I stared at my phone for at least 30 seconds before I moved. All relationships are complicated. Mine with Deborah Howell set indoor records for topsy-turvy emotions of respect, dislike, awe, jealousy and gratitude. After several minutes of dithering I tweeted this at 9:32 p.m. “Romenesko just tweeted that Deborah Howell was killed in accident in NZ. Stunning. She was competitor, character and friend.” That was the best I could do so shortly after the news, but the truth is far more complex.
Since last night I have wrestled with whether I should write these words. I have been away from the office for two weeks and away from this blog for more than four weeks. The twitterscape and the blogosphere are full of more eloquent voices than mine and full of the heartfelt words of better friends than I was. My hats off to the tweeter, whose name I can’t find now, who wrote about the “force of nature” that was Deborah. And this tweet said it all wonderfully, ” kathlanpher: @bcollinsmn Deborah Howell swore like a Marine, edited like a dream, drove you crazy & u loved her. Broken hearts around world today.”
The obituary in the Star Tribune was excellent, and Jeff Jarvis wrote a marvelous blog on Deborah and learning. it was Jarvis’ blog that convinced me I should make the trip downtown to write this entry. This Jarvis quote did it: “I learned that Deborah had little fear of learning. I argue that we must all learn in public now — which means making mistakes and finding lessons and moving on. We online need to be more generous with others as they learn our ways.”
My relationship with Deborah has taught me much about opening my mind and heart, and Jarvis prompts me to share that “in public.”
The name Deborah Howell first became significant to me when a few months before I was to join the Minneapolis Star, Deborah left the Star for the Pioneer Press after a very public and ugly spat with the man who was hiring me, Steve Isaacs. I liked Isaacs, and I still do, making my relationship with Deborah dicey from the very beginning.
The tweets and the blogs make it clear Deborah was a tough competitor. They are mincing words. I have competed in the newspaper world, in high school and college debate and I have been very close to sports and athletes throughout my life. Deborah Howell was as ferocious a competitor as you’d ever want to meet, not a lovable charming competitor, but a no-holds-barred, must-win kind of competitor. Far more times than I’d like to admit Deborah beat our ass when I was in Minneapolis. And, I wrote that the way I wanted to write it. In other eras the St Paul Pioneer Press beat us, but when she was was there, Deborah beat us. I always looked at it that way.
The classic story that defines Deborah’s competitiveness and her stevedore’s approach to the language is one Bob Duffy of Universal Press Syndicate has dined out on for years. “Duff” doesn’t have to be very far into his cups before he recounts the Christmas card Deborah returned to Universal one year. Universal’s card featured the great comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, a comic strip that ran exclusively in the Star Tribune thanks to territorial agreements. Deborah returned the card with something akin to this written on it: I don’t bleeping appreciate getting a bleeping Christmas card for a bleeping comic strip that I can’t bleeping get because of your bleeping territory rules.” Deborah did not use the word bleeping.
Obviously, that sort of competitiveness did nothing to make Deborah and me close friends. But, I will never forget the day I was on the road and called in to make my daily check with Deputy Managing Editor Steve Ronald. Steve tried to brace me, but then told me that the Pioneer Press had won a Pulitzer for a marvelous piece written by John Camp. You know Camp as John Sandford, the incredibly successful novelist. A couple of years later another Pulitzer followed for Deborah, her staff and her newspaper. She was just that damn good, and it pissed me off no end.
When Deborah announced she was leaving the Pioneer Press in 1990 I was one happy guy. I considered her nothing less than a nemesis. Timbuktu would have been a preferable location for Deborah from my perspective, but Washington was close to the right distance for me.
Then things got weird. I was elected to a one-year term on the American Society of Newspaper Editors board by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin. The next year Rich Oppel, Deborah and I were on the same ballot. My heart quivered. Surely my arch-nemesis would destroy me again. Miraculously Oppel, Howell and McGuire were the top three vote-getters. That meant several years of board membership with Deborah.
The first few years were prickly and uncomfortable for me. Working side-by-side with Deborah made me realize, and I think she did too, that harboring old wounds bears no positive fruit. With each passing year we got friendlier and friendlier. It was never “share our deepest, darkest secrets” friendly, but it was comfortable friendly. We got friendly enough that over the last couple of years, as an emissary for Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan, I have tried to sweet-talk her into coming to Arizona State to become our Edith Kinney Gaylord Visiting Professor in Journalism Ethics. She thought about it seriously this past spring, but a couple of Newhouse consulting jobs and this fateful trip to New Zealand got in the way.
We were really determined to get her here, partly because I thought it would effectively bring our quirky relationship journey full circle. I wanted to be able to say I had worked with Deborah Howell after being one of her fiercest competitors. And most importantly, she would have made one helluva ethics professor!
I have omitted the really strange element of my story with Deborah. I have never talked openly about this to anyone except my wife.
Most friends know that being President of ASNE was a tremendously important element of my career. I wanted that presidency as much as I’d ever wanted anything. I had two very close calls in which I had lost board elections by one vote. I had one last year of eligibility. Fascinatingly, so did Deborah. In my heart of hearts, I knew that if Deborah so much as expressed a breath of interest in the presidency, she would once again beat my ass.
Then miraculously, the word started to spread that Deborah was not interested. To this moment I do not know why. I don’t know if it was an act of generosity to a former enemy or a practical lifestyle decision. I do know that her choice had a profound impact on my life.
The other thing I know is that Deborah Howell affected my life in scores of amazing ways for 30 years. Her death leaves me with an unmistakable hole in my heart.