Irish Privilege

As my time with Harper & Row’s textbook sales division was winding down in 1973, I faced a tricky decision. The annual sales meeting was scheduled for September in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, my wife was due to deliver our second child, also in September. I asked my former Canfield Press boss, Jack Jennings, if he thought I should risk being away on a tropical island when my wife was giving birth. “Well,” he replied, “I was out of town on business when one of my children was born, and it came out during the divorce that it was {pause} the source of some resentment.” So I passed on Puerto Rico, and sure enough, Sean Michael Finn arrived on September 27, the second day of the Harper & Row sales meeting.

All the while, I kept a close eye on the help-wanted classifieds in the Washington Post. D.C. was then, and remains today, the center of the association universe. These organizations represent more industries and professions than you can shake a stick at, from the people who bring you into this world (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) to the ones who usher you out (National Funeral Directors Association). Thousands of these groups cluster in and around the Nation’s Capital so they have convenient access to Congress and the federal government, the better to lobby on behalf of their members. And almost every one publishes a magazine or journal.

One Sunday morning that fall, I found a classified in the Post for Manager of Communications for the National Builders Hardware Association. What would this Manager of Communications be doing? One item in the list of duties stood out: Help edit Doors & Hardware magazineThinking this could be the start of a career in magazine publishing, I fired off my resume.

Soon enough, I was sitting in the office of NBHA’s executive director, Dick Hornaday, as he explained what he was looking for in a candidate. “Our editor, Bob Ryan, has many years of experience,” he said. “But I sometimes wonder whether they are the same year repeated over and over again. We’d like someone to bring fresh energy to the magazine.”

Next I met with Bob Ryan himself, a balding, burly Philadelphia native. As he talked, a lit cigarette dangled from his lips and beads of sweat dotted his brow. I learned that he had been a reporter for the Stars and Stripes, a newspaper the U.S. military has published since World War I. Bob was also a proud member of Notre Dame’s “Subway Alumni,” avid fans of the Fighting Irish with an affinity for the Catholic university, but no diploma.

Ryan did not conduct a tough interview. He seemed satisfied that my experience editing William & Mary’s literary magazine and working at Harper & Row had prepared me for the job. Clearly my chief qualification, in his eyes, was my name: F-I-N-N. As the nuns at my parochial school used to say, I had the map of Ireland written on my face. And we Irish have to stick together.

In short order, I got the job offer and didn’t hesitate to close the door on my textbook sales career. I reported to work in the Spring of 1974 at NBHA’s offices in a Rosslyn, Virginia high-rise. It was a gaudy blue building on Fort Myer Drive, next to a large hole in the ground that would eventually become a Metro station. I had a good view of the construction through my office window.

Straightaway, I was writing short news items about the goings-on at NBHA, doing my best to give them the “fresh energy” Dick Hornaday was looking for. Early on, Ryan gave me the details about an upcoming meeting of the association’s leadership in Colorado Springs. I sat at my typewriter, gazing out the window into the Metro abyss below as I tried to compose a snappy lead. Leaders . . . Colorado . . . mountains. Then, a flash of inspiration struck:

“The eagles of the industry will convene March 23-27 in Colorado Springs, Colo.” Proud of myself, I finished the three-paragraph item and delivered it to Ryan’s in box. It wasn’t long before he came in my office, red in the face and blowing a cloud of cigarette smoke.

“‘Iggles?!'” he exclaimed in his Philly accent. “What’s this about ‘iggles’?” Clearly, my lofty metaphor had fallen flat. I’m sure it didn’t help that his hometown NFL team was the Philadelphia “Iggles.”

Despite our shared cultural heritage, Ryan was never entirely comfortable with me. He was forever coming into to my office, telling stories about I-don’t-remember-what. When it came time in the conversation for me to respond, all I could think to say was, “Interesting.” Finally, one day when he told yet another story that I once again said was “interesting,” he blew up.

