Archive for December, 2009

Remembering Doyle Harvill

Remembering Doyle Harvill

Just before Christmas someone important in my life died. I hadn’t seen H. Doyle Harvill in years, but I’m not sure I’d be where I am today if he had not given me a chance years ago in the newsroom of the Tampa Times.

Harvill was the managing editor of Tampa’s afternoon newspaper in the 1970s when several of my friends and I began jockeying for reporting jobs there. I had to serve time at a lesser Florida paper, copy-editing columns such as “Dear Abby,” before Harvill took me on as a real reporter in the Times’ rural Brandon bureau. Covering the Junior Woman’s Club, schools, and rodeos wasn’t perfect for someone who desperately wanted to be in the newsroom, but it was a start. And in a time when there were no women on the Post’s Watergate team, only a handful of female journalists such as Barbara Walters and Helen Thomas serving as role models, and no Diane Sawyers anchoring the nightly news, just being hired was huge.

I’m grateful to Doyle Harvill not only for having some faith in me but also for teaching me so many journalism basics. It was Harvill who told me I couldn’t belong to any organization or even subscribe to Audubon magazine, because subscribers were required to join the Audubon Society—and I remain a non-Audubon subscriber and a registered Independent to this day. He admonished me about a critical misspelling in a story one day, telling me that names were sacred. And he told all reporters to travel a different way to and from work every day, so that we’d notice everything that was happening.

Harvill was a big believer in local watchdog journalism and community news when it seemed that other papers were trying to emulate The Washington Post and break their own Watergate story. I loved the quote in one of his obits where someone said that he wanted reporters to “get the news, get it right, and tell people why it mattered.”

Before I was issued a picture ID card giving me access into the newspaper’s imposing, stone building downtown, I had never been a reporter, unless you count The Vanderbilt Hustler. In fact, in the 1970s, Harvill hired so many of us from Vanderbilt that people jokingly referred to it as the Tampa Hustler. But many of his bets paid off. Neil Skene became publisher of Congressional Quarterly. Clay Harris went on to the London bureau of The Washington Post. Ann Ahern Allen became a mainstay at the Charlotte Observer, and I was lucky enough to spend time on the national and foreign news desk of The St. Petersburg Times, a place that arguably never would have hired me without experience.

Neil Skene said shortly after Harvill’s death: “We all learned what competition was at that paper. Wherever he is now, he’s giving ’em hell.”

Harvill had the habit of standing behind reporters as they were writing. Mostly, he never said a word. He would watch for a while and then move on. But sometimes he’d offer a bit of advice on a lead, and one glorious day he told me I had good feel for what people wanted to read.

During a turbulent time in my life when my parents in Virginia separated, I went into Harvill’s office and told him I needed to leave. My mother was having a hard time with the divorce and needed me. Harvill listened, nodded, and then told me he’d hold my job open for me. I didn’t think I’d be able to return, but within two months I was covering cops, poultry farming, and strawberry research in the Times’ Plant City bureau.

Former Times sports reporter Steve Otto remembered a similar story in his Tampa Tribune column. Harvill ruled with a heavy hand, Otto said, “but he was the same guy who had told an entertainment writer to stay home and take care of a sick husband for months. Her salary never was cut.”

Somewhere along the way in my years at the Times, the local NOW chapter decided to give Doyle Harvill its notorious Barefoot & Pregnant Award. The argument was that he had not hired enough women. But I did not see a man who discriminated against women; I saw the man who opened the door and began letting us in.

Rich White, a Vanderbilt classmate, made a similar point in his own remembrance:

“I was one of seven reporters he hired around that time straight off the campus of Vanderbilt University. …Three of those seven were women, at a time when maybe only 10-15% of all reporters were women. Doyle gave me the freedom to work different beats (sports, police, education, county) and to write longer investigative series. He didn’t just challenge reporters to report better; he also challenged writers to write better and more creatively.”

And Clay Harris recalled:

“He instilled the right values in journalists (regardless of sex or race), values that apparently are disappearing along with newspapers themselves.”

Some 10 years after walking into the Tampa Times newsroom for the first time, I found myself working for one of several Southern Living, Inc., magazines in Birmingham (Creative Ideas for Living). Harvill was running the Montgomery Advertiser by then and asked me to drive down and meet with him. He asked me to be the Birmingham bureau reporter for him, but I had to turn him down. The salary was better and the hours saner at the magazine. But I knew—even having earned a master’s in mass communications by then—that I was giving up the chance to learn more about good journalism.

