By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, July 12, 2020 — Three things happened this past week that put me in a reflective mood: 1) Lindsay Offenburger, oldest granddaughter, turned 13 and I was telling her what I was doing at that age; 2) after too many years of forgetting to re-subscribe, my new subscription started up for The Valley News, from my hometown Shenandoah, Iowa, the newspaper that knew me when, and 3) I turned 73 years old.
“OMG!” I said on the phone to Lindsay in Oxford, Ohio, trying to sound like a teenager of her era. “When I was 13 years old, that’s when I started my newspaper career!”
Yes, in the late spring of 1961, when I was finishing eighth grade, I became the sportswriter for The Evening Sentinel, the forerunner of The Valley News there in Shenandoah. And I’ve been doing something related to that ever since.
As I celebrate my 73rd birthday, it means I’ve been a newsie for 60 years!
This profession, which is more of an obsession than a business, has been mighty good to me — and to my family. It put me through college. It kept me employed for as long as I wanted. It took me all over the U.S. and around the world. It let me meet some of the most important and interesting people of our era. And it still keeps me fresh and wanting to learn more.
In thanksgiving for how it all happened, let me tell the story again.
It started at home, 812 Eighth Avenue in Shenandoah, with our phone ringing on a Sunday afternoon back in May of ’61. I heard my mother Anna Offenburger answer and say, “Well, hello Mr. Tindall!” I would soon find out she was talking to R. K. Tindall, the revered managing editor of The Evening Sentinel. His question to her was, “Well, Anna, don’t you have another boy about ready to go to work for us?”
She pulled away from the phone for just a second, glanced over my way, turned her shoulder a bit and said lowly, “That would be Chuck. But Mr. Tindall, he’s only 13 years old and he doesn’t even know how to type!”
The next things I heard were, “Well, if you think so,” and “yes, yes, O.K.” and “thank you for even thinking of him.” She hung up the phone, came into the living room where I was probably reading the Des Moines Sunday Register and the Omaha World-Herald, and told me I was going to become the sportswriter at the Sentinel, which was then published five days per week.
I about passed out. “Mom, I can’t do that!” I said, sounding like every eighth grader would. “Writing is one of my least favorite things.”
She answered curtly that I could certainly learn to write and enjoy it. And besides, my older brothers Tom and Dan had both been Sentinel sportswriters when they were going through school, “and so you can do it, too.”
“But, Mom, think about it — Tom and Dan did that when they were in their junior and senior years of high school,” I moaned. “I’m still in junior high, and like you said, I don’t even know how to type.”
She said Mr. Tindall had told her to enroll me in the school’s summer typing class, which would start as soon as the school year ended, and the Sentinel would pay for it. What I didn’t know until later is that he also told my mother “then you push him through the front door down here, and we’ll do the rest.”
And that’s how it happened. I was 13, just learning to type, starting to break out in pimples, and being shown to my desk in an office full of adults. OMG, indeed!
I thought I had talked Mom into one compromise: I agreed I’d try the job for the summer, covering high school baseball and softball, and give it my best effort. But if at the end of the summer I didn’t like it and wanted to quit, she would let me.
However, after the summer sports seasons ended, when I told her I hadn’t liked it very much and would be quitting, she stood firm. “You did just fine,” she said, “so let’s go ahead and do football season. You might like covering that more.”
Of course, I did what she said. I almost always did.
Truth was, I had already discovered a couple things I really did like about the job. First, it was a thrill seeing “By CHUCK OFFENBURGER” on the top of stories in the paper. And maybe even more thrilling, I realized that when I came around with my little notebooks and started asking questions, the coaches and those cool high school kids at least pretended they wanted to talk to me.
Then I learned something even more jaw-dropping about the job. In the late summer, as I was writing pre-season football stories, Elva Whitney, one of the nicest of the adults in the Sentinel office, called me over to her desk. She seemed to be the person who directed the newspaper’s billing and receipts, and she had a question for me: “When do you want to get your checks?”
Checks? No one had told me I was going to be paid for my stories!
Hey, I had just turned 14 years old — what did I know?
The kindly Mrs. Whitney explained that I was being paid 10 cents per column inch for everything I wrote for the paper. She had me go back through the papers for June, July and early August, measure my stories (but not the headlines) and she wound up writing me a check for what I recall being $300, maybe $400! Of course, it was the most money I’d ever had at that early point in my life. And as I think about it, there haven’t been a lot of times in the 60 years since then when I’ve had $300 or $400 in unencumbered cash.
As you can probably imagine, I had a strong new appreciation for being a sportswriter!
Realizing I was being paid 10 cents per inch for everything I wrote did have one negative influence on my early career. What do you think it taught me how to do? That’s right — I spent a lot of years after that having good editors show me that “more” doesn’t necessarily mean “better.”
