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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

How it all began ...

The Fourth of July was a Wednesday in 1984. That night, I spent it watching the fireworks go off in the parking lot of the Ocean County Mall in my hometown of Toms River, N.J. It was me and my sister, I was 17, she was 13. We were watching and my friend Jerry Gravante just happened to be passing through where we stood in the parking lot watching the fireworks go off.

It had been 18 days since I saw Jerry when we were both invited to our classmate Kirsten's graduation party at her house and 19 days since he and I graduated from Toms River High School East.

"What are you doing this summer?" I asked Jerry.

"I'm working here and there, getting ready for college," he said back as he, like me, was about to go off to nearby Ocean County College.

Neither of us knew what the future had in store. I didn't ask him what he was doing in the next 24 hours, but I sure as hell knew what I was going to be doing.

For the first time in my life, I was going to ride into downtown Toms River and find myself a job. And I only had one place in mind to go. The previous two years, I had been a student of our local high school paper, The Raider Readout, and was the features page co-editor as well as a writer on various different topics in my senior year. For as prepared as I was to go downtown and apply for a job at the local newspaper, though, I was still not professional enough to believe I could hang with the "big boys and girls."

But I remembered a couple of things. First, we all had an assignment to ask someone from the local media to come in and address the class on a career in journalism, whether it be print, radio or television. My guest was a really good guy that I got to work with over the phone at what was called Clear Cable-8 named Joe Ascolese. Joe was a whiz when it came to the technological part of covering news, but he also had a lot of knowledge in front of a camera, too, doing the sports report for that channel as well as the Fall Football Saturday show he co-hosted with a guy named Steve McGullem.

Well I forget who asked them to show up, but on one of these "media" days, the guests were Tony Gallotto and Laine Harmon from the Ocean County Observer. You could not have a more diverse pairing of journalists than we had with this duo. Tony, who was in his early-to-mid 20s, was very outgoing and wasn't afraid to tell it like it is when it came to the news reporting business. Laine was more of a laid-back speaker, who spoke about the dealings of her job, she, too, being honest, but not as outwardly as Tony was.

I grew up around newspapers as a child. My father always brought home copies of the New York Daily News, New York Times and New York Post as well as the two local papers, the Observer, which served solely Ocean County, and The Asbury Park Press, which covered the state, but mostly Ocean and Monmouth counties. As a pre-teen, I learned to have an appreciation of what the feel of a newspaper was all about, the black ink on my hands, the smell of it. We also got The Sporting News in the mail as well. When it was done, the papers were either thrown out (this was long before recycling) or taken downstairs and put into the little storage box next to the fireplace and ready to burn on the cold days downstairs when a fire was needed.

When I got into middle school at Toms River Intermediate School East, I gave journalism a try in the eighth grade. Our after-school advisor was a man named Richard Mina and I enjoyed what he offered. He didn't take the whole "putting a paper out" thing seriously and he was very, very laid back.

In other words, Mr. Mina made the time and process a lot of fun.

When I got to High School East, I was so concentrated on taking my core courses that I waited until my junior year to take journalism. My teacher was Irene Hartmann. I could not have had a better journalism teacher than Mrs. Hartmann. She made us work for everything, but she made it enjoyable and most everything I learned about basic journalism, I learned from her. We grew very close, so much to the point that she, on one occasion, could not make the trip to Avon By-The-Sea to where the newspaper was printed to look at the galleys. So she trusted in both myself and our editor -- my best friend Ted -- to check out the galleys for the April/May edition of the paper.

We were put into a room by the guy in charge of printing the papers and when Ted and I saw the absolutely crappy job done by our two sports editors, Dean and Kristen, where one story that got laid out came up well short of the hole drawn out for it and my feature on the East softball team's sisters, Donna and Kathy van Halem, had plenty of length on it, but wasn't getting in, the four- and seven-letter rampage began.

"How the f*ck do you go through a whole year of this course and NOT know how to properly use a word count?" was one of the things Ted ranted. "This is an absolutely f*ckin' sh*tty job!"

