Tribute to a mentor who sweated every word
It was midafternoon July 19, 1989, when the phone rang on the Metro/Iowa Desk of the Des Moines Register. One of the Register’s many tipsters around Iowa had heard emergency radio traffic that a passenger jet in trouble was being rerouted to Sioux City.
Over about the next 45 minutes, we got steady updates as rescue vehicles scrambled to the runways at Sioux Gateway Airport and our stringers heard radio transmissions about “United Airlines 232 Heavy … [with] almost no control ability … We can only turn right.”
At 4 p.m., I took a call from Sioux City broadcast journalist Al Joens that the plane, en route from Denver to Chicago “was on the ground and burning.”
We would learn that incredible heroism had occurred in the air above northwest Iowa. A catastrophic engine failure had sliced hydraulic lines of the DC-10, forcing the crew to improvise a way to control the plane’s thrust manually. Their efforts saved 184 of the 296 people aboard.
In the newsroom of the Register, Randy Evans, the Metro/Iowa editor, had already dispatched reporters by car and private plane to Sioux City, 190 miles away by road. A reporter and photographer were on the way to an area where debris had been reported on the ground. In the office, reporters were getting safety records, compiling lists of past Iowa crashes and creating the foundation for a historic paper. While the plane still was in the air, Evans told me to call hotels near the airport to reserve a half-dozen rooms for our reporters and photographers. “How did he think of that?” I thought.
He knew the national media would be on the way and would occupy every available inch of space.
Evans was a general in command of a newsgathering army, and over the coming days — as we heard of L.A. Times reporters sleeping in the airport concourse — he performed tirelessly and brilliantly.
As he always did. Four years later, when floods swamped the city’s water plant, electricity was out and fire trucks supplied generator power for a Saturday night press run, he sat on a curb dialing an early mobile phone by flashlight to advise the managing editor, “We have a problem.” Over the next 12 days while the city had no municipal water, Evans led thorough and creative coverage, always clear in his directions and uncompromising in his expectations.
He could be tough but was always able to keep his humor and charm those around him.
“Tickle those tans,” he would say to a feature writer, referring to the color of the keys on our computers at the time.
“He couldn’t hit the broadside of a bull’s butt with a banjo,” the lifelong Cardinals fan might say of a Chicago Cub.
“When I was a reporter, they called me the Rifleman,” he’d tell young writers, “because my stories were always on Page M16.” (The Register’s Metro/Iowa section was the M section, and, yes, it would have 16 or 20 pages sometimes back then.)
When my son, about 7 years old, called in on the first day of Des Moines’ curbside recycling program to say that our bin hadn’t been picked up by 7 p.m., Evans sent him a $5 check for the news tip.
Randy, who was my direct supervisor for the first 13 of the 18 years I worked at the Register — longer than I’ve had any other boss in my working life — retired Friday as editorial page editor. His beloved Register, his native Iowa and American journalism are less for it.
The Glenwood Springs Post Independent, to the extent that you might like some of what I do here, is better for his legacy, though.
Evans cared about every word, perhaps to the point of being excessively thorough, often staying to polish Sunday stories until 3 a.m. or even longer as Friday nights spilled into Saturdays. He fretted seemingly as much over second place in cake decorating at the State Fair as he did over an interview we once had with Mikhail Gorbachev. It all was expected to be excellent.
He was able to profusely praise a writer for a story that approached literature and curl the same person’s toenails with invective over grammatical errors. (“If you keep doing this, I’m going to come up there and unscrew your ears and …” — I’m not going to finish that particular threat he delivered to a bureau reporter one night. I thought about it the other day, though, when I sent a staffer a comparatively gentle note about noun-pronoun disagreement.)
I have never met anyone who worked harder or cared more. He left no loose ends.
Evans modeled a passion for getting it right and getting to the root of the truth that characterized a great era of journalism.
It’s harder now, as is the case with many industries battered and spread thin by economic and technological change. I can promise you that every day, though, Randy Evans’ standards are in my head. Every punctuation mark that’s not right, every story that lacks context, every question we didn’t think of asking nags at me.
When I was his night city editor, Evans actually went home sometimes before my shift was over.
“Don’t (screw) it up,” he was fond of saying as he left.
All these years later, I’m working to meet those expectations — the gold standard of journalism.
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.
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