Sometime next week, a group of journalists in Baton Rouge will be honoring me and several other folk for being African-American pioneers in local journalism.
A friend of mine joked a few months ago at a similar event: “You know what it means when they start honoring you, don’t you?” Yes, I know, and it is not a pretty picture.
That aside, this honoring stuff makes you reflect on people and events that shaped you. Of course there were colleagues, friends, teachers, and relatives. There will be other columns about them.
For the sake of this writing, I will focus on one person.
That person is the late Jim Hughes, former managing editor of the old evening paper here, the State-Times, and later executive editor of the State-Times and Morning Advocate. He was a tough, no-nonsense boss, who could go from nice to ballistic in no time flat.
He reminded me of one of those old, hard-boiled newspapermen you see in some of the old movies. Being a young reporter, I didn’t have to deal with him a lot and I really felt good about that.
Not long after I was hired though, Hughes came to my desk and said: “Well, I know you went to Southern (University) and we know you didn’t get everything like the students that went to LSU. We are going to take it a little bit slower with you.”
This was the late 1970s. I was the only African-American reporter on the State-Times staff. And, at that moment I was the angriest reporter, black or white, in the building.
I had to ask myself what was he telling me. Was LSU hiding special words, paragraphs and punctuation marks from Southern? Was sentence structure different at LSU?
Well, instead of exploding — and I was on the brink — I decided I would show him.
I was up for any story I was assigned. There was nothing too small for me.
Once, I enthusiastically went out to cover a story to determine if parking meters actually gave the time they advertised. Even though I was up for it, my editor wisely changed his mind and called me back. It was a pretty awful assignment.
Every day I compared my stories to the structure of the other reporters, many of them LSU graduates. I didn’t see what he was talking about.
A couple years later, I won three first-place awards for my reporting. It was customary for the newspaper to pay for the winners to attend the awards ceremony. So of course I went and took along my fiancée (now my wife).
We were sitting at our table, talking and waiting for the event to begin. I saw Hughes headed my way. He stopped and sat down. There was a look on his face I couldn’t figure out.
He said, “Ed, I want to tell you something.”
“Good Lord,” I thought, “he’s going to say something bad about me in front on my fiancée.” Instead, he said: “Ed I want to apologize for what I said to you a few years back. I was wrong. I should never have said that.”
I was stunned.
I smiled and we shook hands and that was the end of it. Actually, it never was. His earlier comment continues to haunt me. But, most importantly, it continues to push me to become better.
Ed Pratt is a formerAdvocate editor. He is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.