Reeve Hennion, the best boss I ever had, died in Oregon on Labor Day.
When I learned of his passing, I told the others I was with about the patient and inspiring leader who was my first editor. They came back with their own stories about bosses who have inspired and mentored them in their careers.
Good bosses are important to all of us, and I've had many. Together they have taught me how to ask others to make a sacrifice without sacrificing my compassion or their dignity. I got my first and best management lessons from Reeve.
He was chief of United Press International's Honolulu bureau where I began in journalism in 1971. UPI executive Dick Litfin arranged my hiring as a favor to my father, a long-time UPI client. When I arrived, I had written all of three stories for my college paper. Reeve had to have been disappointed when he found his four-person office saddled with a rank beginner. But he came up with a plan.
I learned of this when Reeve scheduled himself, me and Dan Carmichael to work a night shift together. Dan was a talented college student working occasional relief shifts at the bureau. Reeve announced that night he had just received budget authority to hire Dan full time. Honolulu was to become a five-person bureau — temporarily.
"I called Dick Litfin and told him if I'm going to run a journalism school, I want two students," Reeve said, looking right at me.
Lesson No. 1: A good boss improvises.
I was overwhelmed by this job for quite a while. The nuts and bolts were gathering copy from local papers, foreign wire feeds, government agencies and phone calls and then rewriting it all for news broadcasts on Hawaii radio stations. A UPI rewrite person was expected to churn out 1,000 words an hour. Reeve once produced 50 rewrites — weather reports, police briefs, radio headline packages, "brights" and two-paragraph radio briefs — fifty of these in half a shift.
Lesson No. 2: A good boss excels at the basics.
I was a talented but slow writer in Reeve's judgment. And although he praised me for being quick to pick up the technicalities of teletypes and other equipment, I made innumerable errors. Clients complained. Unipressers were a proud bunch, fighting a losing battle against The Associated Press. My mistakes demoralized everyone in the office. One day, after I hashed up a correction, senior staffer Ed Inouye blew up and let Reeve know that "the new guy" wasn't working out.
Reeve called me out of the office. I was humiliated and offered my resignation.
"If Ed were going to quit, I'd be in a fix," said Reeve. "But he's not going to quit. So I want you to keep trying. You'll get better."
Lesson No. 3: A good boss lets you know where you stand.
The Honolulu bureau needed to produce feature stories — tales of life in our tropical islands. So I was assigned a story about how silt and mud from home-building was killing the coral reef in Kaneohe Bay. I found a professor at the University of Hawaii who had proposed erosion regulations for construction sites. It took me three weeks (much too long) to produce the first draft, and it was really nothing more than a dull cribbing from the professor's paper.
Reeve literally winced as he read it, but this is all he said: "You need to work on the lead (the first paragraph), and you need to show the reader what's at stake."
When I gave him a blank stare, he asked whether I'd ever driven over the Pali Highway. I recalled that as you leave the tunnel at the summit, you get a gorgeous view of Kaneohe Bay: The coral is iridescent blue and green in the intense, tropical light. Around the edges of the bay, I had seen muddy water and gray, dying coral.
"Put that high in the story."
It took another week but Reeve pronounced the final draft "worth the wait," and the New York bureau put my story on the international wire. Newspapers in Japan and the Philippines picked it up.
Lesson No. 4: A good boss asks for your best effort.
In the end, I think Reeve showed me it comes down to this: A good boss will forgive a mistake but never excuse one.
Note: Marty Weybret is a native of La Grande, and publisher of the Lodi News-Sentinel in California. He rode in his ninth Cycle Oregon, which passed by Reeve Hennion's home at Buncom near Jacksonville on Sept. 18.