Get Off Your Butt and Take Action


Wherever I look today, I see so many young people claiming they can’t find suitable work commensurate with their skill set and education. I’ll run into them at a local McDonald’s, Best Buys, and Starbucks. All of them seem like good people with a lot to offer, but something is holding them back.

Ask them how many resumes they’ve sent out and you’ll hear answers from “just a few” to “Well, I’m just getting around to it.” Many of them were graduated from college a year or two ago. You ask them why they aren’t hustling more and they’ll reply, “No jobs, man.”

That’s when I tell them to look up the word PERSISTENCE, the act of continuing steadily in spite of opposition.

College grads of my era heard the same thing in June of 1974. Oh, you’re an English major, no one is going to hire you? If some of us had listened to such claptrap we never would have gotten off our butts and just settled for $1.80 an hour at the nearest Hardees, Radio Shack or Chock Full o’ Nuts. Months, maybe years would have drifted by before we came to our senses.

So here’s the deal young people. Every generation has it tough. Get used to it. Nothing comes easy.

For starters, put together an effective resume. From where I sit, it’s a whole lot easier to type and lay out a resume than it had been 40 years ago. You’ve got computers. Make a mistake, hit the backspace button, continue typing and soon you are done. Forty years ago you’d make a mistake, rip the sheet of onion skin out of the typewriter, curse up a storm, and start over. That’s how it was. But we persisted and so must you.

Here’s an example of persistence: Just before graduation I had already mailed more than 300 — count ’em 300 — typewritten resumes to newspapers, magazines, and television and radio stations. I could not have cared if 299 turned me down, all I needed was one acceptance. And that came during the final week of July.

That morning my father and I took the train to New York from Convent Station, N.J. He was headed to work; I was looking for work. Before we parted at 33rd Street, he said, “You’ve been working real hard at these job interviews. Why don’t you meet me for lunch at Charley O’s restaurant by Rockefeller Center. I said thanks and we met at 12:30 p.m.

As we were about to order, a man named Nat Fields walked in. My father waved him over and invited him to join us. Nat was a big shot in the world of public relations. He knew everybody.

“What brings you to town, Joe?” he said.

“I’m looking for work in communications.”

“Want to be a sportswriter?”

I hadn’t considered that as a career, but I enjoyed sports and I said yes.

Nat took out a notebook, jotted down a name and a number, and handed it to me.

“Call this man tomorrow and you’ll have a job on Monday.”

“How can you be so sure?” I said.

“He’s a close friend and you seem like a diligent young man, and they’re always looking for good workers on newspapers.”

The next day I called Willie Klein of the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He interviewed me on Friday and I started work as a copyboy on Monday.

Lucky break, you say. Perhaps. But I had ridden a lot of hot trains and subways all summer long to get that “lucky break.”

Are you hustling for your lucky break?

Now, if you don’t have work, keep searching and stop playing games on your smartphones. I realize smartphones are here to stay, but you need to demonstrate control over technology, it’s not the other way around. By the way, that’s not me talking, it was the late Ray Bradury, the greatest fantasy writer of the twentieth century, speaking at a writer’s conference in 1997 at the College of New Jersey.

He went on to point out the great distraction that technology presents. In fact, he warned 18 years ago that it was only going to get worse because technology is so addictive. He was correct. Keeping one’s eyes fixated on a smartphone just shrinks one’s world. Why do you want your world shrunk down to a three-inch screen so you can watch others live their lives — and often foolishly. How can that offer you a meaningful existence much less get you a job?

My suggestion to you is to try and break free from technology to some extent because as Bradbury said just before his death in 2012, “We have too many cell phones. We’ve got too many internets. We have too many machines now …”

So back off the technology a tad. Sit and think about what you truly wish to do in this world and then chase that dream job relentlessly. It’s closer than you think.

Everyone Needs a Mentor; Lud was Mine


Anyone who aspires to make it in a particular field of work ought to seek out a mentor. Even if you are that kind of person who says, “I can do this on my own,” it’s still better to have someone in your corner who can offer you suggestions to make your transition smoother.

For me that person was Lud Shabazian. He was sports editor emeritus at The Dispatch newspaper in Union City, N.J., where I met him in 1976. He had just stepped down as sports editor within the year and turned over the responsibilities to Bob O’Connor, fifty years his junior.

