How does one thank and acknowledge the place where his career began?  Each of our careers has a beginning somewhere. 

   Mine began at the Eclipse-News Review — and I owe this weekly newspaper so much for lighting my vocational fire when I was a teenager.

   Today, Sept. 4, marks my 50th anniversary of writing for publication. It all began Sept. 4, 1963, when the Parkersburg Eclipse-News-Review in Parkersburg, Iowa, first published my writings at Parkersburg High School where I began my senior year as the editor of “Top Talk,” the weekly page of news, features, columns and silliness of our school scene.

   Theretofore, I had never even entertained a notion that I might spend the rest of my working years as a journalist. I was a reasonably good student (later class valedictorian), and writing came easily to me.  Maybe that is why English teacher Larry Minard took me aside at the end of my junior year and convinced me to be Top Talk editor come the fall of 1963.

   At the time, Don Munson was owner/publisher of the Eclipse.  For years the Eclipse dedicated a page or more to the PHS news, as it so generously does today for the campus world of the  Falcons and Wolverines. Over the decades, an untold number of students have been afforded the chance to see their words in print, in  a newspaper, thanks to the patience and generosity of Don Munson, and now for decades by Leon and Becky Thorne. That cannot be underestimated.

  I don’t recall how I assemble my Town Talk staff of student volunteers: Eileen Schrage (Lupkes), assistant editor; Penny Junker (Cady), social reporter; Gretchen Kneppe (Brown), sports reporter; Bill Meyer, academic reporter; Pat Frohling (White), feature editor; Jolene Abkes, senior portraits;  Peg Hosch (Neavins), photographer and “A Word to the Wise” columnist; Vivian Nieman, “Opinion Please” columnist; and Wayne Arends, junior high reporter.

  That first week’s page carried only five items, including Coach DeWayne Frey’s article about who had reported for the football season: 10 seniors, 7 juniors, 7 sophomores; and 7 freshmen. Another short article featured a breakdown of enrollments in the district’s 13 grades, ranging from 64 in second grade to 39 in fourth grade, and 180 in the four grades of high school.

   Superintendent Frederick Wix agreed to write a kickoff article setting the tone for the student newspaper: “This year’s Top Talk is a revamped and revised version of that which was seen last year….it is our hope that our staff will try to put forth, in true journalistic style, the pulse of our student body….It is our aim that the student newspaper will be used as a sounding board for the students, a medium which he can use to set forth thought-provoking ideas and communicate, with others, these ideas and suggestions. …This is a tremendous task which these students have undertaken, and I can only wish them the best of luck.  The views of the student may not always be the same as the administration, but these views must always have their due consideration in our free democracy….”

   With those words, Superintendent Wix was  prophetic about student and administration not always agreeing. 

    Each week, I would write a column, with my name on it. My second column, on Sept. 11, got me into trouble. In my third hour class that day, Principal Joe Van Eschen and Superintendent Wix came for me and sat me down in the principal’s office to lecture me for about an hour about my column titled “English Should Remain a Requirement.”  I had criticized the school board for its policy change to not make English in the senior year a requisite for graduation.  It had been turned into an advanced class of creative writing, English literature, speech and grammar — essentially a college preparatory class that students qualified for, based on their past academics. Only about 20 of the  46 seniors were enrolled in it.

  I opined, “If English remains a ‘selective’ rather than an ‘elective’ or requirement, then many, many students in the coming years will never hear of the poems of Tennyson, the tragedies of Shakespeare, the grammatical usage of the subjunctive mood or the correct method of writing a research paper.”

   I laid my cause out logically, I thought, but I ended it all with some carelessly radical words:  “In times when all people should be educated to speak, write and communicate intelligently, we must not motivate one group of students rapidly while the other is stranded.  People of the community: Act now. You have nothing to lose but a retarded future for your youths.”

   So that day, the school district’s top two administrators gave me a journalism lesson in Mr. Van Eschen’s office.

  Indeed,  I had been taken to the woodshed.

  I was told to submit my next columns to the principal to be cleared before delivering our full package to the Eclipse on Friday afternoons.

  The next week, I wrote a prosaic piece about the junior class running the concessions for sporting events. (I had been junior class president the year before and knew what that entailed).  As the weeks passed, Joe Van Eschen couldn’t find fault with my writings. So, he stopped screening them.

    Quickly, I got remarkable community feedback on my work. I earnestly sought to say something compelling and original each week:  the importance of teachers displaying discipline in the classroom, my experiences of being a twin, how social studies “must never fall to the elective status as English has,” reflections on my three years on Student Council, how seniors let their status go to their heads, why didn’t our school have a foreign exchange program, the need for great support of the school band and choruses. And so it went.

   For 36 weeks, through May 13, I oversaw Top Talk. I never missed a weekly column. I recall when President John Kennedy was assassinated on that Friday in November 1963, I had to pull the column I had written. That night, back home on the farm, I
wrote my Kennedy column, and my dad took it in to Eclipse that Saturday to catch up with rest of the material.   (From the exterior, the Eclipse building hasn’t really changed in these 50 years.)

   At the end of year, Don Munson published a “Roses of the Week” column saluting me and Larry Minard, our faculty sponsor:  “…Top Talk this past year was the finest since we have been in Parkersburg. … Lawn Griffiths deserves special tribute with Top Talk adviser Larry Minard. To keep the articles coming, to have the courage to write the editorials, to make Top Talk as interesting as it was took a lot of planning, time and effort. To sit down and write an editorial  when you know you will be panned by some unthinking classmates, who probably wouldn’t have courage  to do it themselves, takes as much fortitude as the back plunging the football line.  Lawn will be missed by the school, on the Top Talk staff and by the faculty, who will be hopefully looking for more youths with the courage and ability of Griffiths.”

