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I don’t hear many people describe office work groups as “family” these days.
In a way, it’s kind of a silly description for a group of people thrown together for the purposes of work.
However, there was a time earlier in my career when the term actually did have meaning.
I belonged to a family of non- relatives.
We had a “Dad.”
His name was Stu Huffman.
No one called him “Dad,” of course. He was more like a ringmaster of a crazy circus than a paternalistic figure who took care of everybody.
Our family certainly wasn’t anything like “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Father Knows Best” — popular television series at the time. In fact many, if not all of us, had at one time or another considered punching Stu out. I’m sure he experienced similar feelings toward us.
Yet, many decades after the family disbanded, there is a certain sense of unity we still feel with each other.
We experienced it Thursday when we got word that Stu had died at the age of 79.
Thanks to emails, Facebook and even telephone calls, messages began circulating within hours of his passing from and among the members of Stu’s newspaper family.
There was a similarity in most, if not all, of them.
I’ll say one thing for most of us: No one tried to sugar-coat Stu. We didn’t use any of the descriptive adjectives we uttered years earlier when he pointed out that our story or our picture wasn’t worth putting into the newspaper — any newspaper. Instead we suggested that he could be a stern taskmaster or a boss who demanded the best from each of us.
And then we would describe in various ways how he had taught us to be better journalists.
He had a forceful way of bringing that about, primarily because he had never mastered the fine art of tact.
He didn’t bother drawing people aside to point out to them that their story was full of holes. His critiques often were delivered across crowded rooms in colorful language. Sometimes he would kick nearby trash cans. Occasionally they would fly across the newsroom.
I still recall one legend about a young reporter who turned in a story about a shooting that had taken place the night before in Columbus. The story started out noting that the milkman had not heard a shot and it continued with a litany of people in other professions who were similarly deaf.
After several of those paragraphs, the reporter finally got around to reporting that, although no one had heard the shots, so and so of such an address in Columbus had been shot dead the night before.
Legend has it that after Stu finally got to the key paragraph, a trash can or some other object went flying through the air.
Most of us adjusted to that kind of environment. I suppose that came from the times. Today, there would be few newsrooms or workplaces where it would have been tolerated. Times were a lot different back then.
I think we all recognized at some point that Stu indeed was right, that what we had done needed improvement, and he was helping us make what we did better. He was good at what he did and knew what he was talking about. He not only was a good copy editor but an excellent writer, one of the best photographers I have ever known and a magician in the darkroom — pan-developing strips of film into negatives that produced some of the sharpest images I have ever seen.
It is ironic that some of those who wanted to punch Stu out at times not only remained close over the years but their admiration for him increased.
Bruised egos were set aside as we discovered that we had absorbed some of what he had been telling us.
Perhaps his anger did get the best of him at times.
It’s hard to explain to younger reporters who have come up through a gentler system what Stu accomplished. In a way it’s hard to explain to those who went through Stu’s system.
The bottom line is that I think we’re the better because of what he taught us.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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