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Larry Peterson - Straight Shots

Early mentor exhibited dedicated professionalism

I’ll be helping with the News Advertiser’s coverage of Creston/O-M’s football game Friday night at Atlantic.

In spirit, there will be a gentle-natured old man with thick glasses, wearing his trademark blue sweater, looking over my shoulder from his familiar seat just below the press box in the Trojan Bowl.

Phil Chinitz, the man who trained me in that stadium 38 years ago, died Aug. 19 at the age of 86. He was editor of the Atlantic News-Telegraph when I started there fresh out of college in 1980. He was in that post full time from 1955 to 1995, and then worked part time for another 18 years.

He seemed like kind of an “old guy” in 1980, as I recall. He was 48. I’m now 61. Perspective changes.

All of us have someone we look back on as a key figure in shaping our career. Phil is that person for me. I had worked part time under some big-time names in the business, such as Bob Brown at the Fort Dodge Messenger and George Wine, sports information director at the University of Iowa.

But, we all remember that first full-time boss we had, and Phil was perfect for me at the time.

At the university I had studied the recent phenomenon of “new journalism,” where writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote used literary techniques such as running dialogue and scene setting in non-fiction writing.

So, I waltzed into Atlantic thinking I was going to be this new wave writer.

Phil, with the discipline of his military background and an old-school news philosophy to report “just the facts,” was not keen on this modern approach. I quickly saw, through the scratches and rewrites on my edited sheets of paper — we worked on Royal typewriters then — that news reports in the News Telegraph were void of exaggeration and embellishment.

It was great training for four years for that moment in 1984 when a new friend in the business, Creston editor Pat Watkins, asked me to join his staff here. Under Pat, a young and ambitious news hound in his own right, I was able to continue growing as a journalist with the foundation of Phil’s training. I came to realize that his decades of experience had a lot of value in making judgments and learning how to get those “facts” that mattered most.

Phil taught me to push aside my own opinions and passions when “clocked in,” so I took the same approach to covering an appearance of a staunch Republican like Gov. Branstad as I did for a liberal Democrat like Sen. Tom Harkin. While spaces like this opinion column are often voices of personal preferences, readers deserve the straight story on the front page.

When I received a message in the summer of 2015 that I would be inducted into the Creston High School Hall of Fame for coverage of school activities for 30 years, the first person I reached out to was Phil. He and wife Trena were living at Heritage House, an Atlantic retirement center.

Deb and I stopped in while traveling around the state on a vacation. I told him how much he meant to me in preparing me for the rest of my career. He seemed pleased that I remembered those days so fondly.

Last Thursday night, at the funeral home visitation, Trena told me she was glad to see me. It felt great to remind her how much her husband meant to me. It was also great to see so many iconic Atlantic coaches I worked with during that period, such as football and track coach Bob Younger, basketball coach Don Jenkins, track coach Bruce Henderson and baseball coach Chuck Burnett. We picked up conversations like it was yesterday, instead of 35 years ago.

I also learned for the first time that Phil and Trena were generous donors toward Atlantic High School activities, which they did quietly behind the scenes.

The next day I got out of a newspaper committee meeting in Ankeny just in time to head west and arrive at Roland Funeral Home two minutes before the 1 p.m. prayer service. Former Atlantic athletic director Bob Sweeney gave a great eulogy.

He recalled being a first-year basketball coach in Shenandoah in November 1980, and he ignored a message from Phil Chinitz of the Atlantic News Telegraph, seeking his starting lineup for the game preview story. He didn’t want the Trojans to know too much about his team.

“I regret to say I did not give Phil my starting lineup that day, but back then we got all of the Hawkeye Eight town newspapers — it was part of the scouting process then — and it didn’t take long for me to realize the Atlantic News Telegraph went the extra mile in covering their local sports.”

That made me feel good, because I had a hand in those 1980 sports pages, along with Phil.

The experience last week validated something I’ve come to realize in old age. Don’t put off telling someone what you’ve wanted to say. You may not have another chance.

I didn’t want Phil to leave this earth without knowing how much I valued being a young man learning the ropes of daily journalism alongside him.

And, following him over to Bob’s Downtowner for coffee and those luscious cinnamon roles at mid-morning wasn’t bad, either!

When I interviewed at Creston and discovered that Huff Bakery was across the street from the CNA office, I thought this just may work out!

What goes around, comes around. Now I’m the old guy trying to help young journalists as they come through their CNA experience. There have been a lot of success stories.

Maybe they’ll visit me in the home someday and reminisce about old times.

I’ll be looking forward to it. I’ll have the coffee on if they bring the warm cinnamon rolls!

Contact the writer:

Twitter: @larrypeterson


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