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Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The Afternoon the President Was Shot

 On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, I was fill-in wire editor of the Elmira Star-Gazette, working with printers out in the composing room to assemble Page One of that day's paper. 

A copy boy who had been sneaking a peek at the AP wireless machines came running in: "The president has been shot!"

Three messages had been transmitted:

        DALLAS, Tex. AP -- Two priests who were with President Kennedy say he is          dead of bullet wounds.

       DALLAS, Tex. AP -- Two priests stepped out of Parkland Hospital's emergency       ward today and said President Kennedy died of his bullet wounds. Government       sources in Washington said that President Kennedy is dead.

     The priests came out of  the ward at approximately 1:37 p.m.

     The announcement by the priests brought audible sobs from a crowd of scores         of newsmen and other citizens crowded around the emergency ward entrance.

      Sen. Ralph Yarborough, talking only a few minutes before to newsmen,                    collapsed in sobs as he told of witnessing the slaying of the president. 

         DALLAS, Tex. AP -- President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Friday from an                     assassin's bullet.

I saved the printout with the family archives, and years later my journalist-author daughter Maureen had it framed and gave it to me as a gift. The printout doesn't capture the horror of that day, but it triggers powerful memories.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Education(?) and Learning(!)

    Think back. What happened in your third-grade classroom on this date in May? What did you learn that day? 

     The day was maybe six hours long, but by now it is an undistinguishable fragment of your education career. You don't remember what was going on in that place on that day, because it almost certainly is buried in your great mass of schoolroom experience. 

     Overall, you probably sat in various classrooms for eight school years or so of elementary education and four years of high school. How can you know what all that sitting contributed to who you are today? 

     And then maybe you went to college, and perhaps grad school. What exactly did all those hours do for you? It may be easier to identify specific payoffs from certain grad courses and from skills training courses and workshops -- but even some of that wasn't of use to you, or has been forgotten. 

     On the other hand, how much of what you know or do was acquired in one-on-one conversation you had and demonstrations you watched? And trial and error? 

     And how much knowledge and understanding, however it came to you, was absorbed and integrated into your immense mental capacity, the great dynamic that drives the thousands of tumbling thoughts, reactions and decisions that create and determine the days of your life?

     It's useful to turn those memories and questions over in the mind as we witness -- or conduct -- considerations about education today and how we do it. 

     My Dad and I discussed the best purpose of education, specifically in terms of higher education, when I was preparing to go to Holy Cross, as he had done (Dad, Class of 1923; Jim, Class of 1958). We did not at all consider college to be skills training. It was to develop the mature person, the contributing citizen.

     Occasionally, I have wondered over the years if that concept was too grand and somewhat empty, maybe too vague. Well, maybe not. Read on. 

     My daughter Maureen extended the Milliken-HC line with her 1983 English Lit degree, and likewise became a newspaper editor. A few years ago, she was quoted thusly in a Holy Cross magazine article:

            My father did a lot of hiring during his newspaper career and always said that a good liberal arts education, combined with newspaper experience,  was      preferable to a journalism degree. 

         To that end, I believe I got a fantastic education - not only the subject matter, but the Jesuit emphasis on analysis and thinking, questioning and delving deeper. I see so many people in this business who just don't know how to think, how to question. You'd think in journalism it would be second nature, but with a lot of people it doesn't even occur to them. 

         On top of that, I find a lot of people have very limited world views, very limited knowledge of history and the world around them, and don't even have the smarts to realize they need to know more  or the ability or curiosity to find it out.

     In terms of newswriting, interviewing, deadline-meeting and other technical skills special to newspapering, Maureen picked them up easily, as I did and as I presume my Dad did, on the job. How? Using those superior skills, the ones she articulated so well. 

     I'm convinced that no particular day of school, or moment in class or conversation, was determinative in the development of my accumulated abilities to think, learn and communicate. I'm equally sure that the overall progress, the direction, the specific judgments were rooted in those long-ago exchanges with Dad. Plus the recent insights from my daughter.

     Thanks, Dad. Thanks, Mo.



