I wish every young journalist could have been required to spend a week with Ray Ryan in a newsroom.
I’m just now reaching the same age when Ray started as an East County reporter here at The Daily World nearly half a century ago. I feel a kinship to him that I don’t know I’ve expressed to very many people. He had a dazzling command of language and a classic, lightning-quick wit, both things that I aspire to. But more than that, he was a sports writer.
These days, in the era of ESPN and an ocean of dot-com sports scribes, that moniker doesn’t carry the same weight as it used to. But it should. You see, the classic sports writer is the most pure and practiced newsman in the business. He’s a quick study, a solid writer with an institutional memory and a multitasker to the extent that you really wouldn’t believe.
I’ve related the story to our sports editor, Rick Anderson, more than once — and, I may have told you the story in a previous column, come to think of it — about my first week on the job as a professional journalist and how I came to believe that the hardest-working men and women in the business are the sports writers.
On my first Friday night shift, I was feeling overwhelmed and rushed while I laid out pages on the news desk. Looking back on it now, I feel a bit silly about that, to be honest. Why? As I stressed out at my desk, I watched in awe as Times-Standard sports editor Ted Sillanpaa shouldered a phone in each ear, talking to two coaches at once, while typing up a story on a computer right in front of him. The opposing coaches were calling in dueling perspectives of the same game, and Sillanpaa was bantering with them and relaying jabs between the two, all while getting the linescore, game highlights and comments from the coaches fit for print to complete his story for deadline.
Which, of course, he did. That and about eight other game stories gathered in rapid succession.
Due to my ogling at him for far too long, I missed my deadline.
I have been doing this whole journalism thing for about 15 years, and I still don’t think I’ve ever worked that feverishly on deadline. Sports writers do it several times a week. And, even though I first met Ray in his later years working part-time for the sports staff, I firmly believe he could still have done it at that pace well into his 80s if called upon.
But it’s not just the work ethic and speed that I admire. It’s the encyclopedic knowledge of their subject that would amaze you.
Often I pitch in on busy nights, helping on the periphery of the productive mayhem that is the sports department on a weekend shift. One particular night not that long ago, the sports guys asked if I could take dictation from Ray, who was covering a district track meet somewhere in the hinterlands of Washington.
For those of you who haven’t seen an old movie with reporters lining payphones calling in stories, here’s how it worked in the days before ever-present wi-fi and laptops and iPads: The reporter on scene covered the event, then wrote out some notes or even sometimes the entire story longhand, then called in to someone in the newsroom who transcribed the story from the writer over the phone.
A longtime journalist who had, to be fair, a hate-hate relationship with computers, asking Ray to take a laptop along on a travel assignment would be like asking me to lug a vintage Underwood typewriter to a city council meeting.
A bit nervously, I agreed to take dictation from Ray.
We worked famously together, mostly because my bumbling fingers on the keyboard gave him time to think as he patiently worked through a complicated story covering multiple Harbor schools and a full gamut of running and field events. As we went along, Ray would go back and correct things that he’d told me, or adjust phrasing or add a coach’s comments.
And then I came to an epiphany about half way through the story when he asked me to read back his previous paragraph.
“Wait a minute … Ray, are you writing this story in your head as you go?”
“Of course,” he said.
“How can you remember what you said in the last paragraph, let alone what you’ve already covered?”
“The same way I can remember what I still have left to write. You ready to keep going now?”
I could hear his classic grin forming on the other end of the phone. I didn’t need to see it. I knew it was there.
In the end, I barely had to fix a comma — and that’s really no exaggeration. He remembered previous state records in certain events and even some high school athletes’ personal bests off the top of his head, and I know he didn’t have rosters for every school in front of him as he spelled out the kids’ names. He had me double-check some as we went, though he wasn’t wrong once.
I have trouble remembering what I had for breakfast some days. I’m sure we all do. That story still amazes me to this day.
Professional prowess aside, the most important thing about men like Ray Ryan is their ability to laugh at themselves, and by extension the relationships they build with people who can’t wait to hear the next thing to come out of their mouth. As I said, Ray was not a big fan of computers, but he also knew they were a modern necessary evil in the newsroom, so he suffered through using them, cracking jokes about them — and his own lack of ability with them — along the way.
I always knew when he was having a computer-challenged moment, because, if he knew I was in the newsroom, often he would simply bellow, “Dan!” It didn’t fill me with trepidation — actually I looked forward to the sarcastic crack that would come next. Often it was at his own expense. And he would always thank me when I’d help him find his story again.
“The computer says it experienced an unknown error,” Ray would say with a wry grin, mocking incredulity. “How could it not know? Dan, if it doesn’t know what the error was, who would? I hope it doesn’t expect me to.”
That error seemed to show up a lot on Ray’s computer. So much so, that sometimes I think we had it all wrong. Maybe Ray actually mastered computers, and could produce that error on his screen at will whenever he, or we, needed a bit of comic relief.
I certainly wouldn’t put it past his intelligence, or his sense of humor. Just thinking about it forces a mischievous grin onto my lips, and that’s exactly what he would want.
And for that, I say thanks Uncle Ray. I already miss you.
Dan Jackson: (360) 537-3929 or firstname.lastname@example.org and @DW_DanJ on Twitter.