Ode to a great writer

Thirty-nine years ago this Sunday (July 3, 1972) I started a new job as a reporter for the Lafayette, Indiana Journal and Courier.

July 3 fell on a Monday that year and since it was the day before a national holiday, City Editor Bob Kriebel, who hired me, told me I didn’t have to report for work until Wednesday, July 5.

“If I start on Wednesday will I get paid for the holiday on Tuesday?” I asked. Bob said I wouldn’t. “Then I’ll be there on Monday,” I said.

I was broke.

But there’s no disgrace in being 24 years old and broke. It’s good training for when you have children.

Bob was the first person I met at the newspaper. As editor of the Brazil, Indiana Daily Times I knew I was young and inexperienced and needed to work with people who would teach me the news business that I loved. So I wrote Bob a letter and asked for a job. The Journal and Courier was and is one of the most progressive newspapers in the state.

“This guy is a good writer,” Bob is reported to have said. “But he can’t spell worth a darn.” He would later credit me with being the “worst speller in the state of Indiana.” That was after I wrote a series on cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

This was before computers and spell check and you’d be surprised how many different ways I found to spell cardiopulmonary resuscitation. It almost put Bob in need of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

After reading my job request letter and clips, Bob invited me to Lafayette to interview and took me to lunch at the Downtowner.

“I played basketball,” he told me over cheeseburgers. He’s since been inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. “When I was playing at West Lafayette High School we had a game in Brazil, Indiana and your newspaper ran a story that the Red Devils were coming to town led by ‘big Boob Kriebel.’ I’ve always wondered if that was a typo or intentional!”

“That was before my time,” I said. I thought I was doomed, but he hired me.

I learned most of what I know about journalism and a lot of what I know about life from Bob along with then-Assistant City Editor Angie Rizzo. After the daily miracle of putting out a newspaper, Bob would often sit by my desk smoking a “victory cigar” and talk about great writing and great reporting.

“A good reporter can write a story about anything,” he said one day. “A good reporter can write a story about this pencil. How do they get the lead in there? Why is it yellow? How do they make erasers?” He went on and on.

Ever since I’ve wanted to write a story about a pencil.

In those days of the inverted pyramid writing style, he was tolerant and even encouraged my unorthodox style. “John, I don’t see your lede here,” he said while reading one of my stories. “It’s at the end,” I said.

I don’t remember how he responded. It’s probably just as well.

That exchange made our “Words to Live By” list proudly kept pinned on the bulletin board with infamous statements from other staffers such as: “You can’t libel a dead person;” and “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

When I arrived at the Journal and Courier Bob was writing a column titled “What a Week.” It ran in the last column of the last page of the paper on Saturday, the last publishing day of the week in those days. The title came from an exchange Bob used to have with a printer every Friday after the paper came out: “What a week brother!”

When Bob went on vacation I wrote the column for him and in March of 1973 he turned it over to me, full time. The title was changed to “The Last Word” since it was the last word in the newspaper every week. It had other titles over the years such as “Norberg at Large.” When the editors doubled its length, Lafayette newsman (WASK, WLFI) and friend Mike Piggott called it “Norberg at Length.” The column still runs (much shorter, no title) and it’s hard to believe it’s nearing 40 years old. It’s due for a mid-life crisis.

My wife says I’ve been having a mid-life crisis for the past 25 years.

Bob has five children. I remember one day as he smoked his “victory cigar” he talked about a man who was showing off his brand new, expensive Cadillac, which Bob wouldn’t buy with his large family. “But I went home to my family and looked at my children and realized — I’ve got five Cadillacs,” he said.

He also has a beautiful Lamborghini in his wife, Nancy.

Bob retired from the Journal and Courier in 1993. At the retirement party I noted he was a legend in our community. “And you know what the word ‘legend’ means,” I said.

“It means ‘old.’”

Well, retirement parties can’t be all serious. Actually what I meant was that we all loved him. And I said that, too. But he always reminds me that I said “old.”

Bob continued writing a history column “Old Lafayette,” published weekly in the newspaper. He worked on books and has now written 12. He’s given countless talks in the community and been inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.

On Sunday, June 19, Bob announced he was retiring his column, ending a newspaper career that spanned 55 years. He’s already missed.

You really are a legend, Bob — and a friend and mentor to me and many others. Over 39 years you’ve done more for me than you will ever realize. I can’t thank you enough.

I hope our friendship goes on another 39 years, although we’ll both be a little past middle-age by then. And I know what you’ll say if you read this:

“John, I don’t see your lede here . . .”

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