29 years of local sports

As part of a special section celebrating the 20th anniversary of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, John Gunther spent time interviewing resort owner Mike Keiser. 

Once upon a time, there was a high school senior in Coquille pondering what to do about his future — should he pursue a career in education or a career in newspapers.

That young man (I still consider myself young even though I am north of 50 now) chose newspapering. And thought it wasn’t my intention at the time, I ended up at The World for more than 29 years.

My tenure as a full-time employee, including more than 25 years as sports editor, ended last week as I shifted to a new career following a challenging year when the COVID-19 pandemic led to dramatic changes at the newspaper I toiled so many years building up.

It was a difficult decision, but one I don’t regret. After years of late work nights with the most supportive bride in the world, it is time to shift my focus to a career with predictable hours and the chance for more family time, including vacations put off too often.

But I also don’t regret my long career at The World, bringing community and sports news to readers on the South Coast. I started at the newspaper one week after graduating from the University of Oregon, more than 10,600 days ago. All the time, I had the same parking spot, the same phone number and the same desk (though that moved within the office several times).

Along the way, I had lots of people who helped form me into the sports editor I became.

Charlie Kocher took a chance on an unproven college student when I wandered into the office for the first time asking for an internship before my senior year in school, and then held a job open for me my final term.

Once I got started, Linda Meierjurgen took me under her wing, showing me the ropes and encouraging me on the tough days as an early reporter. Then news-editor Jerry Stonebraker, affectionately referred to as Stoney by us in the office, entertained us with his early morning humming as he put together the inside pages of the paper. (I more recently learned Stoney was a business reporter for The World 50 years ago.)

Later, editors Kathy Erickson and Clark Walworth helped me become a better writer. In addition to being a superb editor, Kathy was a phenomenal columnist and helped me craft my own columnist skills. Clark, also a wordsmith and stickler for grammar, pointed out the South Coast has no prep schools so to call high school sports prep sports was inaccurate. Since then, I have never used the phrase except when referring to La Salle Prep of the Portland area.

Over a quarter century, I had a bunch of great sports writers who helped provide coverage of everything South Coast. The longest-tenured of those were Jamie Lawson and Rachel Finney, and I was both saddened and understanding when they each left for greener pastures. I knew my various assistants would all eventually leave for other opportunities and I hope I helped make them into better writers. They included Andrew Greif, who I had the pleasure of covering as a state champion long jumper at North Bend, and who later joined me for a summer as an intern when he was at the University of Oregon, just as I had done years earlier. I watched his career rise in dramatic fashion through several stops, the current one the Los Angeles Times beat writer for the Clippers.

My most treasured colleague was Ron Jackimowicz, who joined us after in 2005 after a career covering sports in California. I never had to worry about him wanting my job — he had spent more than enough nights covering sports — and cherished his abilities as a page designer, helping our best features stand out in print. He became my golf partner and writing confidant and we spent a few years dining together for his cuisine column, which became probably the most popular part of the paper (certainly in terms of feedback I got from the public).

I admired the skills of our many photographers over the years, especially Lou Sennick, who was with us two decades. I appreciated their abilities even more the past year, when I was trying to take pictures of sports events, something I rarely had to do before. I’ve done what I could, sacrificing how I like to cover events to try to make suitable photos, a tall task, especially for sports like volleyball, soccer, basketball and football.

In my early years, I loved the scent of hot wax in the mornings. The method of page production then included printing out the text for stories and having our composing staff paste them onto page templates before the press crew converted them into the plates that went onto the press.

The hot wax went away years ago, but I still loved the hum of the press on the other side of the wall from the newsroom, especially when it was first starting up with each run. That ended when The World moved printing operations early this year.

Along the way, there were warning signs of the challenging future for the newspaper industry. When I started, we were printing some 17,000 copies of the Saturday paper on Friday nights and our penetration in the greater Bay Area was over 80 percent of households.

The emergency of the internet revolutionized much in our industry, but also how people got their news, and circulation started falling. Recessions proved challenging for retailers, the lifeblood of the newspaper with their advertising, and the South Coast lost some of our major advertisers including The Emporium, Macy’s and JC Penney’s.

