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James E. Casto: H-D career provided a front-row seat to history

Jan. 15, 2009 @ 09:58 AM

As The Herald-Dispatch marks 100 years of publication, I’m proud to say that I was part of the newspaper for more than 40 of those years.

I went to work at the H-D on Sept. 3, 1963. Here’s how that happened:

I was still going to Marshall University at the time and counted myself lucky to be working part-time under local legend Bos Johnson in the newsroom at WSAZ-TV. But I needed a full-time job. One of my fellow students at MU already worked at the H-D. He told me he thought there might be an opening for a reporter.

So I screwed up my courage and called Editor-in-Chief Raymond Brewster. He said I should come see him. Of course, I did so the next day. I must have passed muster for after a brief conversation he said: “Come in tomorrow and report to Eddie Oliver and we’ll see what you can do.”

The next day I dutifully entered the H-D newsroom and asked someone to point out Oliver, who was the paper’s city editor. Walking up his desk, I introduced myself. From his reaction, it was pretty clear he had no idea who I was or why I was there. Brewster, it appears, hadn’t bothered to tell him about me.

Eddie, as I soon would learn to call him, went off to Brewster’s office. Coming back after a couple of minutes, he brusquely handed me a stack of press releases. “All these need to be rewritten,” he said. “Find a typewriter and get to it.”

I must have done an OK job on those rewrites, as I would spend the next 41 years of my life in that same newsroom.

In the beginning, I worked as a general assignment reporter, mostly filling in on other reporters’ days off. I might cover the police beat one day, the courthouse the next and write obits the day after that. Eventually, City Hall became my full-time assignment. Some folks with long memories may recall that was back when Ed Ewing was Huntington city manager.

Eddie Oliver had a well-deserved reputation as a crusty soul from the old school. He would have been right at home as a boot-camp drill sergeant. But he knew the newspaper business, front to back, and working under him was a true education for a young reporter.

Soon I moved from reporting to editing and became the H-D’s assistant regional news editor. The “catch” was that there was no regional news editor for me to assist. Brewster thought I was too young for the job, so he insisted on the “assistant” title.

When illness sidelined Eddie and soon claimed his life, I was tapped to follow him as the paper’s city editor. I say “follow him” because nobody could really replace him. I knew I couldn’t begin to fill his shoes, but I did my best.

As it happened, my stint as city editor would last only a few months. In 1972, I became the H-D’s editorial page editor. My title was later changed to associate editor at some point. (Handing out titles is cheaper than handing out pay raises.) But when I retired in August of 2004, I was still doing what I had been doing for 32 years — taking care of the paper’s editorial page.

I edited the opinion columns, both syndicated and local, we printed on the page. I took care of the letters to the editor — an increasingly time-consuming task as each year we published more and more letters. I wrote most of the H-D’s editorials — the unsigned expressions of the newspaper’s opinion on the issues of the day. I presided over the weekly meetings of our editorial board.

And, if I had a bit of time left over, I wrote a weekly column — often the most enjoyable part of my week.

Being editorial page editor was a wonderful job. Think about it. Who wouldn’t like to be paid to tell people where to go — and how to get there. Headaches? Sure. Bad days? You bet. That’s life. But certainly the good days far outnumbered the bad.

Allow me to share some numbers with you:

During my years at the helm, the H-D editorial page generally published two editorials a day. That’s 730 editorials a year. Multiply that by 32 years, and you get 23,360. Deduct some vacation days, a bout of the flu now and then and those rare occasions when somebody else wrote that day, and I figure I easily wrote more than 22,000 editorials for the H-D.

There’s no category in the Guinness Book of World Records for “Most Editorials Written by a Single Writer.” If there were, I’m sure I’d be a contender.

During that same 32 years, I figure I wrote at least 1,500 weekly columns.

Do I miss it? Of course I do. To be sure, there are things I don’t miss, such as the complaints from some readers that our editorial page was too liberal and complaints from other readers that our editorial page was too conservative.

I don’t miss the telephone calls from those letter writers who ask, “Can you tell me what day my letter is going to run in the newspaper? I don’t get the paper, you know.” I don’t miss being asked, “Do you do anything else down at the paper other than write your weekly column?” I don’t miss the calls from people who considered it my personal fault that their carrier let their paper get wet.

But I do miss the opportunity of having a front-row seat as history, both locally and nationally, unfolds. I miss the many talented people I had the good fortune to work with over the years.

And, yes, I sometimes miss having a pulpit to pound.

At those times, I can’t resist sending an e-mail message to Jim Ross, my worthy successor as editorial page editor. Most such e-mails start out something like this: “If I were still writing editorials for a living, I would …”

James E. Casto is a former associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch.