TAMMEUS RETIRES FROM FULL-TIME STAR WORK
BOSTON -- Today is my last official day as a full-time employee of The Kansas City Star. After nearly 36 years of working there, I'm taking formal retirement. (The first picture here? Hang on, I'll get to it.)
And I'm not even in the office for the final hours. I'm here in Boston attending the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, which I once served as president.
My decision to knock off full-time work doesn't mean you won't be hearing from me anymore, however. I will continue writing a weekly column in our Faith section on a freelance basis. I also will continue writing this blog. So you haven't seen the last of Tammeus yet. (Hold the jeers.) Besides, I'm working on some book projects you eventually may want to read (assuming you already have read my 2001 book, A Gift of Meaning. If not, go buy a couple dozen copies; I'll wait).
A regular e-mail correspondent recently wrote to me to say of himselt that he hopes people "will not only recognize my preposterous limitations but occasional lucidities as well." That, it turns out, has been my own hope as a columnist for all these years, the last couple of which I've worked in the space you see pictured here to the right.
Just about the only qualification one needs to be a columnist is the ability to make people think. We columnists do that despite our preposterous limitations. We do that in all kinds of ways, too: By making readers angry, sad, happy, curious, upset, joyful and even forlorn. Over the years, readers have told me they have experienced all those emotions reading my words and, beyond that, some have actually learned something from what I've written, apparently because of my occasional lucidities.
But my lucidities have been much less frequent than I'd have liked. They have, however, happened, and for that I'm eternally grateful to the source of such lucidities, the patient God who loves me in spite of myself.
I came to The Star in September 1970 from the now-defunct afternoon newspaper in Rochester, N.Y., the Times-Union, where I went to work in 1967 after I had graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. On my first day on the job in KC I wore a preposterous green suit with a vest. Editors gave me the next day off. Not because they hated the suit (they had no sartorial taste, either) but because nearly all of us had to work on Saturdays, so we were granted one day off in the week, and my day off for the early years turned out to be Tuesday.
I covered countless stories in those early years, from obits to page 1 investigative matters. My "beat," if I could be said to have one, was urban affairs, which meant race relations, poverty, housing -- all the things that were tearing at the heart of our great cities. And almost every workday (except when I'd slip in a side door), I'd walk into the office through the door you see pictured here. (That's our publisher, Mac Tully, heading up the steps. He still has to do that. I don't.)
Maybe my best contribution to understanding all of that urban dynamics stuff came in some series of articles I did in 1975, as I recall. In the first series, I helped to show that about 50 square miles of our inner city had been, in effect, redlined by traditional mortgage lenders. Home buyers in those areas simply could not get the kind of traditional 30-year conventional mortgages that were the engine for suburban growth.
In another series, I described the various ad hoc, jury-rigged ways that -- given the lack of conventional mortgages -- inner city property changed hands, ways that helped to deteriorate the city even further. And in another series I wrote about how one square block in the inner city turned from mostly white residents to mostly black. I described that house by house, sad story by sad story. I think it opened some eyes.
I spent much of 1976 traveling and covering national politics, particularly the surprising rise of Jimmy Carter. I spent time in Plains, Ga., that year and traveled some with him in other parts of the country. In addition, I was assigned to cover him at the Democratic convention that summer in New York City. The day after the convention ended -- and on about three hours of sleep -- I flew from New York to Washington, D.C., to interview Vice President Nelson Rockefeller for a piece I was doing to appear in a special section related to the Republican National Convention that year in Kansas City, an event I also helped to cover. (You've probably figured out by now that the picture up top here is of me in Rocky's office with him. You like the hair? Mine, not Rocky's.)
When that year ended -- after additional travel to cover politics in such places as California and North Carolina -- I was ready for something different. I just didn't know what.
Then in February 1977, Bill Vaughan, the Starbeams columnist, died at the tender age of 61, my age now. I was assigned to write his obituary. In the process, I re-learned that Starbeams was the oldest continuously published column in the United States. So I proposed that we not let it die. Editors pondered my suggestion, wondering who in the world could take over from Vaughan, a widely recognized comic genius. I suggested they give me a shot, and they agreed, saying that in six months we'd re-evaluate. My first Starbeams column appeared in May 1977 and I wrote the column for more than 25 years. I guess they never had time to re-evaluate.
