The office looked like any editor’s office.
Press releases and various correspondence piled on the desk.
A month’s worth of newspapers — heck, maybe even two or three months — stacked in various corners.
An ashtray — this was the 1980s, you have to understand.
Every weekday in the summer of 1987, I’d have to make a few treks per day into the office of Randy Miller when he was the editor at the Daily Democrat.
I was a summer intern between my junior and senior years at the University of Iowa, and I was one of the news reporters in the newsroom where I had been working as a part-time sports writer for a few years.
I learned a lot in those years at the Democrat, doing everything from writing stories to taking photos to the old cut-and-paste ways of putting together pages.
Randy was one of my teachers.
Every day, I’d have to go into the office because he had questions on my stories. Which is what a good editor does — be a pain in the butt about details. His name wasn’t on the story, but he knew your name would, and he wanted to make it better.
So he had questions, and I always had to be ready with the answers.
Instead of saying it this way, Randy would recommend that way. Punch up that lead paragraph, he would say.
No story is ever flawless, but he worked to make it, and the writer, better.
I learned a lot that summer about dealing with people, dealing with sources, dealing with editors. That summer I covered everything from a county fair to a sexual harassment complaint against a teacher. Randy guided me through every story.
A year later, with a degree completed, I came back for the summer and the Democrat had an opening for a reporter to cover city government. I wasn’t that interested but, hey, it was a job.
I talked with Randy about it, and he had a suggestion — fill in until he could find someone else. His reasoning made sense — it was a position that could be controversial, and since I was a hometown kid, it could be uncomfortable for me and my family.
I also think it was because he wanted someone with more experience, and he knew that given my choice I would rather be a sports writer. So I decided to be a pinch-hitter for a few weeks, and it just so happened that right around the time Randy found a replacement, there was an opening at the Daily Gate City in Keokuk.
I worked somewhere else, but Randy would still edit me now and then, since the two papers were owned by the same company and shared a network. If he was going to use one of my stories, I was quite sure at some point a message would flash at the bottom of my computer screen with a question from Randy.
We ended up working together at The Hawk Eye in Burlington — I moved there in the summer of 1991, and Randy would be hired there in 1993.
That’s where we stayed — Randy retired in 2016 and three years later, I was “eliminated.” His desk then was like his desk at the Democrat, but that’s how an editor’s desk looks.
My relationship with him was like any writer has with an editor. There would be disagreements, but I always knew he had my back, and that continued even after we didn’t work together.
He worked hard in the community — he always tried to talk me into the yearly Paint-A-Thon, but I always had the excuse of having to cover something that Saturday. I appreciated his work at renovating old houses — I put him on a search one time for a porch post my parents needed, but he couldn’t find one.
Randy died early Saturday morning. I hadn’t seen him in the last few months, and didn’t even know he was ailing. I hated that — hated that I hadn’t talked to him more, hated that I had lost touch.
The last time I saw him, he told me I should join him and some other former colleagues for their Tuesday coffee. I was intrigued, especially because it would have given me a weekly chance to annoy the person responsible for my “elimination.” But I never did join them.
The newsroom atmosphere is something only journalists understand. It can be fun, contentious, happy and angry, peaceful until it’s chaotic — and then you get the paper out and the next day you do it all again.
I’ve lost too many friends over the years, co-workers who went through all of those daily emotions and were a bigger part of your life than you realized at the time.
Randy would have enjoyed editing this column. I’m sure he would have found something to question.
And it would be wise for me to have the answer.
John Bohnenkamp is an award-winning sports writer and contributor to the Pen City Current. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
The office looked like any editor’s office.