The Tampa Tribune said in its tribute to Harvill that “his zest for journalism was infectious, and those who endured his boot-camp tactics and profanity-laced lectures usually emerged with a lifetime passion for the profession, a deep respect for its watchdog responsibilities and a grateful appreciation for the satisfaction and fun that come with a job that challenges the power structure each day. Harvill had a keen eye for talent and didn’t mind taking chances on individuals. He launched the careers of hundreds of journalists across the country and took enormous pride in their success.”

I hope Doyle Harvill knew that these young journalists took enormous pride in working for him, themselves.


WREN COTTAGE Writing & Editing

“Writing is thinking on paper.”

– William Zinsser


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I was thrilled to get a note this week from Rocket Boy Homer Hickam, who loves Cookie Monster. I gathered together some of my favorite Cookie Monster quotes to share with him, and decided to share them with everyone. So enjoy a “Cookie” this Christmas on me!

COOKIE MONSTER (Real name: Sid)

(Cookie Monster is known for eating the letter of the day.)

[Prairie Dawn]: I do not think this letter looks delicious. It starts words like Kite.

[Cookie]: And cowabunga.

[Prairie]: That’s not a word.

[Cookie]: It mean kowabunga. Great letter, K. (he grabs it)

[Prairie]: Oh, Cookie Monster, NO!

[Cookie]: It OK little girl. Look on bright side. You just improved vocabulary.

[Cookie Monster]: How me distract meself? Me think of other things that begin with letter W. Walrus, Wiggle, Window. Me trying to think of all words that begin with letter W so me don’t eat letter of day. (He eats the W)

Wonderful! (Urp!)

[Prairie]: That doesn’t look anything like a cookie. It’s the letter E.

[Cookie]: Me know it not real cookie. Me know it letter E that start words like egg and elephant. Me just pretending it have delicious chocolate chips and sprinkles. What can me say? Me have great imagination.

[Cookie Monster]: Num, num, num. So delicious. Me just looking at what appear to be letter I cookie. Me like Icing. Oh, yeah. Me love cookie with icing. Me can’t eat cookie of day, but it so delicious. Me not eat cookie. Me just eat icing. (He eats the icing I.)

Wait a minute, cookie not show letter of day now. No reason not eat it. Bye Bye!

[Prairie:] That’s the letter A. See, it doesn’t even look like a cookie.

[Cookie Monster]: Me no care. Me hungry! Me can’t help meself. Me so hungry. Ah, distract meself; that good idea. Apricot, apricot, let’s call whole thing off…

[Prairie]: Oh! Aggravating…)

[Cookie Monster]: Today’s letter look like letter H. That sound like H. Let me smell. But does it taste like H? Let me check. Me getting hungry but hold it. Ah, that letter H word, too! Me got best possible place to hide cookie. In me tummy!

[Cookie Monster]: Today me different. Me have sea change. Me not going to eat cookie.

[Matt Lauer Muppet]: The question on everyone’s lips…

[Cookie]: That a lot of lips!

[Cookie Monster]: Dat look like letter J. Smell like Letter J to me. Listen: dat sound like Letter J but does it taste like Letter J? Me no eat Letter J. Me promised research department. (Maybe me just take little nibble…)

[Cookie Monster
speaking to audience]: Yep, yep, that sound like letter F. That even smell like letter FUDGE! Let’s face facts. Me going to eat this cookie. Me know it. Everybody know it. So me going to draw letter F so me can eat cookie and you still get educational information. It a win-win situation. Letter F. Yup. Yep. Now you have visual aid and me free to eat cookie. (He draws letter F.) Hey, that not bad for amateur. That look good enough to eat. Hah hah! Flavorful! (Burp!)

WREN COTTAGE Writing & Editing

“Writing is thinking on paper.”

