1,000 Wednesday Nights at the Mighty News-Press

Wednesday, July 21 2010 07:42:29 PM

The FIRST EDITION of the Falls Church News-Press (above) rolled off the presses early Thursday morning on March 28, 1991. (Photo: News-Press)

“Come March 28, Falls Church is going to have its own newspaper!” This was the enthusiastic cry of my young assistant Danny O’Brien back in early 1991, when I struggled to found my very own newspaper, making ready for weeks in a paper-strewn small office behind the Exxon station at the corner of W. Broad and N. Virginia Avenue, armed with a single computer, telephone line and a fax machine.

We’d challenged ourselves by setting that date as a deadline to get Issue No. 1 of the mighty Falls Church News-Press off the presses and into the City of Falls Church, Virginia. As the date bore down on us, it became clear that trying a computer-based layout program, a very complex one called Ventura that only a hired gun knew, but really didn’t, wasn’t going to cut it.

If you see a copy of that very first edition, dated March 28, 1991, you may notice that only one of its 16 pages was the result of a computer-based layout. With just days to go, I decided that I could draw on my knowledge accumulated in earlier times to cut and paste a layout and finish the job in relative ease and speed.

On the night before we were due for our scheduled slot on the printing press in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the colorful Bill Johnson, who worked in the same building and befriended us, Pat Blystone and one or two others joined us off and on as we locked in for the proverbial “all-nighter.” It was a warm and balmy night outside, and when the dawn broke, we looked out our windows toward what is now the Original Pancake House parking lot, and saw that the cherry trees lining N. Virginia Avenue had blossomed into their full pink radiance.

It was a sign.

That following afternoon, I held the layout boards firm to my chest as we boarded Bill’s old convertible Mustang and headed up to the printer.

When the preparations were complete, a bell rang to signal the start up of the small Community printing press, and that most beautiful of all sounds in the world, the chugging of a press, began. Within seconds, emerging from beneath on a set of rollers were the very first copies of the very first edition of the Falls Church News-Press.

This founder, this editor, couldn’t restrain himself. I began to bellow above the din of the press, “Let every tyrant tremble! The free press is the voice of the people in defense of liberty and freedom everywhere!”

Well, at least Falls Church had its own newspaper.

Numb from the effort and lack of sleep, Danny and I met in Rock Creek Park the next afternoon, and it was only then that I decided we would put out another one the very next week, thus making the News-Press not a bi-weekly or a monthly, but a weekly newspaper.

That night, we held a hastily-assembled celebration in that old office of the News-Press, ordering pizzas for what turned out to be a sizable contingent of locals. The joke was that, unthinkingly, we ordered pizza from a franchise outlet, and not from Anthony’s, who had a coupon for $1 off every pizza in our very first edition that day!

The News-Press’ primary ally in those start-up days was the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, and my great friend, its gruff and intimidating U.S. Navy Commander, retired, Robert S. “Hap” Day. From the get-go, Hap and I would meet weekly for lunch, a tradition that has not waned to this very day, which is now the famous weekly Monday “power lunches” at the Ireland’s Four Provinces. Due to a bum hip, Hap is seldom able to make it now, but it started with just the two of us. The same goes for the News-Press live TV show on the local cable channel. Hap and I did it for 16 years before his hip slowed him down. Then came our allies in subsequent Chamber leaders the likes of Mike Diener, Carol Jackson, Barbara Gordon, Stacy Hennessey and Sally Cole.

With Hap’s help the Chamber got me started when its board responded to my presentation in December 1990 with a resounding endorsement, and encouraging its members to support my effort to start a newspaper that would serve to benefit, as a vehicle for advertising, the business community. One member of that board was a local banker who arranged a modest line of credit for the start up. Other than that, I was penniless.

George Mason High School English teacher Michael Hoover, who was in attendance at our first party on the night of March 28, had contributed what we all thought was a controversial opinion piece for that first edition. It turned out to be the first of over a decade of weekly columns by him, called “Ground Zero” for their sometimes (but usually not) controversial nature, which he changed to “Against the Wind” after 9/11. Despite years away from involvement with the News-Press now, Michael writes a touching remembrance in this edition in commemoration of this week’s milestone, edition No. 1,000 of the mighty Falls Church News-Press.

Aside from my own involvement, and the many years that I veritably singlehandedly produced and kept the paper going through the 1990s, often with just the help of one or two part-time hires from the local high school, Hoover’s role was eclipsed in this past decade by one of my former high schoolers, Jody Fellows, who came to work in the spring of his senior year at George Mason High School in 1996.

