’s office he and Dave exchanged sports banter. Not knowing anything about sports, that immediately made me feel like I was on the outside of something. Then they talked about a display ad that had run upside down in that day’s paper. Dan showed the page and turned to me to say “Some advertisers would pay extra to run their ad upside down. We don’t do that.”

Dan asked Dave if he knew who’d made the mistake. Dave chuckled and mentioned the name of the woman who’d made the error (you know who you are!). Clearly both men lacked any sense of surprise over the name of the culprit. Dan said “You made sure she knows not to do this again?” Dave said “Yes.” And that was the end of it.

Then the “interview” turned to me. Dan asked about my parents: where they were from and how they made their living. That was it. Then he said “Well, we’d like to have you join our family. Would you like to join us, starting tomorrow?”

I accepted and was on my way. I’ve always wondered who really hired me, Dave or Dan. When I left the building at 401 S. Burdick Street, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d been hired! I may have made a one-way-street error going home as well, but I don’t remember a thing.

Dave and I rapidly formed a bond. I was a very shy 19-year-old college student and he was a late-50s divorced Korean Era veteran and well-known industry expert. What did we have in common? A love of computer keyboards along with fast input speeds and typography. But we had an important friendship and he mentored me at some important forks in the road.

I’m fairly sure he made no conscious effort to be my mentor and he probably would have been surprised to know that I viewed him that way. I knew at the time that he was playing a pivotal role in my life, but it took several years before I gained enough wisdom to realize the full import of it.

In high school and early college I was driven to have a writing career. I was also very interested in politics and international relations. I dreamt of writing books, newspaper columns, doing political reporting and the like. I was working on degrees in English and Political Science at the time.

I never made it a secret that my goal was to work in the newsroom. My initial role as a typesetter was to be a stepping stone to a writing career. That’s how I saw it.

But Dave, my boss, friend and mentor saw something. Some of his best friends were writers and editors. And he’d spent 40 years in the newspaper business so he’d seen people come and go. But beyond that, Dave was a people person. He loved people, he wanted to know them, what made them tick, where they were from and where they were going. All of that led him to talk to me one day about my career plans.

It was in an informal setting during the early hours of a morning. I was cutting cold type coming out of automated film processors. The type later would be pasted up into news stories for that day’s newspaper. Dave, coffee cup in hand, made the casual remark that he didn’t think a job as a newspaper reporter was a good fit for me. He felt that I was quickly and easily grasping the technological side of the print production business and that maybe I didn’t have a true understanding of what it was like to write for a job.

Now in many situations getting “feedback” like that would be hard to take. One might resist it as having their parade rained on. Others may have seen an ulterior motive. But with Dave I didn’t have those kinds of thoughts. He was too sincere and well-meaning for me to consider that he didn’t have, at least in his mind, a valid point.

He went on to tell me that writing for a living often meant writing what someone else told you to write. And writing to a certain length. And in a certain way. And to have your words and ideas edited by others. He said he thought I was a better fit for the technological side of the business.

We talked it out and I was dubious. I had spent a fair amount of time pursuing a writing education as well as learning about politics so that I could cover it intelligently. Nothing he said was news to me, but he laid it out for me in a way that really preoccupied my mind with “what ifs.”

That was Dave being my mentor. Maybe it was because we had such a good relationship that he was able to so frankly talk to me about this. I don’t know. But what came next at first thrilled me and later put a significant scare into me.

A few days after that conversation Dave again brought up the topic. He said that he had spoken to Mary Kramer, the Metro editor (who later went on to be the publisher of Crain’s Detroit Business), who had agreed to let me shadow her for a day. I worked for Dave and he was going to pay me my day’s pay to sit with Mary. I was so excited at the opportunity. I still had in mind Dave’s earlier thoughts that writing wasn’t where I belonged, but I was still very confident in my education and career direction and saw this as an enormous opportunity.

