Thursday, August 18, 2005

Columnist Ken Fuson Says, 'Some Kids Collected Baseball Cards. I Collected Bylines. I Was a Strange Kid'

From: Ron Maly
To: Mary P. Stier, Publisher and President
Sent: Thursday, Aug. 18
Subject: Ken Fuson

Hi, Mary,

It’s me, Ron.

I haven’t seen you for a while, and I know you’re a busy lady. In fact, these days you’re really busy. I know you’re looking for a new editor at the paper, and you’ve probably been sweating at the State Fair a lot this week. I guess publishers and presidents sweat once in a while, don't they? Maybe you’ve even been interviewing candidates out there in the paper’s booth at the fairgrounds. Nothing like giving those would-be editors from Idaho and wherever a taste of corn dogs and pork chops-on-a-stick and a look at tank-tops that show off the girls’ tattoos, plus the rest of the stuff that tells what 21st-century Iowa is really like.

Anyway, I thought I’d write to tell you about Ken Fuson, the guy from your newsroom who put on such an entertaining performance at the Register retirees’ lunch the other day at Baker’s Cafeteria. I knew Ken could write funny stuff, but he displayed a side of himself that I wasn’t aware of until he showed up to talk to us.

I’m telling you, Mary. This guy is hilarious.

If I were you, I wouldn’t be afraid to send Fuson out to represent the paper at any public event, whether it’s in Brooklyn, Ia., or Brooklyn, N.Y. He can put old people at ease, he can put old people who still think they’re young at ease, and I hear he’s marvelous in front of people who are really young, too. What you’ll like best about him, though, is how genuine he sounds in his praise of the paper, both past and present. And you know, of course, it’s the “present” that’s got some of us so worried.

What I’m getting at, Mary, is that I think you should do all you can to keep Fuson on the staff. Don’t let him get out of the newsroom. Let the guy write a column three or four days a week instead of just once, if that’s what he wants.

The paper needs people like him these days. Fuson left Des Moines once, you know. He went to the Baltimore Sun, and then knew he made a mistake. He found out they had the same problems in Baltimore that there are in Des Moines. So he came back, and I’m glad he did.

Now I hope he keeps writing and saying funny things forever at 8th and Locust.

Fuson is unlike some other people I’ve observed over the years. I’ve seen plenty of guys [and women] who wrote humorous newspaper columns and humorous books, but couldn’t say anything funny when they got in front of a crowd.

I found out that Fuson can be just as funny behind a microphone as he is in print.

I sat next to Walt Shotwell during Fuson’s talk. I like to get Shotwell’s take on things every once in a while. He’s a smart guy who used to be a columnist and reporter for the paper. Actually, he still writes a lot. He and his intelligent observations show up in the paper’s letters-to-the-editor section occasionally, and he has written several books. In fact, he’s got a new book coming out soon titled “The Rainbows Often Wane—An Autobiographical Ego Trip.” It’s something I want to read because he’s had an exciting life.

Shotwell’s friends call him “Shottie,” and I find myself doing that more and more these days. I wished I had ordered the chicken noodle soup, chocolate pie and coffee he had for his lunch at the cafeteria. I didn’t order anything, joking that Baker’s had nothing that was on my diet.

It was smart for me to sit next to Shottie in the front of the room. A number of years ago, he always clobbered me whenever we played tennis at the Racquet Club, and now I was able to find out who he was clobbering these days. Besides, I think the batteries in my tape recorder were old, so I didn’t want to miss anything Fuson had to say.

Being close to Fuson also enabled me to notice how well he was dressed for an appearance before a bunch of retirees. I was wearing knee-length cargo shorts, sandals and a short-sleeved shirt. Fuson was wearing navy blue slacks, a patterned navy blue shirt, a purple tie and a sharp pair of dress shoes that didn’t show any scuff marks.

A while back, Fuson made his debut as the paper’s humor columnist after Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning and nationally-syndicated writer, decided to retire—at least temporarily.

