Thursday, April 14, 2011

Remembering A Legend

Neal Shine.
Four years ago, this world lost a journalism legend.

This man embodied what is good and honorable in the City of Detroit, in the journalism profession, and just generally in the world we live. He was a mentor and true role model who's tough love in college shaped my journalism career. From his personal connection to my education and journalistic practice to those others who played a part in who I became.

Neal Shine, former Detroit Free Press publisher who had to retire twice to officially get away from his newspaper. But even that didn't keep him away. He died April 3, 2007 at age 76. But just like when he left the newspaper officially, he's not gone. He'll never be forgotten.

Every year about this time, I reflect on his role in my journalistic life and appreciate that I knew him. The actual broadsheet newspaper, now yellowed with three years of sunlight, still hangs on the bulletin board behind my desk at the office. A huge photo of Neal watches over my shoulder, making sure I stay ethical and do this writing the way it needs to be done.

Shine was one of the most inspiring journalists I've met, and his life story goes to the heart of rising from the bottom to the top. He entered the J-world in 1950, as a 20-year-old trying to fulfill his lifelong dream of working at the Detroit Free Press. He started as a copyboy before working his way up to reporter, columnist, various editor spots, and ultimately publisher. I remember hearing his stories about this in J-school, listening wide-eyed to his stories about literally running print copy from the newsroom to copy desk, fetching coffee for reporters, and whatever else he was told to ease the stress of a newsroom. He retired as publisher in the late 80s, but returned before his final farewell following the notorious Detroit newspapers strike in 95.

He loved this newspaper business. It was a part of him. And he made you love it, want to do it, chase that last story by beating your shoe leather on the pavement. It wasn't about making phone calls from behind a desk - it was about being out there in the community, making a difference and helping those who needed it by exposing the truth.

Mitch Albom, one of my all-time respected and cherished writers, a man whom I grew up reading and aspiring to write like, wrote this in his tribute: "Neal Shine was that guy. The one who lures you into newspapers -- then keeps you there forever. Neal loved the ink, the presses, the deadlines, the very idea that something important happens every day and 'damn it,' as he liked to say, someone should be covering it."

After learning of Neal's death, I searched desperately for a token of tangible evidence of his presence in my life. No such luck. We briefly served on the Oakland University newspaper's board of directors together - and I'd kept in touch with emails and a couple scattered written letters after my move to Indiana. My email accounts reveal those are now gone, lost in the depths of a long-ago deleted folder. So are most of my notes from those days when we shared some space in feature writing and ethics courses.

Neal once told me that I had all the potential in the world - if I just stood up and did what needed to be done. That lecture-like advice came from a time when I'd used some newspaper excuse to dodge an assignment in his feature-writing class, and he just shook his head and gave the written copy back to me, telling me to do it again. He gave me another chance. That advice tied directly into his ethics teachings, that you can never cut corners as a journalist. You have to get it right, and do it right. Any perception of wrongdoing is just as bad as the wrongdoing itself. It's a thought that carries over to my daily reporting world now, when having to turn down basketball tickets or even a cup of coffee from a source. Years back, I'd almost come to blows with a school district spokeswoman who wanted to buy me a sandwich during a lunch interview. Shine was in my thoughts as I refused, and I could just imagine him chuckling but being proud that I stuck to my guns.

Like any mentor, you could call him at home. You had his personal email and mailing address. We knew each other mostly through college settings, but we came from the same hometown - and he always remembered that. This man taught me to love the newspapering business in a way I'd had little exposure before: for the ethics and integrity of it all.

This online tribute has been created in this man's honor, and I encourage anyone who wants to just read an inspiring American story about a great man to check it out.

I mark this time of year by remembering Mr. Neal Shine, a true Detroiter. The type of old-school journalism man that's getting harder and harder to find these days as newsrooms are traded in for "information centers." We all owe him a debt of gratitude for doing what he did - simply telling people's stories in order to make a difference, and touching others' lives in doing so. Thanks for making journalism - this world - what it is and inspiring others to be the best humans we can be.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

Sounds as though this man had a profound impact on your life and career direction, and so I'm sorry to hear of the loss. But appreciative that you had the chance to know and learn from him, Michael.