November 27, 2014

JimMutscheller-300It was April of 1973, and I was about to spend my last summer as a college student water-proofing basements.

An English major about to enter my senior year, I only recently had decided I might like to work for a newspaper, but my applications for internships at Baltimore’s dailies – the Sunpapers and The News American – had been rejected.

A summer of digging in wet basements awaited.

Then I took a ride on an elevator with the former pro football player.

Jim Mutscheller had just spoken at a Notre Dame Club of Maryland luncheon at the Lord Baltimore Hotel. A graduate of ND in 1952, he had gone on to play tight end for the Baltimore Colts—and Number 84 had become a hero on my team of boyhood heroes.

He introduced himself to me following lunch as we were waiting for the Down elevator. Once on board, Jim asked what I planned to do with my summer. In the span of a dozen or so floors, I told him about my dashed journalism hopes and looming waterproofing career.

“I know someone over at The News American,” he said. “Let me make a call.”

I have never seen Jim Mutscheller again.

Three days later, I received a call from John Steadman, sports editor at the News. He said an internship had just opened and he’d like to meet me. Within a week, the managing editor offered me an internship on the City Desk. A year later, I joined the staff.

More than 40 years later, on this Thanksgiving, I’m thinking about how a man in an elevator changed the direction of my life.

But Thanksgiving strikes me as one of those opportunities to choose between simple gratitude and something more. I can be grateful for Jim Mutscheller — which is a good thing — or I can go further and emulate Jim Mutscheller. Over and over in my life, people went further. Often they were in positions of leadership. And because of that, they influenced the kind of leader I want to be.

A leader who “makes a call.”

Who needs you to “make a call” for them?

By the time I was 21 and took that elevator ride, many people had helped move my life along its trajectory. Parents, teachers, clergy, friends. At each point, of course, I got to choose what I would make of their efforts — just like I got to decide what to make of that first internship. But the undeniable fact is that someone’s willingness to “make a call” on my behalf took my life in a direction it otherwise might not have taken.

Today, I not only look back on Jim Mutscheller; I look back on bosses who took chances on me. On more than 30 men and women in Philadelphia – almost all of them strangers – who generously responded to my individual requests for their time and advice when I was out of work in 2001. On a Poynter president who believed I could teach.

They all “made calls” for me.

I also think back to the managers at The News American who in 1981, following the layoff of 30 people—20 percent of the staff—holed up in offices for days and called editors all over the country, trying to find jobs for their unemployed colleagues. That scene has been replicated many times in many newsrooms in the years since, and it always moves me.

It also reminds me that those of us blessed with positions of leadership or influence or celebrity have opportunities that we get to act upon or ignore. Note I said “opportunities,” not “responsibilities.”

We have a responsibility to manage work and the staff that does it.

We have opportunities to do much more—sometimes, to influence lives.

Who needs you to “make a call” for them? Who is struggling with a beat, a new and unrequested job assignment, a life change? Who left your staff for a job outside journalism a year ago and could use someone to check in? Who is out there looking for a job, maybe for months now, and is really scared?

Sometimes the people who need us ask for our help. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they can’t.

I didn’t ask Jim Mutscheller for help. He just chose to offer it. And he helped to change the direction of my life.

Who’s about to get into an elevator with you?

Seize the opportunity. Make the call.




Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Butch Ward is senior faculty and former managing director at The Poynter Institute, where he teaches leadership, editing, reporting and writing. He worked for 27…
Butch Ward

More News

Back to News