a Monitor Journey


I happened to be asked this question the day after I heard British artist Tom Phillips tell an American audience about the main thing he had learned from his art teacher - who had learned the same thing from his teacher, who had learned the same thing from his teacher, who had (Phillips was smiling in his beard) learned ... all the way back to Raphael. So Phillips had shaken the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of ... a master painter of 500 years ago.

Raphael turns up as a symbol of high art in the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Monitor. I waited to hear what Phillips had learned - through what he called ``20 degrees of separation'' - from Raphael.

When I came to the Monitor, I was a mere degree or two of separation from its founder. I shook the hand of associate editor Paul S. Deland, a member of the original staff who was still on the staff to celebrate the Monitor's 50th anniversary.

Along with more profound journalistic lessons, Deland offered a deadline preachment: ``Readers will forgive you for missing a comma but not for missing the train.'' That was before satellites sent newspapers to remote printing plants, when local and regional editions of the Monitor were still printed on rumbling presses in the basement and rushed onto the street or into the mail.

Why did Tom Phillips and Raphael stick in my mind when I was asked about bygone Monitor days? Because Phillips finally ended the suspense about the main lesson that had been handed down to him. It was one word: probity.

I don't believe I ever heard this word from Deland or from any of my other mentors - and I kept having them all along, including a new generation when I was assigned to World Monitor: The Christian Science Monitor Monthly with my old friend Earl Foell. Yet probity, I realize, was the main lesson handed down to me as well as to Phillips.

The dictionary calls probity ``adherence to the highest principles and ideals,'' with Latin roots going back to ``honest'' and ``to prove.'' Phillips stressed the sense of proof, of one's work proving itself.

I thought of Mary Baker Eddy's statement: ``The habitual struggle to be always good is unceasing prayer.'' That has seemed to me a wonderful way to run a newspaper, or anything else.

The idea of proving one's principles through action gained new adherents among idealistic young people of the 1960s and later. It was already attractive to many of us setting out to find jobs in the '40s after World War II.

Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi had written that he judged people's religion not by what they said but by what they did.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre spoke of a postwar dilemma: During the resistance to the Nazis, it was easy to know the right thing to do but hard to do it; after the war, it was easy to do anything - but hard to know what was right.

Theologian Paul Tillich, forced out of Germany by the Nazis, elaborated on the idea of worship exemplified by action. Whatever people say that they worship, they show what they really worship - be it God or money or power or something else - by what they do.

Heavy! That's what one of us might have said to change the subject when we sat around the desk for copykids - the 1948 Monitor's term for youngsters who ran copy around to editors and typesetters. We weren't much given to philosophizing on the job. At $30-something a week, we all knew we weren't worshipping money.

I see now that our copykid probity, to use Phillips's word, began by trying to be reliable about the daily routine. How I cheer in retrospect the blithe colleague who had to get up in the morning even before we did, so he could go downtown and bring back from the Associated Press office the yards of copy generated by the overnight news wires. Then one of us tore the items apart with a hard-edged ruler and had them waiting for their respective editors. Now the updated wires appear instantly on everybody's computer screen.

When copykids moved into writing and editing, probity might mean getting facts right, using words correctly, doing unto the subjects of stories as you would have them do unto you.

The first step in writing editorials was to represent accurately the events being analyzed, not to set up straw men easy to knock down. I was reminded of this by readers, not only those who might catch a mistake but also those who did their own version of setting up straw men, criticizing a piece for something it didn't say.

On the editorial page, I learned a lesson about writing from a cartoonist. Guernsey Le Pelley had been known to most readers for his ``Tubby and Buddy'' comic strip - yes, the Monitor used to carry comic strips. But I saw him, as an editorial cartoonist, researching the news so thoroughly that he could have fun with a situation without falsifying it.

I'm tempted to say Lepy's probity extended to sportsmanship on the squash court, to which several of us repaired after work from time to time. But I can imagine his already-loud bow tie exploding at such solemnity. It must have been someone else who would address the squash ball by the name of some momentarily misguided editor before whaling it into the wall. A former editor, who regularly sat in on the editorial page meetings, said he loved how people could argue so passionately with him and still seem so civilized.

