Remembering Edith Hughes…

Unlike many colleagues and friends, my stories of Edith Hughes don’t involve what seemed to be a haphazard interview session or a layout filled with red ink corrections.

My first run-in with Edith came one morning in 2007 in the Gateway Newspapers former office on Greentree Road. It was early that morning — just myself and Signal Item editor Bob Pastin were in. Edith quickly zipped through the office, pausing just enough to look at me — a new face. She rushed into Bob’s cubicle and asked, “Who is that?”

Bob replied, explaining I was the new (at the time) part-time reporter for the Signal Item and Sewickley Herald. She came back out of his cubicle, looked at me as I awkwardly smiled at her — unsure of what just took place, and then she left.

The first time I spoke to Edith was in Harrisburg for a Pennsylvania Newspaper Association weeklies conference. Her first statement: “Did you get breakfast?” No, I said. She then looked me up and down and asked how I was liking the Sewickley Herald. Before I could finish a sentence, she said, “Interesting attire, young man.” I had on khakis, a polo shirt and tennis shoes — my usual work attire.

She then said, “Maybe you’ll learn something here to take back to Sewickley.”

What she didn’t know is that it wasn’t the guest speakers from The Patriot-News or any other newspaper that I’d learn from that day. It was Edith who would teach me more than I ever thought I could know.

You see, Edith had a way with more than just journalism. She had a way with life. In her eyes, good manners, proper attire and fine detail meant everything. You didn’t cut corners. You gave more than your best. And you did all of that out of respect for yourself, your talent and your colleagues.

I got to know her more through stories from colleagues and from her random visits to the Sewickley Herald office. She played a major role in the Herald’s annual honors dinner, recognizing the great community-minded individuals of the year. Place cards were handwritten, not typed. The menu offered nothing but the best food. And the entire evening was as perfect as perfect could be. Why? Because she’d settle for nothing less.

At one of the honors dinners, she looked at me and said, “You clean up well. I almost didn’t recognize you.”

In January of this year, I returned from a nearly two-week-long vacation. I had a missed call and e-mail from Edith. Odd, I thought. Out of the more than 20 voice mails and 200 e-mails, Edith’s were the first messages I responded to.

Days later, I heard from her. She wanted to talk to me in person. I was nervous, to say the least. She couldn’t fire me, she didn’t have that authority anymore. Right? But what did I do to be getting a visit exclusively from Edith?

I dressed a tad nicer than my average wardrobe (no tie, though), and awaited her visit. Snowflakes were flying. Edith called and said she’d be late. Finally, Edith arrived and whisked me away into the conference room where she shut the door.

“I need you to talk at the weeklies seminar about everything you do with technology,” she said. “It’s in April.”

This was early January — many months and inches of snow away from April.

“Yeah, I’ll do it,” I nervously said, scribbling down the words “April” and “PNA.”

“Yes, you’ll do it,” Edith said, either repeating what I said, but probably correcting my language.

She expected an outline by mid-February. I e-mailed her an outline by the end of that week in January.

The morning of the conference, Edith — oddly enough — was late. As it turned out, the massive rain and flooding from the previous day and night knocked the power out at her hotel. I stayed elsewhere in the Harrisburg area, which was unheard of in Edith’s mind because I did not get breakfast options at my hotel (though, she was impressed that I got a better room rate than she!).

Right before my turn to present, I completely re-did my entire presentation because the previous speakers took most of what I was going to say. Introducing me to the crowd, Edith explained what a dedicated and passionate reporter I was, and what I had done to help make the Sewickley Herald a newsier paper. I can remember standing there thinking, “Holy crap, Edith is saying this about me?”

Afterward, Edith told me I was the best presenter (even though I went over by 15 minutes). “That was some talk you gave” she said. “Even I was surprised. You knocked their socks off.”  She paused and said, “You’re already booked for next year.” I didn’t get a chance to agree because she grabbed a mint and walked away.

I wasn’t hired by her or even worked under her, but I still felt I needed her approval as a journalist. And I’m pretty sure I got it that day.

She didn’t make the Herald’s honors dinner this year because she was traveling. But I did sit next to her in May at the Keystone Press Awards, where she, again, spoke highly of my presentation a month earlier. At the Keystone Press Awards dinner, we talked about my presentation for next April and how she thought the awards dinner chicken was too dry and the speakers were mostly boring.

She, no doubt, has made a lasting impact on my career — and more importantly, my life. Thanks to Edith, I hold myself in higher regard and respect the decisions I make and the stories I cover, knowing that my name is on whatever story I’m writing at the moment, so it better be the best it can be.

“Reporters are a dime a dozen,” she once told me. That phrase has stuck with me, allowing me to remember what my job is and to carry it out with dignity and respect.

Edith made me realize just how important grammar and proper communication skills are, and to be poignant, sharp and decisive.

My world is a better place thanks to Edith.

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