Sunday, May 21, 2023


                        Looking at Katahdin on the way to Baxter State Park, Maine

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Reassessing Employee Dismissals

     It's sort of a downside of retirement, this gradual dawning of the truth. It happens when, freed of the consuming confines of worklife, you have the time and leisure to actually think. It can be hazardous to your contentment. 

     Example: As a manager, I fired very few people, but maybe I shouldn't have fired any. 

     I faintly recall the tight, combative feeling that develops when that final straw drops like a lead pipe, and you unholster the ultimate management weapon. I hated that feeling. I never hated the person I was rejecting/ejecting, though. I felt I was reluctantly administering just desserts. 

     Now, from the purgatory sanctuary of an easy chair, the retiree can shake the dust from such memories and honestly assess the garment itself -- the underlying relationships. No question those particular relationships were not good, and I identified the precipitating causes at the other end of them. But how about looking at how the situations developed?

     Two of the histories occupy my attention today.

     The first is that of a headstrong young man who had flatly, and repeatedly, rejected suggestions and admonishments. His direct supervisor came to me with a demand that he be fired. He had been quite offensive and the supervisor was really angry. 

     Then, as the three of us sat down, he pulled out a note he had worked out for himself about how he was promising to change his ways. I shoved that aside and proceeded with the dismissal. I thereby may have missed an opportunity to help that young man mature a bit, and to deepen my own skill set. Maybe we could have worked from the new start he was offering..

     That same supervisor later created a growth opportunity for me in a related circumstance. She gradually developed a rebellion against management restraint. There was a confrontation, then a follow-up session at which I conditioned her continued employment on an explicit understanding of the management order. In short, it must be made clear that she worked for me. She couldn't accept that and walked out. 

     In effect, the event resulted in a more constructive tone in the office. Sloppy, unintended and overdue, but for the better.

     I made my "him-or-me" demand of my own boss in a later conflict with an incompetent,  bullheaded colleague, -- and got the offending guy fired. 

     The final decades of my career were devoted to project management consulting,. I realize now that in that role I was handing out more advice about navigating personalities and relationships than about network diagrams and risk management. 

   Nowadays completely on the outside looking in, reading the histories and thoughts of other people from other workplaces, it's still a learning experience. 

     Learning what?

     I find myself reverting to a fundamental view of management: As a manager, I was responsible. How did I conduct my part in the initiation of each individual relationship? Did I thoroughly examine, thoughtfully consider and wisely manage the beginning and the various events and moments along the way?

     As the most responsible party, what did I do or fail to do as my various relationships grew? Did I lead, advise, instruct, initiate, respond, support, critique effectively? Did I learn what I needed to know in order to conduct each activity and invest in it appropriately?

Doing such an assessment in these silent moments of maturity is a long process, maybe an open-ended one. It can be  uncomfortable. Sometimes there's a shocking flash of enlightenment, delightful or horrifying.     

     As it continues, you get to know yourself. Work at it. There are many roads to this journey, and some of them can end in deep satisfaction.  


Saturday, February 18, 2023

We’ll Be All Right

     Long ago and far away, I once wrote a newspaper commentary about a single corn plant that had popped up in our front-yard flower garden. It was for me a visual parable, a symbol of practicality elbowing its way above mere prettiness.

     To  tell the truth, it looked kind of ugly, looming over the pretty petunias or whatever. I didn’t care about that. I just really liked its assertion of raw individuality.

     The point was not well made in the column, and no one expressed agreement. The article was not particularly memorable; I can’t tell you today what it actually said. But it did make an impression on one editorial writer, who frequently addressed me in the office afterward as “Cornstalk”. I suspected he was doing it in mockery, but I never got around to asking before he died a little later.

     The corn kernel that seeded the plant probably came from scattered bird food or dog food that had been swept off the porch floor. The event reminded me at the time of the pop song “I’m a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch, and All I Do Is Cry All Day”.


     The cornstalk memory is served up in response to a piece on the Press Herald editorial page Feb. 4 that gave a number of reasons to be depressed about the present state of our world and its prospects.

