On a March night in 1988, Janie Golightly’s boss — a man named Paul Poteat — suggested that she and her colleagues take off work, leave the building and watch history being made.
The workplace was The Washington Post. And the history? Students at Gallaudet University were marching to the Mayflower Hotel to confront the school’s board of trustees, who had just announced a hearing person would be the school’s next president.
Poteat wasn’t deaf, but Golightly is. So were many of her co-workers at The Post. They were printers, the people who laid out the type for the news stories, made up the advertisements and got the pages ready to be transmitted to the presses.
Golightly recalled that episode at a recent reunion of more than a dozen deaf printers who once worked at The Post.
“If I’ve done my math correctly, you represent more than 350 years of experience,” said Brian Greenwald, a history professor at Gallaudet, the university in Northeast Washington where the meeting was held. He and his colleague Jean Bergey run the Schuchman Deaf Documentary Center, which is creating an online exhibit about deaf printers.
This was a brainstorming session on what that exhibit should include.
“We’re the last,” said Golightly, whose husband, Mike, was also a printer. “There is no one else after us. We want to preserve this history. It’s important for future generations.”
The printers are all in their 70s now. Some had started in the days of the Linotype machine, when lead was melted and molded into letters: hot type. They transitioned to cold type, when text on lengths of photographic paper was cut and pasted onto lined boards. And then they witnessed pagination, when computers could create entire pages on a screen.
All that type, all that wax to hold it down, all those rolls of line tape for making boxes and borders, all the X-Acto blades to cut it — all replaced by a computer program and a hard drive.
But for decades, being a printer was a very good job.
“Schools for the deaf encouraged students to work in certain fields,” said Steve Moore, who worked at The Post from 1968 to 2001. “Printing went to the more advanced students.”
Post printers were members of the International Typographical Union. To be hired as a journeyman printer, they had to pass what was known as the DUPE test, neatly laying out a full page of multiple ads in four hours.
Not all workplaces were the best for deaf people, the printers agreed. Some composing rooms had bad reputations. Not The Post’s.
“The Post has a real love for deaf people,” said Daniel Krpta, who worked as a printer for The Post for years.
The paper offered educational opportunities for its deaf printers — and American Sign Language classes for hearing editors who worked with them.
Being deaf was not without its challenges. To enter darkrooms where photos were developed, printers had to walk through blackened, rotating doors designed to keep light out.
“Imagine trying to do sign language in complete darkness,” said Jan DeLap, who worked at The Post for 27 years.
Like any profession, printing has its own jargon. The printers demonstrated signs they used, like the one for “proofread”: one hand horizontal and flat, like a piece of paper, the other passing over it with a pointed finger. There was “RC”: the letters R and C, signed in succession to indicate RayComp, a primitive, computerized ad-layout system.
And there was the sign that meant “sub”: pointer and middle finger extended, like a Boy Scout salute turned horizontally. It looks a bit like a rectangular badge, and it comes from the paper name cards indicating who was working that day. A sub was a part-timer chosen to work a shift, signified by moving his or her card onto a board. (My thanks to able interpreters Ella Fagone and Jamie Yost.)
“Do not forget the pranks,” DeLap said. “Holy moly, the things that went on down there.”
Once, Janie’s husband, Mike, left two paper cutout hands on her chair so they would become taped to her bottom when she sat down.
But there was great camaraderie, too. And pride. Said DeLap: “I knew working alongside hearing colleagues that we made the same money, and that was good.”
And like anyone who worked at The Post, they got to witness history. Sometimes, that history was personal.
When stories on the Deaf President Now — or DPN — demonstrations came down to the composing room, “We kept our eye out to make sure they used the right wording,” said Mike Golightly. That meant not using “hearing-impaired,” a term disliked by the deaf community.
The DPN movement galvanized the student body at Gallaudet and brought worldwide attention to deaf culture. On March 13, 1988, university officials announced that I. King Jordan would take the top job at Gallaudet. The headline on Page A1 of the next day’s Post read: “Gallaudet U. Selects First Deaf President; Board Chief Resigns; Student Demands Met.”
Bergey signed a question: “How many of you kept that front page?”
Up went every hand.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.