My journalism mentor Charlie Adair [RIP] was an utterly twisted human being, but in the best way imaginable for a student who wanted to learn to be the best reporter he could be.
He could have taught marketers a thing or too, as well—for example, about empathy, hitting deadline, and always thinking on one’s feet.
The final exams for Charlie’s infamous interviewing course were legendary for putting students in excruciatingly uncomfortable positions.
According to a post on his eulogy, one class “was merely given phone numbers to call for interviews. The students discovered people who were blind, who had AIDS, who were in great distress—all assembled by Charlie for the exercise.”
“Typical Charlie,” I thought as I read it.
For another exam, he loaded the entire class into an Econoline van, drove them to the front gate of New York’s Attica state prison and told them to go in and get quotes from lifers.
The final exam for my interviewing class was a quote scavenger hunt that included having to find, phone and quote people who were obscurely referenced—maybe by just a name or nickname. This was before the Internet.
My exam also involved getting a quote from Buffalo, NY’s then mayor Jimmy Griffin, a man legendary for physical altercations with reporters.
I aced that exam. For example, I knew Mayor Griffin would get increasingly agitated by the calls from Charlie’s students and would stop accepting them, so I made sure I was first.
Charlie called his interviewing class “boot camp for the terminally over privileged.”
Just before he died, I met him for lunch during a trip back to Buffalo. After we shook hands, I produced a copy of iMarketing News, the dot-com trade newspaper I had launched for DM News.
“Everything you taught me is in play in this newspaper,” I said. “Your name’s not on it, but you’re all through it.”
He died in 2000 from unexpected complications from what was supposed to be minor surgery. He was 58.
I think of Charlie often, especially when circumstances arise that he warned us would come about.
In fact, I thought of Charlie recently and how he would have chuckled when an email arrived from the Obama team with “Michelle” in the “from” line.
“Sometime soon, I want to meet you,” said the subject line.
Team Obama could use a Charlie Adair.
One of the simplest but most enduring lessons he taught me was that the best editors have dirty minds. They can help avoid publishing embarrassing copy with unintended meanings.
For example, I once saved a reporter from including a line in her piece about a football practice bubble that had been “problem plagued since its erection.”
If a Charlie Adair were on team Obama, he would have told them that subject line in the “Michelle” email sounded like something from a pornography spammer.
Everyone can use a Charlie Adair on their copy team-including you. That guy or gal on your team with the dirty mind could mean the difference between a sale and a giggle.