No one who lives beyond the environs of South Florida journalism need care, but the former columnist and Sunrise bureau chief of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel taught this English master’s student a helluva lot about covering local politics, concision, and fairness. On the first day of my internship many years ago, he said, “Don’t keep me waiting. I love my family, and I like to go home to them early.” He tested this injunction. Within twenty minutes of situating myself at a desktop computer so antiquated that I had to ask an assistant copy editor to download AOL Instant Messenger for me to get around (or through?) the Tribune firewall, Gary Stein had given me my first story — the bar mitzvah of a local scion’s son. And another feature. And another. In a week I had five bylines in the paper, banalities no one reads but swell a young reporter’s pride at seeing his byline — in print, yet, when this still mattered.
Two weeks later I covered my first bit of breaking news: two FIU students died after drag racing down a Broward thoroughfare. Stein — always Stein! — and the editors downtown, aware of my connections, suggested I handle the local angle, which meant interviewing on campus the friends of the deceased students. Wary of being the intern who had never talked to grieving relatives or friends asking for advice, I nevertheless asked Stein what I thought was a cunning question: “Is there anything you’d like to see in the story?” His response: “I don’t know. Figure it out. Just be kind.”
This was Gary Stein, dead at seventy-two. Just be kind. An allusion to Tea and Sympathy? I doubt it. I took this bit as the distillation of two decades of noting the suppurating worst of mankind winning commission seats in what was then the Deadwood of West Broward County. Pretentious sods like me sneak words into stories, a habit that drove Stein crazy. In one feature I wrote about a magician in which I referred to him as a “prestidigitator,” he wrote back in aggrieved capital letters, “SIMPLE, SOTO!” Aggrieved myself, I stomped into his corner office and argued that it got tiresome referring to X as a magician thirteen times in a twenty-inch story. Besides, I’d avoided corny alliteration like “the precocious prestidigitator”! After looking me in the eye for my half-minute defense, he said, “Okay.” It was a go.
That was Stein. A persuasive argument won him over, with no obligation to save face. Just be kind. On Election Night 2000 when Al Gore’s victory looked, ah, tenuous, he sent a few of us home early. “But I can cover the Miami angle,” I told him. He shook his head — he wasn’t having it. “Go home. Get sleep. I’ll need you early tomorrow.” Newsrooms from South Florida to North Idaho once had Steins, as populous as buffalo in 1850 but unaware of their coming extinction. Thirteen months of working out of the Sun-Sentinel’s West office convinced me I had no talent for daily journalism. Stein helped me realize it. Yet in the fifteen years I’ve worked as a student media adviser I’ve felt him at my side. He liked candy, though — I rejected that. Why hold it against him? Just be kind.