Wednesday, February 9, 2005

My unforgettable mentor

Commentary by Pat Murphy


Pat Murphy

If I find the luxury of time to complete my novel, newspaper pals will easily spot the "fictional" character I model after Derick Daniels.

All of us have had mentors. The distinguished editor Lee Hills hired me, a college dropout, in 1952 at The Miami Herald on the strength of a column about Sunday on a hilltop during the Korean War. Managing editor George Beebe promoted me nine times in 11 years. Herald owners Jack and Jim Knight entrusted me with several subsidiary newspapers. All of which led to 17 years as a Phoenix newspaper executive.

But the most inspirational for me was Daniels, born of North Carolina newspaper aristocracy, who chose rolled-up sleeves journalism, but was lured late in his career by Hugh Hefner to be president of Playboy International.

Thereafter, Daniels lapsed into a life of flamboyance (he favored gold lame jump suits occasionally) and, some said, debauchery that led to five marriages, drinking and drugs.

Derick died last weekend in Miami at 76.

Some Daniels protégés from Miami days are celebrities. Reporter-turned-screenwriter Kurt Leudtke won an Oscar for "Out of Africa." Reporter Gail Godwin is a prolific, much-honored novelist. Erwin Potts headed up the McClatchy newspaper chain. Reporter John Underwood was a top Sports Illustrated editor. USA TODAY founder-to-be Al Neuharth was one of us.

Derick lived a few blocks away in Coral Gables, Fla. He'd show up in his white Corvette convertible offering a ride around 8:30 a.m., sipping a plastic cup of hot coffee. We'd put in 10- to 12-hour days, grab a few nightcaps at the Music Box, a half block from Herald offices, then resume the cycle the next day.

He never raised his voice. His mellow Southern accent led editors and reporters into a world of disciplined newspapering.

He insisted reporters dictate flawless, word-for-word breaking-news stories to a desk rewrite editor from the field (this predated laptops).

He preached words that lured readers: in headlines, "Mom" instead of "Mother," for example. He was a tiger about spelling, factual accuracy and tight writing.

He hired women as reporters and editors before diversity was fashionable. Sunday magazine editor Betty Garnet had dispensation to smoke cigars in the newsroom.

Reporting was 24/7. Predawn phone calls to rush to an airliner disaster or lurid gangland murder were routine. Exposing government skullduggery, covering Cuba's Communist revolution, writing about South Florida's glittering and blemished personas. Golden experiences.

But Derick's main gift to us was this: journalism isn't a job. It's a calling.

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