– William Zinsser

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My Life on “The Street”

Grungetta, Googly Eyes, and Abby’s Rhyme Time

After five years, I still try to watch Sesame Street every day, and I take notes while Abby Cadabby, Grover, Big Bird and the other little monsters and Muppets are talking. I have a list of each character’s favorite expressions—like Cookie Monster saying “Cowabunga,” and Oscar hollering “Scram” and calling Elmo “fur face.” I know that Big Bird’s teddy bear’s name is Radar, that Telly loves triangles, and that Elmo has a goldfish named Dorothy and is perpetually 3 years old. I also found out that Oscar has a girl friend named Grungetta, and Bert collects paperclips and loves his pet pigeon, Bernice.

I’ve also collected critical information on illustrations. Did you know that there’s Cookie Monster’s eyes only google one way? (The pupil in the left eye googles up and the right one googles down; never the reverse.) Prairie Dawn cannot be taller than Baby Bear. And while the little monsters can be either fully dressed or appear in the buff, they can never (ahem) ever have on tops without bottoms.

I try to write stories that support the current season’s curriculum but are also fun to read. I figure that if the writer’s not having fun, the kids aren’t either. Sometimes, I turn to joke books and to the Internet for a chuckle. When I was desperate for a bird joke in one of my books, for example, I discovered fodder for the Bert, the bird-lover. “What’s a bird’s favorite holiday?” he asks Elmo. “Feathers’ Day!”

I also noticed that Sesame Street books sometimes included goofy words, so in Abby Cadabby’s Rhyme Time, I rhymed purple with maple syrple—and when one of the characters says there’s no rhyme for orange, a little mouse in the corner whispers “door-hinge.” (Thank you, thank you, Kathy Knight of Dalmatian Press for that one!)

The show itself, though, is more sophisticated with its humor. Amazing Sesame Street writers come up with takeoffs of hit shows like “30 Rock,” which morphed “30 Rocks,” as well as “Desperate Houseplants” on the Bloom Network, “RSI: Rhyme Scene Investigation,” “Law and Order, Special Letters Unit,” and “Preschool Musical.” And in one “Raiders of the Lost Arc” sketch, Telly dashes around in an Indiana Jones hat and jacket chasing the Golden Triangle of Destiny.

Through this kind of writing, Sesame Street has taught me not to underestimate my audience. Even preschoolers can be more sophisticated than we think.

One of the other things I try to do with the Sesame Street 8×8’s, besides educate and entertain is to create a world that feels safe for children. My doctor told me once that her daughter, Tara, had worn out her copy of my S is for School book. The little girl particularly liked the scene where the kids are napping. Sesame editors had suggested showing kids with their dolls, teddy bears or pictures of pets, so I included those, and 3-year-old Tara responded to that. I think kids identify with certain things they do just like the Muppets. And that can be soothing.

I’m also careful not to make a book seem threatening or offensive in any way. If Oscar says, “Scram” to Zoe, then I also like to show him reading to his pet worm, Slimey, or doing something nice for Elmo and then grousing in an aside, “But you didn’t see me do that!” And if Abby feels a bit lonely and awkward when she first moves to the Street, or Zoe feels too embarrassed because she loves ballet and not baseball, I try to find a way to resolve it. Kids need to know that it’s OK to be who they are.

And that sensibility, I probably got from watching so much of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. But, then, my meeting with Mister Rogers is a whole other story!

WREN COTTAGE Writing & Editing

“Writing is thinking on paper.”

– William Zinsser

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The More Serious Side of Sesame Street

Sesame Street was founded for several reasons, one being the idea of helping inner-city children who were walking into kindergartens without even knowing the ABCs. In many cases, the kids simply had no grown-ups to read to them. So each season of the show was carefully developed around an educational curriculum.

Authors and illustrators who work with Sesame Workshop meet in New York City once a year, at the offices across from Lincoln Center. In a daylong seminar, they mingle with Sesame editorial directors, the show’s director, the Workshop’s educational coordinator—and even some of the Muppeteers!—to discuss what the show and the books will emphasize in the next season. It might be math literacy (parents can be glad that I never wrote a math book), rhyme, alliteration, “Healthy Happy Monsters,” or teaching kids to take care of the environment.

In “Happy, Healthy Monsters,” for instance, Cookie Monster learned to curb his cookie habit, something, by the way, that some members of the media found hard to swallow. And Sesame Street’s fairy-in-training, Abby Cadabby, loves speaking in rhyme, so she introduces kids to the magic of words that spring up suddenly at the end of verses or phrases, sounding delightfully the same.