     I don’t agree with such a worldview. Never have.

     Then I also saw  a report in the paper about a guy who had just visited with a bunch of school kids, and was really upbeat about a future to be managed by such cheery and vigorous people. Him I agreed with.

     We’re not talking about cluelessness. The adult positive attitude fully accounts for the barriers and pitfalls out there. You just know they can be avoided or overcome. They don’t define your world, and you intend to take care of them.

     Over a few days, varying new inputs settle and mature in your thoughts, eventually resulting in a glow of optimism and confidence. Even if the rest of the world is draped in gloom, we of the cornstalk persuasion are optimistic. We’ll be all right.

      As a general thing, after all, there is good reason to accentuate the positive in whatever situation. Doing so reassures you that you’re not a helpless victim. It gives you something to work with. It asks, “What are you going to do about it?”


     There’s good reason to ask yourself such a question. When the negative view rules the process, the only meaningful question is, “Oh, Lord – what will become of me?” You don’t have to do anything. You can’t. You’re a victim.

     Not so when you accentuate the positive. In response to opportunity or danger, you ask:  “What am I going to do about it?”  That demands a response. It presses you to do something.

     So you do something. If you have an off-the-shelf response, this matter is pretty easily taken care of. You take care of it and we don’t have this conversation.

     But say you don’t have that handy solution. You don’t know what to do. So now we must figure out what to do when we don’t know what to do.

     We have a process – as simple or as complex as it needs to be – called problem solving. Doing it right requires a positive mindset, a solutions attitude.


     The solutions attitude is essential to problem solving. No matter how daunting the situation, however “hopeless,” you have to decide. You have to prepare to act, then launch action with strength and vigor. It works. Wondering, worrying and brooding do not work.

     The lesson of the cornstalk in the petunia patch is that of courage and originality. Your solution may not be supported by others. It may look strange --never tried before. But if you believe in your process, you apply it. You stick with it. Make it work.

     In Super Bowl LI in February 2017, the New England Patriots were down 28-3 in the third quarter . . . and came back to beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28. Athletic competition at that level is so intense that such a comeback was inconceivable. But it happened.

     We are struck by the appearance of a cornstalk in a petunia patch.

     We admire the confidence and dedication that wins a football championship against huge  odds.

     Highly unlikely, both of them. But they actually happened. If we keep our eyes open  -- and our minds -- we’ll be all right.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Patience & Tolerance. And Confidence

     For most of us, the towering challenge in building management competence is at the very beginning. There is a fundamental contradiction imprinted on our workplace behavior by our beginner experience.  It makes Square One so difficult that some people never fully get through it. And, for those who do, applying its lessons can block further growth.

     This is how it works: 

     We first must learn the skills and practices of personal productivity. That means we work on how to order our days through time and priority management while we're learning how to do the job. If you don't get this right, you can never do anything well -- especially    leadership. 

     But, at the same time we must learn as managers when and how to suspend certain of the personal skills in order to handle responsibility for the output and skills development of others. That requires concentrating our attention outwards, working to understand and influence others. For example, building effective working relationships is not at base a matter of efficiency.

     So, we must focus intensely on identifying, defining and perfecting our own personal activities at the same time as we're doing the same for others. Contradictory activities.

     The first step, personal productivity, is very difficult to even understand, then to learn. It requires a lot of practice, and trial and error. 

Sunday, May 1, 2022

I Didn't Retire. I Just Quit.

     My Dad worked at his hometown newspaper for his entire career, from 1923 until his sudden death (by heart attack?) in 1956 at the age of 55. He was telegraph editor and news editor at The Elmira Star-Gazette for much of that time.
     He must have been good at it, because I understand he had a number of opportunities to transfer to other papers in the Gannett Company. He never left Elmira and The Star-Gazette because, I was told, he didn't want to disrupt the family. He was busy fathering 14 of us during those years. 
     I remember Dad talking about retirement in his early 50s. I have never thought of retirement for myself. I just up and quit working a couple of years ago (age 84).