It was on this date in 1980 that I reported to the newsroom of The Cincinnati Enquirer to interview for an opening on the copy desk.
I had moved to the Queen City of the West five months previously and had spent the time since reading William L. Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and looking for work, with more success at the former than the latter. Having come out of six years of graduate school with an unfinished Ph.D. dissertation (unfinished to this day), I was no one's prime candidate. I couldn't even get an interview.
So in mounting my assault on The Enquirer, I threw in everything: my files from the placement office at Syracuse University; recommendations from Lowell and Jean Denton, who had hired me for summers in high school and college to write for and edit The Flemingsburg Gazette; a letter from Dr. Napoleon Bryant, whom I had just met in my new parish and who had been encouraged by the editor of The Enquirer to steer talent his way; every piece of paper I could think of to flood the newspaper office so that they would ask me in, if only to stop it.
The managing editor and assistant managing editor for news took me to lunch at the Cincinnati Club. I had never been there, but it seemed eerily familiar. (I found out later that Sinclair Lewis had traveled to Cincinnati while doing research for Babbitt and that the Cincinnati Club was one of the models for George F. Babbitt's club in Zenith. Figures.) It was an amiable lunch.
Later, the managing editor told me that the paper had three openings on the copy desk and, because of my slender newspaper experience, they would give me a three-week tryout with pay. I accepted and started work on Feb. 8. The tryout went well — they saw I could do the work competently — and ended Feb. 28. On March 5, I got a call offering me a full-time position as a copy editor, which I accepted, starting work on March 7. I bought Dr. Bryant a bottle of quality bourbon.
Six months later, the news editor, the irrepressible Bob Johnson, took me aside to congratulate me that I had completed my six months' probation successfully and was now a permanent member of the staff.
And he asked, "By the way, John, did you use to be black?"
Then it came out. The higher-ups, reviewing my file, spotted the letter from Dr. Bryant, who is African-American and whom the editor had met at some function. Evidently assuming that no white applicant would ask for a reference from a black man, they concluded that, unlikely as it seemed, I was a minority candidate. The A.M.E./news had told Bob before my interview that the editor had a first-rate black candidate for copy editor coming in and that they planned on a tryout.
The M.E. and A.M.E. had had the presence of mind to show no visible shock when I walked in.
Of course, given The Enquirer of those days, I contributed to the diversity of the staff by not being a white male Roman Catholic of German descent from west of Vine Street.
When I told Dr. Bryant that I had been an affirmative-action hire, he laughed uproariously, no doubt seeing my case as another twisted example of how The Man thinks. Not everyone who has heard this story since has been quite as amused.