He started as a sports reporter, until one year they told him he was “on the desk.” And the desk meant the copy desk – editing stories, doing page makeup, cutting in type in the composing room.
On the desk, young Virgil Stewart learned a different set of skills from those he needed as a reporter. And he began to look at the world from a different point of view – yours.
I have worked with Virgil for nearly 20 of those years. My first job at The Augusta Chronicle was editing behind him and other veterans on the day copy desk.
Working with Virgil each day was an apprenticeship in coffee drinking, storytelling and, of course, editing.
He advocated asking writers to get to the point. He had memorized the finer points of Associated Press style (at least those instituted before the 1986 changes). He knew the second and third definitions of words. And he used them to make clever wordplay with headlines.
He was a teacher of these things – and grammar – throughout the day.
And it didn’t stop when the work did.
Virgil and I would go fishing or to football games or out for drinks – where the lessons continued.
“Strunk and White. Elements of Style. Chapter 13,” Virgil barked.
“Use the active voice?” I guessed.
“Omit needless words,” he said.
Then he pointed out a sign in the distance.
“Fresh Fish Sold Here,” it read.
“What a waste of words. A terrible headline. Go ahead, omit a needless word,” he commanded.
“You don’t need the ‘fresh’,” I guessed. “They aren’t going to sell old fish. It can just say, ‘Fish Sold Here.’
“ ‘Here?’ ” he said. “What about the AP Style rule discouraging the use of ‘here’ to refer to your location? ‘Fish Sold.’ ”
Sensing an opportunity to win the game and display my cleverness, I said:
“The sign could just say, ‘Fish.’ It’s not like they are going to give it away.”
“John, you don’t need a sign at all – cause you can smell the fish from here.”
Still the winner. Still the teacher.
And no, that is not a true story. It is an old tale adapted for many uses over the years. I heard it years before I met Virgil.
But I hijacked the tale and inserted Virgil. He was a great example for both young copy editors on how learning was an ongoing effort.
One story to teach the lessons of headline writing, AP style and, of course, Rule 13: Omit needless words.
If brevity is the soul of wit, what is longevity the heart of?
The first time I told of Virgil and the fish sign, it was merely his 30th anniversary with our company. Some things get better with age.