After studying that first curriculum, I began creating a kind of monster/Muppet style guide. I was inspired, in part, by the story of Muppeteer Kevin Clash, who created Elmo based on a little boy his mother’s daycare. The story goes that when Kevin first came to Sesame Street, someone in the break room tossed him a little shaggy, red Muppet that had been a background character on the show and said something like, “Here, see if you can do something with this.” (And the rest is Sesame Street history!)

So Kevin Clash created a voice, a family, and a vocabulary (Elmo avoids pronouns)…and then brought in friends, pets, favorite foods, and the things that Elmo liked to do. (Tap-dancing or miniature golf, anyone?)

All of the Sesame Street characters have their own families, background stories, and personalities. And a writer needs to know them.

Next blog: Grungetta, googly eyes, and Abby’s rhyme time

WREN COTTAGE Writing & Editing

“I cannot live without books.”
—Thomas Jefferson

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Dec. 12, 2009

I had the honor of talking with the Atlanta chapter of American Pen Women last week about my work with Sesame Workshop, so I’m sharing some highlights over the next few blogs.

In 1971 when I first heard the words “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?” I never dreamed that I’d actually be a visitor there someday.

When Dalmatian Press got the license from Sesame Workshop for 8×8 books, I was given the Sesame Street books to do. I had watched Sesame Street as a student teacher at Vanderbilt, and I had seen plenty of it with my kids—Maria getting married to Luis, Big Bird finding out that Mr. Hooper had passed away, and Grover becoming a bumbling, lovable star. But I had no idea how to write for Sesame Street.

I began watching the show regularly, bought some used books at a kids’ consignment sale, camped out for days in the children’s section of the library, and watched old and new Sesame clips on YouTube. (Did you know you can see Andrea Bocelli singing “Time to Say Goodnight” to Elmo on YouTube?!?) Then I was told about the Sesame Workshop curriculum.

Yes, the curriculum.

I always thought that rollicking little books like A Monster at the End of This Book were dreamed up by talented authors who charmed the socks off the editors at Sesame Workshop with their sparkling wit and literary dexterity and then got the books published. I clearly had no idea what really went on over there on the Street!

Next blog: What’s in the curriculum?

WREN COTTAGE Writing & Editing

“I cannot live without books.”
—Thomas Jefferson

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“Splendid Isolation: The Jekyll Island Millionaires’ Club 1888-1942”

By Pamela Bauer Mueller

Splendid Isolation Offers Glimpse

of America’s Most Exclusive Club

In 1886 a group of men seeking privacy and an escape from city life, created a retreat off the coast of Georgia on Jekyll Island. Nothing’s unusual about this except for the fact that these particular men were legendary business tycoons with surnames like Pulitzer, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt. And, together, they controlled about a sixth of the world’s wealth.

Their new retreat on one of Georgia’s Golden Isles became known as the Jekyll Island Club. And much of the real story of what went on while America’s first families of finance played golf, rode on horseback, and swam in the Atlantic can be found in the new historical novel by award-winning Georgia author Pamela Bauer Mueller, Splendid Isolation: The Jekyll Island Millionaires’ Club 1888-1942.

Mueller’s intriguing story is told from the point of view of four faithful workers who helped make the privileged Jekyll Island Club a gracious retreat: the club superintendent, a ship’s captain, a governess, and one devoted family attendant.

Through meticulous research into letters, diaries, newspaper/magazine/internet articles, books, photo archives, and other sources—including interviews—Mueller discovered Jekyll Island characters who were as compelling as the millionaires themselves. “So I made the decision to write the book through their eyes,” she explained. “By intertwining certain events with historical figures, and telling stories through the eyes of ladies and gentlemen who served them, I could give readers a peek into the past.”

Spanning fifty-four years, from the Gilded Age to World War II, Splendid Isolation portrays the families of America’s most powerful financiers hunting, playing tennis, and bicycling along the sea island’s sand-packed roadways—or dining at the elegant Jekyll Island Hotel, frequenting the north beaches, and strolling under Spanish moss-draped trees.

Mueller deftly weaves believable dialogue into club history. Early in the novel, for example, Club Superintendent Ernest Gilbert Grob shares an account of Joseph Pulitzer and insurance magnate Henry Baldwin Hyde addressing a disreputable club member who escorted an unsuspecting young woman onto the island:

We all knew what was in store for this obviously miserable woman. …While I was helping her settle into one of the guest rooms, Mr. Pulitzer and Mr. Hyde were talking to him.

