Reflections on an Idaho newspaper career

By Tim Woodward

Most of us probably gave thanks for about the same things Thursday — homes, families, health, the usual. For me, though, something else came to mind this year: My job.

Not that I haven’t always been thankful for it. These days, anyone with a job should be thankful. But with the end closer than the beginning of a career in what has become an uncertain occupation, I’ve come to appreciate more fully the good luck of having spent my life in the newspaper business.

True, it’s a business that isn’t always held in high regard. One survey rated journalists just above lawyers at the bottom of the esteem rankings.

But surveys and obnoxious-reporter stereotypes aside, there’s no denying the worth of journalism to society. Think Watergate, My Lai, Goldman Sachs …

It’s also an endlessly interesting way to make a living. I switched to journalism in my junior year of college, reasoning that it was more important to do something you enjoy than something that makes you a lot of money.

And, while the big bucks might have been nice, it was a decision rarely regretted.

My first big assignment out of school was to interview the widows of the Kellogg Mining Disaster, which claimed 91 men. Intruding on people’s grief is something any reporter with an ounce of humanity dreads, but those women couldn’t have been kinder. They taught me that even people in deep suffering want their stories told if treated with dignity and compassion.

My rookie years took me to a North Idaho flood aboard the governor’s lumbering DC-3, to the devastation of the Teton Dam collapse, to heart-stopping landings on back-country airstrips. Forest fires, plane crashes, movie sets, election campaigns, corrupt officials, it was always something. And almost never dull.

I got to meet some famous people — Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Hank Aaron, Katharine Graham, Clint Eastwood and others — but the interviews I’ve loved most have been with unique Idaho characters. I call them Idaho originals — people like Pinto Bennett, Free Press Frances Wisner, Dugout Dick the Salmon River Caveman …

One of my favorite stories will always be that of Bob Ertter, the “prairie captain,” who alternated weeks between running a tiny store on the Camas Prairie and a giant oil tanker on the San Francisco Bay.

Ed Ketner lived beside a dump and built houses — just for fun — out of things other people threw away.

Harold Hannebaum invented a fireplace that made him a fortune. He also modified his Lincoln to run on water.

Shirley Kroeger and Jeanne DeLurme were modern-day pioneers. They built a home on a remote stretch of desert and became entirely self sufficient using only tools and library books.

One day the boss broke the monotony of my routine by telling me to buy an Amtrak pass and see how I far I could get in two weeks, writing a story a day.

I got as far south as Alabama, as far east as Vermont and interviewed a man who helped Ernest Hemingway save the manuscript to “A Farewell to Arms” from a fire.

How can you not love a job like that?

Two memorable trips I owe to late Statesman Sports Editor Jim Poore. Jim could talk the boss into anything, including trips to the Soviet Union to write about what life was like there and Great Britain to write about … ghosts. I miss Jim a lot.

In 1999, the paper sent photographer Gerry Melendez and me to Kosovo to cover Idahoans helping war refugees there. Every day in one of the camps, a group of girls and women sat under a tree and wailed. The Serbs had killed every last man in their village. We vowed never to feel sorry for ourselves again.

Two years of work on special sections about Idaho Indian tribes taught me to feel in my gut, as opposed to just knowing in my head, the crimes against humanity that all but led to their extinction.

One of the best parts of writing a column is the bond with readers, first through the mail and now email. Many have become friends. Without this job, I never would have known them.

Working for a newspaper has been a lifelong education, and way more fun than anyone deserves to have and get paid for.

My hope for young journalists in these precarious times is that somehow they’ll be as lucky.

With the end closer than the beginning, the decision to change majors in school looks pretty good. It spared me from a life of well-heeled boredom.

For that I couldn’t be more thankful.

Tim Woodward is a longtime reporter and columnist for the Idaho Statesman newspaper in Boise.