I already knew Mary through my role in the Production Services department. Mary was a well-respected senior member of newsroom management and a very and open person. She worked with reporters, photographers, union printers, kids like me hired to replace union printers, political officials and angry readers. She did it all with great professionalism. She started each day early as did I and we’d often exchange minor chit-chat while getting our days started. I liked and respected her. I really thought this could lead to something.

I spent a day with her. It started early with a budget meeting for that day’s paper. She then worked on the page dummies for that day’s paper and the stories that would be used. That was followed by some editing of copy, reviewing proofs, another budget meeting, reviewing a pile of press releases, numerous phone calls, writing letters and more meetings. It was a full and busy day.

By that point I had been at the paper a couple of years and knew almost everyone and how the newsroom worked. But that day with Mary changed the course of my career. And my life. It was an oportunity that would not have happened without Dave stepping in. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t think about it. But he did.

I saw and felt what it was like to be assigned a story that you had no interest whatsoever in. I saw reporter A get a story that reporter B would rather have written. I saw Mary lament a story that was too long…there just wasn’t room for all of it. I saw that reporters would put a lot of effort into a story and for a variety of reasons it never saw the light of day. I saw reporters turn over stories to an editor who would write a headline that they didn’t like. I saw editors strike sentences that were perfect, but simply didn’t fit.

It was eye-opening. Up until that point I had seen the role of a newspaper reporter as one with more autonomy, more of a seek-and-destroy attitude toward topics and issues. But Mary, at Dave’s urging, showed me the reality.

What I would come to know from Dave was that he guided me because he truly believed there was a better path that I wasn’t considering. He absolutely respected reporters and editors and didn’t have anything negative to say about their work nor their roles, but he could see it wasn’t a fit for me.

In addition he was seeing my personality of being shy and reserved and quiet. I of course knew that in my dream role of a reporter I’d have to talk to and interview people. That scared me. But my interest in doing the writing gave me imaginary courage. I think he realized that, at least at that point in my life, I wasn’t ready for such a thing.

The prodding by Dave and help from Mary brought me to a crossroads. It was a very painful decision point.

In terms of credit hours, I was about halfway done with college. Because I’d more or less gone to university part time, it was slow going. But now I was challenged to continue with my course of study or change it. Changing it would be expensive and dramatically increase my time to graduation.

And I wasn’t sure what I would change my majors to even if I decided that was best. The newspaper technology field has always been a hybrid of unique skills. Even today many in the I.T. department at newspapers worked their way up from other areas of the business. A programming or computer science education can be very important, but knowing about printing, typography, graphic design, writing, database management, customer management – those are all key areas that I.T. professionals live in. Back in the late ‘80s, breaking into the I.T., or “systems” department was tough. But after that day with Mary, and some introspection, I realized that working in I.T., specifically at a newspaper, was what I was meant to do.

Decades, many positions and a couple of employers later, I’m still in the newspaper technology field. I’ve never looked back nor regretted my decision to change paths. I ended up completing my degree in Political Science with a minor in English/Professional Writing because of the time I had already invested in it. And that, too, has served me well. On paper it may not make sense that I studied with an emphasis on constitutional law but spend my days writing JavaScript code, SQL queries and being a Scrum Master. But my formal education gave me many soft skills, and Dave gave me the foundation of the hard, technical skills I also needed.

Dave recognized the big change I was making and he supported me 100%. Once he knew that I was committed to the technology side of the business he helped to open doors to other opportunities, training and positions that allowed me to advance.

I worked with others who were at least equally if not more qualified for some roles. But Dave pushed me and made a way for me.

I have always struggled with math. Dave did complex math in his head. And in those days in particular computerized typography required a fair amount of math and abstract visualization. For example, an advertiser might give you a hand-written list of furniture items for sale. How many columns would you need in their 3×12 ad in order to make that content appealing? That was after accounting for their logo, the border, their phone number, address and hours. What point size and leading would work? Does the text need some tracking adjustment to make it more readable? There were many variables. And those were the days before WYSIWIG: typesetting was text and codes. You didn’t see the result of your work until your code was burned onto photographic film. And Dave, through his mentoring and training, got me past my fear of math. Math is still hard for me and beyond balancing a checkbook I have to really work at it. But I’m not afraid of it like I once was. He made math practical for me in a way that no teacher ever had.

