Robert L. Sharp: Confessions of a news junkie

April 4, 2009 

It may be painfully obvious that I'm not a professional journalist. However, I'm sort of a journalism junkie, having lurked on the fringes of the profession for many years.

My father died the summer before I was to enter high school, but as the principal of Linden High, he knew exactly what was required and what was available as electives. He had outlined in advance what he thought I should take over the next four years.

I followed his advice exactly. The curriculum was not too complicated, as social studies, math and science, and P.E. were set in stone. I took band (he had been a music teacher, and I played a trumpet since grammar school). The only exception was the public-speaking elective he had suggested for my senior year.

That's when I took a journalism course instead, helping turn out the school newspaper. I learned about writing news in the shape of an inverted pyramid, so an article could be cut from the bottom to fit space available, and avoiding "knocking heds" (headlines) in layout. And contrary to what they do with Vice President Biden, never say someone is "looking on" in a photo caption.

I would guess the choice of the journalism class also had something to do with that course having a really hot teacher, who occasionally lent me her late 1930s Packard Coupe and the fact we could run around loose -- not stuck in a classroom.

In college at San Jose State, I put together a fraternity newspaper. In the Navy, I wrote a column for Sangley Point U.S. Naval Station in the Philippines called "Across the Bay," promoting cultural events and tourist destinations, as most sailors never left the base (except for excursions to the fleshpots just outside the gate).

In graduate school in Mexico City, I took a journalism course under a hard-bitten expatriate with professional chops, Brita Bowen. She was joined by an equally demanding student editor Nancy Westfall (now Professora Gurrola, still a resident in Mexico) who wouldn't tolerate anything but the highest standards in my occasional interview pieces.

Fortunately, I had a Rolliflex camera, so I escaped the classroom on paid assignment and supplemented my meager savings and GI Bill as the sports photographer; a joke given my disinterest in sports.

Another benefit was meeting my Canadian bride in that class, the only girl on campus who didn't wear dungarees.

After joining a New York bank and a few moves later, I was posted to Tokyo, where at a dinner with W. Allen Wallis, then undersecretary of state for economic affairs, I met an editor of the conservative Sankei Shimbun. He felt my big foreign mouth might lend a unique viewpoint to their paper, so they asked me to contribute to them on a monthly basis.

Later, after being asked to join Keizai Doyukai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives), I served on a committee under Toshio Ogasawara, publisher of the Japan Times. He kindly gave me a column I wrote for a few years.

Since then, back in the United States, after running out of steam on the lecture circuit, I have indulged (overindulged) in the quintessential Grumpy Old Man's hobby, letters to the editor.

Just when my son suggested a blog, because "you have an opinion on everything," old friend Mike Tharp, whom I had known in Tokyo as the bureau chief in Tokyo for the Wall Street Journal and other publications, invited me to share a few thoughts with the Merced Sun-Star.

Bless his little heart; I'm forever grateful for the opportunity to bloviate.

With the exception of having to get past an editor, the major benefit of a column is that no one interrupts.

I'm like Dickens, although I'm not sure how bright is my prose:

"He didn't have to report the day's news, or discuss the week's unless something happened on which he wanted to comment. But he enjoyed the outlet for his overflowing feelings, and he wrote such bright journalistic prose that his readers enjoyed them too."

Robert L. Sharp grew up in Linden (population 1,000) and spent most of the following 30 years as an international banker in Asia including four years as a Naval officer in that part of the world.

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