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Tribune editor Campbell retiring: It's time to be like Barbara Walters

by jmaloni
Thu, Sep 25th 2014 11:50 pm

by Susan Mikula Campbell

My Aunt Ekkie always used to tell me to say "So long," not "Goodbye."

"So long" wasn't as permanent, she insisted.

Today, I'm saying "So long" to my Niagara-Wheatfield Tribune readers. Although, to be totally honest, there are one or two that merit a firm "Goodbye."

Remember that blizzard after St. Patrick's Day this year? That's what drove me to decide to retire at the end of this month, sort of a 68th birthday present to myself.

That snowy day, as editor, I had no choice but to make the trek from my home in Youngstown to the office on Grand Island to get the Tribune finished and out to the printer. Luckily, the roads were pretty much deserted by the time I started back, except for a tractor-trailer that fell in behind my little Toyota Echo as we battled through white-out after white-out. The truck driver surrendered and pulled over near the Lewiston power plant. My fingers were glued to the steering wheel, so I kept going, but croaked aloud "Nevermore!"

My career was born when my sixth-grade teacher encouraged me to write my first story, and I won the admiration of my bratty younger sister with "Halloween Nightmare." An ardent fan of the comic strip "Brenda Starr, Reporter," I knew I was destined to be like her (sans the red hair). Even the LaSalle High School Class of 1964 prophecy set my future at the local newspaper.

Back then, my dad said girls didn't go to college; they just got married, and if they did go to college, they only went to be teachers or nurses, and he wasn't going to waste his money. I told him I would pay my own way, and did.

Oh, the thrill of my first front-page, banner-headlined byline in my hometown newspaper! Believe it or not, a couple of escaped convicts invaded the St. Bonaventure University campus. While others headed for cover, students of Russell J. Jandoli (for whom the school of journalism is now named) were literally jumping out of windows, notebooks in hand.

My first job after graduation was at the Syracuse Herald-Journal. That's when Brenda Starr got dumped for Barbara Walters, who wrote me a note of encouragement after I won a national writing award. I've followed her career ever since.

Back then, women weren't as common in newsrooms. I will always remember one of my first editors who had an extremely salty vocabulary. He'd vent, loudly and crudely, then choke out an apology, when he'd look up and see a big-eyed blonde, who still looked like a teenager, standing there.

In those days, I hated looking younger than my age. One of my duties was to run the Central New York Spelling Bee for the paper and take the winner to Washington, D.C., for the national bee.

I walked into the Mayflower Hotel ballroom like I owned it, heading for the press table. A woman grabbed my arm and said, "Oh no, dear, you go up there on stage and find your number." A fluke, I told myself, but in the elevator afterwards, this earnest eighth-grader asked, "What word did you miss on?"

My life as a writer-reporter-photographer-editor hasn't been nearly as glamorous as Brenda's or Barbara's, but it has had its moments.

When people across the country were watching the Watergate scandal unfold in newspapers and on the evening news, I was actually seeing it all first-hand while working for Rep. Henry P. Smith III of North Tonawanda, third ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

In Washington, national news is local news, so it's not uncommon to bump into people you've seen on television the night before. Among my favorite Washington memories is watching Fourth of July fireworks on the White House lawn. My son still remembers shaking Jimmy Carter's hand when the president came down from the balcony where his family watched the display to mingle with the crowd. Then there was the time Wayne Newton asked me out to dinner. Hey! He might be an old dawg now, but back in the '70s, he was one hot puppy.

Washington is hard on marriages, and eventually mine fell victim. That meant exchanging balmy winters for snow and ice and working at that hometown paper in order to be near my large family - none of them ever seemed to want to leave Western New York.

After 21 years at the daily, my confidence was badly shaken when new owners laid me off along with several other employees. All of us were on the top 10 seniority list. They called it a "temporary layoff," so no notice or severance was given. Temporary has lasted about 10 years now.

The dark time continued when a nasty fall broke my leg and it healed crooked. (It was the same two bones as Luna the polar bear broke at the Buffalo Zoo, but she's still a baby.)

Seven years ago, I hobbled on my cane into Niagara Frontier Publications and found a new home in the weekly newspaper business. Within eight months, I'd won NFP its first statewide award for writing, with a story about a group of cantankerous oldsters at Crestwood Nursing Home performing in their own Christmas nativity play. Barbara would have been proud.

Since coming home in 1984, being part of the lives of newspaper readers in western Niagara County has been a blessing. I've cried with people who have suffered heartbreak and loss and rejoiced with those who have achieved success, or simply have an interesting story to tell. You're all part of my family now. Plus, I've still had a chance to meet a few more famous people along the way.

Now that I'm officially a cranky old lady, I suppose I must make one apology. At a recent town board meeting, I waited patiently while television crews finished interviews, then set up a photograph with officials in front of a map of a new business development that was the big news of the night. One of the TV photographers must have thought this was a good idea. He made a U-turn and plunked himself right in front of me. I tapped him on the shoulder and threatened to beat him with my cane.

Overall, it's been a great run in journalism, even though Father did know best in one regard. My middle younger sister was able to retire several years ago with a pension. She worked for the school district.

That's part of the reason you still might see my byline occasionally as I supplement Social Security with some freelance writing. I'll be "sort of" retired, just like Barbara.

Oh, and I still will be teaching fifth-grade church school in Youngstown - had my first student this year who said both her parents were in my class years ago. Yikes! I'll also continue acting with and writing ghost stories for the Lewiston Council on the Arts' Marble Orchard Players. Who knows, maybe it's time to unearth "Halloween Nightmare" again.

Best of all, when the snow starts flying for the winter of 2014-15, Baby Blue will be in the garage, and me, I'll be snuggled by the fireplace, reading a mystery novel, with my miniature schnauzers Finnegan A. Baddog and Nessie in my lap.

So long!

Editor's note: Autumn Evans is taking over as Tribune editor.

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