Another thing I learned from Dave was his attitude towards people. He accepted and was interested in all people. To my knowledge he never saw color nor religion nor ethnicity. He saw “folks.”

“Folks” was a word Dave used daily. I once asked him about that because he used it so much. He said it was a conscious decision, a generic way to refer to people, that got away from the male/female debate. It wasn’t men nor women, his nor her, it was “folks.”

Over the years Dave hired a lot of foreign exchange students from Western Michigan University, as well as recent immigrants. I’m not sure how many people realized that this was something he made a point of doing. Later when I was a manager of the Ad Creation department and would review resumes, I learned that Dave had a love of country that caused him to want to share it with people from less fortunate backgrounds. It was subtle, but Dave would often lobby for resumes from non-natives.

Dave was also a mentor to some of those folks from time to time. I remember one in particular, I believe his name was Shoga-David and I think he was from Africa. Shoga was a meek and quiet guy with very limited English. But Dave hired him and took him under his wing. Dave looked out for him and if anyone dared slight Shoga or deny him any opportunity, Dave quietly stepped in.

After Shoga graduated from the university and returned home, Dave kept up written correspondence with him while Shoga worked to set up a printing business in his home country. That’s just how generous and big a person Dave was. Dave shared Shoga-David’s letters with me, proud of Shoga-David’s success, happiness and new family. He gave in order to help other people become better, professionally and personally.

Looking back I realize that my relationship with Dave was unusual in some ways. Maybe it was due to my shyness or my age, but while we were good friends, we rarely did things together outside of work. But when we did they were special to me.

We took several business trips together. In fact, I had never flown on an airplane when in 1989 we spent a couple of weeks in Boston to be trained as system administrators for a new computerized typesetting system called Camex. Dave had been in the Air Force during the Korean War and his older brother was a pilot in WWII and Dave was a huge aviation buff. We sat side-by-side and he talked me through everything that was happing during our flight. I never told him that I was terrified but he knew and got me through that first flight. I enjoy flying and in fact years later got a student pilot’s license and started to learn to be a pilot (a topic for another blog).

We took a few road trips together to other newspapers that were owned by the same parent company. We both reveled in the opportunity to learn from what others were doing and to share the things we were doing that we thought were innovative. To this day if you notice an ad in a newspaper with a tiny number hidden in the ad’s border – that was our idea back in 1989. It was a way to hide an I.D. number for an ad so the advertiser could specifically refer to an ad that they wanted to use again later. We tried it out and it helped us, our advertisers and our sales team. We shared that with our counterparts in the Booth Newspapers chain and from there with our parent, Newhouse. More than 20 years later, you still see this in practice. I’d like to think we invented this idea that was made possible by the new typesetting technology that came along in the late ‘80s.

Dave and I worked on a mainframe computer system called Atex. At the time Atex was the premiere computerized typesetting and content-management system. It was developed in the late 1970s and was the computer system used by the New York Times, National Geographic and most major newspapers in the world. Dave was a recognized expert on the system. Even 15 years later, at another company, I mentioned that I’d been trained by Dave Anderson and that brought immediate head-nods of respect. I learned from one of the masters. He taught me not only how to set type but how to write custom programs (called “formats”) on the Atex system to automate and standardize the work of a typesetter.

Toward the end of my time at the Gazette, that background and education really paid off. By 1999 the world was in the grips of Y2K fears. The Atex system was known to not deal well with the Y2K change. Dave had retired, was travelling, diving the oceans, photographing WWII shipwrecks and living a full and active retirement and I was enjoying a good job in the systems department at the Gazette. But then I was contacted by a manager at The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia.

