How I discovered my ‘voice’

Ashtabula Star-Beacon, April 28, 2005
Fourth in a Series: “Star-Beacon Old School”

My guidance counselor gave me a chore, my statistics-keeping got me a chance, but ultimately my voice provided me a lot of the stories.

No, not “voice” as in writing style.  “Voice” as in speaking voice.  Eventually, I think I developed the former, but while I was working for the Star-Beacon sports department from 1969 to 1971, it was the latter that came in handy.  In fact, it let me stop delivering the paper and begin writing for it.

More on that later, because dwelling on that part of the story would put me at risk of using the dreaded “vertical pronoun” way too much at the top of this little reminiscence. Why, there are three “I’s” in the previous paragraph alone!  Better instead to remember that there were giants in those days, as the Star-Beacon sports department of the 1970s served as a launching pad for a remarkable number of journalism careers.

Since ESPN hadn’t been invented yet, no one knew Vince Doria would go on not just to be sports editor of the Boston Globe, but managing editor of ESPN.  Since the Internet hadn’t been invented yet, no one knew I would start a series of Web sites for the Chicago Tribune.  Who would have thought Bob Pastin would go on to be the sports editor of the Baltimore News American and the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch?  That the Baltimore News American would go out of business after both Pastin and my brother, Randy, worked there?  Or that Randy would also put the Dallas Times Herald out of business before landing at the Orange County Register for 20 years?  Or that the Boston Globe would ultimately be sold to the New York Times?

Hmmm.  Dead newspapers, the Internet, ’round-the-clock TV sports.  Do we have to blame the Star-Beacon alumni club for everything?

For me, it started when Ashtabula High School football coach/guidance counselor Tony Chiacchiero made me his team statistician as part of a well-meaning effort to turn me into a normal high school student.  What happened next was more or less like a patter song from a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta: “I gathered those stats so carefully/That now I am a writer at the old S-B.” When football season ended, the fellow who held down the jobs of sports editor at the Beacon and sports director at WREO Radio offered me a job that was even more fun than delivering the paper.

While the rest may not be history, it at least gave me a chance to learn about history.  In addition to covering games, taking pictures, developing film, printing photos, dummying pages, editing bowling scores and sorting wire photos, I got it into my head to start going through old Star-Beacon clips to compile all-time high school sports records for Ashtabula County – in track and field, in basketball, whatever we could think of – and then tell the readers how our current stars stacked up.  (I see by the Star-Beacon Web site these days that I would not be the last sports department employee ever to pursue this topic.)

There really were stars, too; a lot of the ones I remember were from Harbor – Mark Wagner went on to a nine-year career in the major leagues; Randy and I went to see him play for the Tigers while we were both still attending North Park College in Chicago.  Jerry Jeram played split end for Top 10 Penn State teams, one of which went 12-0 his junior year.  Todd Crandall was an honorable-mention All-America golfer at Florida State.  Maybe I remember the Harbor athletes better because, as a journalist, I couldn’t be paying too much attention to my friends at Bula!

And then there were the coaches.  My favorite had to be Harry Fails, the Conneaut basketball coach who went on to many years of success at Alliance.  He was funny, he was smart and he and his young family introduced me to “Sesame Street.”

That’s notable because unlike many of the coaches I covered, I actually met Fails face to face (that’s how I happened to see Big Bird in the background one day in Conneaut).  In order for me to be successful as a high-school-age high school sports writer, one specific issue had to be dealt with: getting high school coaches to give good, candid quotes about high school students – their players – to another high school student.  These days, there’d have to be some kind of privacy law, but back then the sainted Vince Doria didn’t much worry about it.

Anyway, it turns out that the issue never needed to be spoken of, once I started speaking.  That’s where my voice comes in.  You see, my voice is pitched very, very low.  So low that you could never imagine it’s coming out of the mouth of a 16-year-old.  So low that some folks say they’ve never heard anything like it – except, that is, for brother, Randy’s.  So low, in fact, that high school coaches from Andover to Jefferson to Conneaut had no idea what they were getting into during their evening telephone calls from the Star-Beacon newsroom.

Until, that is, the day came that a few coaches got the idea of bringing some complaint or another to the Star-Beacon in person as a group.  I think they had an issue with the Northeastern Conference, though I don’t remember all that well any more.  What I do remember is seven or eight grown men, pillars of their communities, leading educators all, nervously shuffling from one foot to another around my desk in the newsroom – realizing that they were putting their reputations into the hands of a nearsighted kid whom they recognized as a game photographer, not as a gravelly-voiced telephone interviewer.

I guess that meeting cost Randy and his voice the element of surprise the next two years, when he took over for me on the high school beat upon my departure for college.  No matter.  He writes more great stories in a year than I have managed in my own lifetime in the newspaper business.  He also is a better golfer, but that is a story for another day.

Owen Youngman is vice president for development at the Chicago Tribune, where he began working as a copy boy two days after leaving the Star-Beacon in 1971. He is a 2005 inductee into the Ashtabula/Harbor/Lakeside High School Alumni Hall of Fame.

About Owen Youngman

Professor Emeritus of Journalism and formerly Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development and director of interactive media, Chicago Tribune.