Friday, March 30, 2007

Remembrance of an editor, teacher and friend

Dan McDonough died in Longview this morning after a long illness, but, as he told a friend recently, he had led a good, happy life and was ready for the next one.

His life was good for him, and it was good for those of us who knew him and worked with him.

Of all the people who have labored to teach me how to write, Dan was the most demanding and the best.

Dan anchored the copy desk at the Longview Daily News. Fate had placed us at an exceptional, family-owned newspaper at a challenging and exciting time — the era of the massive eruption of nearby Mount St. Helens. The paper won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the eruption and of the long recovery that followed it.

Hardly a sentence went into the proud little paper without Dan's overseeing it, or polishing it or massaging it. Dan reshaped a phrase here, inserted a comma there, and, when need be, demanded that his young reporters rewrite whole sections.

"SEIFERT!" he would bellow across the newsroom for all to hear. I'd drop whatever I was doing and jog up to where he would be staring at a computer screen filled with my flickering prose.

"Seifert," he'd say, "when are you going to learn how to use commas?" He had reached some breaking point, weary of putting in, or taking out, commas in my copy.

Other times he might question a date or the spelling of a name. He seemed to know the correct spelling of every person's name in Cowlitz County.

Sometimes he'd want to shift some buried anecdote or quote to prominence by putting it up near the story's lead. "This is interesting," he'd say, highlighting a paragraph with his cursor. And with the punch of a key, he'd inject, "Put it HERE!"

One day he bellowed out "Seifert!" and I jogged up ready to greet disaster. He looked up at me from the screen and said, "This is just a really great story — and well told. Good job."

Of course I learned as much on that visit to his side as I had on all the others.

Notice that I have used the words "learn" and "teach" in writing about Dan. Great editors are great teachers, although the opposite isn't necessarily true. I've held both jobs in my own life, and I have learned the limitations and potential of both.

And much of what I have learned about each, I learned from Dan.

After I left the Longview Daily News, I would occasionally see Dan at reunions of one kind or another. His Christmas letters were masterful and packed with news. He was 25 years my senior, and when he retired he grew to be a dear, supportive friend to me and many he mentored.

As the years wore on, we realized that Dan always had been a friend.

Kind, caring, funny, candid, wise — Dan had been all we could ask for in an editor; all we could wish for in a friend.

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