If Fuson keeps writing the funny pieces he’s been cranking out, Barry may decide to make it a short retirement.

I can hear Barry now, saying, “No St. Louis Cardinals fan wearing a purple tie is going to replace me at any paper—local or otherwise!”

Mary, you’ll get a kick out of how Fuson explained his rise to once-a-week columnist.

“I’d like to say they did a national search for a humorist,” he said. “The fact is, they had a space to fill, and the editors were sitting around trying to figure out how to fill it. Somebody said, ‘Fuson is probably sitting around, not doing anything. He’s a smart-ass, so make him do it.’”

Fuson’s column appears on Mondays. The rest of his time is spent being a reporter. Or, more specifically, what he calls being the paper’s “tragedy writer.”

“I’m telling you, you can only cover so many funerals and horrible events before readers catch on,” he said. “I’d call somebody and say, ‘This is Ken Fuson of the Des Moines Register. The person on the other end of the line would say, ‘We’re fine. Just leave us alone. Nobody is sick here. Call somebody else.’ Then they’d hang up the phone.”

Fuson got everyone’s attention right away at the cafeteria.

“I’m here to announce the death of my career,” he told us.

I’m telling you, Mary, that drew a lot of laughs.

“I can’t remember what bar I was at, or how drunk I was when Lorraine Keller asked me to be here,” Fuson continued. “I’d like to point out that Lorraine isn’t here today. She always was one of the smart ones.”

Fuson then took a long look at the people seated in the audience, most of whom were still awake or at least finishing their chocolate pie.

“So this is what I have to look forward to, huh?” he said. I’ve decided against retiring. I’m leaning toward a different option—the sudden coronary.”

Laughs. Lots of ‘em, Mary.

“I look out there today and I see a lot of familiar faces,” Fuson said. “You are the people I read and appreciated while growing up in Granger. It was your bylines, your stories, your photographs that made me want to work at the Register, and only the Register, since I was old enough to write.

“You are the reason I fell in love with a great newspaper, and someday I hope to forgive you…..”

Laughs. Lots of ‘em, Mary.

You’ll love this next one.

Fuson said he has “nothing but complete admiration for the Gannett Company, my publisher [that’s you, Mary] and my editors. And if Ron Maly would like to quote me in his blog, that’s OK with me.”

I then interrupted Fuson and said, “Ken, you’re going to be quoted.”

Then Ken said, “The more I read Ron, the more I think he is probably not going to be asked by Mike Gartner to throw out the first pitch [at the local Triple-A baseball park, sometimes called No-Name Stadium].

“Buck Turnbull has a new book out, and Ron has a book out. It’s called, ‘Even More Ways The Register Sucks.”

Laughs. Lots of ‘em, Mary.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be like Ron,” Fuson said. “Not anymore. He works too hard.”

[Ken was kidding about some of that stuff. Both Turnbull and I do have books on the market, but they’re about football at the University of Iowa. Buck’s is a new one, titled “Stadium Stories: Iowa Hawkeyes,” mine is a second edition, paperback version of “Tales from the Iowa Sidelines” that was first published in 2003. I may write one about the newspaper, but I want to see who the new woman editor is first].

As long as we’re on the subject of editors, I asked Fuson what he’d heard about who the successor to Paul Anger might be. Anger is the editor who left here after three years to take a job in Detroit. Some people—well, one or two anyway—are trying to call it a promotion.

“I did the story [when Gannett moved Anger from Des Moines to Detroit],” Fuson said. “Mary [that’s you, Mary S.] said there was no time-frame [on naming a new editor]. I know they’re interviewing people already.

“The rumor is…..and I’ve heard this from nobody, but why has that ever stopped me?.....the word is, they [Gannett] are very high on the editor at Boise, Idaho. Boise is one of the papers they gave up, so she’s out of work.

“There is some speculation that a woman in Boise might be considered here. I don’t know if it’s Mary’s choice or I don’t know if it’s Gannett’s choice. I just try to keep my head down and cash a paycheck.”

