Published Friday, May 24, 2013 AT 7:07 PM / Updated at 9:22 PM
Diary of a Skywriter: Introducing the interns
Tom Shatel Omaha World-Herald

The World-Herald introduced their summer interns today. It’s an annual tradition that always gets me a little misty-eyed.

Before you know it, I get hungry for cinnamon chili and spaghetti.

Every so often, I will get an email or a Q and A from a high school or college kid asking about journalism. One of the questions that comes up: What do I have to do to get into this profession?

My answer is usually two-fold. One, get good enough grades to graduate, because employers want a degree. But more important than scoring A’s in Econ 51 is a resume with experience on it, and a hefty file of newspaper clips.

If at all possible, get a summer internship at a newspaper, radio or TV station or whatever medium fits your profile.

I was unusual. I knew I wanted to be Oscar Madison when I was 13. By 16, I had volunteered to work for a Kansas City suburban weekly called the Jackson County Advocate. They paid 25 cents an inch. I’m absolutely sure that’s why I write so long.

By my senior year at Hickman Mills High (1975-76), I had tried being a bus boy at a local supper club. Carting off tubs of plates and cleaning ash trays wasn’t my bag, baby. I called the sports editor of the Kansas City Star and asked if they had any part-time work.

He said they did, and I took a job working weekends, and some Friday nights, answering the phone of the sports department and typing in the various high school and college box scores called into the paper and keeping track of the wire. Way back when, in the stone age, newspapers had an Associated Press machine that spit out breaking news and stories on long rolls of paper. You tore off what you needed and gave it to the sports copy chief, who patted you on the head and gave you a milk bone.

I spent a lot of Sundays, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., in that Star sports department by myself, answering the phone,  mostly from guys in bars trying to settle a bet (Who had the higher batting average in 1974, Amos Otis or Hal McRae?). I got really tired of those guys. For The World-Herald folks who wonder why I never answer the phone, that’s why.

After graduation, I found a summer gig writing for another suburban paper in Grandview, Mo. This was never easy. I would generally bug people until they hired me. This is a helpful trait for all young people to have. Another is, don’t worry about glamour when you’re young. Just get experience.

That summer of 1976, the suburban weekly had its benefits. I spent part of the summer covering Royals games (the 1976 Royals were the franchise’s first playoff team, and the summer that McRae and George Brett chased the AL batting title). Someone at our paper took a photo of me interviewing Vida Blue in the dugout. I still have that photo somewhere in the basement.

In 1977, I worked as a cook at Worlds Of Fun. That was the end of my culinary career, if you can call heating up roast beef and ravioli cooking.

From then on, it was writing all the time. And that led me to my all-time favorite summer gig.

In 1978, I was the sports editor of the Maneater, one of three school papers at Mizzou back then. A great perk of that job was that the Cincinnati Enquirer always hired the Maneater sports editor as their summer sports intern.

That was me in the summer of 1979. Thirty four years ago this week, I drove my 1969 Chevy Nova from KC to the Queen City, with a stop along the way for a new carburator.

This was pretty cool. My heroes have always been sports writers, and the big guns back then were columnists David Israel and John Schulian in Chicago. Most everyone in my generation wanted to be a columnist in Chicago. That’s where the best writing was going on. (Another hot, young columnist piqued my interest back then, too. I used to go to the J-School library to pick up the Dallas Morning News and read this young, fearless rebel who was a terrfic writer. A guy named Skip Bayless. Yeah, I know.)

Well, Cincy wasn’t Chicago, but it had a big-time feel. The downtown was bigger than KC and the Enquirer stood smack dab in the middle, tall and proud, with the name “Cincinnati Enquirer” engraved on the front. This would most certainly do.

I didn’t know many of the names at the Enquirer. The sports editor was a quiet man named Frank Hinchey, who was very polite whenever he asked me to do something. There was editor Mel Woody, a big guy with a big, booming voice who was always on me for something. There was a young, animated guy with long, frizzy hair who basically ran the department. Everyone called him “Flea.” I never did learn his name.

Tim Sullivan, the University of Cincinnati writer, was my tour guide. Sullivan, now a sports columnist at the Louisville Courier-Journal, was a Mizzou grad and took the Mizzou guys under his wing. There were two summer sports interns; the other was a young woman from Indiana U. named Jenny Rees, now one of the top horse racing writers in the country at the Louisvile C-J.