Lud, a Union City native, not only held the top sports title since 1920, he also was the newspaper’s cartoonist and columnist. He knew everyone from Babe Ruth to Jack Dempsey and Mickey Mantle to Muhammad Ali. He was a walking sports encyclopedia and today he is in New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame. So who better to ask questions of in times of need.

I didn’t court Lud as a mentor. In fact, it just happened. He saw my knowledge of athletes past and present was deeper than the average Joe. So we talked. Lud liked to hold these conversations at a coffee shop a half block away where he’d buy me a donut and a cup of coffee. What was amusing was how Lud just couldn’t get over the price of coffee in 1976. It might have been 35 cents, but that was six times more than the nickel cup in his day.

Often he’d bring a copy of the sports section, open to the page where my article appeared, and commence criticizing.  Now true criticism offers positive as well as negative commentary, so Lud started with the positive. And a lot of it was. Anything negative had to do with niggling points of details but that, he told me, was what made the difference between a great article and a good article. I took copious mental notes.

When I look back at these pieces today I agree with every point he once made. I even recall particular scenes at the coffee shop where he corrected me on certain points. But I notice something else 40 years later: Lud could have been a lot tougher on me. I see things now that make me wince, and I’m sure Lud winced too. I think he reasoned that I’d figure certain things out by myself. Sure, he called me out on some of them, but not all of them. I guess he just didn’t want to beat me up too much.

These sessions also took place at his house in Ridgefield, New Jersey. I’d go up at 10 a.m. and we’d start talking sports and writing. Our discussions lasted till noon and Lud’s wife, Joey, prepared us lunch and the three of us continued our chat.

I don’t think Joey was much of a sports enthusiast by nature, but after being married to Lud for so long, she picked up a lot and was right with us as we traversed the sports landscape.

How into reading was Lud? His house was filled with thousands of books — and not just sports titles. Visitors often stumbled over earmarked books written by James Joyce, William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Arthur Miller, and Truman Capote. Books of all genres were piled along the walls in his bedroom, then they swept down the hallway, and found their way into small bunches on the stairway. The living room was clear. The kitchen too. After all, Joey had to lay claim to a piece of the house.

But as one headed down the basement steps, the view that greeted visitors was a scene out of the television show “Hoarders.” Book, books, books, everywhere! On the floor, on shelves, intermittently on the washer and dryer. Lud even added a classic touch never seen anywhere: He had strung clotheslines throughout the basement and there he hung the first drafts of major sports stories he had written during the 1920s and 30s. He thought that would keep them safe from those “book bugs” that chew paper.

“Hey, take that one down,” he said pointing to a clothesline one day. “That’s my cartoon of the fight at Boyle’s Thirty Acres.” And damn if if wasn’t the Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier fight from July 2, 1921, in Jersey City.

When sportswriters die there is an odd tradition that other sportswriters knock on their doors, gain access from their widows, then rampage though the houses scooping up books. Lud always told me that I was welcome to do so too, but when he died in July 1990 I just couldn’t do it. It seemed crude. After April 1978, I headed off to graduate school and eventually returned to sports and developed as a writer on my own. But the suggestions Lud offered me early on resounded throughout the years. They still do.

As a teacher these days, when I edit a student’s essay, I do so in the spirit of Lud Shabazian: I accent the positive, I point out the negative, but I always encourage. Always.

Just like Lud.

Welcome to the Land of Wonderful Characters


If you ever go to Hudson County in New Jersey, any place in Hudson County, you’ll sense it is different from anywhere you’ve ever been. The people here are a little off.

You can mention that to them and they won’t take offense. They’ll just smile. They know.

For starters, in Union City, N.J., people don’t park their cars on the street, they park them half on the sidewalk, half on the street.

That was my introduction to this town in September 1976 as I parked my 1972 Oldsmobile Cutless Supreme outside the offices of The Dispatch. I arrived to have an interview with Bob O’Connor, the sports editor of the 50,000 daily newspaper. Entering the back door, I boarded an elevator, and took it to the second floor.

The doors opened slowly to reveal a sports department that looked like a scene out of The Front Page.

