Don Smith, who lived in Barrington (RI) with his wife and two children until his death a few weeks back, was a legendary journalist during his years as managing editor of the Providence Journal-Bulletin, as it used to be called. His obituaries recalled his years as ME and quoted several sources who spoke of how great a journalist he was.
But none of the sources could do justice to what Don meant to the newsroom for nearly a decade of leadership. Don portrayed as an outstanding journalist who was tough on reporters. But he was also from the “old school” of editors. He reminded me of the men who wore sleeve garters and eye shades, drank heavily and swore constantly, although to my knowledge he never did most of those things.
I met Don when I went to work for the newspaper evenings as a part-time copy editor during the ‘80s. I would work a full shift at Brown, where I was a PR person, and then several nights a week go into work at the Journal for a full shift of copy editing. After 20 straight hours of work, you can imagine the state my mind was in.
In those days, it was a cardinal sin to fall asleep at your computer terminal. Many was the night I struggled to stay awake as I went into my 18th hour of work and to concentrate on the articles I was editing.
I remember one particularly difficult evening when my head finally fell against the computer screen and I lost consciousness. Suddenly, a loud voice said, “Hey, are you asleep?” It was Don Smith.
“No,” I muttered feebly. “I’m just checking punctuation.”
I knew if I were caught sleeping it’d be a long time before they called me back into work.
My big story begins one evening when I had first started there. I barely knew Smith in those days, although we got to be good friends after a while. I wasn’t very busy so I was combing through the electronic files and happened upon a story, written locally, about a Barrington man who was killed in the first days of the invasion of Grenada.
In those days we didn’t have enough money to subscribe to the paper, so I printed the story out to show my wife, who I knew would be interested.
Around 11 p.m., I saw a crowd of editors gathering by the water cooler and talking excitedly about something, so I wandered over to see what was going on. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, though, so I went back to my desk.
After a while I heard Don Smith say, “Well, we’ll just have to call the reporter at home and tell him he’s got to come in a write the whole story again from scratch. We have no choice. It’s our lead story for tomorrow.”
So I sauntered back over and asked, “What’s all the commotion?”
Someone turned to me and said, “It doesn’t concern you.”
Then I heard mention of Grenada. Someone else said something about Barrington. So I finally yelled out, “Is this about the Barrington guy who was killed in the invasion?” Someone responded, “Yes, the story was inadvertently deleted and we’re stuck with a huge hole on the front page.”
I looked straight at Don Smith and said, “I have a printout of that story on my desk. I printed it out earlier this evening.”
Smith looked at me, rather angrily, I thought. “You son of a bitch,” he finally blurted out. “You bastard.”
All kinds of thoughts started running through my head. “Uh oh, I’m in for it now. He thinks I’m the one who deleted the story by mistake. And maybe I wasn’t allowed to use the printer. I’m going to end up getting fired.” My insides started to churn and I could feel the bile rising up. Then I thought I detected a faint hint of a smile on Smith’s face, a rare event. “I’ll be goddammed if you aren’t something,” he finally said.
Then he started barking out orders. “Get that typist back in here. Get ahold of that reporter and cancel that last order. Call the composition department and have them set up the front page.”
I turned and went back to my desk. It was going to be a good night, after all.