Reflections on a dumpy chair, flunky college student hacks, typos, poor judgement and the man who held them all together
By Christine (Verges) Gacharná
The way I remember it, there was nothing special about that chair. It wasn’t particularly inviting or comfortable. The room that housed it was windowless, devoid of any plant life, and music—though talked about—never played. Random scraps of paper were taped and tacked all over the place, some even elevated to permanent showcase on the walls. If there was any particularly poignant message on display, I don’t remember it.
What turned this ordinary chair into the proverbial chair we all cherish is the presence of the man who sat opposite it, safely tucked away a full arms-length distance behind a behemoth wooden desk. Mark Woodhams’s desk.
Woodhams had answers. Not answers that he handed out freely to those slumped before him, but answers that he helped the slumped unearth. Woodhams didn’t dole out the secrets to solving life’s most troublesome dilemmas; rather, he sat, slightly amused, watching apprentice writers, editors, photographers, and artists unfurl the insurmountable dilemmas of journalism. Drama unfolds here, Woodhams visibly relishing in agitated energy. After sufficient taunting and teasing, he brought wisdom and reality to the table and guided students in moving through both on their journey toward mastery. He peppered in life lessons here and there, just for flavor.
I started out [at the Arizona Daily Wildcat] as a flunky reporter and worked my way though a desk editor job to editor-in-chief. Woodhams was behind me (albeit mostly across from me as I sat in the chair) through it all.
When I had a problem with the ad staff selling ads to Playboy that readers protested, I sat in the chair. When I had a problem with the Art Desk missing deadlines, I sat in the chair. When cute boys complicated my life, I sat in the chair. When I got death threats from readers for running the mugshot of a football player along with a news story on the front page, above the fold, I was in the chair. (Later that day, “out of nowhere,” administration granted me an after-hours parking pass that was considerably closer to the newsroom door.)
And on the worst morning ever of being EIC—the morning my managing editor quit—I was in the chair. By evening, the managing editor had returned to the newsroom. [Editor’s note: Who knows? Maybe he landed in the chair during the day, too. Théoden?]
See, Woodhams was my safety net. Our safety net. I wasn’t the only one in that chair. 🙂
Now that we are all grown up—because really, we were just kids back then, even though he was the only one who knew that at the time—we realize our strength was in knowing there was someone to catch us when we failed. We wielded our mighty keyboards from our glass houses and typed out our way in a big world, and we were fearless—fearless, throwing stones.
Except when we weren’t.
And when we broke something, we landed in the chair.
And Woodhams, like a wise and comforting parent, helped us to uncover our own answers. And if the answers we uncovered weren’t the “right” answer, that was okay. Because the Wildcat newsroom was our home, and the worst that could happen was not that we might fail, but that we might not learn from our mistakes.
And fail we did. Often and much.
Two decades barely softens the sting. I spent an evening reading through original copies of Inside the Glass House, the complete collection of Vol. 3, the summer I started at the Wildcat through the year I was copy chief. [Editor’s Fun Fact: The summer issues are titled “Inside the Glass Pool.”]
Inside the Glass House, Vol. 3, No. 1, August 24, 1994
WE’RE B-A-A-A-A-C-K: First a word for newcomers. As most of the staff knows, from time to time (like, a lot), on as close to a daily basis as possible, I’m going to provide written critiques of the Wildcat. Not complete thorough analyses, but quick off-the-cuff commentary. … “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Newspaper staffs live in glass houses, and newspaper staffs, by their nature, throw stones. These notes, I hope, will help keep you honest and contribute to your education and to the development of the Wildcat.
Here are the groundrules:
1. There are no groundrules…
Inside the Glass House, Vol. 3, No. 2 highlights include:
Check that spelling…As for the jumps…Needs more dominant head…Speaking of design…Keep it up…Uuh?…and then: By the time you guys put tomorrow’s paper to bed tonight, you will have published 104 pages in three days. You deserve a reward. So, courtesy of the home office, tomorrow at Gentle Ben’s from 5-6:30 p.m., all Wildcat staff drink for free (beer or soda). [Editor’s note: He generally ends on a positive. We’ll give him that, seeings as the next issue begins with “Stop your whining…”]
Inside the Glass House, Vol. 3, No. 7
**FLAME ON**: No sooner do I get through praising our headlines this year than you turn in a couple of lulus today on page 1, top and bottom…A plus and a minus…Ouch…
Inside the Glass House, Vol. 3, No. 8
How to report a suicide…sloppy…speaking of sloppy…Interviews!…Great look….