Old steel desks were covered with newspapers and stained with newspaper ink. Files were scattered. The floor looked like it hadn’t been swept for days.

I stepped out, made a left turn for 10 feet, and encountered the surliest human being in my life. He sat at a desk gripping a cup of coffee. His clothes were rumpled and his face looked like a clenched fist. His eyes were heavy lidded and his head was balding. Then he rose to greet me. Sort of. At a little over four-feet tall, he had a gnome-like appearance.

“What do you want?” he demanded to know.

“I’m here for an interview with Bob O’Connor.”

“You look like a loser to me,” he said, “but okay he’s over there in the corner.”

Meet Max Frome, the newspaper’s one-man welcoming committee.

Bob O’Connor, by contrast, was 25, bright eyed, and had just been appointed to replace Lud Shabazian, who had been sports editor since 1920.

Within an hour I had my first full-time job in journalism and stayed at the paper for 18 months.

The sports staff consisted of good men who knew their stuff. Mike Spina was our lead writer. He covered the New York Yankees and local basketball. Anything you wanted to know, Mike was your turn-to guy. Jack Fehr was our track and field expert, boxing too, and he could pound out copy quickly as he sucked down cigarette after cigarette.

Dom Alagia was a generalist in sports. Often he’d guide me during my early days as a writer. If my terminology weren’t on the mark, Dom let me know in a gentlemanly fashion how to fix it and back to my desk I went to make the adjustment. Greg Hochstein was a whiz at high school and college basketball. He eventually became a pharmacist. Kevin Kennedy was the assistant sports editor and a calming influence on the staff.

Our two copy boys were Billy Waldy and Richie D’Andrea. They were 16 and 14, respectively, and they stripped the AP and UPI newswires throughout the night.

And to round things out was Lud Shabazian, sports editor emeritus, columnist, and cartoonist. His sports career spanned more than 55 years. If you wanted an anecdote about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, or Jack Dempsey, you asked Lud. He knew them personally.

Those were the final days of journalism before computers marked an end to clanking Remington typewriters and the ink-stained wretches in the print shop.

But the local sports characters we covered were alive and well.

For instance, there was a gentleman who called himself “Turk.” He was involved in an over-40 basketball league and boy was he competitive. During one game our staff covered, he got upset with a referees’ call and stomped off the court at an outdoor park. Spying a flock of pigeons, he leaped toward the pile and grabbed one.

Turk turned and approached the referee. He then bit off the pigeon’s head, spat it on the court, and chased the referee out of the park, flailing blood everywhere.

A week later, a journalist from city-side was sitting in the sports department as we regaled him with the story.

“That could never happen,” the reporter said.

No sooner had he uttered those words than the elevator door outside sports opened and there stood Turk. He had arrived to report that evening’s scores from the over-40 basketball league.

“Turk,” said Jack Fehr, “tell this guy you really bit off the head of a pigeon because you were upset with one of the ref’s calls.”

“I did,” Turk replied, glaring at the newside reporter. “What about it?”

Then there was Frank.

Frank was a copy editor and every half an hour or so he’d get up, leave the other editors at the news desk, and go to the bathroom. Not to go to the bathroom, but to wash his hands. Anyone inside when he was there will tell you that he’d wash his hands over and over for at least ten minutes. Then he dried up, turned, and backed out of the bathroom — hands upraised — never touching the doorknob, as if he had just scrubbed up for surgery. He returned to the city desk where he promptly got ink all over himself. Frank repeated this act several times nightly for his entire career.

Perhaps the greatest character of all was Chuck Wepner. He was a heavyweight fighter from Bayonne, N.J., who somehow landed a championship bout with Muhammad Ali in 1975. Give Chuck this, he reached the 15th round before Ali knocked him down and the fight was stopped.

Wepner was the inspiration for the film “Rocky” and ESPN produced a documentary on his life based on the manuscript that I had written. It is called “The Real Rocky.”

To speak with Wepner back then one got an earful of wild tales from his nights with the broads to his days in the jailhouse for his involvement with drugs.