Starbeams was a daily column of epigrams -- quick one-liners, mostly about the news of the day. I made it quite political and took shots at everyone, left, right and center. But I also made it about our everyday lives.
Once, after a big snow storm, for instance, I wrote a line that went something like this: Snowflakes are like pretty little girls, delicate and lovely to look at -- until you get too many of them in the same place at the same time.
As time moved along, I was encouraged (by the late Joe McGuff and the late Jim Scott, among others) to start writing longer narrative columns, either humorous or serious. So I did -- on no particular schedule at first and then on a regular rotation. For many years I wrote an average of five and a half columns a week -- five Starbeams columns (one or two of which were humorus narratives) plus an every-other-Sunday column, which tended to be more serious.
Often in those Sunday columns I would look at the world through my theological lenses, so to speak, and would tackle some of life's eternal questions by focusing on events in the news or things I myself was experiencing.
Eventually Rich Hood, then editorial page editor, asked me to write regularly about religious affairs in our unsigned editorials and to feel free to develop some of those thoughts further in columns. So my last eight or 10 years on the editorial page found me writing a fair number of columns with some kind of spiritual content.
All the while I continued to gripe to various editors about our failure to devote enough resources to news coverage of religion and ethics. For years we depended solely on Helen T. Gray, our religion editor, to cover it all. I love Helen to death and she has always done her best, but asking one person to cover religion is like asking one person to be the sports department at a major metropolitan paper. So eventually I was asked to move my column to the Faith section and to focus my non-column work on this area for stories that might appear on page A-1, in the local news section, in the Faith section, in the lifestyle section or anywhere else.
That meant that in March 2004 I made that move, even though I had thought about taking retirement at age 60, which I reached in January 2005. But I promised Star Editor Mark Zieman at least a year beyond that date, and I have given him a year and a half.
It's been a wonderful run. (Speaking of runs, there goes the last bus I rode home after my almost-last day at work the other day.)
In the early 1990s I started to maintain a list of cities out of which I have datelined -- that is, from which I wrote stories or columns. The list is woefully incomplete because it misses more than 20 years of my career, but at last count the list contained more than 140 cities, from Aix-en-Provence, France, to Cairo, from Chapel Hill, N.C., to Grand Lake, Colo., from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Paris, from San Diego to Tucson and from West, Texas, to Woodstock -- both the one in Illinois, my hometown, and the one in Vermont, near where my wife grew up.
While I was doing all of that, I also became active in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, an upstart organization that was pretty disorganized. About 1989 or 1990, I attended my first of the NSNC's annual conventions and learned, after I got back home from having to leave early, that I had been elected vice president.
So when I became president two years later, I decided we needed to have actual bylaws and some kind of structure and that we should do more to improve the professionalism of columnists -- without losing wonderfully wacky feel of the NSNC. Surprisingly, that's pretty much what has happened. So at this year's gathering in Boston we have lots of panel discussions and outside speakers and the kind of thing you're likely to find at true professional organizations. Amazing, because organizing columnists is like herding worms.
But as time has moved along, I've found myself frustrated at not having time to do all the non-work things I also want to be doing. And not having enough time just to put on my Chuck Taylors (I have red, yellow and blue, not the pink ones shown here) and park and read.
As I said, I've got two or three book projects in mind, at least one of which is in the works. I've also got four grandchildren, all of whom live near my wife and me, and I don't get to spend enough time with them. Besides, there are volunteer things I want to do, golf I want to play, books I want to read. Plus lots of travel, church work and re-learning how to play the oboe. Not to mention all the boxes in the basement that need to be sorted through so that when I buy the farm my children won't have to deal with the disorganized mess that faced my sisters and me when our parents died.
In other words, I don't have time to work full-time any more, despite the wondeful people I've been privileged to work for.
But please keep reading my blog and my weekly column. I'll let you know when I get too busy even to do those.
To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow, by the way, will list some worthwhile faith-based books -- and I'll use the blog this weekend to extend that list.)