The message hit my personal e-mail like a ton of bricks.
The worst part was, it seemed to be coming from a good friend and former colleague, John Harris. But it was from a neighbor of his, and it reported that Harris had died on Oct. 9.
I would have started mourning right there, but there were stories to get and a news Web site to produce. He would have understood, I'd like to think.
Harris was one of a kind, the type of veteran journalist who should be in every newsroom, especially when it's filled with kids in their 20s and 30s, if only to teach them the craft as it was practiced in the good old days.
In the late 1990s, I worked a variety of jobs at the Boca Raton News: copy editor, senior copy editor, business editor, reporter, etc. The managing editor approached me one day and said the paper had hired a retired journalist to cover business part time, and said I should get him started and answer his questions.
So one day, I was listening to CNBC (these were the years when listening to business news was a joy and not a terror) and planning the business sections when I saw a thin man come into the newsroom. He looked around a bit uncertainly, then walked over to me.
"Excuse me," he said. "Can you tell me where the teletypes are?"
"The teletypes?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied. "So I can check the news wires."
I stood up, shook his hand, then showed him over to his desk, showed him how to use the computer and how to start the QuickWire program that held the news wires. He seemed very familiar with the technology, but paid me the ultimate John Harris compliment: "Vinny, you're a hell of a man."
He'd say that to me every time I helped him, and my only answer was, "John, all I know is what buttons to push."
The story-teller and his stories
John Harris was full of stories from a full career in the news business, including his time at the National Enquirer. Some of his greatest stories, told after the Boca News's presses had started and the staff was just coming down from the deadline high, centered around his career there.
There was the time he described an interview with a source, and how he'd whip out a roll of bills and pass them one at a time to the source as the information about a celebrity came forth.
In the early 1970s, there was a film called "Lost Horizon," a remake of an earlier film. It bombed, but the theme of a utopia inspired Enquirer publisher Generoso Pope to send a reporter around the world in search of "Shangri-La."
Harris was motivated to tell the story because he submitted a $10 expense report at the Boca News, and was advised to wait until he had some real money coming because it cost the company too much to process such a low voucher. He then described the voucher he submitted after his round-the-world search that didn't even result in a story. It was about $100,000, according to a story by Jose Lambiet in The Palm Beach Post.
So the managing editor of the Boca News asked Harris, "Did you take your wife with you?"
John looked shocked. "Of course not. I was looking for 'Shangri-La'."
We laughed and laughed and laughed as he said that. John Harris could break up a newsroom. He was that kind of guy.
One time, he told me the National Enquirer had an interesting motivational technique for getting reporters to be productive. There was a large board in the newsroom and every reporter's story production was listed. Every Friday, the person at the bottom of the list was fired, he said.
That kept the reporters hopping, he said.
Beneath that "aw-shucks" exterior was a very smart man. Harris was into computers and had transferred his family history to a computer system that even in the 1990s was antique, the old Coleco Adam.
He had me over his house one time and showed me the system. It was a Coleco Adam. Not only that, he had bought a second one on clearance after the system was discontinued so he'd have spare components. John eventually moved into the PC world, but I wonder how he converted his data over. Knowing him, I bet he figured something out.
He showed me stuff from his career in journalism, and a headline that led to a firing and a wildcat strike in the 1960s at a newspaper in Kentucky.
The headline was supposed to be "Viet general tells why he defected," but what the proofreader passed was "Viet general tells why he defecated."
The paper had already been printed and delivered, and the carriers had to go back and try to retrieve all the copies, some of which had already been picked up by readers.
After the Boca News
We stayed in touch after I left the Boca Raton News for other journalistic endeavors, and he would send me packets of stories he had photocopied. He'd also e-mail me stuff. His last e-mail to me was on Sept. 20, when he thanked me for putting him in touch with a former colleague of his at the National Enquirer.
The news business has changed dramatically since John Harris began as a reporter, but some things should never change. Having a knowledgeable and experienced reporter in the newsroom should be considered a necessity and not an expense.
I miss John Harris, and I miss the fun and camaraderie we shared in the newsroom at the Boca Raton News, with the faded and stained carpeting, the desks buried in papers and folders, the strange co-workers (the woman who brought her cat to work, the guy who drank his lunch in the parking lot, the new owners who wrecked everything that made the paper great), and the man who could put it all in perspective.
- 30 - to you, my friend, John Harris.
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