Will you indulge me? I need to bid a sorrowful goodbye to my good friend, Barbara Kerr Page, 62, who died Wednesday morning, April 27, 2011, after a gallant struggle with kidney failure and other health issues. She was preceded in death by The Albuquerque Tribune, which died in February 2008 after its own gallant struggle with a JOA-related illness.
Barb is survived by more admirers and friends than I can count, some of us still laboring in newsrooms as part of a Trib diaspora, having not nearly as much fun at it as far as I can tell, but doing it nevertheless, with her singular voice still inside our heads. That calm, cool voice is still asking questions that aren’t answered in our raw copy, giggling at some of our good lines, and, of course, recommending some block-moves and whacking away sentences that bog it all down or don’t make sense.
Anyone who worked at the Trib with Barb at any point over her 26 years there (1982-2008) can back me up: although the paper had many editors and managers, it had only one Barb. In a newsroom no bigger than 50 full-time staffers (and ultimately smaller than that), she was at various times an editor on the city desk and features desk, but mostly she was a copy editor.
Which was an understatement. To us she was a copy editor and everything else — the soul and conscience of the place, the paper’s harshest critic and its greatest cheerleader. She was also our newsroom’s dearest, sharp-witted auntie.
As a colleague, Barb was Yoda, Batgirl and Dorothy Parker all rolled into one Buddha-like package. As a copy editor, she was a top neurosurgeon, especially on deadline. She also saved many long, months-in-the-making project stories from autoerotic asphyxiation, turning them into prize-winners. And as a headline writer, she was sublime and legendary. She won the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain’s headline-writing award so many times they retired her from the field, with a cash payout of several thousand dollars.
* * *
I could type all night and not get Barb quite right for people who didn’t know her. I’m not sure I should try. I’ve found that when I try to describe the Trib and its many characters to other journalists, their eyes kind of glaze over. It’s probably not good to think that one’s “crazy-times-at-a-small-newspaper” tales are better than anybody else’s memories of their own time in scrappy little newsrooms. But I think so anyhow.
I’m glad to say her death has occasioned — as I knew it would — some tender writing from others. For a sense of Barb’s great, bizarre, beautiful mind, I’m going to direct you to Will Reichard’s blog item about her. Will has scintillated the most curious and delightful traits of the Barb many of us knew. As a friend, she was at once engaging and yet reticent. She was gregarious but also deeply private. She liked being alone, or said she did. She was the first person I knew who made my own desire for solitude seem normal. Barb said that for every hour she spent in someone’s company — away from work — she needed a few hours to herself.
For a sense of Barb as a copy editor and newsroom muse, I’m leaning on Bob Benz, who wrote a fond remembrance the other day:
… “Every day after deadline at The Albuquerque Tribune [note: at an afternoon paper, “after deadline” means 10 a.m., between the first and second editions], Barb Page would start her rounds. We called it Schmooze Patrol. She’d set sail in the back of the room at the copy desk. Wade through the city desk. Drift past the features and sports departments. And moor at the front desk, loaded down with a day’s worth of gossip, anecdotes and newsroom drama. Along the way, she’d also engage in a few hearty arguments about our news strategy and offer writing tips to cub reporters.”
To which I would add: On those slow newsroom laps, Barb was mostly in search of a good chortle. She had a marvelous laugh, starting as all grin and cheeks and a tight squint of her eyes.
I’ve known a lot of copy editors since the Trib, some of the best in the business, but I’ve never met another one who made herself such an integral part of an entire newsroom. One of the most valuable things Barb taught many of us — something all writers struggle with — is how to love an editor. She also taught editors how to love writers. Of all the newsroom archetypes I’ve worked with in 20-plus years, none is more pathetic to me than the writer who hates every editor he or she ever had, and vice-versa.
The best thing ever written about Barb has already been written — Tribune editor Phill Casaus’s ode was published after Barb worked her last shift a little more than three years ago, just before the paper closed for good. Here’s a chunk of it:
She might be as good a wordsmith as I’ve ever known. For all the wonderful writers this newspaper has possessed — Pulitzer winners and best-sellers have slurped the black acid we call coffee — she may very well be the best. Excellent reporters can make 14 or 40 or 70 inches of copy sing. Only the most extraordinary talent can construct an aria of three or five or 10 words.
It’s a craft and an art and an avocation: something to appreciate, impossible to replicate.
This isn’t all hearts and flowers, though. I have to note that I’ve often wanted Barb’s head on a plate. She can be a pain in the neck and beyond. I’ve sometimes considered her my worst professional enemy. I used to call her, dismissively, the “managing editor emeritus,” because she always had a better way to write a story — and was never afraid to clear her throat when the opportunity presented itself.
