“Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play.”
This classic joke obviously refers to Mary Todd Lincoln’s response after her husband Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at the Ford Theater.
It is also a joke long-time Great Bend Tribune City Editor Chuck Smith appreciated. He had a twisted sense of humor, what it takes to survive in this grueling and thankless news business for nearly four decades.
That joke also has a certain sting this day.
Chuck died Thursday afternoon. A heart attack claimed this dedicated journalist while he mowed his lawn.
There is some sort of irony there, but I’m not sure what it is.
I’ve been in this news game for over 25 years and it was over 25 years ago, as a green cub reporter fresh out of Fort Hays State University, that I landed my first reporting job at the Tribune.
I was hired by the late, great Trib Editor Bob Fairbanks, the same Bob Fairbanks that had hired Chuck about 10 years earlier as a greenhorn out of the University of Kansas.
My first job was as an area reporter, covering many of the outlying areas surrounding Barton County. Chuck was the area editor and we shared one of those old-fashioned partner’s desks. He was a mentor who guided this young, misguided reporter through the early, formative years of my career.
I learned news judgement from this pipe-smoking, fedora-capped man. I learned hard-bitten cynicism from him as well.
After a few years, I found what I thought were greener pastures. But, as the story goes, they weren’t so green.
To make a long story short (the sign of a good newsman, and another lesson Chuck imparted to me years ago), I wound up back in Great Bend, this time as managing editor.
Chuck still wore his ubiquitous hats but had kicked the pipe habit.
The years had weighed heavy on Chuck. Life had weighed heavy on Chuck.
But, none the less, he continued to bang out copy day in and day out. He even had a special chair in the Great Bend City Council chambers. He had covered the area, the crime beat and, most recently, covered the council and the Barton County Commission.
I continued to learn from this man and caught myself on many occasions seeking his wise, and often sarcastic, counsel.
Chuck came up through this business from the days of typewriters and film cameras. He reluctantly moved along with times as computers and the digital age took over newspapers.
Over those decades, he became a fixture at events and in the community. In many ways, he was the face of the Tribune – constant, reliable, accurate, and always conscious of the feelings and emotions of those we cover. A journalistic ethical compass, if you will.
He took over the editorial page, making it as interactive as possible. He made room for as many reader letters as he could shoe-horn in.
He angered some with the views expressed in his editorials. He enlightened some. Some actually agreed with him.
You’ve got to have a thick skin in this business. The hate mail comes often and the praise seldom. Chuck had gotten to the time in his career where, perhaps, years of this had beaten him down some.
He did, however, receive the State Forester Award at a ceremony in Wichita Wednesday. The statewide honor was in recognition of his efforts to cover pine wilt and the blight’s impact on the area.
He joked about it, but this was a big deal.
Dammit, he and I always mused that we would be in journalism until, one day, someone would come in and find us dead, slumped over our keyboards. Oh well, I guess a lawn mower will work just as well as anything.
I banged this column out in between banging out stories on the Adam Longoria murder trial. All of us here were butt-deep in getting out Friday’s issue. Deadlines leave little time for contemplating death. I’m sure, as time wears on, we will be allowed to feel more and ponder more, grieve more over what happened this day.
Chuck’s last byline appeared in the Thursday issue of the Tribune. His future bylines will be deeply missed, as will he.
Dale Hogg is the managing editor of the Great Bend Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.