Monday, August 26, 2013

 

HAPPY TRAILS, CHIEF

 
"Joe B." is leaving the Times Leader. He will be missed, but not forgotten
 

Times Leader features staff, 1999  
 

It's hard to imagine The Times Leader without Joe Butkiewicz. When I see the paper on my front porch every morning, I think of him. For 30 years, he was a constant presence in the newsroom, and I was fortunate enough to have been there with him for about half of them. At first, he was my co-worker. Later, for about seven years, he was my boss. Then, as we each moved in and out of different positions at the paper, he became a trusted colleague. Ultimately, what I will always consider him to be is a mentor and a friend. And since this is his last week at the TL, I would be remiss to not share some thoughts on the man that I have come to respect as much as anyone I have ever known in my own 20-plus years of journalism.
When I say "Joe B," as everyone calls him, was a constant presence in the newsroom, I mean it. When I first started at the paper in 1993, he was already a 10-year veteran, a features writer and a film critic. And I can still recall those days in the early '90s when much of the newsroom staff would gather outside of the editor's office to discuss the latest highly-hyped blockbuster while Joe held court. His opinion mattered then, and years later when he became the editorial page editor, it mattered even more. With his commentaries on life in NEPA, his voice was, in essence, the voice of the newspaper. And in recent years, as he has served as executive editor - a.k.a. the big boss - his experience and leadership became its daily conscience.

My own nickname for Joe is "Chief." No real reason for it, other than from 1996-2001 and from 2005-2007, he was my boss. And I liked him. In fact when he was the Arts & Leisure Team Leader, or features editor, I think we all would have taken a bullet for him. He led by example and he worked harder than any of us. He also let us develop our respective beats, while also creating a culture where we all knew that we could - and should - contribute to all of the features pages.
In 1998, when Chief envisioned changing our Friday "Weekend" section into a tab, he knew exactly what he wanted. He knew it would be better for the readers and that it offered more creative ways for stories to be presented and designed. We all bought into his plan and helped launch "The Guide," which can you still find in your Times Leader every Friday. If you like it, you can thank Joe B.

As a boss, Chief was the type of supervisor that you didn't want to let down. If he gave you the ball, you didn't not want to drop it. He always reminded us that everything we did - everything - was about the reader. "The Reader, the reader, the reader," he would sometimes say, or write in an editing note on a story. Sometimes, back in the '90s, when Joe liked one of your stories or how you handled a certain situation, you might find a little note, typed on his stationary, lying on your desk. Later, they came via e-mail. In my home, in a drawer in my office, I still have them all. When Chief said you did good, it made you feel good.
When it came to arts and entertainment, Joe was not concerned with following trends. Yes, I was assigned a story on the "Macarena" sensation - I mean, we had to do it - but he also liked the paper to be first in informing people about things they might find interesting. I remember in 1996 there was a very good local band that was about to release an excellent new album. I had an advanced copy, and I thought that while the group did not have the following of a band like The Badlees, it too had a chance at a national record deal. I pitched the band and its CD release as a cover story for the "Weekend" section, and though I told Joe I thought they were fabulous, I also felt I should tell him that the group wasn't really packing the clubs just yet.

"That's doesn't concern me at all," he said. "Let's be the ones to tell everyone about them."
They were our cover story. And sometime later, Mere Mortals were voted NEPA's best original band.

Joe always supported my projects. When I got involved with "Concert For Karen" and "Concert For A Cause," he came to the shows and always bought a t-shirt. When I later worked with the Newspapers in Education program and helped present the annual Times Leader/Scripps Spelling Bee, Joe was there. His position at the paper did not really require him to attend such events, but he did. And it meant a lot. On one occasion, when Joe was features editor, we got word from a publicist that a story I had written and had moved on the national wire had run in some of the largest newspapers in the country. He took the list of papers it had appeared in right into the editor’s office to let her know. Thinking back, I now realize that the fact that Joe was happy for me and proud of me meant more to me than the thought that the article might have been read a million people.
In 2000, I wrote a "Look Back" story at Christmastime. I won't bore you with the all of the details, but when people ask me what is my favorite story I've ever written, it is the one. My first draft, however, was quite different than the one that was published. And the suggested changes that helped make it my favorite came from Joe B.

Perhaps such tales are why I worked for Joe not once, but twice. In 2001, Joe left his position as features editor to become editorial page editor. In 2004, I left the features desk to become Newspapers in Education Manager. I liked the job very much and was in the position for about a year when I was called into the publisher's office. Ironically, I had literally just gotten back from a week-long conference in Charleston, where I met with other Newspapers in Education managers (NIE) from around the country.
 "Did you know that while you were away, the editor of The Weekender resigned?" asked Pat McHugh. I told him I did. In fact, he was a good friend. "Would you consider taking the position?“ he asked. “With your experience as an entertainment writer and copy editor, I think it's a great fit."