The Pilot was a very large newspaper whereas, at the time, the Gazette was considered a small- or medium-sized outfit. The Pilot had an Atex system as well, had a small but expert staff, but was coming up on Y2K and they wanted more depth…they wanted additional help. Most Atex experts were dead or retired, but the manager had heard about me. And that manager knew of Booth Newspapers (the Gazette’s immediate owners), and Dave Anderson. Long story short, I was made the proverbial offer I could not refuse. The Pilot offered me dramatically more salary, an end to regular night and weekend work, a regular daytime schedule, the opportunity to work on the one of the largest and most customized Atex systems and to be a key player in the Pilot’s move from 1980s technology to the latest in modern print production systems offered by Digital Technology International (later to become NEWSCYCLE Solutions, where I now work).

The move to the Pilot, and ten years later to DTI and then NEWSCYCLE Solutions is all because of Dave. Because he gave me direction. He was my friend. He saw in me things I didn’t see in myself.

I had accepted the Pilot’s offer and was tying up loose ends at the Gazette, getting my house listed for sale and getting myself ready for one of the biggest changes in my life. Sadly, at that time Dave lay in a hospital room at Borgess Medical Center in Kalamazoo. He had lung cancer and he was dying. He had only had about five years of retirement. I had been to his home a couple of times during his illness. Before he got sick we made one trip together to the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. We’d also spent a few hours looking over an amazing collection of slides that he’d shot while in the Air Force in Korea where he’d worked on the early development of Radar. But I wrongly thought that in his sickened state, he had bigger things on his mind than my career move.

Emphasis on wrongly.

I was at home one night, in between accepting the Pilot job offer and actually leaving, when I got a phone call. It was from Dave, in his hospital bed. He had a very weak voice at that point. He said “When were you going to tell me that you’re leaving, that you’re going to the big time?”

I was crushed. Because I’d crushed him! After he’d invested more than a decade in me, as a person and in my career, I didn’t share with him the story and the news. News that only came about because of his investment in me. News that showed him that he was right.

I could try to justify it several ways but they would be weak. The next day I went to the hospital to see him and tell him all of the details. He couldn’t even sit up in bed and he was weak and worn out. But he congratulated me a dozen times, asked a lot of questions, said how proud he was of me and wished me the best. I think we both knew we wouldn’t see each other again, his end was coming soon. But his last words to me were to be happy and do good work.

Dave died a few days later.

15 years ago this June, 2014, Dave Anderson died of lung cancer. He’d spent a career working at the Kalamazoo Gazette. He’d spent more than a decade making me a better person and guiding me toward a career that would make me happy. I saw him hold out a hand to numerous other people during that time as well.

15 years. I still remember the smell of his cologne, the stutter of his speech, his instant and easy laugh, his love of people, his understanding, his lack of judgment towards people, his dirty coffee cup and that ugly coconut he kept on his desk! Why on earth he was my friend I’ll never know.

But Dave, nearly 30 years after our first meeting, I still think about you. Many of the good parts of my personality, if there are any, are thanks to you and your example. Your example as a good, genuine, honest, interesting and caring person influenced me. Apart from my parents, Leonard and Charlene, you, sir, made me who I am today.

Thank you, my friend.

Dave Anderson's Obituary

Learn lots, get smart


My first day of school was a drama. I was just a few years old and it was the morning that my dad was to take me to the Gilchrist Nursery School.

The school was run by a woman named Carol Gilchrist who started the first nursery or preschool in the county. She was important locally due to the early education programs she started and for her involvement in the public school system. Perhaps only hours later I would develop a bond with her and the other staff at the school and in the future look forward to each day’s attendance.

But on that first day, it was war. War between little, terrified Aaron and his big, frustrated parents. I still remember standing in our dining room, crying like crazy, scared out of my sneakers and refusing to cooperate or do anything useful.

My mom was trying to head out to her job as a teacher and my uber-patient stay-at-home-dad had exceeded his monthly patience allotment. He suggested that perhaps a baseball bat would give me something to really cry about. At that moment I would have preferred the bat over going to school.

