Police reporter: Right man, wrong look

David Ettlin relaxes in a Sun conference room in the 1980s.

His great sin is that he never looked the part:

The ruddy complexion and the insubordinate hair and that godawful mustache that should never have belonged to anyone with more solemnity and poise than an East Baltimore Street pimp, drunk and luckless, down to his last working girl.

The wardrobe was disastrous. He made the rest of the slumming metro veterans look almost plausible. His laugh was a cackle, employed liberally against the farts and foibles of the important and famous. From humanity, he expected farce and scandal at all points, adoring an absurd, senseless murder most of all. He never lost at Scrabble, he had 10 different ways of saying anything in print, and yeah, if he acted as if he'd seen it all without ever leaving a newsroom, it was only because he had.

David Michael Ettlin taught me to be a reporter at The Baltimore Sun, which is to say, I love the man for everything he is, and everything he isn't.

When I began on the night police beat in 1983, Ettlin was late rewrite man, the catch-all go-to wordslinger for all the news breaking on deadline. If I had been a little older, if I'd gotten to Calvert Street sooner, I might have fallen sway to the charms of Jay Spry, who had lorded it over rewrite since the days of Russell Baker. Catching the tail end of the Spry era, I thereafter labored for Ettlin, who took to me as he took to all the fresh hires. The world beyond the newsroom might be a rancid, hilarious circus of venality and miscalculation, but if Uncle Abell hired you, then some certain merit was assumed. And Ettlin would show you The Sun way.

Except, to those who actually ran the paper, David Ettlin was decidedly not cut from the right cloth to truly represent the dignified gray lady. In the bowels of the newsroom, sure. On rewrite, Ettlin could be master of the universe, a man to give you 20 inches of assembled fact on anything in 10 minutes. He had the gift for rewrite, a skill accurately described by the aforementioned Baker as being able to string an endless series of clichés together at high speed.

Ettlin wasn't just great at what he did. He was necessary.

On a slow night, with nothing to chase, he would take the younger reporters for a couple dollars in Scrabble, overcharge the rest of us at his junkfood emporium, move a couple cop briefs and check the weather table to make sure the clerk hadn't again mistyped to make the Phoenix high a notable 197 degrees. On a busy night, after 7 or 8, he pretty much was The Baltimore Sun. Or so it seemed to me.

Yeah, he looked wrong. And dressed awful. And laughed at the wrong stuff a little too loud. And admittedly, he lived life by the solitary news cycle, chasing one day's headlines, then forgetting them, then chasing new stuff the next day. So, OK, Ettlin was never going to greet the governor at the editorial board meeting, or brood in a corner office with the other assistant managing editors.

He was a grunt, always walking point. And his great ambition — the only thing he wanted from his professional life — was to be the night metro editor, to run the local desk from that moment when the rest of them left in the evening until the home final deadline at two a.m. For Ettlin, that was the summit.

Time and again, they passed him by, using the night slot as a proving ground for younger, up-and-coming editors-to-be. Time and again, after every promotion, he would apply for the vacancy.

"Why not Ettlin?" I once asked the interviewing editor.

"News judgment," came the reply. "He has none."

I didn't see it. I'd worked with him for years by then. True, he didn't look like an editor of one of the world's most dry and dour newspapers. And now and again, he said the wrong thing. And sure, like a lot of us in the newsroom, he didn't seem to regard the world as more than a bottomless reservoir of tragedy and farce from which a daily paper fills its columns.

But so what? The Sun needed a night editor, not a philosopher-king. And between the hours of eight and two, I never saw Dave Ettlin shank a late-breaking story. Fast, clean, accurate — there were thrice-promoted people in that newsroom who would never manage two of the three. Yet Ettlin was forever waiting his turn.

In January of 1987, an Amtrak metroliner went off the rails in Chase, northeast of the city, and I got in early to work rewrite. Ettlin arrived three hours later, walking in as I caught calls from reporters at the scene. He leaned over, hit the scroll-up button and read the top of my story as it existed at that point. Then he sat at the next desk and began writing the sidebar story.

The managing editor eventually walked over and asked him if he was sure, if it didn't make more sense for him to take the main story and leave me the color piece. Which was the crux of it: Night editor, no. But when it hit the fan, they all wanted Ettlin.

My feelings would not have been hurt if they'd tossed me off the mainbar. But I found myself pretending to listen to the reporter jabbering quotes in my ear from a Chase payphone. In truth, I was waiting on Dave Ettlin and his verdict.

"I read his top," he told the editor. "He's on it."

Proudest moment ever as a newspaperman.

Many years later, I had occasion to walk back into The Sun newsroom after a long time away. I was an apostate television hack, having taken one of the string of buyouts offered by the company over the last twenty years. The newsroom was half-empty, the remaining veterans a bit hollow-eyed at all that had happened to journalism and newspapers in particular. Much had been lost, and much wasted, and the banter was tinged with frustration and regret. But the news on that day was that David Michael Ettlin was finally retiring. As The Baltimore Sun's night editor.

We got that story right, at least.

David Simon was a metro reporter from 1982 to 1995. A Baltimore resident, he is an author and a writer and producer of television dramas.