Mr. Chauncey Depew Steele III – yes, that’s his real name — was enjoying his morning coffee back on May 17, 1988, when he learned that I had declared him dead in New England’s largest daily newspaper. He called me right away to have a little chat. I’m still embarrassed about the whole thing.
It was a Tuesday morning, I was 21 years-old, and I was working as a college intern on the City Desk at the Boston Globe, writing obituaries and “NENiBs” (New England News in Brief items, which were paragraph-long articles about car accidents and robberies and such) for the Metro section. The switchboard operator sent the call from Mr. Depew Steele III to the big square desk I shared with the other student writers, and I answered on the first ring.
I’m paraphrasing here, as it’s been 30+ years, but he basically said to me: “My family and I really enjoyed talking with you yesterday, and the obituary you wrote about my father was excellent, but you used my picture, not my dad’s.”
Oh shit. Yes, I wrote a lovely obit about the famous tennis player Chauncey Depew Steele Jr. (JUNIOR!), but I used a photo of the famous tennis player Chauncey Depew Steele III (THE THIRD!) in the obit. The dad was gone, but the son’s picture adorned the write-up, which took up the top quarter of the page.
Mr. The Third must have spit his coffee out when he opened the paper that morning and saw himself staring back from the obit page. Thank goodness there wasn’t also a photo of the original Chauncey Depew Steele in the file I pulled from the Globe’s photo library. The OG Depew Steele managed a local tennis club back in the 1920s and apparently taught his son and grandson well enough that they would both compete in the US Open and Wimbledon. A bunch of black and white photographs of two tennis-playing Depew Steele’s were enough to confuse me as I perused the photo file, never mind the possibility of pictures of three guys with the same name.
Mr. The Third was gracious on the phone, but I felt about three-inches tall for months after that mistake. The Page 2 correction the next day haunted me for years.
I know, I know…people make mistakes, especially young people just learning the skills of what they hope will be their life-long career. And my first few years in journalism were filled with a couple of doozies. Some mistakes were made out of sheer ignorance, some through sloppiness, some through immaturity and poor judgement, and some just because I was a doofus.
But we learn from our mistakes, right?
And, at the very least, our mistakes make for a great story once you stop cringing.
Some of my mistakes were relatively harmless, like the night I hung up on U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy three times in a row when he called the newspaper, probably to complain about an article he was mentioned in. It was well after midnight, the first edition of tomorrow’s paper was already on the streets, and I was covering the fantastically-complex switchboard while the receptionist took her break. That’s when the good senator called — and that’s when I just kept disconnecting JFK’s little brother over and over again.
(Picture this next bit with a wicked-broad Boston accent on both ends of the phone.)
Me: “Boston Globe, how can I help you?”
Teddy: “This is, ah, Senator, ah, Ted Kennedy, and, ah, I’d like to speak to the editor in charge tonight.”
Me: “Of course.” Oops, pressed the wrong button. Click.
Teddy calls right back: “This is, ah, Senator, ah, Ted Kennedy, and, ah, I’d like to speak to the editor in charge tonight. I think we, ah, got disconnected.”
Me: “So sorry, Senator, my bad, of course. Please hold.” Oops, wrong button again. Click.
Teddy calls a third time: “Please, ah, stop hanging up on me.”
I disconnect him again anyway, and it wasn’t on purpose. I remember that part of the story vividly, but I can’t remember if he ever called back a fourth time.
Some of my mistakes were awful. One night I was handed a breaking news assignment about a young Jewish man who had moved from Boston to the West Bank and was involved in a fatal altercation in a crowded market. The Boston man was stabbed, allegedly by a man opposed to Israel’s settlements there, and the Boston man shot and killed his attacker. The Boston man was in the hospital, in rough shape. I was told to call his parents, who had been informed about the incident, for comment.
Again, I’m paraphrasing here because it’s been 30+ years, but I remember the conversation going like this:
Me: “Hi, I’m Dave Grady from the Boston Globe. I am sooooooo sorry to call so late but I need to ask about your son. What was he doing in the disputed territories?”
The dad: “Oh, he strongly believes in Israel’s right to that land, and he wanted to be a part of it.”
Me: “Did he know it might be dangerous?”
The dad: “Oh yes, of course. He knew it was like stepping into the lion’s den. But he was firm in his belief.” (What a quote!)
Me: “Ok, well, thank you for your time.”
The dad: “Before you go – why are you asking about our son?”
Me: “So, the State Department hasn’t notified you yet?”
The dad: “No. What has happened?”
You can imagine how the conversation went from there. Did I mention I was 21 years-old?
Some mistakes weren’t really mistakes; they were the outcome of poor judgement and the callowness of youth. A year after the Boston Globe gig ended, I was writing for the Brookline Citizen, a respected weekly newspaper covering that large and politically-active town adjacent to Boston. By this time I was 22 years-old, so I knew everything there was to know, which means I didn’t think twice when I wrote a profile of a candidate in a hotly-contested race for Board of Selectman in that town and described him as “diminutive.”
Yes, despite the candidate’s extensive record of volunteerism and civic duty, and despite his comprehensive policy platform, I focused on his height, or lack thereof. I’d love to blame the editor who let that word get into print, but we were a pretty lean operation back in 1989 and I probably edited the piece myself.
“Diminutive.” Good god. The blowback was measurable.
Well, we all make mistakes, especially when we’re young. But now that I’m in my mid-50s, I’m happy to report that I’m perfect in everything I do and say.
Aren’t you happy to be able to say the same?