When I was about to graduate from Colgate University, in 1980, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. But I also knew that there are no ”normal” career paths in the news business. There are no formal training programs — and newspapers do not send recruiters to college campuses.
So I sent letters to Colgate alumni who worked in journalism. I wasn’t particularly interested in broadcast news, but one of my letters went to Andy Rooney. In his reply, he suggested that I start my career at a newspaper or magazine — which is what I did. But the really memorable thing about his letter was the paper it was written on. It looked and felt like toilet paper.
I remember wondering: where did he find such a broad piece of toilet paper?
And: how the heck did he manage to feed this flimsy thing through his typewriter?
Actually, the words were also memorable. Have you ever noticed that when some people write letters, they use big, complicated words — words they never use in conversation? They end up sounding not like themselves at all. It probably won’t surprise anyone here that this was not true of Andy Rooney.
Here’s how his letter began: ”I could hardly avoid replying to an unemployed college student who already has his own personalized embossed stationery.”
Those words explain the paper he used for his letter. However, while my stationery was personalized, I don’t think it was embossed. It was what Colgate’s print shop turned out for every job-seeking senior in those days. By any standard other than toilet paper, it was not the fancy stuff.
Anyway, I didn’t think about my little correspondence very much until a couple of years later, when I came across one of Andy’s many books. The book had been created from a collection of his newspaper columns — and I happened to notice that one of them was about a letter he had received from a job-seeking college student.
Here’s how the column began: ”Today I got a letter from a young man graduating from college, and he had his own stationery with his name and address embossed on it. Classy for a kid out of work, isn’t it? He told me he had written for his college newspaper, and majored in economics.”
Andy’s column went on to say that the letter writer had, as part of his pitch, gotten rather carried away in praising ”60 Minutes.” I was pretty sure that I would not have gone to self-defeating extremes to say nice things about ”60 Minutes.” But I also thought the letter writer in question was probably me. The timing, my economics major, and the embossed paper thing all pointed in that direction.
Not long after that, I decided that journalism might not be what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so I went back to school to get an M.B.A. A few days after I finished my first year at business school, I went to Colgate for my fifth reunion. Andy was also there, and when I saw him walking across a soccer field, I decided that it might be fun to have a little chat about that column.
I didn’t get very far. As soon as I said something about ”exaggerating,” he cut me off and asked what I was doing these days. Those bushy eyebrows were arched and his face was all scowl and skepticism, so I did not just say I was going to business school. I told him I was going to Harvard Business School.
I should have known that wouldn’t get me very far. Andy roared: ”It sounds like you’re unemployed!”
I didn’t know whether he was annoyed by my insolence. Or that I had left journalism. Or maybe he was annoyed by the simple fact of my joblessness. Andy, after all, had already been working for a very long time, and unemployment — that was clearly not his thing.
So with that last thought in mind, I then tried to tell him about the summer job I had lined up at Goldman Sachs. Surprise, surprise, that didn’t work out very well either.
And by then Andy had clearly had enough of me. As he started walking away, I heard: ”It still sounds like you’re unemployed!”
Years later, I changed my mind again and returned to journalism. I became a reporter at The Wall Street Journal and at one point it was my job to cover journalism itself. One day I called Andy to tell him I was going to Bosnia to write a story about how Stars and Stripes was covering the war there. It turns out that the newspaper that gave Andy his start has been a pretty good paper for most of its existence. Even though its reporters are paid by the Pentagon, Stars and Stripes was breaking big stories in Bosnia and challenging the military establishment on a regular basis.
My article ended up running on the front page — and Andy liked it. He even sent me a letter. I have every reason to think it passed through the same Underwood No. 5 that he used for that other letter. But this one was typed on much sturdier stock. In fact, as I think about it now, I believe it was embossed.
G. Bruce Knecht is the author of ”The Proving Ground: The Inside Story of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race.”