I used to worry that I was the only one who’d bump heads with Barb, but the truth is, we all have — photographers and sports guys, fellow copy editors, office managers and editorial writers. She wasn’t always right, but her percentages were pretty good. And, damn, that bugged a lot of us.
Like many copy editors, Barb’s a stickler for detail — often to the point where I’ve wanted to grab the nearest stick and beat her with it. But her gift, I came to learn, was more than a copy hound’s reflexive need for order. It was a drive for perfection, for symmetry, for the very best.
In an industry where too many have cut corners, budgetary and otherwise, done a little ethical shimmy and shake, or simply tried to accept mediocrity, Barb was a boulder in the road. Often, I think this newspaper’s unstated goal was to try to reach the tough standard she set for two decades. And thank God for that: The Trib, a winner of just about every journalism award there is, still strives even in some of its darkest days.
Maybe that’s because we can actually watch Barb’s magic under unimaginable duress.
For a couple of years now, she’s struggled with serious eyesight problems. Talk about cruel ironies — a nonpareil reader and writer facing blindness.
It would’ve shelved others for good. Not Barb. Every morning, she trundled in at 5:30, ready to meet the day. By 5:31, she was squinting into her blue screen with her one good eye, arming herself with a question or 10 that would make a story better, fairer, more complete.
By 5:32, she was dialing the telephone to our sleep-deprived desk editors. Trust me, we all know the ring.
In retrospect, such predictability may have given me, given all of us, a false sense of security.
The morning after Christmas, Barb walked into my office — the office she almost certainly could have occupied, but never did — and told me she planned to leave The Trib.
It was time, she said. And while I respect her right to decide that, I have to think part of her is worn down, heartbroken by the uncertainty she and her colleagues find themselves in. This situation flies in the face of a woman who has always searched for a true north and battled for what is right and fair. …
* * *
There are three or four people who’ve had an incalculable influence on my own struggle to be a better journalist and writer. Barb was one of them. It’s a real loss — deeply personal, and more psychic than immediate. Though I’ve sentimentalized that time greatly, my days at the Trib were filled with manic amounts of work and a mood often colored by a sense of hurt and failure, of the sort that can only be ginned up by a 23-year-old city desk g.a. reporter who’d rather be at Rolling Stone.
Barb understood me almost immediately. “Hey, guy!” she always said. “What’s going on?” (What are you writing about? What have you seen?) She understood what I was trying to do sometimes before I understood it, and how the stories were working and how they were not. More than once, she boosted me up and over a wall. Barb understood those quiet observational moments contained within news features and longer narratives; the need to slow the story down to set a mood and report the vibe. She believed in wise narration and interpretation. She helped make the case for the extra five, 10 or even 25 column inches that kind of thing can sometimes add to a story length.
Her great gift was an ability to love everything a newspaper does. She liked sports, lifestyle, comics, editorials, the “TV Queen” recommendations, the angry punk rock record reviews by Jeffboy Neumann. She liked writing heds for Ann Landers columns. She could also edit the impenetrably dense stories from the science writer who covered the national labs. She loved photos, and helped set a tone in the newsroom that prized visual journalism and page design as much as the written word.
She was a newshound — as much as anyone, Barb enjoyed the breakneck speed with which the Tribune would remake pages and update files as big stories broke between the “metro” morning edition and the “home” edition that was tossed onto subscribers’ driveways, and the “stock final” that included the day’s NYSE market close. (In a strange way, working at an afternoon paper very much resembled the pace of today’s online news sites.)
Tribunistas agree that one of her greatest headline moments came on a wild 1988 news day (before my time), when a woman highjacked a helicopter and ordered it to land at the state penitentiary in Santa Fe in broad daylight, in an attempt to spring her husband. (A day recalled for you here, fondly, by John Temple.) Barb’s across-the-front headline that afternoon, with, as I recall, a big picture of a sad-looking gal surrendering herself to authorities:
Chopper woman: I did it for love.
* * *
Barb was such a culture omnivore — she knew art and old songs and movie references; theater and poetry too. She had always just seen the latest thing at the Guild Cinema. She liked comic books and smart, sad novels. We shared an addiction for getting our found oddities professionally framed. She traveled. Talking with her, you’d forget that Albuquerque was 444 miles from Denver and 787 miles from L.A. and a million miles from everywhere else. Barb gave our lives a little more elan.
Ever since I left the Trib in 1996, Barb had kept in better touch with me than the other way around. I did try my best to keep up with her.
