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Mike Tharp: The story behind this column

Sun-Star Executive Editor Mike Tharp as a copy boy in the Topeka Capital-Journal newsroom in 1961. Tharp got the job when he was in high school.
Sun-Star Executive Editor Mike Tharp as a copy boy in the Topeka Capital-Journal newsroom in 1961. Tharp got the job when he was in high school. PHOTO BY RICH CLARKSON

Behind the name of this column -- "Copy!" -- lives a story.

A story that will date me faster than the photo running with it.

It started back in Topeka, Kan., after I became an Eagle Scout. (I still put that on my resume.) Each year, all the Eagle Scouts in town were brought together for an annual dinner, paired with somebody from the community in the field or profession we wrote in our application that we wanted to enter as grownups.

"Foreign correspondent" is what I wrote down. I wasn't sure what it meant, but it sounded purdy cool. In one of those life-changing pivots you can never plan or predict, at the Eagle Scout dinner I was paired with Charles Pearson, Sunday editor of the Topeka Capital-Journal.

We got on, as they say, famously.

Among other bits of advice, he recommended that I read the "Notes and Comment" section of the New Yorker magazine. That was easy: my dad already subscribed. He also asked if I might be interested in a job as a copy boy. I asked what that was, he gave me a brief description and I said sure.

I'd mostly forgotten the conversation till a few months later when he called. We've got an opening for a copy boy, Mr. Pearson (which is what I'd call him today, if I met him) said.

I was 16. I had to make my first adult value judgment: take the copy boy job? Or go on the train (free, because my dad worked for the Santa Fe) to California to see my brother in L.A.? If I took the job, I'd be on my own for a couple weeks.

I took the job.

That's why I'm sitting here today, writing this column for the Sun-Star.

Because I took that job.

And that job opened up for me when it was still the hot-type era in newspapering. That means way before computers. That means operators in eyeshades at Linotype machines pounding like wheat threshers as they formed individual letters from red-hot lead. That means pressmen in ink-stained aprons wearing square hats they made, origami-style, out of the newspaper itself. That means journalism's Jurassic Era.

Copy boys (it would be quite awhile before girls were allowed to join the ranks, and then everybody became "copy messengers" or "news clerks" -- two gelded and bland terms) did a little of everything in the Capital-Journal newsroom.

Sharpen pencils -- the thumb-thick black puppies used to edit stories on khaki-colored paper rough as a corn cob. Sort newspapers -- the dailies and weeklies from all over Kansas that we swapped for. Change typewriter ribbons on big ol' Royal manual machines that nearly every reporter could make sound like a Tommy gun -- either with all 10 digits or with just two fingers pistoning key to key. Fetch coffee and cigarettes (a fug hung over the newsroom like fog) from vending machines for reporters and editors. One chore we couldn't do was score the flat half-pints of Old Crow held in several bottom desk drawers.

But mainly we answered to the cries of "Copy!" That was at once a verb, a noun and a summons. We had to drop whatever we were doing and rush to the copy desk or sports desk and grab the edited story from a wire basket. Then we ran that story to a steel box fixed to a pulley that we'd shove upstairs to the composing room. The compositors one story above would send the steel box back down with printed proofs. We'd then hustle these back to the desks where they'd be checked and edited yet again.

At 10 p.m., the first deadline, the thunder of the basement printing presses began to roll through the building like a sonic boom. I stood there and felt the vibes on the wooden newsroom floor and knew this was what I wanted to do the rest of my life.

I worked Monday through Saturday nights that summer, and it was the most fun I'd ever had with clothes on. It didn't take long before Sports started asking me to come in Friday evenings and take high school scores phoned in from all over the state. Not long after, Rich Clarkson (www.richclarkson.com), one of the major figures in American photojournalism over the past 50 years, asked me to be a darkroom boy -- a glorified janitor. But I got to be around some of the most talented shooters in the country -- an experience that helps me every day I do this job.

And then I was asked to write the weekly "Teen Scene" column about stuff going on in Topeka's six high schools. The column carried my byline and photo, and if any newsie ever tells you that doesn't give you a rush, he or she is fibbing.

One of the other copy boys, Stan Wellborn (who went on to a neat career at U.S. News & World Report, Congressional Quarterly and D.C. think tanks), attended our big rival, Topeka High. Once when we were playing them, and I went to the free throw line, Stan organized a chant: "See that basket/See that ball!/Come on, Copy!/Hit the wall."

I grinned and made 'em both.

Today it's a lot smoother process to publish a newspaper, technology-wise. But I like to think that the same creative thrill I felt as a teenager still fires me up every day I come to work at the Sun-Star.

And I bet if somebody ever walked into our newsroom and yelled, "Copy!" I'd be half out of my chair, ready to run get the story. ...

Mike Tharp is executive editor at the Sun-Star. You can reach him at mtharp@mercedsunstar.com or (209) 385-2427.