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PETERSON: The old reporter learns valuable lessons from academy scholar

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016 11:03 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016 12:32 p.m. CDT

The passing of hero astronaut John Glenn; the Army Cadets beating the Navy Midshipmen in football for the first time since 2001; the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

These items in the news in recent days reminded me of the most fascinating interview I had during my first year as a part-time feature writer for the News Advertiser, after 36 years of full-time daily newspaper work.

One of the first stories I worked on in this new role was Austin Bolinger’s graduation from the Air Force Academy in June, and subsequent acceptance into Air Force pilot training.

Something about the way Austin explained his commitment, and comfort, in that environment of excellence and 24/7 accountability resonated with me.

Only one in 12 applicants is accepted into the Air Force Academy. Once there, Bolinger ranked 144th in a class of 812, after being a valedictorian at Creston High School.

Chasing excellence

I asked him why someone would willingly go through what he had to endure through the rigors of basic training, the mind games they put you through before you even deal with the rigid academic structure of the academy. I’ll never forget his answer.

“At the academy, I found that I really liked the people I surrounded myself with, because for the most part, I was surrounded by people who believe the same things as I do. The same values,” he said. “I just like the core values — integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do.”

It’s the old steel sharpens steel theory from Proverbs 27:17. It’s exciting to have the experience of comrades who inspire us to be better than we are.

I’m an annoying thorn in the side of younger news team members, but it’s all done for that purpose. I was blessed with the guidance of brilliant team members in my younger days here, such as the staff photographers who gave me a daily education on the nuances of photo composition and Photoshop editing. Long after that position was eliminated, I carried the lessons from those guys in my daily work.

I know my predecessors had the opportunity to work with newsroom pros like Pat Kelly and E.J. Van Nostrand. The News Advertiser’s reputation for excellence among small Iowa daily newspapers was sown in those days.

Veteran team

But you’d be hard-pressed to match the depth of thorough reporting and rich writing that we had in some of those years when Jeff Young guided a newsroom of colleagues such as Scott Pierce, Rita Miller, Stephani Finley, June Bower and Mike Falco, to name a few. The list of budding talents who later blossomed at much larger newspapers is an impressive one, such as Lance Bergeson, Matt Coss and Adam Wilson. Ben Frotscher’s writing was so good that the University of Iowa marketing team hired him, and he’s a Cyclone fan!

It wasn’t a revolving door. These people stayed awhile and built relationships with sources and produced fascinating work that was recognized annually by the Iowa Newspaper Association. We pushed each other and held each other accountable.

We had a fairly strict dress code. It all came down to trying to look and act like professionals, a way to command respect from the powers of the community. Since then, business casual took over as the predominant trend in both our office and most other businesses.

But, there’s a part of me that misses those days. Like Austin said about the military, when everyone in the squad is chasing excellence with a passion every day, you can’t help but improve collectively, and individually. If you dress and act like an important person, you subconsciously become one who can deal with a powerful figure as an equal, and not feel you’re subservient.

That’s why I pass on the habits and standards that were handed down to me by Creston Hall of Fame sports editor Max Sandeman, so we can continue to work as a team that doesn’t settle for average. In nearly four decades here, I’ve seen us continually bring in young talent with that mindset. Or, they didn’t last long.

We’re soon losing one of those bright young talents in the newsroom, but I hope she feels she’s better for having worked here in this environment.

Details garner results

When I think back to my years in sports, I realize I did a lot of extra little things that may or may not have really had an impact on my work. But, I felt it was important to get the details right and stay organized.

My notebooks from game coverage could tell you the running score at any given time of every event I covered. Whatever the sport, I had every single scoring play recorded for my reference later while at the computer keyboard. I could tell you exactly when a team went on a 17-2 run.

That was on top of juggling the camera and, in more recent years, recording some video clips with the cell phone while hurrying to post Twitter updates during timeouts. (The old days of relaxing and taking a breath during stoppages of action are long gone.)

Likewise, Scott Vicker was kind of anal like that, so we attended to minute details every night in the office. On the folders we kept for each area team every season, we wrote down who had been shown in action photos so far that season. (I started charting that when a complaining parent told me how many times a certain kid had been pictured, compared to none for his son. I like having the data handy for people when they think there’s been favoritism.)

I spent a lot of time typing up middle school sports and Little League reports, and box scores for all of the freshman and JV games. Attending team banquets was the same principle — some people would appreciate us going the extra mile and it would pay off in good will toward us.

Each winter Kim Frain would drop off a pile of bout sheets from the Express Club’s annual wrestling tournament, and I’d devote an entire Sunday to typing up placewinners from every weight class in each age division. Most daily papers don’t run that stuff in that depth.

But when it was all said and done, I think all of those little details added up to something greater than maybe we even understood while it was happening. Somebody’s grandma or aunt saved that clipping as a keepsake that would sometimes appear at a graduation party for a kid I covered.

Those moments were fulfilling. They told me all that hard work indeed had meant something.

That’s why I try to tell newcomers like Ryan Kronberg and Kaleb Carter about some of the traditions and values we’ve shared here over time. Not to be a pest, but to emphasize how important their work, and our product, is to so many people. We can’t afford to be sloppy with details that matter to somebody.

As Austin said, the only way to take your abilities to a new level is to be pushed by those around you. Complacency is the devil of mediocrity.

Nobody is perfect. But in trying to be the best possible version of yourself, you become the ultimate teammate.

I hope I get to meet a lot more people like Austin Bolinger in this new job. They can keep an old guy feeling young and inspired.

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