Discovering the Writer in Me

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, during the late 1970s, I made a living of sorts writing for The Ithaca Journal, a small daily newspaper in Upstate New York. It was a Gannett-owned paper, published six days a week, in a time when newspapers were the primary source of news and information in small cities throughout the United States.

The sports editor there was a veteran of 35 years in the newspaper business named Kenny Van Sickle. He hired me the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college to work the evening sports desk and cover a high school football or basketball games on the weekend.

What he didn’t fully explain to a naïve sports fan who found writing easy was that most of those nights I’d work alone, answering phone call after phone call until 11 pm or later from high school coaches or their appointed student manager or parent “volunteer,” with information about their games. Then, the writing would start. I’d  pound out as many as 25 pages of double-spaced text, all heavily formatted with special symbols to talk to the “computer typesetting machine.” before I could go home, sleep a couple of hours, then wake for class the next day.

He never tried to explain to me that I would come to know the phone number of many, many bars and other haunts where these people, even some of the students,  could be found when they didn’t make the phone call I was expecting and needed to be tracked down for the information I sought.

I doubt he could have known how much I’d love the work and the writing and everything that went with it.

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Terry Habecker Journal’s Coach of the Year

Terry Habecker Journal’s Coach of the Year

By MIKE WITHIAM

Journal Writer

This article appeared in: Sports, The Ithaca Journal, Saturday, December 23, 1978 – Page 13

Experience has mellowed Terry Habecker. The very successful Ithaca High soccer coach has let time be a teacher, and he has learned his lessons well.

Habecker guided the 1978 Little Red soccer team to a perfect 24-0 season, which it topped off a little more than a month ago by winning the first ever Class A (large schools) state championship. During the past two years, Ithaca has compiled a 46-1 record, and it will open the 1979 campaign with a 31-game winning streak still intact.

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Running threatens to surpass tennis as ‘in’ sport

Running threatens to surpass tennis as ‘in’ sport

This article first appeared in Leisure Magazine, The Ithaca Journal, Saturday, July 1, 1978 – Page 3

By MIKE WITHIAM

Jogging isn’t just jogging anymore.

First of all, it has a new name.  Running is the proper noun; jogging is for the old and fat.

This sport has become the new national, irrational religion, with as many as 20 million Americans running, and more joining the race every day.

Running threatens to surpass tennis as the “in” sport, and a sub-culture has grown up around it that includes jogging outfits, books (two best sellers) and magazines, among other items. And the marathon runner, once thought of as a harmless aberration, is now looked upon with almost God-like admiration.

Runners swear by all that is sweaty that running is the best thing that ever happened to them. They sleep better, eat less, feel fitter and insist that work is less work.

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Good morning, out there. This is:

Good morning, out there.  This is:

Bosco Bleinerman

Audrey Backbiter

Rick Marlow

Coslo Maneater

J.J. Regan

This article appeared as a feature in the Finger Lakes Living section, The Ithaca Journal, July 15, 1978

By MIKE WITHIAM

Journal Staff Writer

Ithacans who listen to WTKO radio weekdays between 6 and 10 a.m. are treated to the adventures not only of local and national newsmakers, but a host of fictional characters as well. There’s adolescent bumbler Bosco Bleinerman, tyrannical station manager Coslo Maneater, loveable gossip Audrey Backbiter, and space detective Rick Marlow.

Behind this array of male and female celebrities in WTKO’s “semi-humorous interludes” is a single person, morning man J.J. Regan.

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Please be Advised

This piece was awarded First Place in the Essay category of the 2010 Ithaca College Literary Writing Contest.

“Please be advised your son is missing in action.”

“Please be advised your son has been killed in the service of his country.”

My grandmother lived 100 days past her 100th birthday and I will never know how many times she told her stories of delivering telegrams with grim, terrible news during World War II.

She was a small woman in physical size, but so strong. She commanded attention and respect when she entered a room, and her straight, direct way of speaking held your focus like a laser beam.

She was a railroad Station Agent, one of millions of women who did “men’s” work during the war. Receiving and delivering telegrams was one of the many duties she performed, but one task stood out from all the others.

“I hated that job,” she’d say, starting her story again. “But I was the only agent, so I had to do it.

“The whole town always knew something was up because I’d lock the station up at a strange hour.

“I knew people were looking out their windows, wondering ‘who this time’ as I drove away.

“I knew almost everyone of them,” she’d say, shaking her head slowly, her eyes sad. “Damn town only had 500 people, but every family had someone off to war.

