I Quit! Or, At Least, I Think I Do

Veteran news guy Jeff Harrison reflects on changes during his 27 years on the UA campus.
June 20, 2012
Jeff Harrison (Photo by Kate Harrison, UA School of Journalism)
Jeff Harrison (Photo by Kate Harrison, UA School of Journalism)

This may or may not be my last written assignment as a member of the University of Arizona. I hedge because, as I've always explained to people, I'm really lousy at predicting the future.

How bad? Originally, I had just signed onto this job as a temp. A young woman in what was then the University's Office of Public Information had gone on maternity leave, and the director, Sharon Kha, needed someone to fill in.

I had seen the position announcement tacked up on the jobs board in Human Resources in the Babcock building and initially dismissed it. Way too much aggravation for a gig that would only last six or eight weeks. Plus, I had left the local journalism community some months earlier to pursue career avenues that I thought might actually pay a living wage.

But, for reasons that I still don't fully comprehend, I changed my mind and applied on the last day that HR was taking applications. What the heck, right? 

It's easy to say that this was a life-changing decision. Little did I know at the time.

For starters, there was a new world of technology to deal with, specifically word processors. First off, how many of you out there know about AND can successfully operate a manual typewriter? Yeah, I thought so.

I had never used a word processor until coming here. My all-analog news colleagues and I developed serious forearm muscles using these Rube Goldberg-like devices. For those of you who don't know, typewriters worked by pounding on buttons that propelled little hammers mounted on levers against ink-soaked ribbons that imprinted letters, numbers and other symbols on actual paper.

If you were good at it, you could smash out copy at about 60 words per minute with a minimum of wasted paper and dead trees. But your thoughts had to be pretty much organized before you rolled the first sheet into the platen. Word processors changed all that overnight, but not always in a good way.

My office shared a word processing program and a printer on a mainframe computer with the UA Alumni Association and the UA Foundation in the Slonaker Alumni building. The mainframe, a hulking chunk of cast iron in the deepest bowels of Slonaker, was the high tech of its day. Some people thought they could even make out the worn letters forming the name of 19th-century computer scientist Charles Babbage on the side.

The mainframe also had its own full-time caretaker/tech support person. Since no one ever bothered to buy and install a surge protector, numerous lightning strikes from the summer monsoons over the years had essentially turned it into a cyberworld version of a punch-drunk fighter.

When it crashed, as it often did – sometimes several times a day – its frazzled caretaker would run around the building ordering everyone to "Log off, now!" Those of us who knew about manual typewriters would look at each other and wonder, often aloud, why the thing downstairs was an improvement. Nevertheless, we managed to grind stuff out at a pretty impressive rate.

Sharing information with you in 1986 was a pretty complicated process. It meant typing and printing a story on paper and then sending the copy to the print shop in the football stadium, where it was made into more copies that were snail-mailed out to newspaper, TV and radio station newsrooms. Those folks then made decisions about whether they would share our work with their audiences. It might be a story about a community lecture or about a multimillion-dollar research discovery. Both were treated the same way. 

If a story was about some emergency and needed to be sent out right away, we had a fax machine. Thomas Edison would have recognized it as one of his wax-cylinder phonographs with a telephone attached.

One of my colleagues, Lori Stiles, had the first personal computer in the office. Her Kaypro II was a magnificent piece of ironwork that weighed more than her Volkswagen Beetle, and cost just about as much. The screen was maybe the size of an iPhone and displayed letters only in green and wavy green. We called it "the lawnmower" because it sounded like the neighbor's John Deere on a Saturday morning.

Lori was able to get lots of work done on it because no one wanted to be close by and risk having that sound permanently tattooed on their cerebral cortexes. Plus, there was no email or Angry Birds to distract her, or anyone else for that matter.

And don't even get me started on WordStar and DOS and dual floppy drives. All of this stuff is part of the second half of a century that included Studebakers, Nehru jackets, Lawrence Welk and the DuMont Network.

So, fair warning: The Internet and its attendant technologies and instant access to information that you know and love today will be ancient history before you know it.

But for me, what was really amazing – and lasting – was signing on with an incredible cadre of people whose job it was to publicize University research. Most of us then were refugees from TV, radio and newspapers.

And we were totally irreverent. Some of you might know about "newsroom humor." Safe within the walls of our office, we frequently skirted the bounds of good taste to something approaching libel.

Office bulletin boards were adorned with photos of people of various importance with dialog bubbles of what we imagined they were saying (or thinking).

Birthday parties featured gifts such as a shushing action figure librarian, a ceramic cowboy boot picture frame with a smiling University president peering out, and a pair of knit pink slippers which I wore around the office for a day.

A neighborhood cat, who set world records for shedding, decided to adopt us. He would show up every day just to jump up on someone's CPU or keyboard and beg for a belly rub. I've since opened old file folders to find hairy little mementos.

When the woman whose place I was holding decided to move to Michigan, I was asked if I wanted the job full time. What the heck, right?

That was 27 years ago. Chronicling what happened since would take more time and space than I'm allotted here. It would be an understatment to say, "Wow! I learned a lot."

Talking with my peers from other colleges and universities has made me realize that I have visited the sin of envy upon many of them.

As a writer and editor, it was amazing to see all of this academic firepower on campus. Most of the scientists in Arizona who study water and how the state is going to have to manage it are here. Much of what we know about our solar system and what we can see well beyond in the universe comes from the telescopes, mega-telescopes, cameras, landers and other instruments developed and manufactured here. Those are just two examples.

Trust me, people everywhere know about this place.

"Groundbreaking" and "cutting-edge" are just a couple of the many descriptors my colleagues and I have used in our stories. One word we haven't much used is "giants." I'm lucky to have been on a first-name basis with giants whose work has reshaped the world we live in. When people ask me what my job is, I tell them that it's talking to interesting people and writing about what they do.

In all honesty, it's been like collecting about a dozen more college degrees without having to take final exams. Just bang out a few hundred words and push a button to send it out to people all over the world. How cool is that?

Also cool was meeting on campus my lovely and delightful wife, Kate, who has since signed on with what is now the School of Journalism.

I even got to reconnect with a grade school chum who, as chance would have it, was working on another part of campus when we ran into each other, and who later agreed to be my daughter's godfather.

Fortunately, I don't have to give up these or any of the other relationships I've been lucky to cultivate. Most of my former cellmates are still in town, pursuing other projects and interests.

And the young people who are now telling your stories are a talented bunch who will be in for the education of their lives. I wish them well.

It's also hard to imagine what life is going to be like, not going into the office every day. But – hey! – I'm going to give it my best shot.

What the heck, right?

The University community is invited to a special retirement reception for Jeff this afternoon from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in the Rincon Room of the Student Union Memorial Center.