I got my start working in newspapers, to be precise, the Grayville Mercury Independent in Grayville, Illinois, a small town on the banks of the Wabash River. Family owned and operated for a few generations, it was edited by William Seil, a.k.a. “The Chief,” and his son Pat. Pat was a few years older than myself at the time, The Chief was in his seventies. I soon figured out that either of those two could have found fame if not fortune in any of the larger newspapers across the country, but a dedication to both family and community kept them rooted in Grayville. Pat lives and works there still, as editor and publisher of the Navigator.
From them I learned many things. The first was a strong work ethic. I made a hefty $2.25 an hour at the time, far below minimum wage, but comparatively speaking, if you figured it by the hour, I was about the highest paid employee in the office. Pat’s sister Donna was advertising manager, and she might have done better, though not by much. The paper was a labor of love, and they all put in long hours, far beyond what would be expected anywhere else. You did the job because it was a job that needed done, and people depended on you.
I went in on Wednesday afternoons, about the time the writing was done for the week. It was a weekly paper – there isn’t enough news in southern Illinois for a daily, I mean let’s be honest. About five, the Chief would go off to collect his dinner, and come back with a twelve pack, Strohs or something equally tasteful, and sit it on the steps of the office. If you wanted cold beer you drank fast, which was the second thing I learned there. Then we would set about working the long strips of type into something resembling a newspaper. Actually, it was the best weekly newspaper in the state of Illinois, several years running. Which is the third thing I learned. If you’re going to do something, even if only for a small readership, you make it the best you can.
We often worked long into the night, and as the beer took hold, and the conversation, the Chief would sit at his typewriter, plunking out the editorial for that week’s edition. Like any good newspaperman, he only wrote a fraction of what he knew, and only the truth. No matter how inconvenient, and no matter if it led to hardship towards the newspaper. I learned that printing the truth isn’t necessarily good for the bottom line of a newspaper, especially if it irritated the folks in the dizzying high places of rural county politics.
It was also there that I learned the power of a community. Twice in my tenure at the Mercury tragedy struck. The first was the death of a friend of the family, a young man killed in a tragic accident. I watched as people came in off the street to offer their condolences, and to offer a hand in putting out an edition which would be as painful to create as it would be to read. The second was after the death of the Chief himself. I watched the son write the obituary for his father, as his father had done for his own, and fought back my own tears as the office filled with people with no newspaper experience, wanting to do anything they could to help get the paper out that night. On countless occasions I experienced magic in that time-worn office, but never a magic as powerful as that.
But most important, I learned the value of, and learned to respect the truth. In the years I worked there, I can’t point to a single sentence that wasn’t well documented fact. And it’s probably been 25 years or more since I watched the Chief pecking out his editorials, and yet those memories are as vivid to me today as though they were yesterday. I still dream from time to time that we’re putting together that paper – the ghost of the man, and the ghosts of the tradition linger in the very fabric of my being.
Each Christmas however, the editorial was always the same. And now going on three decades later, on a Wednesday night when perhaps I’ve had a few too many from the steps, and I’m missing those that have left us and those that I’ve left, I pass this on for the Chief. It wasn’t something that he had written himself of course, but it was something he evidently knew to be true. And as anyone in Grayville, Illinois who was alive at the time knows, if it was printed in the Mercury Independent, it has to be true.
“DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
“Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
“115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET.”
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
Great writing, Todd! I’ve got a newspaper background, myself, and feel the same way as you about the hard work and meaning in the things.
I too drank a few off those steps. Thanks for putting it into words. Hope this finds you well….
I remember reading that every Christmas.
I grew up in Grayville. My mother was into genealogy, so you know back in the day we spent plenty of time in the newspaper office, pouring over old obituaries and articles. I have a vague recollection of old fashioned wooden desk chairs on caster rollers, piles of newspapers everywhere… and the musty smell that only old paper and ink can have.
I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia kick lately… probably due to the holidays. Thanks for the memories.