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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Don Agrella: City Editor Extraordinaire

Don Agrella (R) & Ed "Lou Grant" Asner (Middle).
Tribune Metro Editor Bernie Judge is on the left


OK, right off the bat, I will tell you Don Agrella would have yelled at me if I ever called him City Editor "Extraordinaire."

But the fact is, Agrella, who passed away at 92 Wednesday, was an extraordinary Day City Editor and newsman. For about five years he was my boss at the Chicago Tribune. Between 1969 and 1974 I worked for him as a general assignment reporter, rewrite man and assistant city editor. During those five years he provided me with a newspaper education that simply doesn't exist anymore.

Agrella's trademark in the newsroom was to assign reporters to stories by yelling: "Hat and Coat!" as in, "Yates, hat and coat!"  

Never mind that I or few other reporters in early 1970s ever wore a hat.

That would be my signal to trot over to the Tribune's gray U-shaped wooden city desk where Agrella would issue my marching orders: "Go cover this (fill in the blank) speech, fire, trial, meeting, press conference, etc. and  let me know if it's worth anything."

Only once during my incipient career as a general assignment reporter for the Tribune did I return and declare: "It wasn't worth a story."

"Is that right?" Agrella replied. "Well then, why in the hell does the Sun-Times have a story and what about this City News copy I am holding."

All I could do is gulp. "Sorry," I said. "I didn't think it was worth a story."

"In the future you go cover the story, call me and I'll decide if it's worth anything," he told me. "That way, you won't have to apologize any more."

Then, noticing that my 6'4" frame seemed to be sinking into the newsroom floor, he took pity on me.

"Look, it's my job to decide if something is worth a story. It's your job to report. OK? Let me do my job."

Then he smiled. "Now go and write me a 4-head." (A 4-head was a short, 3-paragraph story that usually wound up somewhere in the back of the paper).

I went back to my desk and wrote what was (in my mind at least) the best 4-head story Agrella had ever seen.

The Tribune newsroom in those days was alive with sound. No cubicles. No cell phones. No carpeted floors. Just a lot of noise--as in the clacking of typewriters, telephones ringing off their hooks, editors yelling at reporters and reporters yelling "copy" at copy boys (and girls). In those days yelling "copy" didn't mean go to the Copier and make a copy. It meant: "get over here and pick up this story I just finished and distribute it to all the relevant editors."

Newsrooms 40 years ago were studies in semi-controlled mayhem. How anybody ever worked in them, let alone wrote anything of quality baffles me today. Yet, work we did and the stories produced were often damned good ones too.

Don Agrella saw to that. He was a tough task master. He did not suffer fools nor did he tolerate sloppy reporting.

"You sure about this, Yates?" he once asked about an exclusive story I had just put in front of him.

"I am," I replied.

"Would you bet your mother's life on it?"

"I would," I said.

"OK," he replied. "But don't forget, you only have one mother, but there are a million stories out there."

I have to admit, that gave me pause. But I soldiered on. "Damn it, Don, it's a good story."

"I didn't say it wasn't good...but is it accurate?" he demanded.

Accuracy was at the top of Don Agrella's list of reportorial essentials. He might accept a poorly written story (he could always have a rewrite man or woman rework it), but God forbid that it be inaccurate.

And one thing you learned early on in dealing with Don Agrella: you never, ever lied to him. Don wanted to trust his reporters and if he couldn't take you at your word, you were on bad paper with him. I witnessed a few reporters fall into that trap and few, if any, ever climbed out of it and into Don's good graces again.

Between 1973 and 1974 I became a City Editor myself. I was the weekend version of Don Agrella, assigning reporters to stories on Saturday and Sunday and putting together a local report. I am sure I could never have done that job had I not had the experience of watching Don Agrella at work.

In 1974 I was promoted to Foreign Correspondent and went off to Asia. I never worked for Don Agrella again.

But one day in 1975, when I returned to Chicago for a few days after covering the fall of Saigon in April of that year, Don grabbed me and took me aside.

"You did a great job covering Vietnam," he told me. "And just so you know, the Sun-Times never had a story you didn't have. Looks like you learned something in my city room after all, Yates."

A few years later, while I was based in Los Angeles for the Tribune, I met with actor Ed Asner, who at the time was playing the part of Lou Grant, City Editor of the Los Angeles Tribune.  It was 1978 and Lou Grant was one of the top TV shows in America.

Asner asked me if I thought his portrayal of a tough city editor was accurate. I told him he should go to Chicago and watch Don Agrella at work. He actually did do that and one day, when Don wasn't expecting it, Asner walked into the Tribune city room and yelled; "Agrella, Hat and Coat!"

When Don retired from the Tribune in 1979 it was definitely the end of an era. He was an old school newspaperman leaving at a time when the business was on the verge of changing in ways that make many veteran hacks like myself, sad.

Once in the 1990s a bunch of us Tribune-ites gathered at Ricardos (once a classic  Chicago hangout for news people) for lunch. Don was in town from Florida where he had retired. I had just returned to Chicago from Tokyo where I had been the paper's bureau chief.

"Well Don," I asked. "Are you ready to come back to the Tribune city room?"
"What city room?" he replied. "The place looks like an insurance office. I couldn't work there. There's no noise."

I was one of the lucky ones. I got to work in a noisy newsroom for Don Agrella: a City Editor who was, without a doubt, truly "Extraordinaire."

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