Memories of a bottle half-full

When I took a job as a general assignment reporter for a newspaper in California's Bay Area in 1990, I sat down at my assigned desk to take stock of the newsroom.

I opened the top drawer on the left side of my desk, the drawer where you would expect to find the tools of our trade.

And there were the usual pens, pencils and notepads, not to mention a few antacid tablets. There was also a bottle of whiskey, half-full.

I unscrewed the lid and sniffed. Yep, it was the real deal, cheap and foul-smelling. The aroma would have caused a skid row bum to shudder.

No, I never took a drink from the bottle, although it was a job that could drive you to one. I can honestly report the bottle was at the same level when I left two years later for the Mail Tribune.

Undoubtedly, my replacement thought his or her predecessor had a problem with the demon rum.

Actually, my idea of heaven is a pint of Guinness and a bowl of Irish stew in a pub in Ireland, the kind where the locals gather to shoot the breeze. The thought of a slug of whiskey roils the gut.

The memory of that bottle — reminiscent of a bygone era in the world of newspapers — popped up when Will Williams dropped in last week.

Will, whose parents obviously appreciated the fine art of alliteration, is the associate director of development at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism, my alma mater. He is a gregarious fellow with an infectious laugh. And his tasteful green blazer with a bright little yellow "O" on the left breast is mighty impressive.

Part of his job apparently entails getting out and about to talk to Oregon journalism grads, keeping them posted on the activities of the ever-evolving school.

Of course, the SOJ also is ever-seeking financial donors. But a glance at my drab attire informed Will not to advance the subject too strongly. I assured him the school is on my bucket list of places to enrich before my ultimate deadline.

During his visit, Will, who is in his mid-30s, ran his fingers across a tablet — digital, not paper — to demonstrate the multi-media approach the students now employ as budding journalists preparing for the digital world. They are deep in cyberspace journalism.

That's when I owned up that the school had manual typewriters when I was there in the mid-1970s.

"We still have a few typewriters — they are used as decoration," gently offered the fellow who was born shortly after I graduated from the Big O.

Antique decorations, no doubt.

His visit brought back pleasant memories of the fine school that has produced the likes of Ann Curry, an Ashland High School grad.

Incidentally, the Mail Tribune has strong ties to the school. The late, longtime MT Editor Eric Allen Jr. was the son of Eric Allen, the first dean of the school, founded in 1912. He held the office from 1916 until 1944, the year he died.

Allen Hall, where the school is located, was named after him.

While I was certainly not a standout student, Allen Hall opened my eyes to a wonderful new world. We had great professors and excellent guest lecturers, all of whom were professional journalists to the bone.

One popular professor was Duncan McDonald, an exceedingly talented writer, photojournalist and teacher. I was fortunate enough to get into the first photo-journalism class he ever taught at the university.

Remember, this was back in the dark ages, a time when cave-dwelling journalists used film and a darkroom to develop it.

On our first day in the darkroom, McDonald, who would later become dean of the school and is now professor emeritus, held up a large plate of glass to be used for processing the negatives.

He carefully explained the glass was difficult to replace, that we needed to be extremely careful when using it. He then asked someone to turn off the lights.

Seconds later a thunderous crashing sound filled the darkness. The lights came back on, revealing a professor looking down at the shattered glass shining like diamonds at his feet. It was the only time I ever saw the quick-witted professor at a loss for words.

Another professor I especially admired was Charles Duncan, who taught a writing class. The white-haired scholar knew his craft well and had a pleasant way of sharing his vast knowledge.

One day he invited Mike Thoele, then a talented young writer for the Eugene Register-Guard newspaper, to drop in to talk about writing. In my book, Thoele, now an adjunct instructor at the school, is the best ever feature writer in Oregon. He is a Monet with words.

Toward the end of his talk, Thoele noted that he often used a tape recorder during a lengthy interview. It helps capture the nuances of his subject that may slip past pencil and paper, he explained.

When Thoele left, the professor, after noting our guest had made excellent points, pulled a pencil out of his pocket and held it aloft.

"But this will always be your main tool," he insisted.

He was simply representing the mind-set of an earlier day. However, Thoele reflected the healthy evolution that continues today at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism.

In other words, the journalistic whiskey bottle is half full, not half empty.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at

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