Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sundays with Steve - The Tale of Two Ronnies

Since I’ve started writing “Sundays with Steve”, I’ve been thinking about vignettes of my life growing up in North Idaho. I realize the town where I grew up and the life I lived with my family is really a classic, all-American story. Perhaps you will recognize some of your childhood in these writings. And perhaps you will recognize the town you grew up in along with some of the characters you knew. Mrs. Steve has encouraged me to write these attempts of “creative writing” as opposed to the more factual journalistic style I was trained in and practiced in my early career many years ago. So my apologies if I stumble a bit here and there trying to blend the two styles together

The Tale of Two Ronnie's

The future president of the United States was gracious when the answered my knock on the door of his hotel suite in 1976. He smiled, the “crows feet” lines extending away from his warm and kindly eyes, as they would so famously in the next decade when he took credit for the fall of the USSR. He was my same height and general build, a little shorter, darker, and a generation older. He shook my hand, and admitted us into the room, his “inner sanctum,” at least for that night.

We were at the Red Lion Riverside in Boise, Idaho that snowy November night, to interview Ronald Reagan for my small town weekly newspaper. Reagan, then governor of California, was in town to promote his candidacy in the upcoming presidential primary elections the next spring that he would lose. He tried again four years later, and won.

That night really started for me 12 years earlier with another Ron -- Ronnie Hayes, a Lewiston (ID) High School teacher. Ronnie Hayes was an inspiring teacher when I became his student for a number of years in the mid-1960’s. Ronnie Reagan, on the other hand, was dull, insipid, bumbling, and I thought, dumber than a box of rocks, when I encountered him a decade later.

Reagan was gracious and friendly that night, when I, Kelly Everett, a writer at the newspaper, and photographer Glenn Cruickshank were admitted to his suite.

Reagan showed an aid out of the room and sat down with Everett and me to espouse his campaign platform. I found it dull and out of touch, based on ”founding conservative principals” whatever that meant, and which he could not explain. This former movie and television actor was mouthing platitudes that had no connection to day-to-day life, or I suspected, to anything else but a lot of kooky mumbo jumbo. He fumbled a number of questions and stumbled through the answers of others. The next decade this man would be hailed world-wide as “the great communicator.” His communications skills that night when he had no one prompting him with answers were horrid.

Reagan had great speech writers in the decade ahead, those who developed lines that will live in history forever, such as “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” That night in Boise, I didn’t know if he could pronounce the name of the Soviet Union, yet alone spell “Moscow”. It was embarrassing.

The interview went on for about an hour and we were all relieved when that torture was over.

A decade earlier, I wasn’t so sure about the upcoming torture either: During my first year of high school I was able to take an elective class. I never had that option before, but journalism sounded attractive given the choices of that, Latin, woodshop, or advanced English (all classes I took later anyway).

Whack! That was the rolled newspaper smacking on a student’s head in class, just as you might use a similar rolled paper to slap a bad dog. “Pay attention,” he would roar at a boy who happened to be chatting with a neighbor, “This is important!” Ronnie’s complexion was such that it would turn red with stress, or concentration. We called him “Rotten Ronnie” during those stress days.

In spite of those occasional outbursts, Ronnie Hayes was an enthusiastic 30-year old who believed in sassy teenagers and their infinite abilities to learn. He was a teacher’s teacher, who inspired and taught. He connected with his kids. He was completely devoted to his profession and to his students. This long-time teacher died recently, and I was sorry to see his obituary appear on-line. Ronnie Hayes (that was his real name, Ronnie) started me on a career path that covered the next 20 years, and groomed observation and writing skills that have lasted a life-time.

He taught the basics of writing a news story, the who/what/where/when/how questions that must be answered in the first paragraph of any “hard” news story. He assigned stories to the budding high school journalists that we published in the monthly student newspaper called the Bengal’s Purr. He taught us how to edit those stories, and how to lay-them out onto a newspaper page, and to how to write a headline and how to take a picture with a Speed Graphics newspaper camera. He sent some students into the business community to sell ads for the paper.

Ronnie Hayes believed in rewards for good works, and he entered the Bengal’s Purr into both state and national competitions for high school newspapers. We won more than our fair share of awards over the next three year, and I won a few for some of my work, as well. Ronnie won many awards, too, including national teacher of the year several times, and best high journalism program in the nation for 10 years running. Hayes hauled us to state student conventions, sometimes 12 hour drives away, to attend workshops and awards diners where we basked in the first glories of our works.

