Three of us Jeffs sat in a row at The Associated Press bureau in Los Angeles – from left to right, Meyer, Wong and Wilson. Meyer left about midway through my tenure as a wire guy – better hours and better pay awaited at an insurance company. His final words to me were, “Remember, it’s just a job.”
Actually, it wasn’t just a job at the time, it was a compulsion – one that indulged me for about five years before I also departed the bureau, driving off into the next chapter of my life in my overheating Honda Civic LX in August 1999.
The one constant was Wilson, a quality wire guy who finally retired today (Friday) after four decades in the news business. Since wire guys can’t say goodbye in an ordinary way, what follows is a mock AP story I wrote for his retirement scrapbook. I even used correct syntax.
^EMBARGOED until the Los Angeles Times breaks this EMBARGO.<
^AP-CA–Wilson Farewell, 1st Ld-Writethru, 750 (probably more than that)<
^Longtime Ink-Stained Wretch Chooses Beach Life Over Miserable Commute, Medicore Pay and Iffy Pension<
^Eds: SUBS 2nd graf to reflect Wilson worked “hauling stiffs” in the coroner’s office vice being a stiff himself; CORRECTS spelling of “Wilson” throughout.<
^By JEFF WONG=
^Former Associated Press Writer=
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Longtime Associated Press newsman Jeff Wilson, whose grouchy demeanor and firm Republican ideals intimidated — and mentored — generations of journalists who worked at the AP’s busy Los Angeles bureau, bid farewell to friends and colleagues Friday in a retirement celebration that marked four decades of professional excellence.
Wilson made a living by making others look good, as more familiar bylines took credit for his clever turns of phrase and scoops – all generated from his ergonomic, sanitized Ikea desk. He had sources everywhere — from the contacts he made while “hauling stiffs” during college at the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office to officials in the Reagan White House to the paparazzo he befriended on numerous thankless stakeout assignments.
This former reporter, whose not-so-sanitary cubicle was next to Wilson’s in the mid- to late-1990s, often overheard Wilson arguing with public affairs officers, publicists and other less-desirables of the public relations world — toying with their feeble minds and goading them for comments that strayed from carefully crafted talking points.
He was equally quarrelsome with the editors of the AP’s General Desk in New York, particularly when they requested inane edits to stories destined for “A-wire” distribution. True story: At the General Desk’s request, he inserted into a story a definition of “burrito” — a Mexican entree that can feature rice, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, salsa and a meat, wrapped in a flour or corn tortilla.
Another true story: General Desk editors hounded me for edits to a story they wanted for the A-wire and continually called with questions, interrupting my work on a subsequent writethru. Wilson said, “Next time they call, transfer them to me.” I did, and seconds later Wilson erupted at the editor: “THAT’S A STUPID QUESTION. POLLY, WHY DON’T YOU JUST LEAVE US ALONE!” Photographers at the far end of the newsroom looked over and shrugged. Polly did leave me alone and I got my work done.
Wilson was the consummate newsman, carefully cultivating his network of celebrity flaks in preparation for the big stories that would inevitably hit. Thanks to him, the AP was first with news of the death of former President Ronald Reagan, the passing of Frank Sinatra and numerous others. If real news broke in Southern California, bureau chiefs and news editors found comfort in knowing Wilson was working it — phone cradled to his ear, making sense of incoherent dictation, calling sources to develop the story.
He gave small news items the same treatment. If a minor earthquake struck the area on a weekend morning, among the first to call the newsroom was Wilson, who provided context to how the “temblor” felt from the deck of his beachfront Oxnard home. (The second to call was fellow Los Angeles mainstay John Antczak — rumor has it from the breakfast nook of Caltech seismologist Kate Hutton).
I am 14 years removed from my last bylined story as an AP newsman and remember Wilson with fondness and admiration. Journalism in this country is devolving into a smelly pile of colorless goo because hard-bitten, common-sense newspeople such as Wilson are retiring or departing for greener pastures.
I would bid him “au revoir,” but that’s French for goodbye — too pretentious for this Freedom fries-loving blue collar surfer who excelled in what has become a largely white collar profession. Rather, I wish him “aloha” and a smooth ride off into the sunset.