During my tenure, the paper had four different owners and numerous publishers and ad directors.

Through it all, I loved my day (and night) job, bringing sports news to the South Coast.

There is nothing like high school sports and the impact sports has on the various communities. And the unique variety of community sports on the South Coast is great.

Since my own kids weren’t into sports, I got to live vicariously through the athletes I covered, many of whom became good friends along the way in their post-high school days.

I had the opportunity to cover numerous state champion teams. In fact, all 11 schools in our coverage area (we used to deliver all the way from Siuslaw in Florence to Brookings-Harbor near the border) won team titles in multiple sports. All, that is, except my own high school, Coquille. Like the others, though, the Red Devils enjoyed numerous champions in the individual sports of cross country, track and field and wrestling.

I loved visiting all the South Coast schools and covered state championship events in Corvallis, Monmouth, the Salem area, Portland, Forest Grove, Gresham, Beaverton and Eugene.

I got to cover a few college national champions for SWOCC and for bigger schools, including football-placekicker-turned-javelin-thrower and Marshfield graduate John Stiegeler at the University of Oregon and golf phenom Monica Vaughn of Reedsport at Arizona State University.

I probably wrote too many personal columns and features over the years, but reader complaints generally were about stories I didn’t get to, or perceived biases in our coverage.

The community sports section was one of my focal points, trying to get as many results and stories for swimming, bowling, running, auto racing, marital arts and golf in the paper as I could.

My tenure included covering the entire development of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, from what I originally considered a crazy a proposal in the 1990s to the golf mecca with five of the nation’s highest-rated golf courses that it is today.

I covered the building of Bandon Crossings, Salmon Run near Brookings and Florence Golf Links (originally Sandpines), as well as the expansion of Coos Golf Club and Sunset Bay Golf Course, with its now unique 12-hole layout. Sadly, along the way we lost both Kentuck Golf Course and Face Rock Golf Course, later Bandon Golf Links. I look forward to the proposed Pacific Gales near Port Orford becoming a reality.

I built good relationships with colleagues at several other newspapers (too many too mention) and officials at the Oregon School Activities Association.

It never was my goal, but along the way I won my share of writing awards in regional newspaper competitions as well as statewide writing awards from other groups for our coverage of swimming and our coverage of the Class 3A state basketball tournament, an award I am particularly proud of since I was nominated by coaches from outside the South Coast.

Far more important to me than the awards, of course, are the relationships forged with coaches, athletic directors, athletes, parents and community members.

I appreciate all the comments of support I have received over the years, and especially the past few months as my time at the paper was running out.

When Marshfield and North Bend recognized their senior swimmers recently, Mira Matthews, one of the standout Pirates, included a picture of me interviewing her in her photo collage, and I immediately wondered just how many pictures like that are out there in the South Coast photo collections of parents and athletes.

It’s rewarding knowing the positive impact the newspaper’s coverage has on students and their families.

I will always regret not getting to some of the stories I wanted to write, including about Myrtle Point runner Jerry Roberts and his impressive collection of age-group wins in the half marathon in his late-60s.

I also never quite figured out how to write about how proud retired Coos Bay teacher Gladys Kelly is of her grandson Josh Heupel, a former University of Oklahoma star and the new head football coach at the University of Tennessee. Heupel’s mom Cindy is a Marshfield grad and Kelly made sure I knew about Heupel’s rise to the prestigious coaching post. You can bet she’ll be proudly pulling for the Volunteers.

You’ll still see my name in the paper some. I have offered to write a few stories to keep local sports coverage going while the paper looks for my replacement.

And though I am leaving daily newspaper life, I still believe in community journalism and hope The World continues to be a mainstay on the South Coast. I have confidence in both Editor David Rupkalvis and Publisher David Thornberry, both newcomers to the South Coast with extensive newspaper backgrounds.

As for my own newspaper history, my heartfelt thanks to all of you readers for allowing me to be a part of your lives for so many years.

The hours were long and the pay wasn’t always great, but that’s the way with many rewarding careers. And it’s a career choice I will never regret.

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