No one who ever met him forgot Gordon Peterson.
His appearance was roughly equal parts cowboy and aging hippie — full beard, white hair cascading over his shoulders, Western shirt, cowboy hat. He was known on occasion to wear chaps. His look was somewhere between those of Neil Young and Buffalo Bill. If you didn’t know him and saw him on the street, you might have given him a wide berth.
If you did know him, you knew that wasn’t necessary. His appearance was arresting, his demeanor curmudgeonly, but lurking under the cowboy exterior were a good heart and a rare intelligence. He was smart, principled, perceptive. His knowledge was encyclopedic, his commitment to excellence uncompromising.
Peterson, who died this month at 79, was a longtime Statesman copy editor until he retired more than a decade ago. In the predigital age, which covered the bulk of his career, copy editors worked nights at a large, shared desk shaped like a circle. The circumference was the “rim,” the center the “slot.” Editors working on the rim edited stories, wrote headlines for them and sent them to the editor in the center, the “slot man.” The slot man was the last stop on a story’s way to being set in type, the last line of defense against errors. Peterson was an editor/slot man extraordinaire. If a mistake made it into the paper, the odds were good that it wasn’t on his watch.
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Former Statesman reporter and editor Tom Knappenberger, now of Vancouver, Wash., recalls his introduction to the newsroom and “an ‘older’ man dressed in a cowboy hat, vest, jeans and boots, with a silver keychain dangling from his belt. He had long white hair and a white beard, yellowed by the nicotine of countless cigarettes. ‘Is that the janitor?’ I asked. ‘No,’ came the reply. ‘That’s the chief copy editor.’ ”
He came by the cowboy look honestly. He rode bucking horses in his youth, and prior to his long Statesman career he was editor of the Tombstone Epitaph, the newspaper that covered Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. They were before his time, of course, but even then — perhaps especially then — his attire wouldn’t have been out of place.
Like all of us who worked with him, Knappenberger came to know Peterson as a mentor, confidant and friend. The crusty slot man who quickly became one of my mentors was the first person I met after being hired as the Statesman’s new Canyon County reporter in 1971.
“You get the job?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, flushed with success.
“How much they paying you?”
He tactfully refrained from laughing when told my starting salary.
“Did the boss pause for about 10 seconds after telling you what you’d be making?” he asked.
“Yes ... now that you mention it, he did!”
“That was your chance to complain. If you had, you’d have gotten another 10 bucks a week.”
Former copy desk denizen Tom Menzel, now of the Seattle area, recalled that on meeting Peterson, “He scared the hell out of me. But then he started talking, warmly and slowly, defying all appearances. Gordon was the boss of the English language — one of us but still very much in charge. I quickly knew I had a lot to learn from this character.”
As we all did. Among other things, he was a master grammarian. Time and again, reporters’ stories were returned with their mistakes noted. I learned more from Peterson than anyone else about correct usage.
A long-ago column about Japanese balloon-bomb attacks during World War II comes to mind. I wrote that some picnickers in Oregon were “the only war casualties on U.S. soil.” Peterson gently reminded me that there were “a few during the Revolutionary and Civil wars.”
Al Bunch, who worked on the copy desk with Gordon before running his own newspaper in Alaska, knew him as a demanding boss who worked hard and played hard.
“He asked me one night if a page had moved (gone from the copy desk to production). I said I thought it had. His response was, ‘Dammit, Bunch, we don’t pay you to think. We pay you to know.’ He was also the only boss I ever had who’d come to my house and drink up all my whiskey.”
There was, in those days, still an element of truth to the stereotype of the hard-drinking newsman. Peterson liked Jack Daniel’s and Black Russians, and if they weren’t available, he liked whatever was. There was a rumor in the old days that someone on the copy desk kept a bottle in a desk drawer — strictly against company policy — for emergency use when things got crazy. I never knew for sure who it was or whether it was true, but my money was on Gordon.
That’s not to imply that he was a drunk or that he let drinking — or anything else — get in the way of doing his best work. In Menzel’s words, he was “calm and cool” under deadline pressure, “working toward perfection, helping his charges do the same. Gordon Peterson was a treasure — a gentle but demanding teacher, a perfectionist without pretension, a unique man who never seemed to change.”
It was a sad day at the Statesman when he retired because of a medical condition that caused occasional blackouts — “spells,” as he called them — and kept him from driving to work from his home in Emmett. He lived on Frozen Dog Road. Even his address was colorful.
Menzel is correct in saying that he never seemed to change. He looked the same the last time I saw him, sipping a mint julep at a Kentucky Derby party last year, as he did on the day I met him half a lifetime ago, dispensing advice on how to make an extra 10 bucks a week.
Behind the cowboy garb and crusty demeanor were a sharp wit and piercing intellect, a rare breadth of knowledge, and a commitment to make each day’s newspaper the best it could be. We couldn’t have had a better last line of defense, a better teacher or a more unforgettable friend.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.