By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal
When you’re 16, you usually think you know a lot more than you do. That’s the way it was with me about a lot of things, but when I first went to work at a daily newspaper at that age, I at least had enough smarts to realize how little I knew about the business.
I was excited to be there – I would have paid them to let me write about sports – but instead they were providing me the princely sum of $1.65 an hour and expected me to get on with it.
Into the vacuum where my knowledge and confidence needed to reside stepped a man named Burl Denson. He was about the same age as my father, and he became his journalistic surrogate.
Burl was already a crusty, well-traveled newspaper veteran of the old school at the ripe old age of 43. For several months, it was just him and me – a high school student – in The Meridian Star sports department as the paper searched for a sports editor and Burl did his time, anxious all the while to get back to news.
He was the consummate professional, and he taught me to care about the quality of the product and the needs of readers. He also taught me how to write a lead paragraph on a sports story and fussed at me more times than I could count about my use of sports clichampés. He taught me how to write a headline, lay out a page and put out a sports section on deadline. He was my Journalism 101.
He was anything but a softy. He let me know exactly what he thought about my work, and he could be rather salty in expressing his opinion. But in those hours before school on weekday mornings putting out an afternoon paper and on weekend nights working on the morning edition, I got four-years’ tuition worth of education. When he complimented my work, it really meant something, because he wasn’t loose with accolades.
When I was in college in Jackson, he arranged for me to become the “stringer,” or paid-by-the-article correspondent, for the Meridian paper at the Legislature. It was the most important door ever opened for me in my career and led, indirectly but certainly, to meeting my wife and eventually winding up in Tupelo.
Years later I returned to Meridian as editor of The Star and there was Burl, ensconced on the news desk, still getting the paper out every day. It was great fun to work with him again, even with his considerable orneriness and willingness to give me the what-for as he had done so many years before.
Burl died recently at the age of 82. I heard about his death, ironically, from a former colleague I was in contact with because of the premature death of one of our own here at the Journal, Greg McIlvain, a veteran of many nights and years on the sports desk and in the press box. I don’t know, but my guess is that Greg had somebody like Burl back in his career, as most of us have – somebody who really took an interest and made a difference. And I’m sure Greg had been that for somebody along the way as well.
The idea that anybody is a completely self-made person is a faulty premise. All of us, in one way or another, owe something to the people who have taught us, guided us, and opened doors for us along the way. Whether it’s a mutually recognized mentoring relationship, or simply the result of shared experience and gleaned wisdom, we are in part the product of something beyond our own isolated initiative and hard work. Most of the time we are too busy to acknowledge or even realize that our lives would likely have taken a different course without these relationships.
Some of them may occur by chance; I prefer to think of them as providential. We can’t exist in a vacuum; that’s not our makeup. We need others.
Of course, I regret never having told Burl directly how significant a role he played in my life. He was the farthest thing from a sentimentalist, at least in my perception of him, and I suppose I figured he’d just brush it off anyway.
Too bad. He deserved to know that he made a difference, and I should have told him.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.