Dwight and his typewriter
January 07, 2009
Maybe I imagined it, but I swear I heard the sound of a typewriter the other day. You remember, that rat-a-tat-tat slapping of lettered levers sent upward from the punch of a finger and striking paper. Rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat.
It was a signature sound for most any office setting until the early 80s. For me it meant newspapering. It was the sound of reporters pounding out copy of last night's city council meeting or last minute changes to a feature story. It's a sound just not heard anymore, extinct I suppose. And I miss it.
The background noise of a typewriter also brings Dwight Jarrell to mind and I will say right now he was a grand man.
Dwight was editor of the Tri-City Times from 1985 until near his death in the early 90s. Dwight was a seasoned veteran of the newspaper wars. He was as grizzly as he was gentle, as ill-tempered, as he was forgiving, territorial and competitive and we all grew to love him here at the paper.
If there are no newspapers in heaven, God surely got an argument from Dwight.
Dwight was also a workaholic and insomniac, a seemingly common combination of traits for editors of his day. The fear of being scooped and the overwhelming need to scoop another paper dominated his daily thoughts. I suppose it was those traits which earned him a Pulitzer nomination as an investigative reporter for the Tacoma (Washington) News-Tribune in the 60s.
Dwight, although in the twilight of his career when he became editor here, brought what we called "big-city newspapering" to our small weekly. He constantly looked for national breaking news items to localize. Some worked, some simply did not. There was no stopping him when he caught wind of a story.
I knew he was on a "big breaking story," as he would say, when I would arrive in the morning. Dwight may have been working for several hours already, or maybe he never left the office, sleeping in his chair or on a cot in the back room.
"Randy, got one!" he'd shout. "It's a good one."
I'd grab a cup of his coffee, which by the way, had levels of caffeine higher than any lab animal should ever consume. Heading toward his office, cigarette smoke billowing from under his door, there sat Dwight in his suspenders, neatly pressed shirt, tie loosened around his neck.
"Good morning, come on in. Got to tell you what I'm working on," Dwight would say, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth while another one burned in the ashtray. "Any way we can get a helicopter or a plane for this afternoon? Got to get some aerial shots for this story," he'd say.
"Dwight, we can't afford that," I'd tell him. As I mentioned, Dwight brought with him his "big city newspapering" to our small weekly.
"Not going to be as good if we don't get some aerial shots to go with this story," he'd demand as he lit another cigarette.
"Can't Dwight," I'd apologize. "Just can't afford that cost."
"Damn it, Randy!" he'd reply as he went back to his typewriter, "Going to miss some sales on this one if we don't have aerial shots.
"You have to engage your readers, invite them into your pages and get them involved," Dwight would go on to say.
"Okay! Okay!" Dwight would scoff, "Got to get back to this story, got to find a way to engage the readers without aerial photos to support it. Damn it, anyway!"
One of Dwight's favorite tactics to find local features was to go through our classifieds, find an interesting ad—it could be under work wanted or elsewhere—and call them up and interview them. He found war heroes who were now mowing lawns, former teachers who were now dog trainers and once he found a lady who had worked on stage in New York, all through our classifieds.
All these stories he would pound out on his typewriter, at all hours of night and day. Dwight used the eraser end of a pencil in his left hand and the index finger of his right. I suppose he was self-taught, but man, could he make a typewriter sing. The familiar sound of rat-a-tat-tat filled the office as he worked one story after another.
I could listen to Dwight's stories of his days with the Detroit Times, Grand Rapids Press and his time in the Air Force as a pilot for hours on end and sometimes I did.
Dwight was a man of excess, he worked too hard, smoked too much, ate too much candy, and in his day, drank too much.
I learned plenty from Dwight, his competitive nature, his nose for news and I loved him like a father. I miss Dwight and the sounds of his typewriter.
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