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.
We 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.