Daniel Ruth: A co-worker who thought he was a penguin, and other things I'll remember

One highlight of a 46-year-career for newspaper man Daniel Ruth, right, was winning the Pulitzer prize for editorial writing in 2013 with Tim Nickens, left, editor of editorials. [Times files (2013)]
One highlight of a 46-year-career for newspaper man Daniel Ruth, right, was winning the Pulitzer prize for editorial writing in 2013 with Tim Nickens, left, editor of editorials. [Times files (2013)]
Published October 24 2018
Updated October 24 2018

And I was just getting the hang of this, too.

Somehow it seems fitting since I began this ink-stained calling writing under the masthead of the Tampa Tribune that I would end my 46-year daily journalism career under the same banner — with a few stops in between.

I always thought I would drop dead at the keyboard after writing something suitably snarky about some dim-bulb politician. In fact, I almost did once. But the journalism gods had other plans.

Still, I am a fortunate soul. I've had a very good run in this business. I can honestly say over decades spent in newsrooms that I could literally count on less than one hand the number of mornings I've awakened and thought to myself, "Oh cripes, I have to go to work today."

This has never been work. My press pass has been a license to perpetual adolescence. And I pulled it off for 46 years.

Over all that time I've had the great good luck to travel the world, cover interesting stories, meet fascinating people, witness history and play with the language. I've covered life and death, victories and defeats, high drama and low hilarity, too. I've interviewed pols and movie stars. I've bent elbows with the late, great Chicago icon Mike Royko. I've been given the freedom to write what I want, the way I wanted. In this racket, it doesn't get any better than that.

If you do this long enough you get the opportunity to sometimes make a bit of a difference. I've helped put people in jail and get others out. I've exposed rank stupidity on the part of feckless office holders and been inspired by tremendous grace under fire by those who bucked the system.

There are war stories aplenty. Interesting perhaps to me, but probably stultifying to you.

More than anything, what I already know is what I'll miss the most about this business. It's the people. Newsrooms are endlessly insane, idiosyncratic, profane, interesting places filled with bright, funny, curious, invigorating people.

I often tell the story of my first days at the Chicago Sun-Times when I discovered I was working alongside a man who believed he was a reincarnated penguin. Think about that.

Not a business in the country would ever hire someone who thought they were a reincarnated penguin. But a newspaper would — because he was still good at his job.

Though jobs are shrinking in my business, there is still room for eccentricity, for the odd character, the iconoclast. They are the lifeblood of newsrooms, although the blood is a bit anemic these days.

I worry about the future of this craft — the loss of institutional memory, the uncertain fate of so many young and very talented journalists embarking on a career in newspapers. We need them more than ever. This community needs them. Our democracy needs them.

Am I disappointed to have this particular chapter in my life come to a close? You better believe it. But I'm hardly bitter.

Ten years ago, I was laid off at the slowly imploding Tampa Tribune. I thought then, at 59, not only was my trade vanishing, but my future job prospects were non-existent.

But the then St. Petersburg Times rescued me. Thanks to Chairman Paul Tash, Editorial Pages Editor Tim Nickens and Executive Editor Neil Brown, I was given the opportunity to extend my hen-scratchings another 10 years. It's been a gift and and honor to contribute to these pages.

I'm not going entirely away. Starting next month, I will be writing a monthly column for the Op-Ed page.

To those who have been kind enough to offer generous words of support for my columns — thank you for being there and for your readership. And to those who, shall we say, are not exactly satisfied customers, well, I never liked you all that much either.

At least we have that much in common.