“Inneresting! Inneresting! That’s all you ever say is ‘Inneresting’!” (That’s how people from Philly pronounce it.) I couldn’t come up with anything else to say.

Soon I was scanning the Post classifieds again in search of greener pastures. And sure enough, an editing job with a bigger, better-funded association popped up. After barely a year at Doors & Hardware, I took another leap.


Lo, the College Traveler – II

My 1973 trip to San Francisco for the Canfield Press sales meeting marked several firsts: My first visit to the West Coast. My first time on a jumbo jet–a United 747 flying non-stop from Dulles to San Francisco (the friendly skies and all that). And my first time attending a meeting as a salaried employee. I sat in a window seat, something I would never do today, marveling at the landscape slowly passing below and feeling equal parts nervous and excited.

Golden Gate Bridge, San FranciscoWe met in Tiburon, a trendy waterfront town across the bay from San Francisco. Over several days, we learned about the newest textbooks Canfield Press was releasing for the community college market. My boss, Jack Jennings, and his colleagues emphasized that these weren’t books dumbed down for the two-year schools. No, Canfield had signed innovative professors to produce fresh, exciting texts, chock full of colorful charts, illustrations, and photos. We studied “one-sheets,” summaries of each book that provided the key facts about the author and what made the text better than the competition’s.

One evening, Wayne Oler, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Canfield Press, hosted a dinner for the sales team at his home in Mill Valley. Everything about Oler struck me as the epitome of hip, California sophistication. His house was a striking contemporary on a sloping wooded lot. With the meal he served a delicious cabernet sauvignon from Beaulieu Vineyard, one of the oldest Napa Valley winemakers. To a 22-year-old from back East who was more familiar with Lancers rose, this was a new world.

Oler took pains to let us know that, beyond introducing professors to the company’s textbooks, we had another mission. He urged us to be his scouts, seeking talented teachers he could turn into star authors in the Canfield Press stable. This was the path from college traveler to textbook editor, one that Oler himself had followed.

In the ensuing months, that vision of days spent in lofty conversation with professors about our exciting new textbooks and the books they might write faded. Cold-calling community college teachers turned out to be a challenge for an introverted English major in a new corduroy suit. Then, in 1974, the Canfield Press sales force was merged with Harper & Row’s. I was assigned to a manager who was more interested in hitting the bars in Georgetown with me in tow than in teaching me the textbook business. And I came to realize that every day I stayed in that job was a day I made zero progress toward getting into magazines.

Before I ended my career as a college traveler later that year, I learned one trick that every road warrior should know. On a trip to a community college on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, I found myself on the wrong side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge with no cash. I needed $1.40 to pay the return toll. At the time, ATMs were a rarity. After a brief interval in a mild panic, I came up with a plan. I stopped at one of the many motels on Route 50, went to the front desk, and told the clerk I had lost 50 cents in one of their vending machines. Without hesitation, he opened the cash drawer and handed me two quarters. The next two motels were equally generous. Back home in Gaithersburg, I plotted my next move.

Lo, the College Traveler

In early 1972, with my graduation from William & Mary looming, one question grew more urgent by the day: How would I support myself, my wife, and our young daughter? An English Lit major,  I hoped to make a living as a writer and editor. And I had learned a few things as editor of the campus literary magazine, The William & Mary Review. Still, how was I going to find work in publishing?

My father had one answer: Apply for a federal job. By then, he had put in more than 30 years with the civil service in D.C., most of them at the IRS national office in a senior personnel role. Many of the people who had worked for him were now the heads of personnel at federal agencies all over town. So I just had to say the word and he could arrange the meetings in a heartbeat.

Somehow, I couldn’t picture myself editing a newsletter at the Department of Transportation, or writing booklets at Housing & Urban Development. While I could count on job security and decent pay on Uncle Sugar’s payroll, my ambition was to try my hand in the real publishing world, working for a magazine or a book publisher. But how could I get a foothold at those lofty companies?


My ambition was to try my hand in the real publishing world, working for a magazine or a book publisher.

