OPINION: A grandfather's encouragement
September 7th, 2013 | Carey Restino
As I was preparing to finish this week's edition of the paper, I learned that my grandfather, Alvin Eisenman, had died in his sleep the night before. It wasn't a surprise — he was 92 — but a flood of reflection followed. He is, after all, the reason I do what I do.
My grandfather was an extraordinary man on many levels. He started the first graduate program for graphic design in the United States at Yale University when graphic design had barely emerged as a field. Students came from all over the world to study with him, and he inspired many with his teaching.
But Alvin's first love was newspapers. At the age of 5, he delivered papers for Harold Gray, the owner of the DuBois Morning Courier, who lived next door. Gray gathered the children of the neighborhood and shared his love of printing with them, and my grandfather was hooked. By high school, he was collaborating with my grandmother on the school yearbook and newspaper, which won awards for its design.
His career, which was long and successful, turned away from journalism and newspapers and toward books and typography as a young man, but newspapers remained close to his heart. He helped my mother and her friends start a newspaper as a young girl, an experience that surely influenced her later career as a writer.
But I really didn't know any of this when, some 15 years ago, he suggested to me that while profitable, waiting tables and bartending in Anchorage might not be the most fulfilling career, and asked casually if I might be interested in taking a class or two at the local college. He'd pick up the tab, he said.
I signed up for English 111 that fall, was lucky enough to get Marybeth Holleman as an instructor, and wrote my final paper about the wolf control debate in Alaska. After reading the paper, Holleman suggested I might consider journalism as a field, and the next term, I took a couple entry-level classes and was hooked. Journalism made me extremely uncomfortable a lot of the time. My professor, veteran journalist Larry Campbell, made my class do terribly embarrassing things like walk up to complete strangers in shopping malls and ask them questions like, "What's in the bag."
To be honest, I can't put my finger on exactly what it was about journalism that drew me in — partly the excitement of meeting deadlines and getting the scoop, and partly the wonderful connections it gave me with other human beings, helping them tell their stories. But I do know that in the background, my grandfather was applauding all the way. He would write me letters suggesting I consider trying to become a stringer for a national paper. When we met up every couple years, he would look over the newspapers I would bring carefully. We talked about stories I was passionate about and he encouraged me to think far beyond what I thought I was capable of. I once heard him talking to my mother.
"You see this," he asked her, pointing to my name on the paper. "Editor!"
My family isn't the kind that serves up praise as a main course, so I carried the fact that he was proud of my accomplishments close to my heart. He, who had inspired so many great leaders of the design world, saw what I was doing in my remote corner of the world as important. I think to my grandfather, journalism was far more than stringing words together. It was a public service, an honorable career choice and one that could effect real change.
Last week, I found myself as I do from time to time, trying to teach the basic principles of journalism to some new reporters on our staff. Most journalism skills can't be taught in the classroom. You learn them by trial and dramatic, red-faced error. It's almost a magic trick to turn the sometimes-boring details of meetings, politics, and money movement into something that jumps off the page and grabs the reader. There is never enough time to spend caressing words into a shape you like. Sources are inevitably out of town or busy or disinterested in talking. And perhaps most daunting, journalists are expected to become experts in a galactic span of subjects, from scientific studies of sea lice to the inner workings of legislative negotiations to the mechanics of a failing electrical generation system. So there is an element of shock as the reality of what it takes to put a newspaper together sinks in for new reporters.
As I tried to explain to the new wordsmiths, journalism is the process of panning through immense amounts of information, finding the gold, and serving it up on a red velvet cloth to your readers. Even after a decade and a half, the love and enthusiasm I have for newspapers and journalism is still fresh. It introduces me to people, places and subjects that I would never have glimpsed otherwise. It challenges me daily, keeps me up at night, and chews at my ear while I drive and cook and garden. And I have my grandfather to thank for this influence in my life, one that has colored every corner of who I now am. My gratitude for his gift is boundless, and hopefully, I, too, will be able to pass it on.