I secured my first “real” indoor job in the Summer of 1969 after completing my second year of college. During previous summers, I had worked outdoors at a local park and a town swimming pool, visited some of my dad’s accounting clients to do their end-of-the-month bookkeeping chores and umpired many more Little League baseball games than I care to remember.
So, after finishing my sophomore year at Syracuse University as a newspaper journalism major, I told myself that it was time for me to get a “Big Boy” job. My target was a summer position at my community’s weekly newspaper—the Valley Stream Mail Leader on Long Island. But first, I knew I needed to put together a compelling resume and come up with a list of reasons why they should hire a complete stranger with no formal experience in the field to do jobs they didn’t know that they needed to be done—and then pay him as well.
Bright and early on an early June Monday morning. I walked into the paper’s small building near the center of the village without an appointment and was greeted by an older woman sitting at a reception desk. After I told her the reason for my visit, she advised me that I had to talk to the owner of the paper, Sam Tenzer (the Tenzer name was familiar to me since a “Herbert Tenzer” had just retired as a Congressman from that district), and that she would go into the back room and get him.
She quickly returned with a tall, well-dressed, gray-haired man in his 70s who she introduced to me as Mr. Tenzer. After a couple of awkward comments, he offered me a seat at a second desk in the front office and sat down across from me. He glanced at my resume and asked me why I was there. Without wasting a moment, I pointed outlines on the sheet of paper in his hand that I thought would be of interest to him—that I was a lifelong resident of Valley Stream, that I was attending the #1 ranked communications school in the country and was majoring in newspaper journalism there and that I wrote articles regularly for the school’s daily newspaper and weekly news-magazine. I also threw a few creative ideas at him, but I’m not so sure he ever caught them.
I must have been pretty convincing because the very gruff and curmudgeon-like Mr. Tenzer (who confirmed that Rep. Herbert Tenzer was his brother) said that he would hire me to work there three days a week for about $3 or $4 an hour. (The minimum wage back then was $1.60 an hour, so his offer didn’t seem so unreasonable to me at the time.) I accepted his offer and he said that I should start the next day. I showed up at 9 a.m. the next day to begin a job that would turn out to be very educational and challenging on the one hand—and quite frightening on the other.
Over the next several weeks, one of my most important responsibilities was reviewing all press releases and unsolicited story suggestions that arrived in the office mail from political and governmental sources, civic and religious groups, sports organizations, stores and restaurants, loyal readers and lots of other information suppliers and deciding which ones should appear in our next issue and which ones should end up in my “circular file.”
I got to edit all of the releases, write headlines for the stories, compose captions for the photos, lay out all of the pages and even redesign the front page to include a “That Was Then…This is Now” feature which involved a historic picture of a Valley Stream landmark from 25 or more years earlier… and underneath it a shot of the same venue in the present. I also answered phones, re-organized their outdated subscription card system, proofread the Legal Notices every week with Mr. Tenzer, schlepped the old postage meter to the post office once a week to be “refilled” and even wrote a couple of stories as well as the paper’s editorial after that summer’s moon landing.
But after a few weeks, things started to get tense at work for me. I learned that Mr. Tenzer had a collection of subscription renewal receipt books in the office which had no basis in fact. I ignored them—until the day he came to the table where I worked, plopped a new receipt book and a pile of old subscription order cards in front of me and ordered me to write out bogus renewal receipts that he could use as the basis for the advertising rates that he was charging clients.
I told Mr. Tenzer that I did not feel right about committing fraud under any circumstance and that I did not feel comfortable following his request. He told me that if I didn’t do what he asked, my services would no longer be welcome there. Very reluctantly, I allowed my gratification from the other elements of my job and my need for money to get the better of me, and I became a criminal for the first and last time in my life.
Fast forward a few days. It all started innocently enough when the office phone rang on a quiet Friday morning and I answered it. There was a very excited woman on the line who said that she was a long-time reader of our paper and that she was calling from a pay phone near the railroad station where an accident had just occurred on the elevated tracks right above her. I grabbed a pen and sheet of paper and started jotting down the details of the accident from the eyewitness’s point of view. The call lasted about 15 to 20 minutes.
When I hung up the phone, Mr. Tenzer, who had been hovering over me for most of the call, asked me what the call was all about. After I told him, he literally exploded at me. He lambasted me for wasting my time and his paper’s time by taking down the details of a Friday morning train accident when his paper’s next issue would not be coming out again until the following Thursday. I argued that we had no idea what the story would turn out to be and, of equal importance, I didn’t want to be rude to a loyal reader who honestly felt she was doing a good deed for us by cutting her short and hanging up on her.
I was shocked at Mr. Tenzer’s reaction. He stared at me with piercing eyes and sternly told me to “Get your coat and hat and leave–and never come back.” I had been fired! I got up, mumbled that it was the middle of summer and I didn’t have a coat or hat that day and left.
On the short drive home, I played the last half hour of my life over and over again in my mind. Should I have hung up on the caller? No. Should I have not taken notes? No. Should I have not stood up for my choices? Of course not.
After I was home for about an hour the phone rang. It was Mr. Howe, also an elderly gentleman who stopped by the Mail Leader office every Friday to drop off his humor column for the following week’s issue. He asked me “What happened?” I told him my side of the story and he asked me to hold on for a moment. He came back on the line a minute or so later and reported that he had just talked with Mr. Tenzer and that I could have my job back. I mulled the offer over in my mind and rolled the dice: “I’ll come back,” I replied, “but only if I get a $3 an hour raise.”
I took a shot that they needed me more than I needed them. Again, Mr. Howe asked me to “hold” for a moment. He came back on the line after a minute or so and told me that Mr. Tenzer said ok. I thanked Mr. Howe for all of his help and told him that I would be back in the office on the following Monday morning–still probably without a coat or hat.
I finished out that memorable summer (remember that in addition to landing men on the moon, we also saw the Mets on their way to their first World Championship and the Woodstock Festival change the culture of America during those months) without further strife.
What I took away from that job was confidence in myself that I could work in almost any type of newspaper office under almost any kind of boss. But on a bigger level, I learned that if I stood up for my beliefs, even if they were not particularly popular, good things will probably happen.