Friday, August 5, 2011

Good-bye, Mr. Weinberger

This was my column in the Claremont Courier a couple weeks ago.


“Do you need to wear shorts for therapy?”

Mmmmmm. Shorts for therapy. It was the perfect excuse for a guy fresh out of high school. Yes, I need to wear shorts to keep my legs in shape. Or how about this? If I don’t wear shorts, my health will be endangered.

Alas, I couldn’t use it. It was the Friday of my first week of being a summer intern at the Courier, and Martin Weinberger, my first boss, had gotten me. I went home, red-faced - why didn’t he tell me on Monday that short pants weren’t allowed at the office? - and made sure I wore long pants when it was time to go to work, no matter how matter how blazing hot it got.

Later, when I began writing my column at home and before I could e-mail it in (hopefully not the same as phoning it in), I would sort of panic when I showed up at the door to drop it off in my overalls, especially if I wasn’t wearing a shirt.

I thought of all this in the days after I heard that Martin had died a couple weeks ago during a hot spell. I also thought that it was most appropriate that this passing took place - almost like with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams - only a few minutes after the Fourth of July.

For Martin was always, always a teacher - sometimes quite a stern one - and his principle, most heartfelt subject, much more so than office attire, was a free, accurate press and its critical role in there being citizens with the right, if not the obligation, to be informed and active. I wasn’t surprised at all to read in his obituary that he wrote news stories as a child in school. And longtime readers surely remember him frequently opining in these pages on the importance of voting, lamenting and even chiding those who didn’t.

The summer of no shorts, in 1980, was the first of two or three, and it was when the Courier office was still on Harvard Avenue, with Martin perched at his desk on the upstairs balcony from where he could see all (including, no doubt, my bare legs...). It was when Martin’s bold, innovative use of super-sized, close-up photographs in the paper, with which he told me he wanted “to bring Claremonters into each other’s living rooms and kitchens” (remember the “Mug Shot” features?), were still causing a bit of rumbling and when Thelma O’Brien and Hope Weingrow were furiously banging out their stuff on manual typewriters, gunning, with cheers from their ardent fans, for the Pulitzers. It was also when I noticed that I was one of the few guys working there and first heard of what was affectionately referred to around town as “Martin’s harem.”

My job - or assignment, since I wasn’t getting paid then - from 8 to noon weekdays was to rewrite the press releases that kept piling up, taking out all the hyped-up language, giving “just the facts” but in a dynamic way, as Martin insisted. These came out as blurbs in the “Our Town” section. I also got to do some wedding and engagement announcements and even a few back-page items. None of these had a byline, but when the Courier came to my house, I very proudly circled every piece I had written in bright red.

My first byline came that first summer when Martin bought tickets to two Shakespeare plays (Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labors Lost) at the Old Globe Theater complex in San Diego’s Balboa Park for me review. I was absolutely thrilled, having let him know I wanted to write reviews. He said this was fine but made sure I understood that what I was writing was not news. It was a review, an opinion - not news.

Martin loved - no, he adored - doing this kind of explaining. He really was a born teacher. And more often than not, as in his “My Side of the Line” column, there was a story or two, usually humorous, that went along with the explaining. I soon saw that these stories were quite familiar; as beloved as they were, there was always some eye-rolling from a staff member or two.

As with the bright, bold layout of the Courier, Martin liked trying new things, and I was certainly a new thing for him. Here I was - a kid in a wheelchair with speech he couldn’t understand. He clearly enjoyed the challenge. Even when he got stern with me, he would grin and chuckle. We were off on a grand, wild adventure together. (I just now realize he had me re-writing all those press releases so that I could do some straight journalism without having to interview people.)

After a few summers of doing internships in Riverside and then graduating from U.C Riverside in 1985 with a B.A in English, I was looked around for a job I could do and wrote to Martin, asking about doing movie reviews. He said that he already had a movie reviewer but suggested I write a regular column on goings-on in Claremont and how I saw them. This would be sort of like reviewing life, Claremont life - cool! At $10 a column, I was off and running.

We agreed that I would not mention my disability, except when it had something to do with what I was writing about (sidewalks and curb cuts, etc.). I loved not being a disabled columnist and that Martin encouraged this. (I’ve had plenty of other forums in which to write as a person with a disability.)

We did have our disagreements, though, especially in the first ten years or so, when he kept a particularly sharp eye on my column and although he would occasionally raise my pay in $5 increments. He got nervous when I got partisian (even though he agreed with me), didn’t like it when I didn’t mention Claremont in a column (“That could be in the Washington Post.”) and really had a problem when I wrote about an African-American professor publicly accusing (in an Op-Ed published in the Los Angeles Times) Claremont Graduate University of racism after being fired. He also told me not to include my poetry in my columns.

Most of these discussions, if that’s what they were, didn’t take place in person. (He had a fondness for typing out notes on his “letterhead” letterhead.) Once I started doing the column, I really didn’t see Martin much. This was no doubt for the best, since I had started wearing overalls - including, yes, short ones - and doing all kinds of things with my hair.

Much later, I would see him in passing slowly walking his dog Rosie outside the office on College Avenue. But I prefer to recall one of the other last times I saw him.

It was, in fact, in my final year at U.C.R. I was going down the hallway in the humanities building when I passed an open classroom door - and did a double take. There he was - Martin, standing at the head of the class.

Teaching. As always.

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