I stood there next to him, somewhere between angry, upset and just disappointed. He knew ... and I knew ... that Dean had just not given a crap anymore about senior year and now it was obvious that he had neglected even doing this page properly with a young lady who was a junior and wanted to take this course -- and her job -- seriously. We had no choice but redo the page ourselves there and when we got it done, we got the story that came up short to fit perfectly and got more of my story in with the picture of the two van Halem sisters.

And we had no choice but to tell Mrs. Hartmann about why it took a little longer to look at all four folio pages. She was disappointed, but we left it up to her to handle the matter. We had brought back almost 2,000 copies of the month's paper and had them distributed the next day. And like Mrs. Hartmann always did, she graded out the pages. The front page got an A. The editorial page got a B. The features page that I put out with a junior named Kim got an A as well. Then came the sports page.

The red ink said it all ... an F. Oh, and a note was under that grade.

"Dean, Kristen: See me after class!"

Mrs. Hartmann held a celebration for all her seniors in the journalism class at her Madison Avenue home on our class' Senior Night, which was Friday, June 8, 1984. We celebrated and just had a good time. She also told me that I had the potential to continue what I did for her in her class into college and as a profession and if I ever needed any backing or references, I could just get in touch with her.

Little did she know she helped push me in that direction.

And so, it was now July 5, 1984. It was about 12:30 p.m. on that Thursday. I parked in the garage across the street from the Observer building on Robbins Street, right next to the Ocean County library. I walk up the stairs to the second floor where the newsroom was. It was all the news reporters at that point and a pair of editors who were there at that time. One was a guy named Jim Atkins, who was taking a phone call at the moment. The other was a young lady who had been at the paper for a short time as an editor. Her name was Kerry Brennan.

"Hi, I'm Mark Blumenthal. I called you earlier about coming down for a job interview." 

"Oh, hi there. Nice to meet you. Just take a seat over there and give me a few minutes and I'll be back to you."

Approximately 10 minutes later and after filling out the application I was given, she handed me a test. The test comprised of three scenarios. What I had to do was take all the details presented to me as if I was looking at a police report on the matter. I had to take what I felt was the important part of the reports and craft a short story on each.

There were three sets of notes that went to three different stories. Kerry gave me enough time to do this and so I began. I was working at an empty desk, working next to a guy that just got hired at the paper not too long before named Dave Sommer. He, I would come to find out later, covered southern Ocean County. On a phone behind me I can hear the voice I was familiar with from just a few months earlier. It was Tony Gallotto working on some big story.

I was doing everything I could to work on these stories, while I had to put up with the fact that both Dave and Tony were chain-smoking around me.

Yes, this was the time when smoking was allowed in the newsroom. How I didn't get second-hand smoke from just that afternoon alone still amazes me.

Anyway, I took each of the information on all three stories I had and put them together like it was a jigsaw puzzle, taking the most important item and putting it at the top, all the while remembering that a good lead is written within the first three paragraphs as I learned from Mrs. Hartmann and each has the five Ws and one H -- the who, what, when, where, why and how.

The test took me over 90 minutes to do. I wasn't writing a 15-to-20 inch story. Each "story" I did was about four or five paragraphs, and I had to write them out ... no typewriters or processors. Longhand, baby!

Sometime after 2:30 p.m. I was done with the tests. I handed them back to Kerry, who was still working on the paper and a couple of other things. I waited patiently for about a half hour and remember sitting in my chair at this abandoned desk next to Dave Sommer, talking to him about the business. One thing I would learn about Dave was that he was big on talk about anything. When he wasn't busy, he could talk your ear off.

It was after 2:30 and Kerry had reviewed the three stories I had done for her. She also looked at the application I had filled out.

"The stories are a little wordy, but they have all the elements in there," she said. "They're pretty good."

I figured I could handle the necessary basics of a story, but her affirmation that I did "pretty good" at least made me feel better about myself. Then she asked me what kind of "experience" I had in the business.

"Other than the school newspaper and working for Clear Cable-8, not a whole lot else, Ms. Brennan," I told her back.

I was up for any challenge she wanted to hand me. Whether it was a night meeting of some kind or feature stories or something that involved someone somewhat important in Ocean County, I was up for it. I wanted to do this. I wanted to be a part of reporting on the scene.

She seemed pretty enthused about my enthusiasm. Then I told her the one thing that changed my entire life.