One of the pleasures of being on the Monitor was to hear how people off the Monitor also appreciated it. Take such contrasting authors as South African novelist Alan Paton and American pundit William Buckley Jr. When they accepted invitations to write essays for The Home Forum, they both volunteered such unsolicited praise of the paper that the circulation department took notice. Would they by any chance allow their photographs to be used in endorsement ads? Of course.

James Thurber mentioned being ``central Ohio correspondent'' of the Monitor in his book about Harold Ross, first editor of The New Yorker. When I interviewed him at publication time, he fondly remembered those earlier days, even feeling that he had been rather well paid. Except his checks began coming in the name of Jane Thurber. When he gently complained, he received the Monitor's ``very polite reply,'' beginning ``Dear Miss Thurber.'' He said it was one of the things that made him a humorist.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton recalled when some of her earliest published poems appeared in the Monitor: ``My father would get 30 copies of the newspaper and send them to all his customers - all his friends - maybe 40 or 50.'' This is from her recent biography, which contains her tribute to mentor and fellow poet John Holmes, whose work also appeared in these pages.

I wasn't on the Pulitzer jury that recommended Sexton's prize. But, thanks to my Monitor credentials, I was on several others, and even now I smile inside and out when I meet Pulitzer Prize-winning authors who don't know my vote helped. And I enjoy remembering the give-and-take with fellow jurors who came from other parts of the literary forest with their own probity.

Then there's the new book of writings about Duke Ellington and his music. It cites one of his very first interviews in the national press - Janet Mabie's from the Monitor in 1930. That was a quarter century before a new use for our paper was reported at Ellington's historic performance of ``Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue'' at the Newport Jazz Festival. In the wings stood the great drummer Papa Jo Jones inspiring the band by beating time with a rolled-up Monitor.

At the first White House jazz festival, President Carter thanked the Monitor editorial page through me for sitting down and listening to his ideas early in the campaign ``when we needed it.'' Oh, oh, now I'm getting to the part echoing that shy book title, ``Presidents Who Have Known Me.''

At a Shakespeare evening President Nixon said, ``Give us a good review,'' and Pat Nixon next to him shook her head and added, ``He's always selling.'' I met President Kennedy when he was honoring Robert Frost. I had an at-home interview with Eleanor Roosevelt. In Libya, I sat next to Muammar Qaddafi on a carpet at an outdoor feast for the Pan-African Youth Congress.

To get in touch with people who were not in the headlines, the Monitor sent me across the country by bus for a series of 20 articles at the time of the US bicentennial. Later I wrote about going across China and the then Soviet Union by train.

And, stagestruck probably from birth, I was ushered by the Monitor into showbiz beyond my small-town Minnesota boyhood dreams. Debbie Reynolds put her hand on my shoulder and said, ``You were in a high school band too?'' (I believe she played French horn.) Neil Simon said my review of a panned play had found something in it that caused him not to scrap it but improve it for Broadway.

Harold Prince dropped a note about one of my reviews, and years later he agreed to write an article for World Monitor on producing ``The Phantom of the Opera'' around the globe. I wrote about mime Marcel Marceau from Ireland before his years of popularity in the US; this year I received a glorious drawing of Marceau in various roles, a legacy of drama critic John Beaufort, my dear Monitor editor in earliest New York bureau days. I heard John Huston tell how he couldn't tailor a film to what he imagined someone would like; he had to do what satisfied his intentions and hope there were enough other people to like it, too.

Are we back to a version of probity? Over this almost half a century, I may have skipped a day or two of Raphael's ``adherence to the highest principles and ideals'' or Mrs. Eddy's ``struggle to be always good.'' But I knew that this was the Monitor's goal, too, one that was felt in the world but not universally shared by employers when I first looked for a job - or now. It was not I, as an individual, but I, as a representative of such a newspaper, who found doors open to all the opportunity and delight that I've barely sampled above. That's what it was like to work for the Monitor.

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