The start of anything new, particularly to a kid, can be scary. No matter our age or the experiences we’ve had, change and the unknown can give us a shake. Each new school experience was no exception for me. When I look back on my years of formal education I am frustrated over the difficult times and have gratitude for the good times and great teachers.

Getting started that first day was really tough, but all of my other memories of nursery school are good ones.


For example, the nursery school had these huge, to me at least, red cardboard building bricks. They had a red design on them that made them look like bricks. They were large enough that we could build forts that were big enough for several kids to play inside. I had a lot of fun with those. And a lot of fun busting down our creations.

Another strong memory I have is of Mrs. Gilchrist’s kitchen, in the living quarters above the school. I may have the details wrong, but I believe it was her daughter who had travelled and gotten a blowfish light fixture.

No, that wasn’t a typo. It was an actual preserved blowfish in its fully blown-up glory, hung from the kitchen ceiling, with a light bulb inside. We were once taken upstairs to see the fish light and boy was I impressed. And freaked out. But mostly impressed.

Another fun thing we did in nursery school was learn how to use the telephone. To this day I hate to talk on the phone. But back then using the phone was a grown up thing to do and was fascinating. For the lesson many real telephones were brought in and set up on a table. Someone from the phone company was there to connect the phones together so they really worked, without being on the real phone lines.

For we kids it was just fun, but in hindsight I realize the point was to get us to memorize our phone number, parents names and our address. And to know how to properly use the phone in an emergency. But it was such a practical and fun experience that we didn’t know we were learning. Which is probably the highest compliment to a teacher: to learn without the effort of learning.

The next major milestone on my educational journey was kindergarten. This was at the town’s public school, about six miles from my country home. It was my first time to ride a school bus as well.

We lived next to a drive-in restaurant called The Country Drive-In. It was one of those standard drive-up joints that had bellhops and served hot dogs, hamburgers, fries and drinks. The bus would pick up a few area kids from the parking lot.

Our family was friends with the owners of The Drive-Inn, Ken and Marge Zantello. I remember going to the bus stop that first day and Mr. Zantello was hanging around with the kids (his daughter, Stacey, was my age and starting school as well). Mr. Zantello loved kids and was great fun (nobody could do a better Donald Duck impression – and make us giggle until we overheated).

On the side of the restaurant was a menu board of what the Zantellos had available. I pointed to the sign and told Mr. Zantello: “When I come home tonight I’m going to be able to read that sign.”

That’s how optimistic and excited I was about school and learning! That story remains a funny family story.

Of course, I didn’t come home from my half-day kindergarten class with the ability to read, that would come later. But the excitement and hope of school was by that time fixed in me.

Some years later the bus routes changed as well as the bus stop location. Instead of getting on at the Country Drive-In, I would get on directly across the street from my house, in the driveway of Dr. John Zettelmaier.

Dr. Zettelmaier was a local who had grown up on the farm adjacent to where he then lived. He’d gone to my school. He’d gone to college for his undergrad in nearby Kalamazoo and later got his medical degree from Michigan State University.

He was a real character and I remember many a wintry morning sitting in his car with his kids, waiting for the bus. When it was time to get out he would implore all of us with his mantra: “Learn lots, get smart.”

Especially as my junior high years took over, and school got harder, and the stresses of growing up took hold, the phrase “Learn lots, get smart” just annoyed me. He made it sound so easy, like “smarts” were in a jug that you simply poured yummy knowledge into your head.

My day to day experiences with education were augmented by my parents. My dad was born to immigrants from Germany and essentially never went to school. All of his education came from his own initiative, from the on-the-job-of-life training. He had great trouble writing (he could only print) and struggled to read. However, he could do amazing math sums in his head. He was very smart and knew about the world and understood people.

My mom on the other hand has a lot of formal education. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in special education. Beyond that she has a dual Master’s degree in counseling and personnel management. Plus a permanent K-12 all-subjects teaching certificate. By the time she retired she had earned a Specialist in Education degree in communication. She also lectured at two state universities on special education topics.

