First Person Singular: Joe Urschel

First Person Singular
(Benjamin C Tankersley)
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Sunday, May 24, 2009

My first job in the news business was at age 11 or 12. I delivered the Chicago dailies by foot and wagon from home. My father would give me a ride if I was sick. I think it was 3 cents per delivery, and I got a penny deducted for every one that was late or if someone complained.

As a [high-school] junior, I took a job at the Star-Tribune in suburban Chicago. It was a small paper, just twice a week. I worked my way up two summers during college as a reporter and a real editor and got a full-time job. During my first week, everyone was out at lunch but me and the city editor when we heard there was a big fire at the local hospital. These were the days before pagers, before cellphones, so before he could get his regular crew, the editor sent me out with a photographer. It was bedlam -- people being evacuated, firemen running everywhere. The photographer, an old vet who'd been doing this forever, asked, "Have you ever done this before?" "Cover a fire?" I said. Well, yeah, cover a fire. Obviously I was new. The photog said: "See that guy over there? He's the fire chief. Stand next to him and write down everything he says. If you have any questions, ask him." No one was terribly injured, and there were no major heroics, unless I totally screwed up and missed them.

I went back to the newsroom, wrote the story that afternoon, and it came out the next day -- front page in one or more of our 10 community editions, farther back in others. It wasn't my first story -- I'd covered a committee meeting or written an obit, I guess -- but it was the biggest. My parents were proud, and some friends noticed. Not the editor. Editors are never impressed. When I'd come back, he'd just growled, "Okay, great. Cut 20 lines out of it." He did keep giving me assignments, but there were no other fires. That was the first and last of my career.

I've been in the museum business 12 years, but I still feel the pull of news. Several times a day I wander around the public areas. I make a point to walk through every exhibit every day, see what's going on. If you're in the news business, you go out and talk to people. I strike up a conversation with a visitor who's curious about, say, the Berlin Wall, and they ask, "How did you get it? How was it transported here?" They want to know -- they have a great curiosity. It's innate; it's human nature. People ask, "What's new?" They say that in every language.

Interview by Ellen Ryan


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