2012-06-21 / Views

Dick Kerr as a boss was bigger than life

A column
by Alan Campbell

It was more than a few years ago that I sent out a resume for a job opening in Leelanau County. After I got a call from the publisher to interview, I had to pull out a map of Michigan to figure out where in the mitt to find the place. After a moment of confusion with Lenawee County, I decided that, yes, Leelanau’s location would make it an attractive place for a guy who enjoyed hunting and fishing.

At the time I was not fully convinced that writing for a newspaper would be all that much fun, and at the age of 23 enjoyment was a major priority. College has a way of fooling reality.

But neither was making money a priority, which put my wage demand within the budget of a county weekly newspaper.

And so it was that I met Dick Kerr on a Saturday morning in late January, 1979, for an interview in the throes of what most observers would consider a dungeon of a work place. The Leelanau Enterprise office, then located off Chandler St. in Leland, was dirty, untidy and stinky. My eyes stung as Dick chain smoked through that short-lived interview, partially out of habit and also, I suspect, to determine if I could work through pain.

I wasn’t bothered. I grew up pouring lead in the basement of the Holly Herald, a much smaller weekly that none-the-less had its own chainsmoking printer. It was part of the trade. As owner, editor, sales person, and publisher of the Holly Herald, my dad worked long hours, as I suspected Dick did. That was also part of the trade.

After a few weeks and no word from Dick — and no other job opportunities knocking at my door — I called up Dick to learn, if nothing else, who he had hired for the job.

The job was still open. If I could get there right away, he’d give me a try.

Apparently we were both desperate.

What a strange place, that newspaper. As a reporter calling sources for news stories, I soon learned that some folks loved it, and others hated it. Now, of course, all that makes sense, as good newspapers write things that some residents would just as soon stay hidden.

Dick had a way of finding a place on the front page for such news items — several weeks in a row.

Dick Kerr was a tough taskmaster. The major thing I learned from him was to question anything and everything that a government does — as a citizen, and as a reporter.

We butted heads. One time I was infl amed with how he drastically changed one of my articles after I had taken pains to find a storyline that would be acceptable to contacts. I don’t know if he was right or I was right — I realize that getting too close to sources can distort a story — but at the time I was fuming mad. On a Wednesday with the deadline slipping away, I stormed into the back room and let loose. I slammed my fist, yelled and swore as Dick scraped the backs of blocks of lead type, assembled galleys into pages, and wedged in lead spacers where needed. Building a newspaper was akin to a workout in those days.

He never looked up until after I blew myself out; never acknowledged my presence. Everyone else, though, was staring.

Then in an indifferent tone, he said, “Are you about done? I’ve got to get a newspaper out.”

The conversation was over. Neither of us mentioned it again.

I don’t know if that incident meant anything to Dick, or if he had forgotten it by the time we were both pallbearers at the funeral of Eunice White. Eunice was about the sweetest person I’ve ever known; she treated me like a son during my early years in Leelanau. She and Dick held great mutual respect for each other.

I asked Dick at the funeral if he’d consider selling the Enterprise to me should he ever retire. By then, I had purchased the Holly Herald from my dad, but my heart had never left Leelanau. Dick said I was “No. 2,” as he had promised first choice to another publishing family with a summer residence in the county. But even with Dick diagnosed with cancer, the family’s choice for editor fell below his expectations, and I was moved to “No. 1.” He offered a land contract; banks considered me a poor investment. It took a while longer, but he waited for me to take care of affairs downstate.

There were times he regretted selling the Enterprise to me, as he was unhappy with the result and told me so. I could accept that. I, too, was unhappy with the plight of the Holly Herald after I sold it to raise money as a down payment on the Enterprise. And I could never follow Dick Kerr’s bigger-than-life footsteps.

Regardless, I always looked at Dick with admiration for being his own man. He was unbending, strongwilled, tough, abrupt — and mostly right.

I miss him, and appreciate the opportunity he provided.

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