Like a first love, in the scribbling racket you never forget your first city editor.
On my first day in the newspaper business in January 1973 at the Tampa Tribune, I met Dave Watson: gruff, cantankerous, curmudgeonly — and that was when he was in a good mood. Then there were the times he was really annoyed.
This was like working all at once for every nun I ever had in grade school at Our Lady of Perpetual Boils. He was Lou Grant, Front Page and Perry White all rolled into one.
Let's put it this way. Dave Watson, who was then well into his 50s, once invited a much younger and fitter reporter to step outside to settle a somewhat heated disagreement, admittedly a gesture probably not taught in management school. The reporter declined, aware perhaps that Dave also possessed a black belt in judo.
Life was different then. Newsrooms were different then. The Tribune was different then. But as a young man just starting out in the news business with zero experience, working for and being mentored by Dave Watson was the best on-the-job training I could have ever hoped for.
To be sure, that riveting glare could melt a diamond. But beneath Watson's truculent, grumbling, irascible exterior, lurked the heart of a truculent, grumbling, irascible city editor, who could from time-to-time manage a much needed pat on the back.
At Watson's funeral a few days ago after his death at 88, the minister invoked all the appropriate theological references. But it was left to his son Dave to talk about his father, a Pearl Harbor veteran and lifelong newspaperman, in more human terms.
At the office and at home, the elder Watson could be a demanding taskmaster, sometimes aloof, sometimes overly critical. But just as in the office and at home, Dave Watson's unbending integrity, his loyalty and his love for his family and for those he cared about was never questioned.
He hated fishing but took his son to fish. He hated football but took his son to football games. He sacrificed so his children could have better lives. And they did, because he was their father.
And he loved the newspaper business, regarding his role as city editor as a sacred trust to try to better inform the reader. It was never a job for Dave. It was a calling.
I've had a career in this often strange business because I had Dave Watson there at the beginning.
During an exceptionally petty management phase at the Tribune when Dave was relegated to a mostly banal administrative position, a doltish editor confronted him, suggesting: "Why don't you just retire? We really don't need you." Instead, Dave stubbornly stayed on simply to irritate his detractors.
In retirement, Dave would read the Tribune and mark up mistakes he found with a red pencil. Well, we all have to have hobbies. He doted on his family and his wife, Faye, until her death a couple of years ago.
At the funeral a small box was tucked in the coffin next to Watson's body. The box contained the cremated ashes of Watson's Yorkshire terrier, Bailey. Like I always suspected, the man was a softie.
These have been a horrible couple of days at the Tribune, where scores of many fine people were laid off. In some respects, Dave Watson is their patron saint, a good and decent man and journalist, who wasn't always appreciated, but who never bowed his head to anyone because as the old city editor would tell anyone who listened, he was usually right — most of the time.