So I had these two extreme examples of what education could be. And most would probably expect a lot of pressure from my mom to go to college, get a degree or degrees and have that as a primary focus of my youth.

That was so not the case. In fact, my mom had a solid view of what my educational future should be and I remember her talking about it, in different ways, all the time.

She believed in the value of a college education. She also believed in the education that one could gain at a community college. Or a vocational school. Or as part of an apprenticeship. She was about the learning and having skills and knowledge. She strongly believed that the delivery method was more or less inconsequential.

She ended her professional career as a career counselor at the county’s vocational school where juniors and seniors would spend a half day each day to learn a trade or job skill. These were things like data processing, commercial photography, construction, foods, marketing, clerical, retail, etc. Students would graduate with a high school diploma as well as real-world job skills.

But what was important for me was that college was not a given for my future. She and my dad both made it clear that they weren’t paying for college or education or anything after high school. From as far back as I can remember they told me that college would be a good thing, but if I wanted to go, I’d have to figure out how to pay for it – they wouldn’t be helping.

I’m sure that some of that reasoning was due to their own financial situation and not wanting to “promise” an education fund upon which they could not deliver. But the fact that “any” option after high school, either some type of school or training or a job, was okay with my parents, was very freeing.

So many of my contemporaries were feeling the pressure of picking a school, picking a major, etc. I simply didn’t have that stress. That left more time to dream about my first car.

In high school I struggled to find a post-graduation direction. I took numerous “interest inventories” and “career aptitude tests” and they all said I should be a forest ranger. While the outdoors and nature interested me, I didn’t see myself doing that kind of work.

I was also very interested in writing, printing and woodworking. I explored programs at the vocational school where my mom taught. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. The curse of being a Pisces perhaps. And being young. And the bounty of so many options.

Fortunately my choice was more or less made clear. At the age of 16 I signed up for a media conference at a college an hour from home. It was led by one of the communications professors at the college, who was also the faculty advisor for the student newspaper. Guest lecturers included people from local TV, radio and newspaper outlets.

The conference had each of us do real-world work for print, TV and radio. We were given assignments and had to do them on a fictional deadline and we were then critiqued by the pros.

For the first time I felt like I was in my element. I was in a college atmosphere and the things I was being asked to do seemed natural and while challenging, easy. While I didn’t save my work nor remember the specifics of my assignments, I won favor with the professor for both my written work and for my radio news delivery. He thought I put words together well and that my “radio voice” sounded good (one exercise was to write and record a radio ad for one of the station’s sponsors. Mine for the Grand Valley Blood Program was actually used by the customer). He suggested that I apply to the school and if I did, he’d put in a good word for a paid position/scholarship on the college’s newspaper.

In short, I got in to that school (now Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan) and with my own savings, financial aid, a student loan and the job as Production Editor for the Campus Herald, got started in college.

And surprise, surprise, my parents had saved some money for my education. Enough for a year’s tuition and room and board. That was a total surprise after all of those years of being told I’d have to work for it myself. It was one year’s worth, not the whole program, but a shocking gift when the time came.

I went to that college for a year and a half, the last half working part time as data analyst for Foremost Insurance Company. But when that job ended, I didn’t have an income and didn’t have money for college, so I moved back home, starting to think about going to the far cheaper state school (the much larger Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where my mom had gone).

WMU Sprau TowerAfter several months I landed a job at the Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper. I started part time but after a few months went full time and was then eligible for their generous tuition reimbursement plan. I was then able to finish my degree (Bachelor of Science in political science with a minor in English/professional writing). There were a few years where my expenses exceeded the maximum that the paper said they’d pay, but they always paid my bills in full. About the only thing I had to pay for myself was parking.

