Getting the Credit I Didn’t Earn by Bill Cowles

“Giving credit where credit is due is a very rewarding habit to form. Its rewards are inestimable.”  Loretta Young

 I was 16 and the third string center on the varsity high school football team. This meant that the cheerleaders had a better chance of playing than I did. Nevertheless, being on the team was important to my social status in high school.

 One day between classes, the principal stopped me in the hallway and said the local newspaper was looking for a sportswriter, mostly to cover high school games on weekends. He knew that I had my own car and also knew that I had built a reputation as a strong writer. I was not sure how to respond, so tried to duck the answer by saying, “Well, we’re in the middle of football season. I’ll have to talk to coach.”

 The principal looked me in the eye and said, “I’ve already talked to coach. It’s OK with him.” My football career had been decided for me.

 So, after cleaning out my locker, my next stop was the local newspaper office to unravel the mystery of journalism and to unleash my talents on this new opportunity.

 My first meeting with the Sports Editor was on a Friday afternoon. He was the prototypical reporter—overweight, unshaven, chain-smoking and no-nonsense. His desk was strewn with paper. Clutter and chaos seemed to be the forces that held the place together.

 He did not have time for many pleasantries after hello, and we dove right into the operations of the cumbersome Graflex Speed Graphic camera, slides and battery pack I would have to tote along the sidelines. A clipboard loaded with yellow copy paper was easy to handle, but the prize awaiting my first assignment was my very own Press Card. Here was my ticket to the big-time. I now had access to the sidelines. Front-row seats wherever I went. The smell of a sweat-soaked football helmet and the cramping of interminable bus rides were but distant wistful memories.

 My first journalistic assignment was to cover a game between two local high school rivals. Off I went, camera, clipboard and Press Card prominently displayed. I took as many photos as I could; spelled players’ names as best I could; recorded the events and comments of the players and coaches as best I could. I had no idea what journalism was supposed to be like, so I reasoned that volume was a good start.

 After the game, I hauled my bounty back to the newspaper as fast as I could, but it was still well after 10 p.m. by the time I got there. Still learning the ropes, I was shown where to deposit the camera for film developing, and then where to sit and write my story.

 Eagerly, I grabbed pencil and paper and began writing the account of that epic battle between two gridiron giants who showed no quarter and…. Suddenly, by my shoulder, the Sports Editor loomed and boomed, “What the heck are you doing?”

“Writing my story,” I said. He scooped up my copy paper and pencils and threw them into the trashcan and, in the same motion, deposited a well-worn Smith-Corona in front of me.

 “Journalists type,” he said matter-of-factly.

 “But, I don’t know how to type,” I weakly protested.

 “Tonight, you learn,” was all he said on his way back to his own desk pile.

 As arguing didn’t seem advisable, I began hunting and pecking and re-hunting and re-pecking to the point where I had amassed about a page and a half of readable copy—and it took only to 3 a.m.! Proudly, I handed it in.

 After a quick look, the Editor said: “That will do. Go home and get some sleep.”

 Of course, I slept past noon that Saturday and, when I finally awoke, I ran outside to grab the paper from its afternoon delivery.

 And, there it was—on the first page of the Sports section—a picture that I took and a three-column story underneath it that touted: by Bill Cowles, Sports Reporter.

 I read that story in record time. Then I went back and read it slowly, savoring the language—the powerful adjectives, the vivid metaphors, and the colorful descriptions. I read it a third time when I finally realized that not a word of the article was mine. NOT A WORD. My version was so bad that he had to rewrite the entire story. Still, he put my byline on it. Moreover, he and I were the only ones who knew. He never told anyone.

 I worked for him for two years. He wrote me a recommendation letter for college. He sponsored me in a local writing competition. He furnished much of the editorial material for the paper when I won that competition. He wrote job recommendations for me after I graduated from college.

 He was the best boss I ever had because he was one of the wisest people I have ever known. He knew what I had given up to work for him. He knew that I did not know anything about his craft. He knew that I would work hard. He knew that I would learn more from getting the credit for a great story I did not write, than from suffering the ridicule and blame for a bad story I did write.

 He taught me to be a pretty good writer, and he taught me how to work with people. Give the credit; take the blame—skills that have helped me for a lifetime.

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