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FIRST PERSON

Those Heady Days as a Student Journalist

November 13, 1989|GARY LIBMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

My wife has returned to school to become a psychotherapist. It's what she always wanted to do, and when she studies, she loves the mental exercise. When she attends classes every Tuesday, she is almost beside herself with joy.

That is how I felt about the Scholastic Sports Assn. (SSA) of the old Los Angeles Examiner. Two and three decades ago in a grimy, industrial building at 12th and Main in downtown Los Angeles, this program taught thousands of adolescents to be journalists by teaching them to cover high school sports.

Students from Burbank, Compton, East Los Angeles and Beverly Hills and scores of other Southern California locations worked free from 4 p.m. to midnight several times a week at this noisy, heavily trafficked intersection. Why? Because they knew that if they paid attention, a career awaited them in a field they loved.

A lot of them made it. Among hundreds of SSA alumni nationwide in journalism or related fields, the local contingent includes Steve Harvey, Allan Malamud and David Shaw of The Times; Mitch Chortkoff of the Santa Monica Outlook; Henry Alfaro of KABC-TV, and Tom Seeberg, vice president of public relations for the California Angels.

The Los Angeles Examiner merged with the Herald Express to form the Herald Examiner in 1962, and during its terrible strike in 1967 the newspaper ended funding for the SSA. A few years later, wreckers leveled the SSA building and paved a parking lot for company trucks.

Since 1967, private sponsors have maintained a program of seminars, field trips, scholarships and an intensive, annual two-week workshop, but there is no daily meeting place or chance to practice journalism daily. The Her-Ex's demise last week led many SSA alumni to grieve for an important part of their past.

Looking back, the program seems to have required so much work yet been so carefree.

One evening I realized that time moved so quickly at the newspaper that the night seemed over before it started, and that I ended up feeling almost giddy with exhilaration.

Often when I felt this way at midnight, I bought a large milk and an apple turnover from the catering truck behind the Examiner building at 11th and Broadway, two blocks from our SSA office, and entered a rear door to the composing room.

As the cold milk quenched my thirst, I watched the men set up the lead type for the next day's paper. I could not help them, but I ached for the day when it would be my responsibility to write major game stories or put out a paper myself.

The newspaper devoted as much as two pages to high school sports on Saturdays and--glory of glories--my byline sometimes appeared several times. This was heady stuff for a 16-year-old, but my attraction to the profession was stronger than bylines. I knew I liked newspaper work more than anything I had ever tried.

I had been an aspiring basketball player, but by the 11th grade it became clear that my future was elsewhere. I enjoyed working on the high school paper, so I struck a deal with the basketball coach. If he allowed me to practice with the team and leave early to go downtown to the SSA, I would get his team the best coverage I could. It was shamelessly unprofessional, but I did not know that then.

So three or four afternoons a week, I raced up the wooden stairs and down the dark hallway to the SSA's second-floor office, a large, brightly lit room where about 20 typewriters and telephones were dispersed at even intervals along smudged walls. A large copy desk with a slot in the middle stood in one corner.

Shortly after arriving in the office, phones began ringing as other students called in games. We took scoring summaries and highlights and wrote stories, sending our work to sports writers the Examiner assigned to work with us as copy editors.

When the desk completed several stories, one of us gathered them and hurried down the steps, around the corner and across Broadway to the sports department beneath the Examiner's Moorish dome.

Finished with the afternoon games, we ventured out for dinner. For this we received four dimes to buy a hamburger at Corky's drug store, the Case Hotel Deli or similar palaces of gastronomy. Originally we received six dimes, but the Hearst Corp. cut the allowance when it confronted hard times.

Returning to work, a lull occurred before callers started reporting night games. We often used the time to imitate Ralph Alexander, the Examiner track and field writer who administered our program.

Alexander's distinctive speaking characteristics seemed to beg for mimicry. He clasped his hands, rolled a pencil between them, rose on his toes and clenched his teeth, often over a huge wad of gum. On top of that, he called most people "Chief," as in "See how you do that, Chief?"

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