Writer’s Roost

He didn’t get out New Year’s Eve with amateur drunks



When someone asks me what I’m going to do on New Year’s Eve, I usually tell them I’m going to be at home in my comfortable recliner watching something representative of the holiday, most likely a football game.

I’m not quite a teetotaler — I do have a glass of good white wine on occasion, generally with or just before a wonderful meal by Life Mate.

But, not since my somewhat miscreant college days have I imbibed on that holiday in a dangerous and irresponsible manner, nor any other day, for that matter.

Every year, between Christmas and the dawning of another year, I always think about New Years past and of what a late, good friend and former associate once said to me about drinking and that holiday.

Dick Laughlin and I became acquainted — professionally associated, then friends — late in his life.

I was the editor of The Conroe Courier, a large twice-weekly newspaper about to make the jump to daily. At that point, I’d experienced only weekly newspaper writing, editing and publishing in my almost quarter century in the business.

When the new publisher came on board, he met with me at length regularly to let me know of his plans and our expectations of quality in every aspect of newspaper publishing were very comparable. He informed me he wanted an already excellent newspaper to become better and that in a few months he wanted to convert the Courier into a daily paper.

That was not altogether surprising since Conroe and Montgomery County were beginning to experience significant and rapid growth as burgeoning Houston spilled over.

His caveat to me was to develop a talented staff, big enough to captivate readers and advertisers and to meet the challenges proffered by the efforts of then-two metropolitan dailies in Houston to move with the growth into Montgomery County.

I knew from observation and from shoptalk over the years that an editor and/or managing editor could not plan coverage and direct news operations, plus achieve quality writing through thorough editing, without a “copy editor.”

With a dozen reporters and daily deadlines, it would be impossible for the editor (me) to accomplish that grindstone effort. In a daily paper’s operations, the editor must plan and direct the long-range news coverage plus special issues. Additionally, he must see to it that reasonable deadlines are set and met so that the last copy of a day’s newspaper is in the hands of the reader-subscriber at a prescribed time. Administrative function precluded actually doing the handson editing of stories by reporters.

That meant hiring a “copy editor,” someone whose job was to take everything written for the paper, editing and correcting it so that it was literate and appealing to readers and not “embarrassing” to the newspaper.

With half a score of applicants, one intrigued me. It was 65-year-old Dick Laughlin, who was retiring — not from work, but from the daily grind of the Houston advertising business. He had a deep and broad understanding of the communications business, plus the whitehaired, white-mustachioed Irishman had a laid-back but professional demeanor that said he could do the job and charm the writers/reporters into accepting his blue-pen alterations to their prideful daily submissions.

In the interview process, I learned that he was a recovering alcoholic and hadn’t had a drink in 25 years. My immediate response, but uninformed and unintended insult, was: “Oh, you’re a reformed drunk.”

Dick bristled and his eyes showered sparks as he explained, “I’m recovering in an ongoing process, not reforming from any criminal activity. It’s a sickness, not a crime!”

I hired him on the spot. He was an absolute hit as copy editor. His intelligence, literacy and Irish charm made him the focal point of the newsroom. On the first New Year’s Eve he was on the job, I asked him if he was going out to celebrate that evening. His response: “Hell no! I’m not getting out that evening with all the amateur drunks.” Dick anticipated my interpretation of “amateur drunk,” and explained that every guy who didn’t drink all year long thought he had to go out and buy a bottle of liquor to celebrate the holiday, and drink all of it so he didn’t “waste” his money. “Then, he’ll get in his car and drive.”

I stood corrected and somewhat chastised.

To my great delight, we became good friends.

WILLIS WEBB is a retired community newspaper publisher of more than 55 years experience. He can be reached by email at wwebb1937@att.net.

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