But an even stranger tale was the night he and several friends went to a tavern in Staten Island called Joe’s Question Mark. According to Chuck, he and several friends were sitting at the bar and one of his buddies kept insisting that a Latin customer was insulting the fighter. Chuck thought his friend was kidding, but when he eventually realized there was truth behind his statement, he rose to confront the guy. The man took off and Chuck caught him, dragging the poor guy into a nearby men’s room.

Once inside, Wepner lifted the man, who was half his size, flipped him upside-down and started kicking in the bathroom stalls.

“I was going to give him a whirlybird,” Wepner recalled.

When Chuck found an unflushed toilet filled with urine and excrement, he plunged the man’s head beneath the surface then flushed.”

That’s a whirlybird — Hudson County style.

The Sure Way to Grab a Student’s Attention


As a teacher, I’m approaching my favorite time of the school year.

No, not summer break. Spring.

A period in which we bid a less-than-fond farewell to the 10-day PARCC tests, the three-day student growth tests, and the morning-long SAT and ACT tests.

Oscar Wilde once wrote in De Profundis, “All the spring may be hidden in the single bud, and the low ground nest of the lark may hold the joy that is to herald the feet of many rose-red dawns.”

Wilde was certainly a romantic genius. As for me, I’m a simpler fellow. I see Spring as the chance to get back to teaching students what they need to know about English literature and send them away in June with at least somewhat of an appreciation for our language.

But, as always, I’m going to have get their attention.

After all, why would 16 year olds want to sit down and pour through a few hundred pages when they can easily tap into Facebook and see what their friends are doing?

Clearly, a teacher must get their attention.

What I like to do is make an immediate connection between my students and the author whose book we will read. That can be done in many ways. Start off with a few compelling questions to the class and get them speaking about certain topics that will be covered in the book. Or go for the jugular.

If you’re going to teach Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller put a revealing, but not too revealing, photo of Marilyn Monroe on your StarBoard. The boys definitely will take notice. They will begin to ask all sorts of questions of the actress, her suicide, her drug usage. It’s amazing what these kids know about celebrity gossip.

Then flash up a picture of Arthur Miller and you’ll hear, “Who’s that old guy?”

When you tell them that he was Marilyn Monroe’s husband and that he wrote Death of a Salesman, he immediately gets street cred and the teacher has a fighting chance to get the students to study the play.

It’s the same with Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. A few kids have heard of the book, but no one has read it, and they certainly don’t know Albom, even though he’s been voted Sportswriter of the Year thirteen times.

So, again, you must make a connection. In my case I can tell them that as a former sportswriter I’ve met Mitch Albom when he worked on the Detroit Free Press. I can take it a step further too.

Two years ago he delivered a magnificent address at the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station, N.J. Before his talk, I hunted him down and we spoke for twenty minutes in his dressing room about sports, writing, and life. Then he autographed a copy of Tuesdays with Morrie for my English class and wrote a touching message for them about keeping their heads up in life and just keep marching forth. I bring the book in now and show the kids and they are immediately hooked.

How about other authors the students may not have heard of? How are you going to get them interested?

Humanize these writers.

Before I read books I research the authors. Often I find them to be quite a quirky bunch. A good source of material is Secret Lives of Great Authors by Robert Schnakenberg. In it he points out that writers have a reputation for drinking, but did you know that J.D. Salinger partook in quaffing his urine? Or that Henry David Thoreau almost never took a bath? And what about Louisa May Alcott’s addiction to opium? You don’t hear this stuff growing up.

Schnakenberg must have had a blast researching his book, particularly the section about H.G. Wells. The author of The Time Machine, was a “short, fat balding intellectual with small hands and a hitched-pitched voice,” writes Schnakenberg. Yet he bedded down scores of women during his marriage and had five children out of wedlock. And, Schnakenberg added, he did so with a clear conscience.

And so I ask, how can a teacher not grab a teenage student’s attention with this kind of material?

Tom Seaver Not So “Terrific” Toward Me



One of my early assignments as a sportswriter came in October 1976 when I covered the Cincinnati Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies. The Reds swept the Phils in three games. But I hardly recall the series. What I remember was the way Tom Seaver treated me one late afternoon a few hours before Game 1.

The future Hall of Fame pitcher had an off year in ’76. He posted a record of 14-11, but he was still “Tom Terrific” in everyone’s eyes, mine included. After all, he won 20 games five times in his career and earned 311 victories. He should have been on top of the world that day, but Seaver, as any sportswriter will tell you, has his cranky side.