It should be noted that the U.S. Postal Service has also suffered a blow with Barb’s death, one they won’t realize for many months, until they begin to wonder whatever happened to that lady in the 87199 Zip code who sent so many colorful and jury-rigged bubble envelopes out? You know, that lady who scribbled out entire epistles via serialized postcards, sometimes 30 in a batch to the same recipient, all adorned with alluring rubber-stamps, stickers, cut-outs? Where has she gone?
Last summer and fall, she had taken to sending notes written on paper plates, which she decorated with swans.
I got a 24-postcard “note” (see above) from Barb about eight weeks ago. By now she could barely see, but you wouldn’t know it. She was using an iPad and had caught up on this blog — she had lots to say about One-Man Book Club, which she dug. She also suggested an idea for a book she thought I should write. (And it’s a great idea.)
* * *
Then, at the end of March, came a four-page letter. Different from Barb’s previous missives, it was unadorned. She had typed it — something her letters never were — in big in 24-pt Times Roman. Dear Hank, it began:
I have sad news but not bad news. I am going off dialysis March 31 and entering hospice care. The care will be at my apartment; if things go as expected, I will be here until the end, most likely not longer than six weeks.
It’s the right decision. My health, especially my vision, has declined significantly in the last several months. It’s not the life I want; it’s not life.
I have a feeling Barb wrote a lot of versions of this letter to her many friends, with the same opening lines. Maybe not.
In the next graf, it gets extremely personal. She enclosed a card that she had given to me in 1996 during another bout of my newspaper-writer blues. On the outside it reads: Fall down seven times, get up eight.
Inside it, Barb had written, simply: “On your side. — Barb.”
Not long after she gave me this card, I left the Trib and New Mexico behind. I had to go, and no one encouraged that flight more than Barb, who rooted for all her babies to move on to something bigger.
After keeping this card tacked up in my cubicle in Austin for a while, and then on various refrigerator doors in different apartments, and later on my cubicle wall at the Washington Post, I sent it back to Barb in 2007, when her health was getting worse and Scripps-Howard all but sealed the Trib‘s fate by putting it up “for sale.” (That period was mostly a charade, maybe to appease the legal requirements of a JOA.)
So, in her final letter to me, Barb wrote:
The Buddhist card, which I am returning, has been a comfort for a long time, but I’ve fallen eight times (or, more accurately, 20 times), and it’s time to rest. They say it’s a relatively easy death: The body fills with toxins, and you slip away. I have no idea what lies ahead, but I see it as another travel. …
* * *
When Barb and I talked on the phone four days after I got her letter, it was a good and frank farewell. She told me she had discovered the ultimate reporting trick: Tell people you don’t have long to live and they will start telling you all their secrets.
We gabbed, gossiped and laughed. We talked about this other travel she was embarking on. We both had our doubts that anything awaited her on the other side, but I hope that if there is a there there, she’ll try her best to send us a postcard from it, in whatever form that would take.
Near the end of our talk, I told her I would not still be working as a writer if it hadn’t been for her example of how to relate to one’s colleagues, how to collaborate on a piece of writing with photo and art, and how to bring grace, accuracy and wisdom to every part of the process. How to be alive in the work. She said I would have figured these things out all on my own. I don’t know about that. I think I would have flailed about, disappointed a lot of assistant city editors at various small newspapers, and then wandered away from it.
I wrote her another letter last weekend. It was still unfinished when I heard things had radically worsened and that her body was shutting down fast.
What I wanted to tell her was that I’ve been falling down seven times and getting up eight a lot lately, in terms of newsroom life at the Post. Something about the new media landscape — the hurry, the worry — has been bringing out the worst in me. I feel overworked and even bitter some days; I miss co-workers who’ve retired or jumped ship; my writing is suffering. I want very much to be more Barb-like in my relationship with my colleagues. I am now the age she was — early 40s — when I first walked into the Trib newsroom as a young kid. I hope I can become more like her, if possible — spread some cheer; listen and advise; love good stories; and speak up in meetings, even when it’s something my bosses don’t want to hear.
On schedule, those toxins did fill her body. Barb’s many angels — among them several former Tribunistas, who had helped care for her for several years as her health worsened — were at her side whenever she needed them.
Ollie Reed, a Trib feature writer for three decades, was with her the morning she died. She woke and told him she had been watching a Navajo dance. Ollie said that he and Barb talked a little bit.
Then she decided to close her eyes and see if she could find the dancers again.
(Former Trib photo editor Mark Holm took this. He says the paper’s logo is still on one side of the Journal‘s delivery boxes all over New Mexico’s roads, with the Scripps lighthouse insignia. [Motto: “Give light, and people will find their own way.”] I think they work very nicely as roadside descansos.)