The best and most loyal editor I ever had was Anna Offenburger. In the fall of my freshman year, she could see that my writing style needed help. She booked me in for some extra coaching from a fine writer named Toke Nelson, who I think was then writing for magazines but earlier in his career had been sports editor of the Sentinel. And Mom started going to the Shenandoah Public Library in the evenings, pulling out the bound volumes of past editions of the Sentinel, and closely reading the stories that both my brothers had written years earlier. She wrote down their colorful expressions on a legal tablet, and she’d come home with long lists of those. “Here,” she said, handing me sheets from her tablet, “try using some of these in your stories.”
By the middle of that freshman year, I was hooked on journalism. In my sophomore year, I started writing not only game previews and follow-up stories, but also plenty of features and a twice-a-week sports opinion column, “Off on Sports.”
My last two years of high school, I had a school “work permit” letting me start my classes an hour later than most students and be done an hour earlier in the afternoon. I started and finished every day at the newspaper office — on the phone doing interviews, writing, shooting & developing photos. In the summers, I worked full-time and then some, handling sports early in the morning and in the evenings, doing straight news through the day hours. And I somehow did that while, for three summers, I was the catcher on the Shenandoah High baseball team.
In the late winter of my senior year, I received a letter from Vanderbilt University, of Nashville, Tenn. It was sent to the “Sports Editor” of newspapers across the nation. I opened it and read that this university, which I had barely heard of, is the alma mater of Grantland Rice, one of the most famous sportswriters ever, whose career spanned the first half of the 20th century. Vanderbilt was offering a full scholarship to “a graduating high school senior who has promise as a sportswriter,” and we sports editors were encouraged to send a nomination if we knew of a possible candidate. I filled out the form, nominating myself. I rounded up some support letters from my high school principal, athletics director, my priest and a couple other Shenandoah community leaders.
I didn’t win the Grantland Rice Memorial Scholarship, but I got second. Vanderbilt, then trying to broaden its student body beyond the Old South and New England, gave me a major consolation scholarship. I went there four years, worked part-time for The Nashville Tennessean sports department my first year, then devoted nearly full-time to The Vanderbilt Hustler student newspaper and eventually became editor-in-chief.
Vanderbilt began teaching me how the world works. I met presidential candidates, civil rights leaders, famous coaches and athletes, and people who were very different from the people I’d grown up with and around in Shenandoah, Iowa. But I also discovered that the lessons I’d learned in Shenandoah had prepared me well for college life and beyond.
Later, I was back in Shenandoah as managing editor & sports editor of the Sentinel while I was doing military training with the Iowa Army National Guard. Then it was on to the Des Moines Register for 26 years, 21 of them as the “Iowa Boy” feature columnist; then teaching at Buena Vista University and other colleges; doing a lot of freelancing, and, 20 years ago, starting our website www.Offenburger.com.
I shake my head in amazement when I think about where I’ve been, just because I’m comfortable interviewing people, asking good questions, double-checking facts and writing stories.
During a 1983 Friendship Force trip to China, former Iowa First Lady Billie Ray snapped this photo of Chuck Offenburger during a stop at the historic Great Wall.
It took me to Europe with the National Guard in 1974; to China in 1983 when former Iowa Gov. Bob Ray and his wife Billie led a Friendship Force trip; to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq covering the Persian Gulf War in 1990-’91; to France in 1994 covering the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in World War II; across Iowa on a bicycle 16 times covering RAGBRAI and across the U.S. on bikes with 308 others in 1995 in celebration of Iowa’s Sesquicentennial; to South Africa in 1994 and again in 1995, post-Apartheid, with opera great Simon Estes, an African American who grew up in poverty in Centerville, Iowa, and to Cuba with a church group in 2017.
Now, back to my 13-year-old granddaughter Lindsay Offenburger in Ohio. She probably thinks one big lesson from this column is that her grandpa still writes really long stories.
But the more important lesson here, I think, is that when you’re 13 years old, things can happen that will totally change the rest of your life.
Here I am, 60 years later, still saying about my whole career, “My mother made me do it.” I hope she died knowing how much I appreciate all the ways she pushed me.
And I recently gave my credit card number to The Valley News in Shenandoah, Iowa, to become a subscriber again. I mean, sure, I want to read the news of today in my ol’ hometown. But I’m really subscribing because of what the paper was publishing clear back in 1961.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here. Below are some other photos from Offenburger’s career.
Interviewing Willie Nelson outside his studio near Austin, Texas, as his series of “Farm Aid” concerts were starting to help farm families battered in the Farm Crisis that started in the early 1980s.
Remembering the scene in Kuwait in late-winter of 1991 during the Persian Gulf War.
Knocking out a column while in Atlantic on the “Motor Ioway” tour of the state in 1996.
An old reporter in 2018 at the YMCA Camp outside Boone in central Iowa. (Photo by David Sherry)
Grandpa Chuck Offenburger hasn’t yet talked 13-year-old granddaughter Lindsay Offenburger into writing columns, but he has talked her into making him desserts like peach crumble (here, with ice cream) and peach pie.
In the home newsroom, at 73 years old and 60 years into a career that’s more obsession than business.