I SOMETIMES wondered why I did it to myself, why I voluntarily became editor of a college newspaper that put out five issues a week throughout the academic year. Such thoughts usually came to me at 5 a.m. as I trudged home to bed, or a few hours later when my alarm woke me for morning classes.
The job didn't seem very glamorous on the days when I nodded off in lectures or took hostile phone calls from disgruntled readers. There were also those long evenings when dinner didn't come until well after midnight -- and then it was no more than HoHos and a jumbo Coke.
Being editor meant going to classes, going to the paper and going to bed. It was a vicious cycle that left schoolwork for the weekends. It was a schedule that shocked parents, teachers and friends. Only those who actually experienced it could understand -- those who climbed the stairs to the paper's ramshankle offices on East State Street at 3 p.m. and didn't leave until the paper was put to bed, those who invested 60 hours of every week to a tabloid-sized rag called The Cornell Daily Sun.
But that one year as editor was also the most exciting, educational and memorable of my life. When I handed over my position to an eager junior a few months ago, I was both relieved and sad that it was over.
What kept me and other Sun editors going was not the pay. Although some college dailies pay their editors hefty sums, we received only a small portion of the newspaper's profits (I once calculated it to be about a dollar per hour). It had to be a love of journalism that forced us back every night. It certainly wasn't the glory, for compliments came infrequently and were buried in a sea of complaints.
A career at The Sun always begins the same way. Each fall, the paper holds an open house for prospective staff members, during which timid freshmen are shuttled downtown on chartered buses to The Sun's decaying newsroom. They are fed cheap cookies and punch and introduced to "Ithaca's only morning newspaper," as we proudly call it. The training program for new writers -- which editors long ago dubbed the "compet program" from the days when students actually competed for postions on the paper -- consists of weekly meetings, practice articles and many nights of writing headlines.
Because of the huge staff and the long hours, campus dailies are great social activities, and many a romance has been born in the newsroom. Unofficial policies had to be devised which precluded editors from touching stories by their "significant others." And scandals and scenes occasionally interrupted normal newsroom operations. Yet although the social side of newspapering did often get in the way of putting out the next day's edition, in the end we left with both extensive journalism experience and lifelong friends.
Not everyone who joined The Sun had visions of covering the White House one day. Sun alumni are now prominent doctors, diplomats and judges (we even have one professional magician). But aspiring journalists flocked to the paper. Because Cornell only offers a single newswriting course, The Sun became the school's unofficial journalism department for those studying everything from English to chemical engineering. Those that went off to newsrooms are working today for Associated Press, United Press International, The New York Times, Newsweek and 60 Minutes. The legends that preceded us -- like author E.B. White, who was editor in chief in 1921 -- kept us going during particularly difficult nights.
Today, however, those tortuous nights have somehow disappeared from my memory, leaving only the exciting incidents, the noteworthy, the bizarre -- as when our Associated Press wire machine broke down on election night forcing me to write the lead story about how the Democrats seized the Senate, about the man with a rifle that I chased down State Street armed only with a notepad and pen, about the pigeon that lived in our newsroom (and bombarded it) for nearly a week.
One time, a student protester threw a cream pie into the face of Cornell's president as he was speaking on campus. While I wrote an editorial denouncing the incident as immature and ineffective later that night, I received an anonymous phone call from someone claiming to be the "mysterious pie-thrower." In the back of my mind, as I scribbled down notes that the next day were picked up by AP, I realized that this person was really different only in degree from the terrorists that routinely call news organizations after their big attacks.
BECAUSE all the journalists on the staff were still learning the craft, the complaints we received were frequently justified. One editor once inserted fabricated quotations into a news story as a joke and forgot to take them out. We had a photographer who would ensure that pictures he took of attractive women made it into the paper and then ask them out on dates. One time we had to run a correction that was almost as long as the original article in question.
Every once in a while strangers would appear in our newsroom. They ranged in age from young adults to old timers, but they would all do the same thing: roam around the offices, flip through some old issues and inevitably say, "I was an editor, you know." Sun editors never forget their year.
One former editor perhaps summed up the newspaper best during The Sun's 100th anniversary banquet in 1980 when he said: "I was happiest when I was all alone -- and it was very late at night, and I was walking up the hill after having helped to put The Sun to bed. All the other university people, teachers and students alike, were asleep. They had been playing games all day long with what was known about real life. They had been repeating famous arguments and experiments, and asking one another the sorts of hard questions real life would be asking by and by.
"We on The Sun were already in the midst of real life. By God, if we weren't! We had just designed and written and caused to be manufactured yet another morning newspaper for a highly intelligent American community of respectable size. . . . I am an atheist, as some of you may have gleaned from my writings. But I have to tell you that as I trudged up the hill so late at night and all alone, I knew that God Almighty approved of me."
His name was Kurt Vonnegut.
Marc Lacey, who was editor in chief of The Cornell Daily Sun from 1986 to 1987, is now a member of the Washington Post metropolitan news staff.