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November 28, 2009

Mike Tharp: Thanks, Hank, good luck from us all

This week's holiday couldn't come at a better time.

It lets a lot of us at the Sun-Star pay our respects, appreciation and best wishes to a man we all owe a lot.

Thanks, Hank.

Hank Vander Veen, our publisher for five years and a 25-year McClatchy stalwart, resigned, as of yesterday.

He told us Monday. We were stunned and shocked. Frank Whittaker, McClatchy's smart and urbane senior vice president, was with us. Heaping praise on Hank for transforming the Sun-Star during his tenure, Frank joined us all in wishing Hank, 44, all the best as he pursues new goals and dreams.

Debbie Kuykendall, our vice president of advertising, will serve as interim publisher. At the Operating Committee meeting a few minutes before Hank told the whole building, I urged Debbie, a dynamic business person and dog lover (that counts a lot with me) to throw her chapeau into the ring.

(I also lamented the loss of being able to send e-mails to "Frank and Hank," a pair I once said should be a C&W band.)

Frank's in charge of naming a permanent successor. I'm confident our next publisher will be someone who leads from the front, as Hank did. Someone who inspires and motivates us all.

That's for the future.

For now, let us praise a good man.

I owe him, big-time. First, he approved former editor Joe Kieta's hiring me as local news editor in June 2007. Then, last fall, after Joe left to become editor of the Utica, N.Y., Observer-Dispatch, Hank joined McClatchy executives in naming me Sun-Star executive editor.

In 13 months at this job, Hank, the publisher, and I, the editor, haven't exchanged one cross word. Folks who know us both may find that extraordinary.

Besides the eternal tension between the newsroom and the business side, which exists on either divide of a church/state wall at most newspapers, there was the added possible flash point of our separate personalities.

Hank is firm, but easygoing. I'm firm, but not easygoing.

My fuse is short for mistakes, inattention, incompetence, any mail-it-in attitude. Hank also demands results -- with a character predisposed to give his managers a long leash, a chance to rise or fall on their own.

He's a wizard with numbers. I'm not. At weekly Operating Committee meetings, I marveled at how, with a few taps on his computer's calculator, he could show us where we needed to be and how long we had to get there.

Our improbable alliance grew into, certainly from my side, respect and admiration for how well he managed a daily newspaper and Web site and all the people engaged in producing your Sun-Star every day and every hour.

Our dynamic was even more challenging than met the eye. He's also a high school basketball referee. I was a high school and college player. I coached six years at L.A.'s San Pedro High School, in a rugged league stacked with powers named Crenshaw and Dorsey.

I averaged one technical foul a season, including crucial summer league games, when I got to act as head coach. Near the end of one season, I hadn't yet picked up a T. We were playing Crenshaw at home, a south central L.A. school whose gym was already named after the coach on the other bench, Willie West.

In the fourth quarter, after a reach-in foul had been called on one of our guys, I waited till the Crenshaw player stepped to the free throw line. Loud enough so only the ref who made the bad call could hear, I said, "Ticky-tack at one end, nothin' at the other."

Thweet! Technical on the San Pedro bench.

And here I was -- working for a referee!

Sure, Hank and I disagreed on some issues. Sure, he had to call me in, sit me down and, in his calm voice, explain that my temper could be a liability. He's 20 years younger, but it felt as if my dad were giving me good advice.

He enforced two rules: Keep me in the loop. Don't surprise me.

Earlier this year, when I ordered that we publish an Associated Press photograph of a Marine dying in Afghanistan, most of you in our audience wanted my scalp dangling from the flagpole out front. We were one of the handful of newspapers in the country to publish the image.

Hank had my back. To this day I don't know whether he agreed or disagreed with my decision. He stood behind me -- with you, our audience, and up the line to McClatchy corporate. Many of you called for my resignation or firing. For a boycott of advertising and circulation.

Hank blew the whistle. Charge, not a blocking foul. He made his call and stood by it.

Stood by me.

How could I not be grateful?

He also let me go back to Iraq this summer. How many publishers would let their editor do that -- even though the McClatchy Baghdad bureau badly needed rotating correspondents?

Listen to some other Sun-Star folks talk about HVV:

Kenny Williams, maintenance man: "When he first came in, I was going through a transition with the old owners. He promised me he'd take care of me -- and he did." Kenny couldn't talk anymore. He started to cry.

Kim Brown, ad rep: "He was a quiet leader."

Cynthia Chavez, ad rep: "I thank him for his leadership -- he proved that since he took the reins."

Paola Zarza, front counter: "Working for Hank Vander Veen is an extreme honor. He has set the standards really high. He has great management skills and has built up the Sun-Star. Hank has one of the biggest hearts this town has, and this is a big shock to us. We will miss him greatly."

When he had to oversee three rounds of layoffs at the Sun-Star, Hank performed best. He lost several people he himself had nurtured. He couldn't protect them from the cutbacks imposed by nearly every daily newspaper in the country.

He rallied, with his "quiet leadership," those of us left to carry on making the Sun-Star into what he called, in a visionary phrase, "a media company."

A few months ago, the Ad Side organized a two-day seminar for businesses about how to generate revenue online. They asked me to talk. I opened with an old joke:

Two guys were sitting in a bar. One turned to the other and said, "Do you realize that elks can mate 10 to 15 times a day?" The other guy shook his head. "Hell, and I just joined Rotary." Hank's a Rotarian. He laughed louder than anybody.

You've left a legacy, my friend. One I'm proud to be a part of. Because you made sure the Sun-Star made money, we in the newsroom can keep generating, every day and every hour, news and information our audience can't get anywhere else.

We'll keep trying to make you proud.

Thanks, Hank.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or

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