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The make-up man

In honor of National Newspaper Week, I want to share a story from the backrooms of the newspaper business.

There are reporters with byline fever. There are editors who crusade. There are photographers who freeze moments of history. And then there are people who make sure the newspaper goes out every day or every week. This one’s for them.

My grandfather, Paul Edwin Fletcher (he went by Edwin), spent his entire working life at the Middlesboro Daily News in Middlesboro, Ky. He started there as a boy of 15 in 1929, and he retired 53 years later, in 1982.

Granddad was “a make-up man” – that’s a job title you don’t hear any more, except maybe on a movie set. He worked with lead type, making up the pages of the paper and preparing them for the press.

I got my first view of the newspaper world when I was about five. On a family trip into Middlesboro, my dad (Paul Edwin Fletcher Jr. – he went by Paul) took me to see Granddad at work.

Mostly I remember a lot of noise. The presses were loud and clanging. And I recall Granddad working at a table, putting in type that looked funny – the little letters were backward. He put them into a big metal frame as they became words, sentences, paragraphs, then a page. Granddad’s hands were covered in black, gloppy ink; it stayed under his fingernails no matter how much Lava soap he used.

Granddad was on the small side – I don’t think he ever topped 5’9” – but he had muscular shoulders and thick brawny forearms, the result of a daily workout of lifting those heavy frames of type and carrying them to pre-press.

He wasn’t a man who talked a lot. He didn’t discuss work at home, although my dad told me how once Granddad had to work late, then rushed home excited with the special edition carrying a one-word headline: “WAR!”
But from five, I remember his quiet kindness. He gave my sister, my brother and me each a special gift that trip – our names, spelled out in backwards lead-type. It showed us what he did, and who he was. I still have mine, a small lump of metal that says Paul in 48-point type.

When I was a kid, my family kept moving farther away from Middlesboro – from North Carolina to Atlanta to South Florida. Visits to Kentucky became less frequent. But with each trip I was getting older and better able to understand Granddad’s world.

Middlesboro is just past the Cumberland Gap, where Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky met and dipped their mountains to provide passage for pioneers headed west. Some people kept going, seeking a better life in Indiana, Missouri and other western states. Some made it just past the gap and decided to stay. The city proudly supports the nearby coal mines, and many miners live in the area.

The east end of Middlesboro, where my grandfather lived, was not tony; many of the frame houses were small. Here or there, you might find a rusted car gradually disappearing into weeds. At most of the homes, though, people tried.

The second time I visited Granddad at work, in 1974, I was a high school senior getting ready for a year as editor of the student paper. By then the make-up process had changed. Granddad still laid out the pages, but he would run printed columns of type with the day’s stories through a waxer, then position them on the pages. The pre-press team then burned a plate that went on the press.

I spent an entire day at the Daily News, helping him lay out the paper. With sure hands and a practiced eye, Granddad methodically measured and sized the columns of type and laid them on the page so straight that you wouldn’t need a level to tell you how true they were. He positioned the headlines, photos and ads. And with his typical quiet kindness, he patiently showed me where my pages were crooked and how to fix them.

Granddad became the first Daily News employee to log 50 years with the paper in 1979; he retired a few years later. He had seen newspaper production go through generations of changes. He missed the next innovation: Computerized layout, just around the corner, put all that valuable make-up work inside a box and on a screen.

Years of working near the noisy presses did some damage. Granddad was nearly deaf, and he refused to get a hearing aid. In later visits, this sometimes made conversation difficult. Usually we would sit on the high porch of his house overlooking the town, communing in a warm silence. I know he was happy when I joined Virginia Lawyers Weekly. He liked the idea of another newspaperman in the family.

I last saw him in 2000, in a grim nursing home – he had fallen and shattered a knee, putting him in a wheelchair. At 86, his body was failing, his mind was mostly gone and his speech was slurred. My sister and I tried to connect with the man we knew. I reached into the darkness, if just for a moment, when I showed him a picture of my son. His face brightened and he said clearly, “I’ve got one of those at home.” He died three months later.

Granddad was a lifelong newspaperman who liked what he did. He knew his role and he played it well for 53 years. Thanks to him, the Daily News went out every day. The people in and around Middlesboro got their paper and the news they needed. He never got a lot of glory, but he served his paper and his community well. He never got a byline.

Actually, that’s not true. He gets one every time I sign my name to an article I’ve written.

— Paul Fletcher

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