Enter David Clay Jenkins. Dr. Jenkins had been my freshman advisor in the English Department, and with my senior year winding down, he was now advising me on my honors thesis. And he had a career suggestion: Turns out, a former student of his now had a big job at Houghton-Mifflin, the giant textbook publishing company. And how did he get his start? As a college traveler.

what? A college traveler, it turned out, goes from campus to campus meeting with professors to pitch the latest textbooks. The goal was to get your Psychology 101 text “adopted” by the professor as required reading. It was a long way from editing Tom Wolfe, but it was a foot in the door, or so argued Dr. Jenkins.

So, in short order, I checked the classifieds in the Washington Post, where I found an ad seeking college travelers. I applied, met with the headhunter, and was soon on my way to New York City to interview with a division of Harper & Row.

I was to meet with Jack Jennings, president of Canfield Press, at Harper & Row headquarters on East 53rd Street. His newly minted division published textbooks for the burgeoning community college market, and Jack needed college travelers to get the word out. He had flown in from Canfield Press headquarters in San Francisco.

If they were out to impress me, they did. This was the big time. Harper & Row’s offices were in the heart of midtown Manhattan, right off Fifth Avenue and a stone’s throw from Rockefeller Center and Scribner’s bookstore. The cab from LaGuardia dropped me at 10 East 53rd and I navigated my way to the office where Jennings was camped out. A trim, sandy-haired Californian, he informed me that I had passed the first test just by finding him. To be successful, a college traveler has to be able to track down professors on sprawling campuses.

The rest of the hiring process flew by in a blur. By the end of 1972, I was on staff, assigned to cover community colleges in a territory that stretched from southern Pennsylvania, through Maryland, to Northern Virginia. My wife and I found a garden apartment in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a suburb of D.C. And the first item on my training agenda was the Canfield Press sales meeting in Tiburon, California, across the bay from San Francisco. My career in publishing was launched!

To be continued



Close Encounter

There was that song again, just like clockwork.

Put your hand in the hand of the man
Who stilled the water
Put your hand in the hand of the man
Who calmed the sea
Take a look at yourself
And you can look at others differently
Put your hand in the hand of the man
From Galilee

Every weekday night back in 1971, it was the same routine. As I arrived for my overnight shift as night auditor at the Ramada Inn in Williamsburg, Virginia, Smith & Wade, a local folk-rock duo who performed in the lounge, was closing their final set. And they always, always, closed with Anne Murray’s then-current hit, Put Your Hand in the Hand. 

Put your hand in the hand of the man
Who stilled the water

“Sing it everybody!” they’d shout. “Put your hand in the hand . . .”

Put your hand in the hand of the man
Who calmed the sea

“Oh brother!” I said to the guy at front desk. I was his relief.

I set my thermos of coffee down and settled in to my duties. My friend Lyle, who turned me on to this job, was right: Being a night auditor was a sweet gig. You worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., answering the phone, checking in late-arriving guests, and closing the books for the day. Most nights, you could finish by 1 a.m., lock the lobby door, and snooze until your relief showed up at 7. You actually got paid to sleep! And with those hours, I could put in a 40-hour week at the Ramada Inn, take classes at William & Mary, and still have family time with my wife and daughter.

Over in the lounge, Cabot Wade and his sidekick, Dick Smith, strummed their guitars and harmonized earnestly, putting everything they had into the chorus one last time.

Put your hand in the hand of the man
Who stilled the water
Put your hand in the hand of the man
Who calmed the sea

I didn’t care much for this soft-rock pablum. Just two years before, I had joined the trek to upstate New York for Woodstock. Anne Murray didn’t play Woodstock. So Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, and the Rolling Stones were more my speed. Still, Smith & Wade had managed to get the crowd singing and clapping along for the rousing finish.

Take a look at yourself
And you can look at others differently
Put your hand in the hand of the man
From Galilee!

The crowd hooted and applauded with gusto, then tapered off into murmurs and laughs in that haphazard way an audience does when the show’s over.

