I never thought about a career when I was in college.
College was affordable back then and with the expectation to learn, not to earn, I focused on discovering my passions and figuring out my place in the world, price tag not attached. It was a comfortable bubble for four years.
It burst, spectacularly, in Zanesville, Ohio, where I landed my first “real” job as a reporter in 1992.
Graduating with a degree in philosophy, there wasn’t an obvious career path for me. But I had enjoyed being city editor at my college newspaper, so I took internships at two papers in small Ohio towns after graduation.
The Nightshift and A Little Bit of Everything
I landed my first full-time reporter job at the Zanesville Times Recorder after returning from a cross-country road trip that ended in San Francisco, where I lived, briefly. I was assigned to work the night shift, 3 to 11 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Maybe the very worst schedule a young, newly untethered, woman could have.
I covered a little bit of everything – board meetings, “cops” (that’s what reporters call the police beat) and festivals, the biggest of which was an annual gathering of pottery enthusiasts.
“The Ville” sat on a bed of clay that gave rise to a pottery boom in the town’s heyday. Most of the mills had closed, but the town capitalized on the growing market for collectible ceramics brands like Roseville, McCoy and Weller.
I lived on the bottom floor of a house on Thurman Street not far from the DQ. I made friends with the elderly and the very young, the people who were around when I was off work. My college friends were scattered in cities across the country.
At the time, you didn’t need a degree to work at a newspaper. In my experience, a college education was viewed as suspect by the older, typewriter generation of editors, who did the hiring when I started in the biz.
Instead, prospective reporters were judged on one thing, and one thing alone: “clips” – cuttings of articles with your byline.
It was a pay-your-dues system that weeded out lots of talented writers, I’m sure. Journalism is very competitive. Colleges turn out “j school” grads by the thousands and reporter jobs are few and far between.
But I was idealistic and determined. My social life would have to wait.
Starting Off on the Wrong Foot
The first day on the job at the Times Recorder, I walked into the newsroom wearing a pair of Doc Martens, a souvenir purchase I brought back from San Francisco. I scrimped and saved to buy them. They were never comfortable. I wore them every day.
An older woman named Pat looked up from her computer to greet me. Her eyes went right to my feet. “What are those?”
I felt a jolt of culture shock.
There were a few other young reporters at the paper, and we all became fast friends. On Wednesday nights, we gathered at Dave’s Union Bar with the TV reporters from the town’s only TV station, an NBC affiliate called WHIZ – which stands for “We’re Happy In Zanesville”. Really.
Dave loved the news and would close the bar, literally lock the door, and only let media in.
We’d drink cheap beer and play darts, pinning up a picture of a public official on the dartboard, whether it be the mayor, the police chief or some other person we’d battled that week. Their nose was the bullseye.
I lived for those Wednesday nights.
When my work week was done at 11 p.m. Saturday night, my dog and I would drive an hour west to Columbus to stay with friends for my Sunday/Monday “weekend”. After a couple of fun-filled days, the return trip to the ‘Ville was brutal, my idealism running on empty.
Or rather, I did – but just long enough to quit. I walked into the nicotine-stained, brown-paneled office of Nancy Keeley, Editor In Chief, and told her I was moving on.
She crushed a cigarette in a crowded ashtray and shared a piece of her mind. I stared at a sad pothos plant clinging to life in the corner of the room. Said she knew I was just passing through when she hired me. That I’d let her down.
College kids came and went, but Nancy had been in Zanesville her whole life.
I went home, packed up all of the belongings that fit in my Honda Civic hatchback, which was all of my belongings, and made again the trip to Columbus, this time one-way.
A Lucky Break
A couple months into my stay, a friend told me she saw a posting for an editorial assistant position at the The Columbus Dispatch. I got an interview by cold calling the City Desk and introducing myself. I can’t remember the conversation, but I was offered an interview and was told the job would be weekends and holidays only, typing in vital statistics and sorting mail.
Perfect. I’ll take it.
I went on to work at the Dispatch for 13 years, rising through the ranks from assistant to a “stringer” for the State Desk to general assignment reporter to beat reporter. I can honestly say that I started in the mailroom.
A few years after I started at the “Big D”, in that same mailroom, a letter from Zanesville, Ohio, was stuffed in a stack of faxes and press releases in my mailbox.
It was from an older couple I’d befriended in the ‘Ville who lived across from me on Thurman Street.
The Axlines had been watching my career take off from afar by reading my stories in the paper. Tucked into the letter was a little gold angel pin on a paper card that read:
A Gift to A Friend. ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER.
I have treasured it all these years. No matter what life and career have thrown me, my time in the Ville gave me the satisfaction of feeling like I’d made it, that my dues were paid.
I’d made it out of the Ville with no idea of what I’d do.
And it ended up working out, with an angel on my shoulder.