Ronnie worked at the local daily newspaper, the Lewiston Tribune, to supplement his merge public teacher’s earnings. In those years he was the weekend sports editor, and worked the general news desk during the week.

Ronnie hired me as a weekend sports reporter at the Tribune during the winter of my sophomore year. He needed help on the sports desk during the busy weekend basketball season. My first assignment was at the nearby Indian reservation town of Lapwai, where I spent the evening watching Golden Gloves boxing and recording the results. I rushed back to the newspaper afterwards to write the story and meet the 11 pm deadline. It was 10:40 when I got to the newsroom, and Ronnie was not the nicest teacher in the world for the next 20 minutes pushing me for that story and list of results.

These were the days of Underwood typewriters and Speed Graphics cameras; the digital age was decades into the future.

We met the deadline that night, and the adrenaline rush to meet Friday and Saturday night sports deadlines became intoxicating. I spent the spring with Ronnie on the sports desk at the Tribune, while spending days in the classroom with him learning the basics of news reporting and newspaper production. The summer came, and I was put on the sports desk covering the local American Legion (high school) baseball team, whose members were all classmates. It was a fun-filled summer, watching baseball, taking occasional road trips with the team, and learning to write sports. I spent the next school year back on the sports desks both at the Bengal’s Purr and the Lewiston Tribune. But times were changing, and my interests were growing away from sports. The eventual Paul Harvey interview and subsequent recognition took me off the sports desk for good, and moved me into more conventional reporting.

Journalism took me places in the next few years, places that I would have not have dreamed. My high school work under Ronnie Hayes earned a scholarship to Idaho State University and its school of journalism. That choice of schools and direction lead to so many places in my life, I can’t begin to recap them all here, although my next Sunday chapter will detail my evolution from a dabbling in national journalism and into Idaho state politics, all before I graduated from college.

Ronnie Hayes, Ronald Reagan -- there are a basketful of others to talk about too, and we will in the pages ahead.

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
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RoeH said...

I couldn't stand Ronald Regan. And to attach to him that 'great communicator' BS was such a total farce. His wife did his talking and thinking...firing and hiring. It was a complete waste of eight years. And they say Bush was bad. Ha!

Cheryl said...

The first Ronnie? Dumber'n a brick. The second sounds like a man who'd have inspired me to push myself to achieve my dreams.

Pondside said...

I'm not about to make a comment on a past president of your country - suffice to say that your teacher-Ronnie was like all people with a inspiration.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

It's sad when a high school kid feels embarrassed for the person he's interviewing and that person is on track to become president of the US. But what a great experience for you!

Kat said...

I've always thought that Reagan was dumb as a post. But he (or the Party) was smart enough to hire great handlers! Your teacher Ronnie sounds like my high school journalism teacher, Mr. Sweeney. He opened so many doors for so many, and he made class fun. Typewriters, layout boards, selling ads. If someone had told me that in 30 years it would all be done on a computer I would have thought they were on something! Great post Steve. Kat

Anonymous said...

Steve...another great post, and informative look into your background...I agree with Blissed- Out, a high school student being embarrassed by our future president. Nancy ran the country...

Memories ~ I had one of those Underwoods...wish I'd still have it :D

Gayle said...

Most journalists considered Ronald Reagan dumb. Most journalists consider all conservatives and/or Republicans dumb. But Ronald Reagan was loved by the people--which most journalists also consider dumb. He was a brilliant man, a great communicator and my favorite president.

Quite frankly, I would give my right arm to have this "dumb" man in the White House right now. If that makes ME dumb in your eyes, I'll wear that badge with pride.

overtiredmum said...

Great post but thought that this was going to be about the famous british comedy duo - the two ronnies. Hadn't thought about them for year (so a blast from the past for me!).

This ( was their best ever bit.

H said...

I have to agree with overtiredmum about the best Two Ronnies sketch ever!

Also, like Pondside, I am not about to comment on your past president. All schools need teachers like Ronnie though :)

Terra said...

Ronnie Hayes seems like a wonderful teacher. Knew when to be a butt and when to nurture - he saw something in you and you took it far...what a grand experience. I too would have been sad to see that obituary online if I were in your shoes.