Resigned to the lessons of demography


IT RECENTLY became official: The Evening Sun will close Sept. 15. The obits will appear, many and merited. Recollections of Mencken and Manchester, explanations of changing reader habits, television's impact, demographics. Circulation down, losses up. "A New Sun Will Rise," promises the morning paper's lead editorial. Could be . . . hope so.

Still, one is advised not to forsake the tried maxim: "Don't assume anything."

Though the demise was inevitable, the date, the stark certainty of it, unsettles -- Sept. 15. In this respect, institutions differ from mortals. With us, hope is eternal for the day one is destined to draw the last breath is never known, except to the suicide-prone or condemned. Even so, tormented minds can change; phone lines to governors' mansions remain open. Sadly, not so with the octogenarian Evening Sun, a Baltimore ornament for so long. Deal done, it will disappear along with summer.

True, the publication had been terminal the past three years, increasingly almost a reprint of the morning news and features, unfair to the ratepayer. But for me, the key word is almost. Editorial pages still remain fresher, less equivocal in the "P.M." paper. For this reader, that difference is yet worth the price despite (no offense intended) the diminution ofverve and clarity after editorial page director Ray Jenkins retired in 1991, completing a decade of superlative comment. Those pieces, unsigned yet unmistakable, illuminated the dark corners of countless unclean stables in those Reagan-Bush years.

Shortly before Ray Jenkins arrived, Gwinn Owens, unabashed Baltimore booster, had been given the green light to run with his idea for this Other Voices page. When his tenure ended in 1986, Gwinn Owens wrote: "I know of no other paper in the U.S. that has committed itself so completely to a home-grown op-ed page." No overstatement there. To this day, the space continues to sparkle and that's a special loss, beyond recapture. In the chronology of Evening Sun highlights accompanying the termination announcement, 1979 was cited as the year reporter Jon Franklin won his first Pulitzer Prize -- an item worth noting. However, there was no mention that in March of that year, Other Voices was born.

Editors, writers, concept: These have been the keys to the successes of the enterprise. Gwinn Owens, a gentle man, nursed his brainchild for almost seven years, suffering a bit each time he had to say "no" to an aspiring free-lance writer's effort, about five times on average to each "yes." His mission to "be the agency through which undiscovered writers of high quality could find their way" into print has been richly fulfilled. The opinions of talented locals on issues of interest to the Baltimore area (for that was the heart of the idea) were published and paid for, though just how handsomely once caused a small contretemps.

In March 1982, I churlishly (though lightheartedly) complained in a third anniversary piece, that when the check arrives "the thought occurs that a more accurate designation of one's newly won status should be 'almost-free' lance." The first editor unable to resist spicing his identification lines with puns and comments, retaliated: "After that crack about 'almost-free' lance, Bates, do you really expect to get anything on the Other Voices page again?" Turns out, I did, some 93 items in all (but who's counting). Lucky.

Mike Bowler, an expert education reporter and editor, assumed the burden for the next eight years-plus. On the surface, Mike was more dour and gruff than his predecessor (though basically as decent). Mike Bowler let poetry flourish in his reign, discovering the Polimericks of George Neff Lucas, always a delight to the eye and ear. Thoughts on local matters remained the favored subject matter, as it has under Marilyn McCraven, who will soon complete one year on the challenging task, and the quality, on balance, has never sagged. (Did you ever think, Ms. McCraven, that Fats Drobnak would expire of demography rather than obesity?)

Hundreds of writers have had thousands of pieces published here over the past decade and a half -- often thoughtful, tender, humorous, informed. At the risk of slighting deserving others, I single out two. Jack Levin and Stephen Vicchio unfailingly instruct and enchant with articles wise and common-sensical, always with impeccable style. Lest, however, praise turns their pretty heads, the record reflects that this pair, more prescient or (likely) less loyal to their op-ed roots than I, have been appearing in the "A.M." paper of late.

Me? Share white space with George Will rather than Russell Baker? Never (I think). So, anyone interested in a like-new Royal typewriter? Ribbon in decent shape, cheap, a real cream puff. Available Sept. 15.

Milton Bates writes from Baltimore.

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