The regular season being over, the 31-year-old New York Mets’ pitcher was tapped by ABC to do commentary. Who better to converse alongside Al Michaels and Warner Wolf when it came to analyzing the art of pitching?

I had just begun my sportswriting career a few weeks earlier at The Dispatch in Union City, N.J., and newly appointed sports editor, Bob O’Connor, wanted to try out his first hire. I didn’t want to disappoint. I knew I had three important games to cover but Bob wanted extra coverage. He asked me to get whatever sidebars I could, write them up, and dictate my stories to a staff member before the games began. These were the days before MacBook Pros. I composed my road stories on an Olivetti portable typewriter because it was compact and reliable.

So I headed down to the field at Veteran’s Stadium to let my mind wonder in search of an idea. No sooner had I walked out of the Phillies’ dugout than I saw Seaver. He was a most distinguished looking man in his suit, a little snooty looking, but that did not discourage me from approaching him. After all, I had just interviewed Muhammad Ali a month earlier.

I had read a Sports Illustrated article in which Seaver said that after his playing days were over he might consider sports broadcasting. It was a casual remark, but I thought there might be more to the story considering that’s what he was doing now for the week.

I introduced myself and asked if I might do a story on him. He nodded assent and waited for me to begin the interview.

“Tom, you mentioned in the past that when your career is over …”

“My career is not over!” he said in a surly tone. “What are you talking about?”

I tried for a minute to convince him that I did not say his career was over, but he only only wanted to hear what he thought he had heard. I did not start an argument. There was no heated exchange. I gave it one more try at explaining where I was going with my question but he waved me off, turned his back, and looked toward home plate, crossing his arms in case I didn’t get the message.

Was he still seething because he had 11 losses that season? Did he think that I thought the less-than-stellar record that season meant he was on the decline? I was aware that  he received only 15 runs of support in his losses.

Now what? I had just annoyed one of the game’s greatest pitchers even though I had done nothing to provoke him. But I had to find a sidebar. Back at The Dispatch office Bob would soon be anxiously tapping his foot.

Enter then-ABC broadcaster Warner Wolf. For whatever reason he walked up to me and we began talking. I introduced myself and we shook hands.

“Hey, Warner, I heard that your father was Larry Fine of the Three Stooges. Any truth to it?”

“Everybody thinks that,” he said with a big smile. Although Larry Fine was not his dad, Wolf’s father often filled in for Larry Fine when the Stooges took their act on the road and Larry needed a breather.

The interview turned into an amusing sidebar and Warner Wolf had bailed me out. For those of you who are fans, he is the same courtly gentleman off air that you hear on Imus in the Morning.

Well, I wasn’t going to let Seaver off the hook. I approached an ABC public relations man named Jeff Tolvin and told him what had happened. He seemed annoyed with Seaver’s actions and said he’d look into it for me. An hour later, he came back and said, “You need another sidebar tomorrow?” I did. “Guess what. I got you Al Michaels. He’ll meet with you over breakfast.”

Michaels and I spoke for 90 minutes as he outlined his career from minor league baseball in Hawaii to covering the playoffs for ABC-TV at age 32. He offered lots of anecdotes, plenty of insight, and gave me a great story. Two sidebars in the book and Bob O’Connor was happy.

I had forgotten about the Seaver incident on the third day as I stood at the first-base foul line talking with Phillies’ relief pitcher, Tug McGraw, who was fielding ground balls. Between hops, we discussed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and we agreed that the film’s best scene was when Leatherface hung the brunette in hot pants on a meathook.

“Good stuff,” McGraw said.

After he finished taking grounders, McGraw slapped the side of his thigh with his glove — his signature move — and said goodbye. After that I just took in the scenery. A few minutes passed and I got a tap on the shoulder. It was the Tolvin, the ABC representative. He told me that he had spoken with Seaver and that things were straightened out; he’d sit for an interview.

Being 24 years old, I was not wise enough to take the high road. I thanked Tolvin for his efforts, but unfortunately, I added, “I’m not going to talk to that jerk.”