"I have a background with sports." 

I really did at that point. I had done statistics for Toms River East football games, home and away, for Joe and Steve at Cable-8. I had a very strong working knowledge of the District 18 Little League baseball scene from the years I was at Toms River Little League with my dad as a manager. And my two favorite stories I wrote while I was at The Raider Readout were both sports-related -- the feature on the van Halem sisters and a story I had done that winter of '84, traveling with a photographer named Keith to Manchester to meet 92-year-old Abel Kiviat, a decorated Olympian who was a teammate of Jim Thorpe's on the U.S. squad in 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Kerry did not even hesitate -- she walked me over to the sports side of the newsroom, the immediate right of the news desk and right next to the paste-up room. That's where I met a guy named Tom. He was the all-knowing assistant sports editor at the time. And believe me, he was "all-knowing." Just ask him! Tom was working next to a correspondent who had been in the department for a short time named George Hulse. George was not going to be around much longer with the job so in some ways, I was there to replace George for the rest of the summer.

I told Tom that I would be handling all Little League coverage for District 18, which included teams from as far south as Barnegat to as far west as Holbrook of Jackson and as far north as Brick American, Brick National, Point Pleasant Boro and Point Pleasant Beach. I got no arguments from him. As a matter of fact, I think he saw me as a God-send for this stuff.

And sometime after 3 p.m., I left to go back home. Told my mom and dad, who were the ones who said they could not really "support me" anymore and that I was to go find a job, about this job and I think they were excited.

Three days later on Sunday, July 8, I was heading out to Holbrook Little League in Jackson to watch Toms River's Junior League All-Star team, which my dad co-managed with a guy named Terry Flanagan, take on Lakewood. It was a terrific game. Toms River won the game, 6-5, as Jim Lewentowicz went the first five innings to get the win and Jim Houba went the last two innings to finish it up. Mike Wehman, who played for our Royals team during the regular season, was 3-for-4 and Brian Pietrewicz and Ken Lanzel each had two hits. For Lakewood, James Crudup collected three hits, including a two-run homer off Lewentowicz.

So after getting back home by about 6 p.m., I had dinner and then borrowed mom's car to drive to the Observer building, where Tom was waiting for me downstairs. It was about 7 p.m. and I was put into a corner in the nearly abandoned newsroom. For some reason that night, all the details of a 6-5 game weren't coming together quite the way I wanted them to come together. For my 17-year-old mind, fashioning this game story was not coming easily. Maybe I was nervous. I don't think I was. I knew this was going to be my "first published piece." I wanted to make sure I got it right.

I also had to put together two other games under the one I was at. One was a Senior Little League All-Star game that Toms River beat cross-town rival Toms River East, 1-0, in nine innings as Craig Crosby's bad-hop single off the chest of East shortstop Kenny Hoff scored winning pitcher Dave Holey, who was dynamite in going all nine innings, allowing just one hit, walking three and striking out 15. Losing pitcher Chris Wagner also had a heck of a game, allowing four hits, though walking eight and striking out 11. The other game I had to put as part of the roundup was played at Toms River where Holbrook blasted out 17 hits in an 18-4 triumph over Point Boro.

It was almost 9:15 p.m. by the time I finished writing it. I turned it in to Tom with a number that corresponded to the story. Then he hits me with the news I didn't want to hear.

"We're almost done with the paper and there's no room to get your story in. We're going to get it in tomorrow."

Yes. I was dejected. Spent all that time trying to put this story together -- my first story! And now I'm being told it will not go in until the Tuesday, July 10 edition.

And so I went home dejected and miffed, but at least Tom said to come back the next time there were games. That was two nights later. When the paper came to the house on July 10, I was excited to see my story in print. There it was! Everything I wrote the night before was there and edited well by Tom. The headline on top of the story -- "TR victory is a nail-biter'' -- was just fine. All was great.

Then I saw the byline.

"By Mark Blementhal"

Reaaaaaal-ly?! Geez Tom. I know I didn't put my name on the story, but could you have at least asked how my name was spelled before you had the chance to introduce me to the rest of the county?!