How fortunate I was! Because I was working full time and going to school part time it ended up taking me a full eight years to earn my bachelor’s degree. I’ve often thought about how great it would have been to live on campus and just go to school full time, be involved in activities and do the degree on the “normal” schedule. I struggled in high school and couldn’t wait for the drama and stress to be over. But I really enjoyed college. I was fortunate throughout my entire college career to have only one, maybe two, professors I would say were bad. All of the rest were good to excellent and I enjoyed the experience.

To this day my mom argues that taking the slow route is better because you combine a formal education with practical work skills. The alternative is to graduate with a degree and no experience and then try to find a job. I can argue it both ways.

But the reality is, I did it slowly, ploddingly, I thought I’d never get done. But I did. Regardless of what that piece of paper has or has not done for my employability or earning potential or status, it is meaningful to me. It was hard work, it was worthwhile and if nothing else, it’s just for me.

Today, my formal education well behind me, I share my mom’s early views on education. But I think the decades to come will change the way everyone looks at education. I went to liberal arts colleges and I gained from the experience. But it’s not for everyone. I think with the focus on technology in the workplace, the need is going to be for focused training on very specific things.

For example, taking a history class can teach you a lot of things. Things you may be hard-pressed to quantify, but you learn, you gain background, the ability to add context to life’s situations. As my mom says “College teaches you how to learn and how to be a citizen in society.” I think she’s totally correct.

Those aren’t bad things, of course. But even someone who gets a scientific, mathematics or computer degree must learn the job for which they’ve trained, once they’re hired. I think it is the rare situation when someone graduates with any college degree, gets a job and blows out of the gates. Even physicians, with all of their years of training, must intern to learn the nuts-and-bolts day-to-day skills they need to practice.

The future I think will shift more weight to specific-topic courses, over short time periods, with great focus and intensity. Think of today’s computer certifications. They come from Microsoft, Adobe, Cisco, etc. An investment of a few thousand dollars, a few days or weeks, hard study and practice and an exam yields a worker who can in fact go into a job and be fully productive on the first day. Doing things. Bringing value. Earning an income that allows them to be independent.

I don’t think colleges and universities are going away, but I think they will change. They’re expensive and they take time. And education is not a one-time proposition. It never was, but I think the work world is making the distinction starker.

I’m nearly 50, have had a college degree for nearly half of those years and yet I have a good career that has, on paper, nothing to do with what I went to college for!

The skills that I have that are important for my job came from a variety of sources:

  • On the job training. I learned how to do tasks and jobs by being trained by my peers or supervisors.
  • Training provided by vendors. In several jobs we would get new equipment or new software or new methods and the company spearheading those changes trained me.
  • Focused classroom training. I went to training for Novel Netware 3.x and 4.x. I went to Unix/Solaris training. I went to Microsoft training for Visual Basic development. I went to an event called Script Camp for newspaper programmers to learn about automating text and image processing. Several years ago in Norfolk, Virginia I went to Tidewater Community College and took a class on SQL programming. In a few weeks I’ll be taking a short course at Salt Lake Community college in order to get ScrumMaster Certification.

That’s many types of learning. But all because I needed to learn and understand “x.” And “x” wasn’t a part of my previous education. In some cases the training didn’t even exist when I was at the university. The world changed and to adapt, I had to find a way to learn.

I think this idea of lifelong learning is important for young people to understand. I value all types and modes of learning and education. And even though I think targeted training is the future, I also firmly believe that a more traditional on-campus experience does teach a person to be independent, manage their own time and course load and work, and learn to function within a system (society).

I think we all need to understand that the graduation ceremony, any graduation or completion step during life, is not the end. It’s a closed chapter. Later there will be new things that need to be learned. We’ll use what we learned in earlier chapters to write future chapters.

Our interests will change. Jobs will change. There will be new information. We go from learning for a job to learning how to navigate retirement and old age. And whether you go sit in a class and listen to a lecture or read a study or some research, the learning never ends.

Yes, Dr. Zettelmaier, I think I’ve learned lots and gotten some smarts. But not enough. It will never be enough. I’ll always be thirsty.

Hmm, a cheeseburger with fries for $1.47…not bad.