I can still picture Charles Sherman looking over my right shoulder at the story on my computer screen.
Charles was the new business editor at the Columbia (Mo.) Missourian, the morning newspaper published by the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
“Those paragraphs are looking kind of chunky,” he said.
“I didn’t know I was writing for USA Today,” I said kiddingly, invoking the national daily newspaper known for its breezy format.
“We’re not writing for Encyclopedia Brittanica, either,” Charles joked back.
‘Should probably fail you’
I don’t recall what the story was about, although it was one of the too few that I wrote that semester under Charles’ tutelage. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to be a reporter, so had college life sapped my spirit.
But Charles, who was in his first semester at Mizzou after a long stint in Paris as an editor with the International Herald Tribune, saw something in me.
I’m still not sure what, given my lack of productivity. Was it quality over quantity?
At the end of the semester, he and I met to discuss my progress and grade.
“I should probably fail you and make you do this class right,” he told me. He specifically mentioned the story he wanted me to do (but didn’t) about mom-and-pop pizzerias using mass-produced pizza toppings.
He gave me an A.
I probably didn’t deserve it, certainly not based on effort. But the implicit vote of confidence, coming when it did, made all the difference in the world to me. It was one of the few times during college – and before I became a professional journalist – when I believed that I could become a successful one.
Charles was as close to a mentor as I ever had. I was honored when he shared with me – a lifelong baseball fan – an anecdote of having presented a Willie Mays-autographed baseball to the “Say Hey Kid” himself.
Charles asked Willie whether he had signed the ball, which I later learned was a gift to young Charles from a great uncle who owned a saloon in Chicago.
“I don’t know, man,” is how I remember Charles describing Willie’s response.
I reconnected with Charles once or twice in the 1990s, when I was working in York and he was a newspaper editor in Madison, Wis. I found him again in 2015 through LinkedIn, learning that he is editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald’s international edition.
He said some nice things about me, which I took to heart. But it really was more important to me to thank him in a way that I had not prior.
He was the right man at the right time, like Willie Mays tracking down Vic Wertz’ long drive in the 1954 World Series. For the journalist at heart that I remain, I owe him a lot.
And I still owe him a story about pizza toppings.