A NOD TO A MAN WHO STOOD BEHIND US ALL

Most of us get into this business because of someone else. We interview at a newspaper with an older, wiser employee, someone who seems honest, sincere, fair, a little sloppy maybe, with a temper, but trustworthy, and a bit of a rascal. We say yes. We’re taken under a wing.

And we’re hooked.

Neal Shine was that guy. The one who lures you into newspapers – then keeps you there forever. Neal loved the ink, the presses, the deadlines, the very idea that something important happens every day and “damn it,” as he liked to say, someone should be covering it.

Such love becomes contagious. You wanted to feel what Neal felt. You wanted to be as proud of your job as he was. You wanted the clarity that he effused. We were the good guys. Plain and simple. If we did our jobs right, we were doing the right job. When the money was bad – and it’s usually bad – when news hole shrunk, when circulation sagged, there was Neal, dogged but upbeat, still ready to slap you on the back and urge you on.

I remember when the joint operating agreement between the Free Press and the Detroit News was put into place – something he hated even as he was forced to implement it – Neal noted that the agreement was for 100 years.

“Does that mean 100 years from now, we get to go after those (bleeps) again?”

If he could’ve lived that long, he would have.

An icon for the ages

Neal died Tuesday, having the good news sense not to compete with Opening Day. His death, at 76, from respiratory failure, was broken to most of the Free Press staff through an e-mail that began “With sadness, we need to let everyone know …”

Neal would have hated that. For one thing, he never got with the electronic side of newspapers. He once told me he had trouble reading the Free Press online when he was out of town because “it’s not the same as having it in your hand and getting ink on your fingers.”

Besides, you never thought of Neal “with sadness.” He loved to laugh and to make people laugh – he was as good a banquet speaker as you ever will hear – and he had that newspaperman’s ability to find humor in even the grimmest of moments.

Over the years, Neal was a copyboy, a reporter, a city editor, a managing editor, a senior managing editor, a columnist, even the publisher. He was so identified with this newspaper that on its 175th birthday, in a radio interview, I jokingly asked him, “So, what was the Free Press like in 1831?”

“Circulation was a problem then, as it is now,” he said.

The right way to do things

It isn’t that Neal died. We accept that he died. We will grieve. We will say the formal good-bye. We will trudge on.

It isn’t that he died; it’s that he can’t be replaced. Guys like Neal Shine are disappearing. Fewer people stay in the newspaper business these days, almost nobody at one paper, and the handful who do would be lying if they said it is as fun – or even as critical – as it once was.

We need people like Neal to tell the stories of how things used to be, to remind us – in this blurred world of celebrity-tinged journalism – of the compass we should sail by. Newspaper people don’t get statues, but if they did, Neal would be outside the Free Press doors, a pillar of motivation with a bald head and dancing eyes.

Some of us are here because of him, but all of us are better because of him. I can feel him looking over my shoulder right now, wanting to see what I write for his paper, and it says something that I feel nervous. If only we could love what we do the way Neal Shine loved this place. He was a man of heart and letters, and like the ink he so cherished, he left a mark.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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