How I Became A Star On The Midway Of The Miami County Fair
Some people find it hard to believe, but there was a time early in my career that I was known to the public as primarily a humor columnist.
It's true. From 1977 to 1982, at the Troy Daily News, I had a column that ran in the Sunday magazine section called And Another Thing…Don't ask me how, but it became wildly popular in Troy; aside from the sport pages, it may have been the most read thing in the paper.
Beats me how it happened. But it made me a celebrity of sorts in that small town in western Ohio.
As I look back on those days, it seems to me now as just part of the learning experience of becoming a journalist.
And, to me, there is no better laboratory for that than a small-town newspaper.
Probably the best thing that ever happened to me when I started in newspaper journalism over 40 years ago is the fact that I started out at small town newspapers.
The Painesville Telegraph. The Wilmington Star-News in North Carolina. And, particularly, the Troy Daily News in Miami County, Ohio.
This is where I learned what it is to be a journalist. Sometimes, I had to learn the hard way.
Once you had been working in a place like Troy for a while, people in town came to know who you were and what you did for a living. That meant if you walked down the street, you were likely to be stopped by some good citizen who either wanted to pat you on the back for a job well done or read you the Riot Act for a story they hated.
There was no filter. No leaving anonymous comments at the bottom of a web story. This was real-life, real-time feedback; and everybody knew your name.
Plus, at a small-town paper, you were bound to have a plethora of responsibilities and a long list of titles.
Among the titles hung on me at the Troy Daily News at one time or another were politics writer, county government reporter, city hall reporter (briefly), arts and entertainment editor (which meant laying out a weekly A&E page, some of the most boring lay-outs in the history of newspapers), movie critic, theater critic, occasional sports writer filling in on Reds and Bengals coverage, boxing writer (the state's Golden Gloves championships were held at Troy's Hobart Arena), feature writer for the Sunday paper and probably a few others I can't remember.
And, oh yes, humor columnist.
There was a young man in town (whose name escapes me) who was a talented cartoonist and he did some part-time work for the TDN, as we called it.
When the editors decided to launch my humor column in the Sunday magazine, this young cartoonist was commissioned to do a caricature of me to run with the column.
It couldn't have been too hard for him to do, because I was sort of a walking caricature myself in the late 1970s.
Long hair. Several cigarettes hanging out of my mouth (a bad habit I have since given up). A baseball cap. Scribbling in a reporter's notebook; and wearing a pair of over-sized eye glasses, which gave me sort of a Harry Caray look.
The caricature worked; it drew people into the column.
It really did take the town by storm. People were reading it everywhere. I had one report of a local minister, during Sunday morning services, admonishing his flock from the pulpit to stop rattling the newspaper during the service; they could read And Another Thing when they got home.
It was definitely a thing.
Especially so at the Troy Daily News.
Photographer Dave Polcyn, my good pal, went out and had some T-shirts printed up with the caricature and a message above the likeness of me: Hi! I Know Howard Wilkinson!
We had a staff picnic that summer where nearly everybody on the news staff showed up wearing those T-shirts. I had mixed feelings – mortification on one hand, and an over-sized ego on the other.
The big event of summertime in Troy was the Miami County Fair, a great old-fashioned country fair that I enjoyed immensely.
The Troy Daily News, of course, had a booth in the merchants' building of the fairground, where they handed out free newspapers, bottle openers, key chains and other cheap stuff.
Then, someone got an idea – why don't we have a contest and give away Hi! I Know Howard Wilkinson! T-shirts.
It went like this: We would patch into the fairgrounds PA system occasionally and make an announcement that could be heard everywhere:
Come to the Troy Daily News booth in the Merchants' Building and spell this word correctly and you win a Howard Wilkinson T-shirt!
The words were difficult, but not so difficult as to be outside the realm of some bright Miami Countian being able to spell them. There were words like equanimity, luminescent, perspicacious, excogitate.
I was expected to be at the booth to reward the winners and console the losers, which cut into my time for wandering the fairgrounds and eating everything from Bob Evans Farm Boy sandwiches to french-fried dill pickles.
But I did my duty; and I ended up autographing the shirts of a few dozen winners, who, to my surprise, were eager to put them on and wear them around the fairgrounds.
Good publicity, our advertising people said.
A great gimmick. There are very few left. I remember everyone wearing them for my going-away party in Oct. 1982, when I left to come to Cincinnati. Several years ago, when the Troy Daily News staff of that era got together in Troy for a reunion, Polcyn wore his.
Only in small town America.
Nearly 40 years later and I am still waiting for someone to put my mug on a T-shirt again.
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