Tim Woodward

My ‘baptism by fire’ with Ken Robison

Ken Robison
Ken Robison Idaho Statesman file

When they read the news of Ken Robison’s passing, most people recalled his many years of service as an Idaho state legislator. I remembered him as one of my early bosses.

Robison, who died recently following a long illness, served one term as a state senator and nine as a state representative. He was best known for championing conservation causes and education funding, and was a leader of the campaign to give homeowners the property-tax exemption we still enjoy today.

Before he was a legislator, Robison spent a decade as the Idaho Statesman’s editorial page editor. His appearance reminded me a bit of an absent-minded professor — loosened tie, shirttail hanging out, a preoccupied expression that suggested weighty thoughts.

There was nothing absent-minded about his work, however. He was a meticulous researcher whose knowledge of tax codes, land use, the environment and other public issues was encyclopedic. His editorials won national awards for conservation writing and were instrumental in building support for protection of the White Clouds, designation of the River of No Return Wilderness (now the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness) and ending construction of dams on the Snake River.

This was the illustrious figure who, toward the end of his journalistic career, took on a rookie editorial writer as his assistant. My background included a brief stint as the Statesman’s Canyon County Bureau reporter, several years of covering Boise and Ada County government and a few months writing a personal column. Journalistic wisdom of the time had it that if you could think but couldn’t write, they made you an editorial writer. If you could write but couldn’t think, they made you columnist. As both, I was something of an oddity — one about to receive a baptism by fire.

I’d been Robison’s assistant for a week when he announced that he was going on vacation.

For a month! He would be spending it in a remote stretch of back country. There would be absolutely no way of reaching him in case of a problem. The editorial page would be mine for four weeks — four times the total amount of my experience as an editorial writer.

And I’d be doing it without an assistant. Looking back, it’s hard not to wonder whether his decision to acquire an assistant, something he’d never previously done, was based at least in part on his desire to take an extended vacation.

It wasn’t just a matter of writing editorials. The editor (acting editor in my case) had to do the editorial page layouts, choose the columns that would be on the page, handle letters to the editor and field complaints, which, given my lack of experience, were likely to be numerous.

Page layouts weren’t a problem. You blocked out spaces for the editorials, the editorial cartoon, a column or two and the letters to the editor, hoped your measurements were accurate or, if they weren’t, that the composing-room denizens who pasted up the pages would help make the necessary changes. Normally a cantankerous bunch, they took pity on me and did.

Writing the editorials was a challenge, especially when my opinion conflicted with those of the other editorial board members. A case in point was an editorial endorsing capital punishment. I was the only one on the board who was against it. A week or so after it was published, a letter to the editor called it “the most left-handed endorsement I’ve ever read.” I was rather proud of that.

Surprisingly, there were few complaints — not counting the guy who screamed at me that it was my job to fight for his unprintable letter to the editor. He was later arrested for indecent exposure.

The proudest achievement of my time as acting editor was getting Mike Royko’s column on the editorial page. The late Chicago columnist was one of the smartest, wittiest columnists of the time.

I also tried to get Russell Baker’s column, but for that the Statesman would have had to buy the entire New York Times wire service. Baker was a marvelous columnist and the author of an autobiography that won the Pulitzer Prize. Not long after my stint as acting editor, I received a letter from him thanking me for my failed attempt to get his column and adding that if we’d bought the Times wire just for that, “it might have been enough to get me a $10 raise around here.”

Robison dropped Royko’s column not long after returning from his adventure in the wilds. A serious man with lofty goals, he didn’t think it was a fit for his editorial page.

Disappointed as I was, it took nothing away from my admiration for him. He was a brilliant, driven journalist with a long and distinguished record of fighting for the environment and the little guy. No rookie editorial writer ever had a better role model.

Even if he did take long vacations.

Wall ride postponed

The Ride to the Wall Benefit scheduled for Veterans Day, a subject of this column in June, has been postponed.

The purpose of the Ride to the Wall Foundation, begun by late rock-and-roll icon Paul Revere and Boisean Larry Leasure, is to help needy veterans. The benefit, featuring singer-songwriter Pinto Bennett and my group, the Mystics, was to have been at a venue that initially offered the space for free but then raised the price to four figures plus a guaranteed, four-figure minimum in drink sales.

So much for philanthropy.

The plan now is to postpone it until Jan. 7, Revere’s birthday. Funds raised will go toward opening a Paul Revere House for homeless veterans. They could stay there for up to a year while they got back on their feet.

The musicians are donating their time, and it would be nice to think that there’s a concert/dance venue in Boise that’s more interested in helping our veterans than in making a buck.

If you know of such a place, please email me at the address below.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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