I can laugh about it now, but oh, was I embarrassed. That night, I got to watch our Toms River Senior League All-Star team beat Holbrook at Lakewood, by, coincidentally, a 6-5 score. When I got into the building again, I told Tom I had the game I was at and was ready to start writing. At that point, I got hit with a "Waaaaaait!" from a voice I had not heard.

It was not Tom. The man sitting in the slot was the main sports editor, a guy named Ken. After I get a round of "Who are you?" from Ken, I explained to him in not so many words that I was there to report on Little League-related stuff that summer. After he introduced himself to me, I went off to do my thing.

And this went on the whole summer until Little League ball ended on Saturday, August 4 with Brick American losing in Sayreville to Spring Lake-Sea Girt, 6-4, in the Section 3 championship, a game I took my sister with me so we could go get after the game ... White Castle hamburgers! Yup ... we both loved White Castles and any opportunity to pick those burgers up, we did so.

But Ken wanted me to continue on from there. I did Ed Carleton League ball and then Jersey Shore Baseball until early September. He kept me on after that to cover sports during the 1984-85 season.

I never left the building until I took a job as the sports editor of the Key West Citizen in August 1999. By the time I left, I put 15 years and a month into the Observer. 

Hard to believe it's been 30 years since I started. I really didn't know what my future was watching those fireworks go off in the Ocean County Mall parking lot. So much has happened in that time period. I put my career first above everything else in my life and don't regret ever making that decision.

I don't regret ever getting into this business, even if it pays you one step above pauper proportions. Whenever I lamented about the pay, I'd have someone tell me, "You're doing something you love."

And they're right. I am. I don't know what life would be like for me without writing. The 22 awards I've won in the last nine years are affirmation as to making the correct decision.

I can be disappointed with things that have happened to me in my life in the last 30 years -- being fired from the job in Key West under the most dysfunctional of circumstances and being unemployed for 16 months, getting engaged to be married in 2006 and having it broken off months later under a situation that I will never forgive me ex for here in Palatka where I am now working for the Daily News since 2003, and losing two of my biggest fans in this decade -- my last girlfriend Shirlene, who died suddenly at 44 years old in June 2011, then in early 2014, my mother passed away, something I never made public because honestly, I really am not a fan of hearing people tell you, "Sorry for your loss." So save it! I'm not sorry ... I was not cheated out of my life with my mom at all. I don't mourn it, actually.

It's been one heck of a journey these last 30 years. I got to cover a Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Philadelphia in 1996. In 2005, I got to cover Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville. I got to cover most of the home games involving the Jacksonville Jaguars since 2003 and have traveled to cover them in Tampa, Miami and in East Rutherford, N.J. I've done an occasional Florida Gators football game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. I covered both Philadelphia Phillies games in the late 1980s/early 1990s and then occasional Tampa Bay Rays games in St. Petersburg the last six years. I covered the Junior Little League World Series in 1996 and the big one, the Little League World Series twice, first in 1995, then in 1998 when a band of Toms River East American players led by a future Major League Baseball All-Star named Todd Frazier won it all over a team from Kashima, Japan, 12-9

To this day, that is still the greatest moment of my career, hands down.

Simply put, I can not complain. There's no reason to. I've interviewed some amazing professionals like Cal Ripken Jr., Chipper Jones, Torrey Holt and the late Tony Gwynn. I've enjoyed talking with coaches and managers such as Bobby Cox, Tony Dungy, Mike Scioscia and my all-time favorite, Joe Maddon. Then there's dozens and dozens of high school and college athletes I've talked to who have made this job that much more fun. I'd be here all day naming names, so I won't.

The new technology looks like a lot of fun. Someday, I may get to play with that when we're allowed to do so. I don't know what lies ahead for my future in this business. I hope I'm still needed for another 10, 15, 20, maybe 25 more years.

Maybe one day I will write a book. I keep threatening to do so, but then I remember the patience needed to write one -- I easily stop myself. And I'm not very good at making up stuff. It has to be real with real names and real scenarios or bust for me. Maybe I'll write a script on something that happened somewhere in my career -- then I stop myself again because if I mention a name, someone might get upset that I did and sue me.

I can't win.

For now, I'll just continue to do what I do -- write columns and tell stories. It's what I do best.

Mark Blementhal would agree.


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