I paused for a minute. Though I figured that was probably what he was going to ask me when he called me in, and I knew it was a nice opportunity, I really did love the NIE program. Noticing my hesitation, he leaned forward, smiled, and offered this:
"I should tell you that while you were gone, I made some changes. Joe B. is now overseeing all of the weekly newspapers, so if you do this, you'll be working for Joe."

He had me. He knew he had me. And for the next two years, Joe and I had some fun times working on The Weekender. In fact, I think we surprised people. Though some may have thought that two old Times Leader guys coming over to The Weekender might have led to the paper losing some of its edge, Joe and I stirred stuff up all the time. One week, with a somewhat racy cover, we actually got the paper booted right out of every Turkey Hill in NEPA. We in turn used the publicity to our advantage and had everyone in town looking to pick it up. Not bad for two Catholic kids from Kingston.
More than anything, however, Joe is a very serious journalist. As noted, the reader is always his main concern. Such was the case when he reviewed films and wrote slice-of-life columns, and when he wrote features and editorials. I also saw it firsthand once again when, in 2011, I sat with him on the newspaper's endorsement board for what was an incredibly important election. And throughout his entire tenure of his final position at the paper - as its executive editor - he worked well with everyone from the reporters to the designers to the online staff. And I assume that's because they all felt the same way about him as I did.

Joe always referred to tough days and the challenges of working at a newspaper as "The Bear." Sometimes, he said, The Bear will win. Sometimes, he said, you will win. Joe slayed many a bear.
A few more Joe B. stories:

Back in the early '90s, there was a forecast for a major blizzard that was expected to start mid-afternoon. We all knew it was coming. Steve Corbett, our loud and outspoken metro columnist, was seated at his desk near the window when he shouted, "I just saw the first flake!"

 "That's your reflection," deadpanned Joe B.
Not only did the comment itself crack me up, but I was even more impressed at the speed at which it was delivered. Steve fumbled for a witty comeback, but came up empty. I was a young and quiet kid at the time, sitting off in the corner, but I think in my 18 years at The Times Leader, it was the hardest I ever laughed. Steve did, too.

In 2011, I left the paper to work with Big Brothers Big Sisters of The Bridge. Joe and I have stayed in touch, and earlier this year, I told him we were about to start getting ready for "Bowl For Kids' Sake," our biggest annual fundraiser. The Times Leader has always been a major sponsor of the event, but I knew there had been some big changes in the marketing department at the paper, and I wasn't sure who I should talk to about running some promos for the event. Joe thought about it for a minute, and finally said, "Just get them to me." This was certainly not the responsibility of the executive editor of the newspaper. And while some might say he had bigger fish to fry, Joe does not think that way. He knows a newspaper has a responsibility to a community. Our "Bowl For Kids' Sake" promos ran in the paper, and I know that this was not simply because of our relationship. He's done it for many other community groups as well. He knows it is just as important as the page one headline.

Though he was no longer my supervisor, I worked with Joe right up until the day I left the paper. For about two years, I wrote a Sunday feature called "MEET." It was Joe that asked me to write it, and again, I enjoyed working with him. And after 18 years, on my very last day at the paper, even though he worked in another building, it was Joe that came over to my office at the end of the day and walked me to my car. It meant a lot. 
It's funny, but whenever I worked with Joe and I would thank him for something he did for me, or taught me, and I would try to give him a compliment, he would deflect it by saying 'You're only as good as the people you work with." That might be the only thing I disagreed with him on. Joe has never given me bad advice on anything, and your boss can make you better. And he or she can't do that if they're not pretty damn good themselves.

 Again, Joe cared the most about the readers. (The reader, the reader, the reader.") But he also cared about his staff. I've shared a few of my stories here, and I know many others who worked with him can easily do the same. When I was covering rock music for the paper and Joe was my supervisor, there were certain things he expected. He wanted concert reviews that were both reporting (the attendance, the set-list) and commentary (crowd interaction, sound quality.) And you better hit your deadline. But every time I headed out of the newsroom to cover a show at Montage, or the arena, or the Kirby, or Philly, the last thing he'd say was, "Have fun."
Chief, we always had fun. And that, in large part, was because of you.

Joe leaves The Times Leader on Friday. On Saturday, the presses will roll on. Which is exactly what he wants. I'm sure he hopes the TL carries on for another 106 years, and that the co-workers he leaves behind continue to have fulfilling careers. What I want for him as he enters a new phase of his life is the same thing he wanted for me when he was my boss and I was his music critic.
 Whatever you do, Chief, have fun. Have plenty of fun.

 Nobody deserves it more.