The Mizzou kid was high maintenance. I had a room set up at UC for the summer but it didn’t open until mid-June, so I spent two weeks on Sullivan’s couch. That imposition still comes up time to time when I see him at events.

Bob Hertzel was the new Bengals writer, but he was hardly new. “Hertz” was a legend who covered the Big Red Machine, Sparky Anderson, Pete Rose and Co., in their glory days. Rose had left for Philly, Sparky was in Detroit and Johnny Bench retired, so it seemed natural for Bob to leave, too. He got an exclusive interview with Rose before the Hit King returned to Cincy for the first time that summer.

Mark Purdy was the columnist, a young writer with a knack for stories and humor, who gave me more time than I deserved. He had the job I was interested in having one day so I asked a lot of questions and tagged along with him at Reds games and the Memorial golf tournament. Purdy invited me into the department’s exclusive Strat-O-Matic baseball league, the fantasy baseball of yesteryear. That was a pretty big deal.

The Cincinnati AP office was located right next to the Enquirer sports department. I would occasionally have to go over there to ask questions or rip the wire. I got to know the No. 2 AP sports guy, a tall, young skinny guy with curly hair. We both had big dreams. I think of those days every time I see Peter King on Sunday Night Football or read his column in Sports Illustrated.

I covered a lot of things nobody else wanted any part of. I did a high school all-star game and met the local high school coaching god. He had a loud, hoarse voice and he always seemed like he was screaming. He was very good to me, told me who was who. I always remembered that when Gerry Faust got the Notre Dame job a few years later.

There were tennis tourneys and a trick golf artist.  The LPGA championship, starring Nancy Lopez. Smokin’ Joe Frazier came to Cincy to appear at a training session for the city’s great hope, Aaron Pryor. I went to Bengals camp one day. The highlight of my summer was going to Riverfront Stadium.

The Big Red Machine was on the downslide that summer, although they made the playoffs. George Foster was still around, but barely. So was Dave Concepcion. Tom Seaver still had a fastball and was great to talk to. Ray Knight was the big name on the Reds that year. John McNamara was the manager and he tolerated the stuttering intern’s questions.

There were a few highlights. This life-long Dodger fan got to meet Steve Garvey, the nicest guy I’ve ever interviewed. Being in the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse was a hoot. Dave Parker and Willie Stargell were carrying on loudly with the song “We Are Family” in the background. Totally cool.

Even better was hanging in the press box. I got more excited about meeting Chicago sports writers Bob Verdi and Joe Goddard, who both were nice enough to give me advice while they covered the game. The No. 1 highlight was meeting Tom Boswell, the legendary baseball writer at the Washington Post. I knew who he was and invited myself to sit next to him at lunch before the Reds game.  Boswell, who was in town to do a feature on Seaver, was incredibly gracious. I asked him how he got started and I remember him saying he had been in the Navy, had an English degree and decided to try newspaper writing. He got on at the Post and worked his way up. That’s how you become a superstar.

I’d rather talk to Boswell than Seaver. That’s just me. But I figured the former would give me a better road map to my future.

I can’t write about that summer without mentioning two other icons. First, there was the Cricket Bar, an old, classic newspaper bar where writers and other assorted characters hung out. It was right next to the paper, which made it handy for handling deadlines and last call. Years later, when I returned to Cincy to cover Nebraska basketball in the 1992 NCAA tourney, I tried to find The Cricket. It had closed and was now the lobby bar of a hotel. I think I shed a tear.

Then there was my summer diet: Skyline Chili. This delicacy was hard on cholesterol but easy on an intern’s budget. It had a unique flavor, a kick in the buds that took some getting used to but I grew to love it. Cinnamon mixed in the chili. The signature meal was a “Three Way,” which was spaghetti covered by Skyline chili covered by a mound of grated cheese. You chased that down with a coney — mini hot dog covered with chili and cheese — or two. Believe it or not, I actually lost 20 pounds that summer.

I don’t recommend that diet for our summer interns. But I do suggest soaking in every ounce of your experience. Ask questions as often as possible. Devour every assignment thrown your way. Don’t be too good to do anything. Whether you’re in finance or law or journalism, the summer is the door to your future. One day, 34 years later, you might just remember it as one of the best times of your life.

About Tom Shatel

Tom Shatel is a columnist for The Omaha World-Herald. You can get in touch with Tom on Twitter (@tomshatelOWH), or send him an email at tom.shatel@owh.com.