Moments later, a group of five people spilled out of the lounge into the lobby, laughing a little too hard, or so it seemed to me. In their midst was an attractive blond woman who swept into the two-story lobby like she was taking the stage. I recognized her as Glennie Wade, Cabot Wade’s wife and the up-and-coming star of the William & Mary theater department.

The group settled themselves on the sofa and chairs in the center of the lobby, below the double-decker brass chandelier. Everyone but Glennie, that is. She stood before her admirers, a wide smile lighting up her face. And then she took a deep breath and began to sing,

The butcher, the baker, the grocer, the clerk
Are secretly unhappy men because
The butcher, the baker, the grocer, the clerk
Get paid for what they do but no applause.
They’d gladly bid their dreary jobs goodbye–for anything theatrical and why? 

Cabot and Smith had had their turn. Now it was Glennie’s time to perform, belting out Ethel Merman’s showstopping Broadway anthem. Right here in the Ramada Inn lobby.

There’s NO business like SHOW business like NO business I know
Everything about it is appealing, everything that traffic will allow
Nowhere could you get that happy feeling when you are stealing that extra bow

Ethel would have been proud. I was amazed at her display of chutzpah and one-upsmanship.

Not long after, Glennie and Cabot got a divorce. She graduated from William & Mary in 1974 and went to New York to launch her acting career. And thanks to the same talent, ambition, and charisma I witnessed on display that night at the Ramada, she made it big–really big–under her given name:

Glenn Close.

Hot Concrete

In 1971, I was married, father of a baby girl, and a full-time student at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. In need of a job to support my new family, I first applied for a job waiting tables at the taverns of Colonial Williamsburg. Tourists flocked to these restaurants–King’s Arms, Chowning’s Tavern, and others–and the waiters reportedly made good money. But they turned me down. Why? Longhairs need not apply.

At the time, we lived west of town off Richmond Road, walking distance from Benson-Phillips, a building materials plant. They had an opening for a laborer, so I applied and got the job. The plant manager, Don, was willing to schedule my hours around my classes.

Benson-Phillips supplied brick, sheetrock, mortar, and other materials to builders in the area, but its primary business was ready-mix concrete. Between the work on I-64–still under construction between Richmond and Newport News–construction at William & Mary, and local contractors, the fleet of eight concrete mixers had a steady flow of orders to deliver.

I plugged away on the bottom rung of the crew for a few months, sweeping out the warehouse, riding along on non-concrete deliveries to unload materials, and occasionally driving the fork lift. I soon graduated to driving the massive front-end loader, getting a kid’s thrill out of moving gravel and sand around the yard in a full-scale Tonka toy.

Then one day the dispatcher, an ill-tempered redneck who drove a puke-colored Ford Maverick, quit. Don needed a replacement to take orders over the phone and send the drivers out on deliveries. He offered me the job. It meant a raise and working inside the air-conditioned office, so I accepted.

In my first week as dispatcher, things were going smoothly. But late that Thursday afternoon, Clarence, one of the ready-mix drivers, came into the office. He’d just returned from a delivery.

“C’mere,” he said, nodding to the end of the counter where I worked. “Here’s your cut,” he said, slipping me a crumpled 20-dollar bill.

“My cut of what?”

“The load I just took out,” said Clarence. He grinned as he looked around to make sure no one was listening.

“I don’t get it.”


“It’s simple, man.” Now he was getting impatient with the not-so-smart college boy. “You wrote up the order for two yards, see, but Henry loaded the truck full–eight yards’ worth. I delivered the two yards, then I took the rest to a guy putting in a driveway. He paid 10 dollars a yard. That’s sixty bucks, and you, me, and Henry split it three ways.” Henry was the “batcher,” the guy who manned the booth under the towers full of sand, gravel, cement, and water, and pulled levers to load the right amount of each into the trucks’ mixers. The going rate for ready-mix concrete  in 1971 was $20 a yard, so $10 a yard was, yes, a steal.