Still on the subject of editors, Fuson said, “You remember the time when the Register’s editor and managing editor resigned at the same time.”

[NOTE: I have a hunch Ken might have been referring to Geneva Overholser (she was the editor) and Dave Westphal (he was the managing editor). They’re married to each other now].

“I think you’re like me,” Fuson continued. “You’re not going to have the wool pulled over your eyes again, are you? When you see that Paul Anger leaves, then a couple of days later, Iowa State athletic director Bruce Van De Velde resigns, you’re probably thinking, ‘Fool me once, shame on me.’ I’m expecting to see a follow-up story any day now.

“For God’s sake, Ron, leave that out! I may need a job in Detroit someday.”

Laughs. Lots of ‘em, Mary.

[Hey, Ken, that was too good a story to pass up. And let me stress right now to the publisher and the company lawyers that you were just kidding. Everybody in the cafeteria—even the busboys—thought it was funnier than hell].

Fuson mentioned that the news sometimes doesn’t reach him as quickly as it does others.

He commented, “John Carlson [another columnist] called me aside and said, ‘Did you hear the latest?’

“I said, ‘What?’

“He said, ‘Paul Anger is going to Detroit.’

“I said, ‘Who?’

“He said, ‘You know, Paul Anger, the editor.’

“I said, ‘What the hell happened to Ryerson?’”

Fuson also mentioned what he called “another surprising day in the newsroom when a memo was posted on the board announcing that Arnie Garson was replacing the team of Dave Witke and Bill Maurer as managing editors.

“I don’t know if the rest of you saw that coming. I certainly didn’t, and I wasn’t alone. I remember Carlson and Gene Raffensperger talking later that afternoon.

“’What do you think?’ Carlson asked.

“’Well, Johnnie,’ Raff said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to go home, pour myself a stiff drink, put my feet up on the couch and think of all the ways I might have pissed off Arnie Garson.’”

Laughs. Lots of ‘em, Mary.

“It’s an interesting time in the newsroom right now,” Fuson said. “There’s a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety and trepidation. Is it about the new editor? Nah. That’ll take care of itself. The trouble now is that nobody knows exactly whose rear-end to smooch. You never know who ends up with a promotion out of all this. So you have to be nice to everyone.

“I’ve had 10 editors offer to buy me lunch in the past week. It’s not easy eating three lunches a day.

“The only thing that disappoints me so far is that we didn’t name [former governor and former lots-of-interim-this and that] Bob Ray as the interim editor. That would mean he’s held every job in Iowa.”

Fuson said he can predict a couple of things that the new editor will do.

“Within three months, the new editor will announce a re-design of Datebook,” he said. Every editor I’ve ever worked with has re-designed Datebook. I don’t know why, but it keeps Lyle Boone employed, so I don’t ask questions.

[NOTE, from Ron to Mary: The next re-design of Datebook should probably be to kill it. I mean, with “Juice” being such a riveting weekly publication (that's a joke, of course), what’s left for Datebook to do]?

“I’m also pretty sure the new editor will somehow screw over [business editor and columnist] Dave Elbert,” Fuson said. “I know it’s going to happen.”

Growing up in Iowa, Fuson said he was like lots of other kids.

“I read the Register’s comics,” he said. “I also was attracted to the more sensational news stories. One of my earliest memories was when Richard Speck killed all those nurses in Chicago. I could not sleep that night. I was absolutely positive his victim would be some chubby third-grader in Granger, Ia.

“Mostly, though, I was a sports nut. The Big Peach was my Sports Center. I particularly looked forward to the Sunday Register when they showed the little lines tracking the football [in the photos]. Buck, Maury White and Ron were like my personal friends, telling me what [former Iowa football coach] Francis X. Lauterbur was really like. Remember the ‘X’—Maury would appreciate that.

“[Those sportswriters] told about Dan Gable’s amazing wrestling career, they took me to the arena when tiny Drake nearly upset mighty UCLA in the NCAA tournament. But I’ve got to tell you that, when I was a kid, the sportswriter all of us wanted to meet was Chuck Burdick because he was the guy who knew all the stud young athletes and wrote about them.

