"You have the second-best job in the building. I have the best one."
That's what the experienced sports editor told the new writer fresh out of college. And though I've re-enacted the scene with new members of my staff, the first time I heard that quote, I was on the other side of the conversation.
Dennis Grall (heretofore referred to solely as 'Denny') was my first boss at the Daily Press in Escanaba. He told me that on my first day, and I know he still believes it, which is why I was so surprised to hear him tell me he was retiring this summer.
I've come to the conclusion that the Monday after my Central Michigan University commencement was the luckiest day of my life thus far. I was there to interview for a news job, but mid-interview, I was asked, "Our number two sports guy just gave us his two weeks notice today. Are you interested?"
In the process, I got a job in my field, in the U.P., and got to be an apprentice under someone with 38 years of experience at the Daily Press alone.
Though he has played almost every golf course in the Upper Peninsula, given the relative distance between Escanaba and Houghton, you may not have seen or met him. However, you've seen his work in our paper on several occasions and you've seen his style in this paper every day, because much of what I've learned in this business thus far has come from him.
Early on, the lessons were pretty simple: how to take a basketball coach call (the only difference between his style and mine is that I add first names) or the uselessness of the word 'that' in any story.
I also learned that there's no such thing as an ex-Marine. Denny served in Vietnam, earning two Purple Hearts, and he brought from that a remarkably meticulous sense of organization. I try to replicate some of it with my basketball scoring spreadsheets and little things I do around the office. However, I remain so far behind on matching it that, when I go down to Esky for his retirement party next week, I may attempt to steal his file cabinets.
In the 20 months I spent in Escanaba, I also learned the value of relationships - there's three reasons I like to take the assignment when teams from Delta County play in the Copper Country. First, I want to make sure I see as many players from around the U.P. as I can to be an informed All-U.P. voter (another thing I learned from Denny).
Second, because I want to make sure my friends down there get to read me once in a while and that my old paper gets the best we can send them.
Third, because the working relationships I built with the coaches down there are important enough that it's like catching up with an old friend when I run into Esky hoops coaches Kelly O'Connell or Tracy Hudson or Gladstone athletic director Matt Houle, to name a few.
Denny might not seem like the patient sort, but he put up with a rookie like me doing all of the following: 1. beaching my car in a snowbank at the entrance to the employee parking lot, blocking it for everyone; 2. a classic April Fool's joke in which I had convinced him a Major League Soccer expansion team was going to play at Lambeau Field and 3: a 7-iron I shanked off the inside of the windshield of his golf cart.
Forgiving, yes. Forgetting, no. I expect light mocking about any and all of these foibles many more times and I probably deserve it. But if he was as difficult a person as he sometimes jokes he is, it wouldn't be that three of the six U.P. daily sports editors were DP alumni.
Maybe the ultimate test is this: I've reflexively started so many stories with "When I was at the Daily Press, Denny did..." that my coworkers mock me for it.
So, enjoy your retirement, Denny. It's got to be worth it to give up the best job in the building.
The Red Line will return on Aug. 2. Brandon Veale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/redveale.