Who knew that becoming Benson-Phillips’ dispatcher made me a partner in a black-market concrete scam? And a lucrative one at that. My $20 take in 1971 would be worth almost $120 today. That’s a lot of groceries.

“Uh, okay, thanks,” I mumbled, pocketing the twenty.

“No problem,” said Clarence. He looked at me warily as if to say, “You’re not going to screw this up for us are you?”

My crisis of conscience didn’t last long. I never seriously considered blowing the whistle on Clarence, Henry, and their co-conspirators. But I also knew I didn’t want to join their crime ring. So I returned the twenty to Clarence with a promise that I wouldn’t rat them out. Yes, I had visions of my body turning up in the James River wearing–what else?–concrete galoshes. And watching fully loaded ready-mix trucks leave the yard to deliver one- or two-yard orders made me nervous. So as soon as I could, I resolved the dilemma by quitting to take a job as the night auditor at the nearby Ramada Inn. Thus ended my brief career as a concrete black marketeer.

Early Days

Here’s the story of how my career as a writer/editor/publisher got off the ground, ICYWTK.

Where: Sports Department, Washington Daily News, 13th & K Streets, Washington, DC

WhenOld typewriter with copy space: Winter, 1967

Yes, this goes back almost 50 years. The Washington Daily News was the afternoon “commuter” paper, a tabloid that wasn’t much competition for The Washington Post and The Evening Star. Its sports department at the time had all the trappings you would expect: Teletype machines clattering away with news bulletins coming in from the wire services (AP and UPI). Jangling telephones. Reporters with Luckies or Camels dangling from their lips, pounding out stories on manual typewriters.  There was even a network of pneumatic tubes for sending finished articles–marked up, pasted together and stuffed into carriers–down to the composing room in the basement. Right out of The Front Page.

I was 16, a junior at Gonzaga High School in D.C., and through my girlfriend, Carol, I had landed a spot as a reporter on the News’ scholastic sports beat. That Friday night, I walked into the sports department fresh from covering some high school basketball game or another. I was preparing to do battle with my notes and a typewriter to wring out a decent report that wasn’t rife with cliches. Sports writing and short deadlines did not come easy to me.

Before I could reach a desk, my editor, Denny McAuliffe, intercepted me. Denny was a senior at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, the public school my girlfriend attended. Much savvier than I, he was headed to Vanderbilt on a full ride, having won the prestigious Grantland Rice scholarship, awarded annually to the most promising sports journalist in the U.S.

“Dave wants to see you.” By “Dave” he meant Dave Burgin, the Sports Editor. I followed Denny to Burgin’s glass-walled office. This was a first–I’d never been called to the Sports Editor’s office before.

“Have a seat,” said the notoriously gruff editor. I sat; Denny lounged against the door jamb.

“Frank, I got a call from the head coach of the men’s basketball team at GW about that story of yours.” GW’s coach was Babe McCarthy, in the midst of what turned out to be a 6-18 season.

The week before, I covered the game between George Washington University’s freshman basketball team and St. John’s, a Catholic high school squad. St. John’s beat the GW frosh. There was nothing especially remarkable about that, since any high school team has spent three or four years together, while the college freshman were still gelling as a team. But I made that my rather naive hook as if to say, “Gosh, how does a high school team beat a bunch of college players at an NCAA Division I school?” And I got several telling quotes from the GW players, including one who said, “To me, this is just another extracurricular.”

Burgin continued: “Coach McCarthy says your article has ruined his entire program. He wants to know how he’s supposed to recruit when you’ve quoted his players saying something like that.”

I didn’t know what to say. Burgin stared at me, deadpan, for a few seconds. Then he spoke:

“Keep up the good work.”

The rest is history. No, I did not go on to a brilliant career as a sports journalist. My stint at the Daily News taught me that I didn’t have the chops to write on deadline. But I did taste the thrill of seeing my byline in print, and the rush of knowing that my words could have an impact. I was hooked.