“We wanted to be one of those stars. I was a sophomore in high school when it dawned on me that Chuck Burdick wouldn’t be calling my house. Then I figured there was another way I could meet Chuck, Ron, Maury and Jim Moackler. I intended to become a sportswriter. I studied the Register. I kept a list of the verbs. You didn’t just hit a baseball in my world—you spanked it, you slapped it, you swatted it, you smacked it. And those are just the ‘s’ verbs.”

Fuson said he later “got hooked on the entire paper—I loved Donald Kaul and Frank Miller. I also knew names like Gene Raffensperger, Virgil Oakman and Richard Wilson. I’d wonder about them and their lives. I thought about how great it would be to cover stories for the Register. Some kids collected baseball cards; I collected bylines. I was a strange kid.”

Fuson said that “changed my life and got me thinking beyond sports was written by Frances Craig about a little baby in Woodward, which is where I went to high school. The baby was undergoing open heart surgery. It had drama. I could feel my own heart racing as I read it.

I called Frances and told her she was going to win an award for that story, and she did. I also told myself that ‘I’m going to write stories like that, and I’m going to write them for the Register.’”

Fuson mentioned the name of Ken Pins, a former Register reporter.

“Ken and I talked often about how Dave Witke called us and told us we’d been hired by the Register,” Fuson said. “We both cried. That might sound like an odd thing to admit, but it’s the sort of connection we had to the newspaper. Other than the birth of my children and maybe the Cardinals going to the World Series, and maybe that one night in high school at the Perry Drive-In [lots of laughs, Mary], that was the happiest day of my life.”

Fuson talked about his first day on the job at the paper.

“I covered a city council meeting with Jim Healey,” he explained. “Jim took me to the T&T Lounge and said in a whisper, ‘I’m going to tell you the most important thing you’ll ever know about the Register.’

“I leaned in closer. This was what I had been waiting for.

He said, ‘When you’re on the company clock, you pay for nothing!’”

Laughs. Lots of ‘em, Mary.

In his first week at the paper, Fuson said he was sitting at his typewriter when he suddenly heard “an incredible, ear-piercing scream from the back of the room, followed by a long string of the most amazing original profanity I had ever heard in my life.”

Someone told Fuson to not be alarmed.

That’s just John Sotak,” the other person said. “He’s thinking of becoming a priest.”

At the time, Sotak was a sports news editor at the paper. He now is a Catholic priest.

Fuson said he has other memories.

“Meeting [retired editorial department chief and reporter] Jim Flansburg was one of them,” he said. “Jim could be an intimidating guy to a young reporter or to a high school kid. With Jim, I never knew when to start nodding. It always seemed like the more I agreed with him, the more he disagreed with me.”

Then there was the Flight 232 crash in Sioux City, and what happened to reporter George Clifford III, who was assigned to cover it.

George Clifford III was a young guy from the D.C. area who went to a nice school,” Fuson explained. “They put him on a small plane with a photographer, and George threw up on the entire trip. The pilot ended up having to give him one of his dirty shirts to wear. George didn’t skip a beat and covered the entire story, which made him a hero in the newsroom. But the pilot never forgave him.

“Tom Suk, a police reporter, showed up at a parade to do a feature story. A guy said, ‘Who are you?’ Suk said, ‘I’m Tom Suk of the Des Moines Register.’ Then the guy hit him in the mouth. You know what, I don’t tell anybody I’m Tom Suk anymore.”


Fuson said, “I remember Tom Knudson’s Pulitzer Prize party. We learned that you could pour two beers on [editor] Jim Gannon’s head, but not three. I remember that sunny day when Arnie Garson removed his sports jacket….OK, you caught me. I made that up. Arnie never removed his sports jacket.

