Monday, July 7, 2008

Roger the rock

Former Observer copy editor Fred Vultee, now a professor at Wayne State, wrote this tribute to Roger Mikeal for Roger's going-away page after 39 years at The Observer. Fred, who continues to edit us from afar here, said we could share.

John Updike already wrote my favorite Roger Mikeal story, except that he wrote it when Ted Williams retired. What Updike remembered was not necessarily how Williams played in the spotlight, but how he played "on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill."

Stories about Roger are like that. They're less about who's on first or what's a trend than about whether things we've decided to do are going to be done well or ill.They're about Roger reminding the religion editor that the history of religion didn't begin with the Second Temple. Or Roger reminding the city desk that the stylebook doesn't have a separate entry for First Names on Second Reference in Stories By Writers of Staggering Genius. Or Roger making sure that every story passes under the right number of eyes before it goes off to print.

Given his clock skills, you'd think Roger's favorite athletic figure would be Dean Smith. I'm not sure Roger even has a favorite athletic figure (although if the world is ever held at gunpoint and threatened with execution unless someone can spell "Krzyzewski," Roger is the guy I want in the hot seat). Roger has favorite poets (Gary Snyder), favorite Eastern philosophers and favorite guitarists. He is alleged to have roomed with a 19-toed mandolin genius while at State. He not only knows whether Travis picking should be hyphenated, he can do a fairly good job of it (the picking, I mean; nobody's ever questioned his hyphenation skills).

That might make Roger sound like a renaissance man of detail (like knowing whether "Renaissance man" is capitalized). He is. But like Ted Williams, he also manages to be in the middle of things when the home team needs some runs in a hurry. So here is a true Roger story.

It was the Saturday before July Fourth (or the Fourth of July), 1994. Roger was not only on vacation but attending the wedding of one of his sons. USAir set one down a little too hard in a microburst out at the airport, killing some three dozen people.

People converged on the newsroom, whether they were called in or not. It was suggested that Roger might not even hear of the crash until the next day. It was pointed out that calling Roger would be really tacky.

And then it was noted that either Gene Kelly was in town or somebody else had just shown up at the desk wearing a tuxedo.

That's how Roger won an Oscar for Best-Dressed Slotting of a Disaster Story. Until there's a Pulitzer category for lifetime achievement in running a copy desk, it's the best we can do.

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