Learning two very valuable lessons

Published 10:47 pm Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Gordon “Mac” McKerrall sat beside me on a barstool at a little dive in Gulf Shores that year.

Mac was — and still is, for his former students — a legendary presence in the Hall School of Journalism at Troy University as the advisor for the student newspaper, The Tropolitan.

He had opinions. He had facts. He had been in a few newspaper wars and had the scars to prove it.

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The news business is hell on marriages and children. And livers.

There is an unrelenting pressure to get the story first, to get it accurate — and to do it all over again the next day.

What you did the previous day doesn’t matter. In this business, it’s all about what you’ve done lately.

I looked up to Mac. Still do — and not just because our hairlines are similar. Mac was demanding … moreso than any editor I’ve ever met in my career.

His anger was legendary. One day I was impressing a freshman girl with my knowledge of the paper’s inner workings. I can’t say that she was dazzled, but I was sure impressing the heck out of myself.

We were an hour before deadline. My section was finished — written, laid out, proofed and ready to go. Others were scrambling to get their stuff done.

Mac peered out of his office, which was adjacent to the newspaper office. He saw me goofing off with the girl.

“Are we ready to go to press?” He said.

I should have known — should have heard the deadly rasp of his Chicago accent, like the buzz of a rattlesnake’s tail. And I was about to be bitten.

“My section’s done,” I told him. I was pretty smug, I suppose. And Mac wasn’t going to let me get away with it.

“Your job is not finished until every page of this paper is laid out, proofed and ready to go,” he said. “Now get off your (hindparts) and get to work.”

Needless to say, I was embarrassed in front of the cute girl. But I did get my (hindparts) in gear and get to work.

But back to the barstool in Gulf Shores. It was a Society of Professional Journalsts conference, and I was a sponge trying to soak up everything I could learn about the news business.

Mac leaned over and asked me if I wanted to know the most important thing he’d discovered in his career.

“Yes,” I said. I was eager. Here we were, one of my idols and me, sitting in a bar, and he was about to impart some of his world-weary wisdom.

“When you run out of money,” he said, “don’t stop drinking. Just stop buying.”

Mac taught me a lot in the few years I had at Troy. He taught me first how to be a team player — something I rely on today, when we’re struggling after a couple of key departures on our staff. But he also taught me it’s OK to goof off and have fun with the work.

If you don’t, you might as well go out and get a real job.

Bobby Mathews is managing editor at The Times. Reach him at bobby.mathews@demopolistimes.com or 289-4017