Letter from the Editor

Monday, April 7, 2003

Remembering Phil Jarnagin

It has been decades since Phil Jarnagin delivered his famous "Pilot Punches" from this office, but yet he is and always will be a very real part of the heart of this newspaper.

Those of us who have followed in his footsteps could only hope to keep the man's editing chair warm.

As the saying goes, there's a heck of a lot of things about this business that they didn't tell us, back in journalism school. I learned many of those things from Phil Jarnagin, and while his passing this week was not unexpected, it is a great loss. He was one of the lions of Iowa newspapering for over 40 years.

He shared his expertise generously and graciously, and I'll treasure the many stories he passed on - priceless memories of news, sports happenings, golfing oddities, and the lake he loved so well.

He wasn't shy about calling me if he saw anything in his morning Pilot that didn't live up to his standards, either. I often edited my own work with the bar set at "what Mr. Jarnagin is going to think of this." And I don't plan to stop measuring that way now, either.

On my desk, there sits a huge old dog-earned dictionary. It's awkward, outdated, hard-to-use - and wonderful - because it was his, and it reminds me of all the traditions of this business. I've got a new dictionary somewhere, and one built into the computer, but they just aren't the same.

After meticulously recording lake data on his own since the 1970s, including the exact date the ice melted and froze in every year, Phil turned the records over to me a few years ago when his health began to fail, and I've added to them since, trying to be as faithful and accurate as he was in every aspect of his life.

There was no sensationalism, no bending of the facts in a Jarnagin newspaper. Everyone, rich or poor, was treated fairly. The rule of thumb might be that "you can't believe everything you read," but he was the exception to that rule.

He had an amazing memory that stuck with him nearly to the end. I could go to him with a name of a Tornado football player or Buena Vista basketball player from two generations ago; he'd have both stats and stories.

His hand is in much that has made Storm Lake great - 56 years of Kiwanis without ever missing a meeting! Lake Creek, Chamber, BVU trustees, Chamber of Commerce, Izaak Walton, Elks, the Methodist Church, Lake Preservation Association, our own Mr. Goodfellow charity, and many more.

Phil's was also a great love story. He shared nearly 70 years with his wife Jennette, and was a huge part of the lives of his late daughter, his grandchildren after they had lost their parents, and his great-grandchildren.

He was as caring as he was tough; energetic and focused; a trim, natty, gentlemanly, diminutive figure that somehow always seemed much bigger than his true size, as if the magnitude of his heart showed through.

I'll miss him dearly, and so should everyone who cares about Storm Lake, the way that he cared about it and labored so long to help mold, shape, encourage and if necessary, editorially kick it in the behind to keep it moving forward.

One last deadline well met, old friend. In the classic era, at the end of a piece of writing properly done, the journalist would always proudly put a symbol that universally signified completion.

I'll use it here in honor of this man, who showed us all how it should be done.

Goodbye, Mr. Jarnagin. You'll not be forgotten.

At the other end of the journalism spectrum, I spent a few days recently at a conference of midwestern editors, where a large newspaper was featured as a role model due to a recent Pulitzer Prize award.

One of their projects was a seemingly endless series of lurid stories on a man accused of molesting and killing children, one of which he allegedly cut up, cooked and fed to a crowd at his church. The newspaper put much of its staff of 40 reporters on the story, and drug it out, and out and out with every possible stretch of an angle.

As horrid as the crime was, the newspaper's reporting, in my book, was almost as ugly. The culminating moment was its publishing of "recipes" for meals made with human corpses, including the recipe for "Young Boy Chili" as it termed it, that the suspect is alleged to have cooked. The child's mother had to read that.

The editors gleefully bragged on this effort, and others that struck me as pure racist stereotyping against Native Americans as drunks, doctoring of statistical estimates by up to 50 percent, and so on.

If that's what it takes to win Pulitzers, who needs them? I think I'll stick with Mr. Jarnagin's lead.