    My life’s work was launched. I would see how far words would take me.

     I had assiduously cut out every Top Talk article and pasted it into a scrapbook that I still keep on a shelf to this day.  When I marched with the Parkersburg High School Band in the VEISHEA parade at Iowa State University in Ames in spring of 1964,  I took that scrapbook and tracked down Carl Hamilton, an Iowa Falls publisher, who headed the ISU Department of Journalism.  He paged through my scrapbook and gave me encouragement.  I enrolled in science journalism and graduated in four years.  As a freshman, I created and edited a residential hall quarterly magazine, Cadence, and produced it for three years. I was the Government of the Student Body reporter for the Iowa State Daily.  I regularly wrote for several other college magazines. I took creative writing classes, besides all the journalism courses.

    While with the U.S. Army, I wrote for the post newspaper.  I used the G.I. Bill to earn my master’s degree  from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalsim and then spent nearly 12 years (1972-84) at the Waterloo (Daily) Courier as a courthouse reporter, assistant state editor/farm editor, state editor and a columnist for about 10 years.   Parkersburg was part of my turf. Each Sunday for eight years, my “Rural at Random” column in the farm section sought to capture the soul and rhythm of rural life. Many of the 401 columns were rustic nostalgic pieces grounded in my formative years on the farm outside of Parkersburg. Later, as state editor, one of my jobs was hiring and employing 65 news correspondents across 15 counties of Northeast Iowa. Rewriting their submissions for clarity and completeness could be daunting.

  I would spend 40 years writing and editing daily newspapers in Iowa and Arizona.

  In 1981,  I joined the Waterloo Exchange Club and produced its weekly newsletter for most of three years, and then the district’s bimonthly newsletter.

     In February 1984, I was hired as the city editor of the Tempe (Arizona) Daily News. The next year I would become managing editor.  Two years later, I joined the staff of the Mesa (Arizona) Tribune as a columnist and religion editor. For  4 1/2 years, I was a daily columnist, “The Town Crier,” for five dailies in the Arizona chain of newspaper. In all, I spent almost 25 years with those newspapers under three ownerships, with 17 years covering religion.   For 23 years, I have produced a Kiwanis Club weekly newsletter, once picked top newsletter for middle-size clubs for Kiwanis clubs worldwide. Twice it was runner-up.

   The journalism that began in Parkersburg has led to more than 75 writing and community service awards over the past 50 years.  Along the way, I have met and interviewed such people as Mother Teresa (1989), the Dalai Lama (1994), Shirley Temple Black (1972), painter Thomas Kinkade (2008), evangelist Joel Olsteen, atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hair,  actors Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, singer Charley Pride, actor Stephen Baldwin, three Catholic cardinals and many thousands of people of greater and lesser achievement.

     In recent years, I have been a free-lance writer for the Arizona Republic and some national magazines, along with writing numerous articles  for my church’s publications and the regional presbytery. The internet has profoundly hurt newspapers, and I am grateful my career largely predated it.

   Writing has allowed me to produce two books, including a 180,000-word history of the Kiwanis Club of Tempe;  life stories for people; a 70-page booklet for the PHS Class of 1964’s 40th class reunion; a 273-page book on my church’s 50th anniversary; numerous special projects for individuals; countless sets of minutes as secretaries for community organizations for decades; hundreds of blogs and a raft of carefully crafted  letters. I have edited book manuscripts and written press releases for numerous groups with which I have been affiliated.  Not to mention thousands of obituaries, numbing lists of county fair or Cattle Congress results and calendar items.

    Certainly, the encouraging words and affirmation I received from the  Parkersburg community in 1963-64 served to launch my career.  I was fostered by a school system of earnest teachers.  The great books that Mrs. Chamberlain checked out for me from  the library in the Wolf House fed my intellect and demonstrated good writing to a future writer.  Finally, let me again thank the Eclipse-News-Review, which gave me the platform my senior year.

    In June 1965, just a year after I graduated,  the Eclipse published a lengthy eulogy that I wrote on Joe Van Eschen, who died suddenly of a heart attack in his mid-30s.  I poured my heart into profiling “V.E.” as we called him. Yet it was so easy to capture him — his sports assembly pep talks, his rooster tail, his formidable height, his thunderous voice, the rhythm of his big, heavy feet across the wooden floor of study hall, then neatly writing messages on the big blackboard in front….  He was so describable.  I never mentioned our encounter that second week of school in 1963. That exercise, doing that tribute, reminded me anew how a cultivated skill to retrieve precise words for the moment gave me incredible satisfaction and self-worth.

   Writing is merely knowing which word to choose to follow the last one chosen.  To inform, communicate, enlighten and teach with written words is a noble art.

    Now tens of thousands of articles, columns, news stories, dozens of file drawers of my work, newsletters and correspondence have defined my life.

    And it all started formally for public consumption on this very day 50 years ago in the pages of the Eclipse-New-Review.  Thank you for first setting my thoughts to ink and paper that Wednesday a half century ago today.  For that I am grateful.  

 

   Lawn Griffiths is a semi-retired newspaper writer/editor living in Tempe, Ariz., with his wife of 40 years, Patty, and their family.

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