Farewell to the boss; he made us all better

Today’s column will surprise the first person who reads it. That’s because the first person to read my column — for pretty much the last 25 years — has been my editor, my boss and my friend, Gene Myers.

Who will retire once he edits this last one.

It’s not my fault (I hope). He is taking an early retirement from the Detroit Free Press, something sadly too common in the journalism business, as contraction and cost-cutting wipes out expansion and exploration.

Already, I can feel Gene’s discomfort. He does not covet attention. He will go to bat for you, will fight for you, will sing your praises and tell the world how great you are, he just won’t step out in front of you.

In this way, he has been the rarest of bosses: the kind who actually enjoys supporting his employees, instead of counting them as his minions. How beloved is Gene Myers? He announced he was leaving 11 days ago, and it has been a banshee-screaming denial around the sports department ever since.

There’s a tradition of cobbling together a few farewell paragraphs from staff members when someone leaves our section — with luck, we can whip it into a single mocked-up page.

Gene’s is four pages long.

Honestly, we could make a special section.

From Kansas to the Motor City

Which is something Gene has done, many times. Special sections on Lions seasons, Tigers previews, the Olympics, the Stanley Cup. Commemorative books when local teams win titles. These were beyond the normal back-break of producing a daily sports section and 24/7 website; they required immeasurable planning, endless copy editing. Getting e-mails from Gene at 3 a.m. has been commonplace for years. You had the sense he was always working, sunlight, moonlight. When you’d ask, “How you doing?” he’d laugh and say, “Too early to tell.” But what is early if you never sleep?

He began at the Free Press 33 years ago, a summer intern with the forehead bangs haircut like that dorky kid in “Almost Famous.” The fact that he retires at 55 with a full (if somewhat grayer) scalp is a miracle. Lord knows his job gave reason to yank his follicles. Computer crashes on deadline, sudden overtimes that negated entire pages, complaining readers, complaining teams, complaining bosses, complaining writers.

Being sports editor is like being the one airport counter person when a full flight is delayed. Everyone thinks you can fix it.

None of this, somehow, ever got him down. Gene is ineffably happy, a Kansas kid whose sun is permanently shining. He says “dandy!” and “woo-hoo!” For years, when I’d send in my column, he’d send me back a one-word response: “GONCHAR!”

Enthusiastic, even in acknowledging receipt.

A demon on deadline

Now I’ve had a lot of bosses in this business. Had one who refused to pay me a dime my first six months. Had one who told me I would never succeed because I used too many italics. Had one who just grunted.

Gene Myers, on the other hand, writes long e-mails when a staff member has a baby, gets married or loses a loved one. He writes paragraphs of praise when an intern moves on. He is the town crier and the country preacher and the wise grandpa on the porch of this staff, and, honestly, I have never heard a negative word said about him.

Through the years, we’ve been through a lot. Buried parents. Buried colleagues. Fought against the crashing waves of journalistic issues. And we were comrades-in-deadlines. Joined at the hip. Gene not only edited my frenzied copy in minutes, he took dictation when my computer failed — from airplanes, from an earthquake-shaken San Francisco, from a kitchen phone in an Alaskan diner.

Reading your work aloud to someone who is rapidly typing it on a screen is as close as you get to delivering in this business. Even doing that, Gene would suggest a better word, double-check a statistic, fix my spelling, improve whatever I wrote.

Nearly always, at the end of the day — usually beyond midnight — we’d share a quick, weary phone call. “All set then?” I’d say, yawning. “Good job, man!” he’d say, still effervescent.

The word “boss” has a negative connotation. More accurate in this case is “leader,” someone who inspires you, who teaches and nourishes you, who brings out your best.

Our leader puts down his pen with these last paragraphs (just coincidentally, he assures me). Nothing I write can properly address the moment. But here’s the best I’ve got, Gene, the last lines you’ll read from me as a Freep editor:

You were one of a kind. It’s been an honor to work for you. And I’m a better man for having known you.

You don’t need to respond. I know already.

GONCHAR!

Did I spell that right?

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Tickets are on sale for the Nov. 8 charity launch at the Fox Theatre of his latest novel, “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.” Tickets are $50, include an autographed book and are available at ticketmaster.com, olympiaentertainment.com, Fox Theatre, Joe Louis Arena, Hockeytown Authentics and 800-745-3000.

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