Father Knew Best  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   December 1999

Father Knew Best   

By Karen Lee Scrivo
Karen Lee Scrivo is now an assistant editor for National Journal News Service, published by National Journal Group Inc. She wrote this story while editing for the now-defunct LEGI-SLATE News Service, owned by the Washington Post Co.     

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I knew I didn't want to go into journalism. My dad, Bill Scrivo, was a newsman, and he was rarely home for dinner and worked most weekends and holidays. The few times he was home were often cut short by a phone call from the office. When he wasn't at work, he was often out drinking with his newspaper buddies or sources.

I grew up hearing of the gritty city politics, muggings, murders and mayhem in places like Pittsburgh, Chicago and Lorain, Ohio. And of stories closer to home, like my father being beaten as a young reporter by a gang of teenage thugs unhappy that one of their own had been thrown behind bars, thanks to a series of stories Dad had written.

I was anxious to get out of Lorain--a melting-pot town of steel and auto plants west of Cleveland--and away from my parents' impending divorce. I headed to college to become a writer. A real writer, not a journalist.

Although my father had always loved to write, he hadn't planned on being a journalist, either. He wanted to be a doctor. But his time patching up mangled bodies in the Philippines as an Army medic during World War II changed his mind. When he returned home, he enrolled in the journalism program at the University of Pittsburgh, courtesy of Uncle Sam. He went on to become news editor of the school paper, graduating in 1950. I have a picture of him from those days--dark, wavy hair combed back, shirtsleeves rolled up and pencil in hand--seated at his desk with an attentive staff crowded around.

Nearly 25 years later, I was among the reporters crowding around his big gray steel desk at Lorain's Journal, where he was managing editor. I can still hear the fast clatter of his two index fingers on the typewriter, while he cradled the phone on his right shoulder, saying, "Uh-huh" or "How do you spell that?" And I can smell the aroma of his cigar as he leaned back in his chair after deadline, feet up on the desk, eyes closed with the smoke circling his head like a halo. I was a 20-year-old English major whose college funding had run out. My dad put me on the obit desk and told me it was a great place to learn the basics. I hated it, but I did learn the importance of spelling names correctly and getting the facts right. Nothing is worse than hearing from a bereaved family member after you've made a mistake in his or her loved one's obituary.

"Everyone has a story," my dad would tell me. I often transcribed the tapes of his interviews, thinking, "He'll never get anything out of this one." But he could transform the lives of ordinary people into stories you couldn't put down. Every Sunday, he did just that in a column called "Scrivo's People," chronicling the lives and dreams of beauticians and bartenders, steelworkers and schoolteachers.

He was not only a good writer but also one of those rare few who could inspire others to do the same.

It wasn't until years later that I realized how good an editor he was. Part teacher, part coach, part taskmaster, he could always pull the best out of you and push you to new heights. He was also a stickler for correct spelling and grammar and had a head full of facts, dates, names and places that rivaled any library reference section.

I intended to stay at his paper only a year, until I got enough money to finish my English degree at Baldwin Wallace College, a small liberal arts school outside Cleveland. I stayed nearly two--writing features and arts reviews as well as obits--and by then I was a newspaper convert. I transferred to Kent State University, worked at the local paper and got a journalism degree. After covering every beat from police to City Hall in Kent, I went on to work for the Associated Press in Baltimore, United Press International in Washington and later freelanced as a writer and editor.

In the beginning, it was important to make it on my own, so I eschewed my dad's offers to call his far-flung former colleagues on my behalf. He respected my need to be known as someone other than "Bill Scrivo's daughter" but was always happy to talk about stories I was working on and offer advice or his editorial eye, if I asked. Later, after I felt established, I called more often and welcomed his contacts and advice. Through it all, we always had great conversations about politics and the changing nature of the business.

I remember one of the last long phone conversations I had with him in February 1998 about President Clinton's sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky and whether they would lead to Clinton's removal from office. He said no; I said yes. He had been hospitalized for chest pains and was awaiting bypass surgery. We also talked about a long story I was working on about college drinking. He gave me some ideas for the lead and how to organize the 10,000-word piece. "Sounds like a good story; make sure you finish it before you come," he told me, sounding more like an editor than a man who had just undergone an angiogram earlier that day.

I did finish the story and made it to Ohio the day he had preliminary surgery to clear out an artery in preparation for the bypass operation. He was a bit grouchy--he hated hospitals and not being in charge--but one of the first things he asked was whether I had finished the story.

The next day, he seemed more himself. We talked about the day's news: Frank Sinatra being hospitalized and America Online's stock going up. He had given my elementary school-aged son a couple of shares of AOL stock.

When I left for lunch, he was doing a crossword puzzle with a pen I had loaned him.

A couple hours later, he died of a massive heart attack. He was 71.

Even though he's gone, I often find myself dialing his number to tell him about a story I'm working on, to talk about Washington politics or to ask his advice about some work situation. And then I remember he won't be answering the phone.

But I can still hear his voice some nights when I'm up late working on a story--that same clear, strong voice that always encouraged me to give every story my best.

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