I began to bellow above the din of the press, “Let every tyrant tremble! The free press is the voice of the people in defense of liberty and freedom everywhere!”

Jody spent a lot of time at the paper right off the bat, and whenever he’d return to work during breaks from West Virginia University. When he graduated in 2001, I offered him a full-time job, and he took it. Since then, he’s grown into the paper’s most indispensable asset (next to me, of course!) as its managing editor and now, preparing for marriage, increasingly the future of the paper going into its next 20 years.

Our allies and contributors in the early years were a colorful lot, the makings of Falls Church lore, running from Vice Mayor Phil Thomas to the late Peg Jones, a Renaissance tough-as-nails woman who wrote music reviews and investigative pieces from her summer home in Vermont about the great serpent occasionally spotted in Lake Champlain, ubiquitous Falls Church gadfly Jackie Droujinsky, Jenny Edwards, Joe Driver, Vicki Rhoden and Julie Day. Falls Church’s late treasurer, Bob Morrison, was among my first friends after I moved to Falls Church in 1985, and walked me through my thinking at many a lunch in the National Geographic cafeteria about starting a newspaper. Critical moral support also came from my ex-wife and continuing companion on the road of life, Janine, her mother, Eileen, her late husband, Chauncey, and my own grandmother, who died at 100 in 1996 after many a night of insisting that I live out my dream despite the difficulties of those early days, and my parents, who died in 2002.

My string of high school student employees ran from Nate Martin, the first, to Andrew Turner (both of the Class of 1994 who still share the Mason single game basketball scoring record of 44 points) and a list that includes many others who remain in close touch to this day, in addition to Jody the likes of Lucas Hardi, Drew Maier, Teddy Wiant, Nathan Hamme and Simon VanSteyn. All are Mason graduates. There were too many others to mention, some of whom won the annual News-Press high school scholarship (Lucas, Drew, Peter, Joel Hardi, Jason Motlaugh, Michael Cary, Alex Prewitt and Shelbi Taylor). I can’t help but to also mention Beau Fay, James Tatum, Chris Geurtsen, Sean Nannery, Dan Arnaudo, Andrew Goetting, Eric Jacobs, Mo Sadeghi, Alaina Sadick, Josh Singer, Sean Snider, Deborah Smyth, David Sprankle and Nate Taylor. And there were still others.

In 1997, like a gift out of the blue, came the late Blackwell Hawthorne, a proud Southern gentleman and career newspaper advertising salesman. At age 75, he’d just been canned by a rival weekly because of his lack of computer skills. He was mad as a wet hen when he came into my office seeking a job. He couldn’t believe they’d fired him. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I finally had a genuine professional to sell ads for us.

firstandlaterheadon The first edition of the Falls Church News-Press. (Photo: News-Press)

Blackie thought I was a little too liberal for his tastes, but he was loyal to the core, admiring my writing skill and telling anyone who complained about my political bent that I always welcomed letters from other points of view, even if they were directly critical of me. And I did. Blackie died at age 88 this January after almost a decade of remarkable service to the News-Press.

In the past decade, young post-college hires like Peter Laub, who’d also helped as a Mason student in the 1990s, Darien Bates, Mike Hume, Nick Gatz, Natalie Bedell, Jonathan Harper, Dean Edwards and Diana Glazer have worked alongside our seasoned advertising professionals Joe Fridling, Lou Emery and Donna Talla and enriching office support folk like Nancy Davis, Danielle Manigault, Ted White and Marilyn Austin. Our most recent contract distributor, Julio Idrobo, has also been vital to us. There has been so much fun, and so many stories to tell. Ask any veteran News-Press employee what the word “Backwall” means.

So the run of the News-Press to this point has been marked by the qualities of perseverance, loyalty and enthusiasm. Remembering the warm afternoon in Rock Creek Park on March 28, 1991 with the first edition filtering its way through Falls Church when a moment’s reflection led to the decision to bring on edition No. 2 in just a week’s time, I think forward from then to how I and those working with me have spent every Wednesday night, our final deadline night, since. I’ve never be able to shake free for anything else on a Wednesday other than putting each week’s paper “to bed.”

So for me, I am thinking my autobiography, at least for the last 20 years of my life, may be called, “Never On Wednesday,” since that’s been my mantra now for 1,000 consecutive weeks. And counting.