(Mr. Pulitzer’s) voice was slow and he spoke with jerky movements, shaking his head of thick auburn hair as he enunciated his words.

“Just know that we’ll be keeping a very close watch on her while she’s here, and furthermore…”

“That won’t be necessary, Joseph,” the man interrupted.

“I believe that it will be, don’t you Henry?” asked Mr. Pulitzer, turning to face Mr. Hyde.

“And I’ll be in the background, always ready to assist, if need be, with the power of my press.” Mr. Pulitzer continued, like a fox.

The man flinched. Everyone knew the power of Joseph Pulitzer’s press.

“So tomorrow after breakfast I’ll take your lovely wife for a walk on the beach or on a bicycle trip. Then my associates will plan other activities for her and introduce her to the women employees. You will see that she’s always accompanied by one of us,” offered Mr. Hyde. Then he added, as if it were an after-thought, “Naturally you can join us if you wish.”

Not only did we never leave the woman alone with this member, we sat with her at all meals and made sure she was undisturbed at night. Some years later she wrote me a letter, thanking me for taking care of her.”

In addition to the Jekyll Island Club’s prestigious social status, the legendary hideaway also became an important player in history. The Club boasted visits from political dignitaries such as President William McKinley, for example, hosted a meeting that created the Federal Reserve Banking System, and played a role in the ceremonial opening of the first transcontinental telephone line across the United States.

“The real core of life in Jekyl [Jekyll] Island’s great days was to be found in the men’s after-dinner talks,” wrote the daughter of Club President Dr. Walter B. James. “It was always of great things, of visions and developing. If they didn’t have a map of the United States or World before them, they had a map of industrial or financial empires in their minds.”

For readers who love biographies and historical fiction, those who enjoyed seeing the wealthy people on deck or watching the “real party” down in third class in the movie Titanic, or anyone who savors classic books that give readers a glimpse of real life behind the scenes, Mueller’s Splendid Isolation is an entertaining read.

Settle back, relax, look at the photos of times long gone by, and read the engaging tale of what was possibly America’s most exclusive private club of all time.

WREN COTTAGE Writing & Editing

“I cannot live without books.”
—Thomas Jefferson

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‘Tis the Season

It’s a lovely day after Thanksgiving, the family is gathered around the fireplace, a Labradoodle is snoozing on the hearth, and there are enough leftovers in the fridge to last until Advent.

No, really, my son has already trudged back to the MTSU campus, my other college kid leaves tomorrow, and I’m home alone because who wants to watch a movie with mom when you can taste exotic beers with your out-of-town friends at a place called Bricks?

Two scruffy little family dogs are snoring by the television and pretty soon they’re going to have to go potty out in the freezing cold, and where is a dog-walker when you need one? (Probably at Bricks.)

The most you can hope for when spending the holidays with college kids is that you get to talk with them in-between loads of laundry, that they get up before noon, and that they don’t require much spending money at the end of the visit.

In this season of thanksgiving, however, I have not forgotten that I have exceptional kids. My daughter cooked most of this year’s Thanksgiving dinner. My son picks out incredibly thoughtful gifts on a slim budget, and then somehow manages to wrap them without a GPS.

They never once complained that we couldn’t afford a house with a bonus room, and knew that karate lessons for $60 a month meant that the ghi that was lent to us for one free lesson had to go back.

My son never said a word about having to work at a golf course on the weekends—just for free greens fees— so he could play his favorite sport. And my daughter accepted the fact that she would not be going to Spain or Italy, like her Berry College friends, during a required semester of teaching in a non-English-speaking community. She ended up in North Georgia, where the students took a tour of a rug plant and ate mostly homemade tacos. (Olé!)

Now that the economy has gone South, I find myself unemployed. (A challenge for those of us who are used to regular meals and money to pay the electric bill.) But in the end, I’ll always stop and count my blessings—not the least of which is having two kids home for Thanksgiving.

Then I’ll let the dogs out, go to bed, and think about their next visit.

It’s almost Christmas.

WREN COTTAGE Writing & Editing

“The artist is nothing without the gift,
but the gift is nothing without work.”

—Emile Zola

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