Inside the Glass House, Vol. 3, No. 15
Clue me in. Is it Wildcat policy not to run the names of people who are injured, maimed, killed, what have you, in Police Beat (as opposed to victims of crime, although except for rape, I would run those names too)? When I was cutting my teeth on the cop shop 20 years ago as a punk reporter… [Editor’s note: It’s safe to say we all tuned out here. Now, 20 years later, we realize we shouldn’t have. This gem of an issue ended with:] Nice looking paper today, but style isn’t everything.
Inside the Glass House, Vol. 3, No. 92
The final edition of Woodhams’s signature formatted notes illustrates his quintessential, curmudgeonly praise. No. 92 “takes a broader view of the year gone by. All the top honors at the journalism banquet the other night were won by Wildcat staff—in most cases by students who have put far more into the Wildcat than may be healthy.”
He goes on to recognize serious talent, sheer efforts and lively quirks, bestowing genuine honors in the same breath as flippant observations and cheap shots. He finally confirmed publicly what we all secretly suspected to be true: that Monty Phan was, in fact, his favorite.
There was hope for the rest of us, though, because we all read Glass House. Even photogs who didn’t necessarily know how to read and art desk critics who were waaaay above criticism of their own work read the notes. We all read Glass House. This issue ended with the ominous:
“Those of you who don’t pay attention to them will never amount to anything. So there. —mwoodhams”
The Original Stone Thrower
Woodhams wasn’t our only critic. From a Wildcat editorial, written by Jon Burstein, September 20, 1994:
“Not only do we receive letters regarding content, but we also receive ‘Goof Cards’ from Leonard Rosenthal of the Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature (SPELL). Whenever we make grammatical errors, he finds them and mails us postcards listing all of our faux pas. Oh well, if that’s what you do in your spare time, rock on Leonard.”
The letters always came addressed to me during my tenure as copy chief. I still have all 23 of them.
The 24th arrived, addressed to Mr. Burstein:
“Which just shows that you miss the whole point, son. You apparently think the Goof Cards are just a way for a born nit-picker to let off steam. Well, if the Wildcat is content to rock on with these errors that any 6th grader should know enough to avoid, you have my blessing (Using “she” in the objective case, forsooth!). I’ll not offend you with any more Goof Cards. Some day you may become mature enough to recognize the wisdom of the Pennsylvania Dutch saying,
‘Ve get too soon old and to late shmart.’”
We had a tough job. Everybody was a critic.
Woodhams was our biggest critic, but, unlike Leonard, he always had our backs.
Woodhams stated about his retirement announcement, “blah.”
I disagree. Woodhams is a big deal. The place didn’t just run itself while he sat nearly horizontal, feet up on this desk, fingers interlaced behind his head, steam rising from the coffee mug on the desk. Great advisers like Woodhams only make it look that easy, putting a safety net under those whom they mentor to spread their wings and fly.
Alis volat propriis.
These are the words Woodhams gave me as I graduated from the UA: Latin for the Oregon state motto, she flies with her own wings.
On behalf the Class of Vol. 3, I hereby award Woodhams with The Loving Curmudgeon Award for being the king of rock-throwing oxymorons, wounding us by day yet buying us drinks on Fridays, mercilessly criticizing our craft behind the scenes while publicly endorsing us for internships, graduate schools, jobs. We learned far more working at the Wildcat than we learned in any classroom—and when we failed to learn, Woodhams swooped in the next morning to hammer the lesson home. His presence is sure to be missed.
But hey—he’s not dying, he’s retiring! So let’s get on with celebrating the work of the man who built his career around nit-picking budding artists, lest ve get too soon old and to late shmart.
Rock on, Woodhams. —xoxox
Mark Woodhams, is retiring as Director of Student Media at the University of Arizona. He will be missed.