LETTER OF THE DAY: In praise of Dudley Stokes
(in a letter to the editor)
Dudley Stokes, a year into his role as editor-in-chief of Gleaner publications, went the unorthodox route of recruiting new columnists off the street by public advertisement. He himself had been recruited from outside journalism with a background in Christian ministry and education to head The Gleaner, a move that did not go down well with many in the profession.
Encouraged by a colleague at the Scientific Research Council, which I had recently joined as technical information officer, I responded to the call for columnists, having been a regular contributor of letters and articles for some years. Stokes interviewed me one on one. The most noticeable things about the man were his booming voice, hearty handshake - and the size.
On October 9, 1987, Dr Stokes wrote to say, "This is to advise that you have been chosen to write a column for The Gleaner during the next 10 weeks." During this period, we will solicit response from our readers in order to get their opinion regarding your column in order to determine future relationship." I have been writing for The Gleaner since.
Stokes, an outsider himself, was on a mission to broaden and diversify media voices. Thirteen of us were recruited to write alongside the established slate of columnists comprising Morris Cargill, Carl Stone, Dawn Ritch, Aimee Webster, Vincent Tulloch, Jimmy Carnegie, John Jackson, Olive Lewin, Henry Lowe, and Ian Boyne, the only one still in the business. One of Stokes' advertisements said, "As the originals mellow, the new sign on. National dialogue will be better for it."
The 13 newcomers were Byron Buckley, Joan Rawlings, Henley Morgan, Clive Bowen, Marjorie Stair, Enid Donaldson, V. Lloyd Simpson, Beth Aub, Daniel Gibran, Jeanne Wilson, Sharon Morgan, Eron Henry and Martin Henry. The editor-in-chief was not only interested in writing skills, but selected "new voices" to have a wide diversity of backgrounds, interest and views.
I have always wondered what was Dr Stokes' assessment of his experiment breaking with the tradition of inviting columnists to recruit by advertisement, but I never found the courage to ask. I do know what he thought of my column. When he left the editor's chair to head the HR department he was freer to talk about the columns and we had many such exchanges.
"You will be restricted to 750 words to a column," the selection letter had said. For me, that was not easy. Having trespassed over the limits once too often, the booming voice (not a secretary's) came over the telephone, "Mr Henry, the column is too long. We have an agreement. I am not publishing it unless you cut it!" My feeble defence on the importance of the run-up for providing context and background to my point was curtly demolished. "Your run-up is too long, Mr Henry!" This became a standard response to my long stories at home, "Uncle Dudley say yuh run-up too long!" It was no joke at the time to have to make the trek - by bus - back to North Street to draw lines through chunks of my beautiful work with the long run-up, and at the security guard station/front desk where Stokes had left the long column.
It was a valuable, although painful lesson. I count Dr Dudley Stokes among a handful of the most important and life-changing mentors in my life. I was born to write, and access to the powerful Gleaner, synonym for newspaper in Jamaica, has been one of the watershed events of my life. And I know from his own words that I have delivered Stokes value for his confidence. The discipline of writing a weekly newspaper column, which hundreds of thousands of readers are free to pick apart, is enormously useful for the rest of one's life. The thrill and trepidation of being published never go away. And the columnist fondly hopes - always - that his or her views will make a positive difference in society.
The last time Dudley Stokes and I met and spoke was at the offices of the National Housing Trust while he was making the rounds among government agencies to tie up his retirement benefits, and I was there on refund business. I join the rest of the Gleaner family in mourning the loss of a path-breaking and beloved editor-in-chief and in extending condolences to his family. Oops! I almost exceeded 750 words!