As I turned to leave, I bumped right into Seaver. We both stood six-feet, one-inch tall and we were eye to eye. He didn’t like what I’d said, and I was not interested in an interview. No words were exchanged, but it was definitely an “F-you” moment.

Whenever people asked me about athletes I did not like, I used to say: There is just one. But no more. That’s because I saw a different side of Tom Seaver a while back when the Mets hosted a televised event in which they announced the All-time Mets team; Seaver, of course, was named starting pitcher. He spoke movingly about his days as a Met, but specifically about the influence that Manager Gil Hodges had on his career and life.

Tearful, at times, Seaver explained how Hodges taught him professionalism and was the most important man throughout his career. When the show ended, I said to my wife, “Remember I always told you that Tom Seaver was the one athlete I couldn’t stand? Forget that. I’ve just seen a different side of the man.”

From sportswriter to teacher and never once looking back


For more than 20 years I was a sportswriter. I covered Major League Baseball, the NFL, track and field, boxing, the NBA, tennis, college sports, and high school sports. Met everyone from Muhammad Ali to Mickey Mantle. Then one night I made a phone call to a friend, Chip Phelps. Told him that I had to do something more worthwhile with my life. He asked me what I was talking about. He said that sportswriting was worthwhile, that I informed people, and did so in an entertaining fashion.

I could see his point, but something was lacking in my life.

That was 1993. It would be another seven years before I’d find my true calling in life: teaching.

Until then I became the managing editor of a Catholic newspaper. I liked that a lot, but still something was tugging at me. That something was a first grader yanking on my coat sleeve during a grammar school Christmas sale in 1999.

“Can you help me find a present for my mommy?” he said.

“Sure, how can I help?”

He led me to a table filled with all sorts of small-item gifts. I didn’t offer any suggestions. I let him select and I reached for the item that he pointed to. Such was the extent of my “help.” He ponied up $5 and bought his mom a pair of stained-glass earrings. He said thanks and walked out of my life.

But that moment resonated with me. I actually had helped a kid other than my sons. It was a nice feeling.

More time passed and I helped out on my older son’s Little League team, a minor role, but that too was satisfying to see youngsters grasp a lesson in hitting or fielding.

“Hey, Joe,” a father said, “ever think of becoming a teacher?”

No way. In fact, I’m surprised that I didn’t go right out and buy this guy a gift certificate good at any hospital for a lobotomy, as satirist Tom Lehrer once said. But his words stuck and as the summer wore on, I began to give the profession serious consideration.

Finally I headed to Barnes and Noble to review its education section. I knew that if I were to become a teacher I had to become certified in English.

As I was thumbing through a book about high school English certification, a young lady from Bishop Ahr High School in Edison, N.J., approached me. She asked if I were considering the teaching profession. I said that I was and she began to tell me about her favorite teachers and what made them effective. As she was leaving, she wished me well and predicted that I’d make a good teacher.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because you took an interest in what I had to say.”

Then she waved goodbye and wished me luck.

I’m a big believer in signs from the universe and too many now had revealed themselves to me. So I purchased a test book as well as a copy of Masterpieces of World Literature to review my background knowledge. Two months later, I took the certification test, passed, and I’ve been teaching ever since.

Teaching is everything that I had hoped it would be. While I may grouse about the over testing of students, there is nothing like getting up in the morning with just one thought: Who can I help today? Then it’s off to school, arrive at 6:20 a.m., and teach at 7:30 a.m.

Classes are fun, informative, and exciting. Students like to be taught and if they see that you sincerely care about them, they will always come through.

Sometimes they even get in touch with you long after you have taught them.

Dave, a former student of mine in 2007, recently contacted me on Facebook and we conversed by phone for more than an hour. He’s only 25, but he is married, has a beautiful six-week-old daughter, a new home, and a career that he loves. I told him that I hadn’t accomplished any of that at his age. Now, as a teacher, you’re never jealous when your student surpasses you. In fact, you are delighted that he or she has found success.

Years ago, an educator named Richard Long hired me and promptly offered sound advice. “When you teach,” he said, “always try to be the best teacher a student ever had.”

I’ve taken that suggestion to heart, and while I’m certain that I’m not everyone’s favorite teacher, Dave was kind enough to tell me that I was his favorite teacher.

Not a bad way to end a long school day.