Another Good Man Gone

     A great old newsman and a great old guy died before Christmas.
     John Van Doorn was 78.
     He covered the Vietnam War as Newsday’s first foreign correspondent and won a heap of awards before moving to The New York Times, New York Magazine and elsewhere.
     But I’ll remember him because he got such fun out life.
     Van Doorn was a rare bird anywhere, but especially in Southern California.
     Picture a distinguished-looking gentleman, a bit short, a bit round amidships, bald as a coot, always immaculately dressed, coat and tie, shined shoes, wingtips perhaps.
     I remember him wandering around the newsroom, both arms extended, saying, “I’m an airplane.”
     I was the only one who joined his squadron.
     He landed, then I landed, and we went back to work.
     Van Doorn met, and covered, world figures. But the great stories he told were usually about people you’ve never heard of.
     He had an editor back in the old days who showed him a way to manage the clutter that mounts and mounts in any newsroom. When the clutter on his own desk had become insurmountable, the boss said, “Mr. Van Doorn, come here, I want you to see something.” The boss dragged a big old garbage can over and dumped everything on his desk into the garbage.
     “Now, do you know what the consequences of that will be, Mr. Van Doorn? Nothing.”
     John said it was true. Anything that was there, even checks or bills, would eventually be replaced. If you lost a note, you could look it up again.
     It’s a nice thing to know.
     Another time, I believe it was the same boss who said, “Mr. Van Doorn, I’ve observed that we have too many short fat people in this newsroom. From now on I want you to hire only tall, thin people.”
     So John did it, and he said it worked out fine.
     When Van Doorn was on the Times Op-Ed desk, William F. Buckley called from Switzerland to ask why he had changed a comma to a semicolon in his opinion piece. John explained it and Buckley said, “Ah, I see. Thank you.”
     John didn’t tell stories to look for a moral, or a truth. He told them because they were odd things he remembered.
     He was a ferocious editor, who hated acronyms, clichés and bad grammar – more power to him. Some reporters who had to get their stories past him called him Van Doom.
     I wrote for him just once. I was on the editorial page and John was the business editor. One day he offered $5 to whomever could write him the worst lede for a weather story.
     No one else’s lede was nearly as bad as mine. I still remember it: “Mother Nature undid the cloudy brassiere of her scrumptious breasts, showering rain warm as milk upon the tri-county area.”
     John didn’t even wait for the contest to close. He walked up to my desk, shaking his head sadly, and handed over the fiver.
     To my great amaze, the January 2012 issue of Motor Trend, the Car of the Year issue, has a sentence like mine: “Storm clouds were covering the tops of the peaks, the beautiful Tetons wearing a provocative, puffed-white brassiere …”
     Hard to believe that an editor with half a brain would let an idiotic sentence like that see print. I can’t imagine what Van Doorn would have done to someone who tried to pull that stuff.
     John Van Doorn was a great guy and everyone I know who worked with him loved him despite his oldtime newsguy gruffness.
     He reminds me of an even tougher old bird I know: an ex-criminal, a kidnapper and drug smuggler who cleaned up and became an inspiration to a lot of people. This man, who shall remain nameless, used to say, “If there is a God and a heaven, I’m sure that all He asks if you try to get in there is, ‘Did you have fun?’ and ‘How did you treat my children?'”
     John Van Doorn had a lot of fun, and tough as he was, he treated everyone, I believe, just a little bit better than they deserved. We should all do the same.

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