“I remember April 15—tax day—when an editor came over to Jim Pollock and said, ‘Jim, it’s tax day. Why don’t you go interview homeless people about how great it is not to pay taxes.’ Jim looked up at him and said, ‘If you’re trying to get me to quit, it won’t work.’”

[In the end, something, or someone, convinced Pollock he should quit as a reporter. He’s no longer at the paper].

More Fuson…..

“Pollock also wrote the greatest lede in the history of the Register,” he said. “He was asked to cover a women’s defense class. Jim’s lede was, ‘Never before has the male groin seemed like such a bad idea.’

I remember Gary Heinlein, a medical reporter, standing in front of the newsroom on his last day and saying, ‘I always wondered what this would feel like. [Pause]. It feels pretty damn good!”

“I covered a fire and there was a debate about how it started. Jimmy Larsen uttered the immortal words, ‘We’ve got nine company lawyers. We’re calling it arson.’”

“There was the time Charlie Capaldo assigned me to cover an NAACP meeting at a local church. As usual, I got lost. I couldn’t find the church. I came back and sheepishly told Charlie that I got lost. He said, ‘Come here’ and walked me to the back of the room. He pointed out the window and said, ‘See that steeple. That’s the church!’”

“Who here remembers the day the Register won the first Best of Gannett Paper of the Year Award? There was a newsroom gathering. Val Monson [a very good reporter] said, ‘This is like being named the best lineman at Northwestern. And Northwestern wasn’t good then. I’ve never seen Gannon angrier than he was at that moment—not even when three beers were dumped on him.”

Fuson talked of the numerous changes at the paper.

“The [afternoon] Tribune closed, bureaus closed, we were sold, state circulation was cut back,” he said. “I was sad and angered by those changes, and I took it personally. How dare they change the paper I fell in love with, without asking my approval? So I left.

“I went to the Baltimore Sun and learned two things—you never know when you need to come back, and it’s no different anywhere else. I had a great time in Baltimore, but missed the Register greatly. I’ll always be grateful to Dennis Ryerson for offering me the chance to come back.

“I realized I didn’t run the paper, I worked for it. What I can control is the quality of my own work, for better or worse. If they decide to print the entire paper in limericks, I’ll reach for my rhyming dictionaries.

“It’s healthier for me. I don’t sit there all day and complain anymore. For one thing, it’s forbidden. And I’m pretty sure they have surveillance cameras. Just kidding.

“Do I still wish we had all the state bureaus and had a larger news-hole and that we didn’t worry as much about money? Of course. But I also wish I could hear Raff’s laugh every day and that I could go over and give Diana Shutts a hug, and that I could still read Bob Hullihan’s marvelous feature stories.”

Fuson said he’s “still enormously proud to say I work for the Des Moines Register. I may get fired for saying this, but I like Mary Stier—as a person and as a publisher. Believe me, Clark Kauffman is the kind of investigative reporter that Clark Mollenhoff and Jim Risser would have admired.

“Jennifer Jacobs is a talented young reporter who has the kind of energy I haven’t seen since George Mills left. Mike Kilen is a very talented storyteller in the [category] of Dan Pederson, who was one of my heroes. I realize I may get some of my sportswriting friends here to walk out on me, but I admit I actually like Sean Keeler’s columns. I think he’s written some sharp, tough columns.

“Do we still make stupid mistakes? Do we still miss stories? Do we still misspell names? Yup. You know what, we always have. That’s a nature of the business, just like it’s a nature of the business to think that the golden age was about 10 years before. Some people see things the way they are and ask why, some people see things the way they could be and ask why not. Some people pick up the newspaper and say, ‘Who’s stupid idea was this?’ Those people are newspaper writers.

“I will always admire the people in this room. You set a standard of excellence and creative reputation that some of us are still trying to live up to. Notice, I said ‘trying.’ Don’t blame us if we’re not always as good as you were. It’s hard to do. You were pretty damn good.”

[So long until the next time, Mary. Thanks for sending Ken over to talk to us. –-Ron]

Vol. 4, No. 366
Aug. 18, 2005