“I had to get the sheriff to go with me”, her eyes locked on mine, and seeing something clearly from years ago. “Couldn’t be alone in case something happened.

“The family’d see you coming up the walk and open the door before you got there.

“You had to read the telegram to them, then make them sign for it.  Weren’t allowed to touch them—“ her voice trailing off.

“How the hell you supposed to do that?” she’d ask, anger and indignation in her voice. “Neighbors. Friends. Not touch them, help them?”

She’d smile her catch-me-if-you can smile and lean toward me.

“I broke that rule a lot.

“Damn govinment,” she’d say, sitting back and slapping her thighs with hands. “What do they know?”

“Hated that job.

“But I always thank God I never had to take a telegram with my name on it,” she’d say, voice quieter, like a secret was being shared. “Always worried one day I’d get one about Al Jr. when I was alone at the station. Wondered what I’d do if I found out him that way.

“But he made it home”, her voice strong again. “I had it good”.

There was always a tear in her eye when she finished.

“Get me a damn cigarette!” she’d bark, getting you to look away so she could wipe the tear from her cheek.

Take a Journey on the Cobwebs, Dust, and Ashes Railroad

Take a Journey on the Cobwebs,

Dust, and Ashes Railroad

This article appeared in Leisure Magazine, The Ithaca Journal, Saturday, July 8, 1978 – Page 3

By MIKE WITHIAM

The train rounds the bend and passes by the Agway Feed building and the town church. A bit later, the Cow Bros. Dairy appears on the left, and further down the track, just before the long bridge is an electric substation, Valley Engineering, and the Frye Manufacturing Company.

A trip through the heartlands?

No.

This is just a journey on the Cobwebs, Dust and Ashes Railroad, with conductor Jim Frye at the controls.

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About…the End of the Dock

A week after I was born a small work party built a 20-foot by 30-foot cottage halfway along the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, the longest of the chain of lakes known as the Finger Lakes that define the geography of Central New York State.

The cottage was nothing more than 2x4s covered in plywood and dotted with a few windows.  The roof was more plywood covered with a layer of roofing shingles nailed in place, the end of many nails visible from inside the cottage.  A few coats of heavy, oil-based exterior paint was a form of glue that seemed to hold everything together.  Inside a 2×4 frame was covered on one side with more plywood to form a bedroom; curtain served as the door.  A used gas stove and refrigerator equipped a kitchen.  A couple of old chairs, a small dining table and a pullout sofa filled the living space.

When the work was done my grandfather hung a small, hand painted sign that featured a glowing sun and the words christening this spot on Earth as Sunset Beach.  Anyone who ever watched the sun set from this beach understood instantly why he’d chosen that name for his retreat.

What he did not know as he hung his sign was this simple building and this small plot of land would become the one common experience, the one constant physical location, shared by four generations of his family and their extended families, even as life’s twists and turns moved people in different directions and to different, often faraway, places.

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Michael’s Bio

Michael Withiam is a communicator and a leader, all of which he applies to his life as a writer, editor, journalist, business executive, community volunteer, and teacher.

Writer, editor, journalist, and communicator: My writing credits include work as a newspaper reporter, feature writer and columnist, several years as writer and editor for university magazines and in-house business publications, and several local and regional magazine articles. As a business communicator, I have written countless columns, proposals, speeches, and media releases, developed sales, marketing and public relations collateral for every communication channel, and led internal communications and employee relations programs. I also created and hosted live television and radio news and public affairs programs in the United States and Canada.

I am editing a book with the working title “Normal to Noble,” how one man followed his inner voice to build a multi-million dollar charity focused on improving the lives of children in Southeastern Virginia. Like every writer, I have many projects underway. The two most important are books: one a work of fiction, the other a memoir.

Business Executive: I am currently Associate Vice President Provider Communications Strategy at Amerigroup Corporation, where I provide strategic and tactical leadership for all communications across all channels targeted to doctors, hospitals, clinics, and others for a Fortune 400 managed care company.

My business experience includes 25 years in the cable television, internet and telephone industries, including roles as General Manager and senior leadership positions in operations and marketing. In these roles, I consistently met or exceeded P&L targets, including revenue and customer growth while delivering exceptional customer and employee satisfaction results. I have extensive experience in P&L and business management, strategic planning, business communication, marketing, product and brand management, residential and commercial sales, operations and logistics, call center management, government relations, community relations, and employee and organizational development.

Teaching: I developed and taught courses in Business Communication and Writing, News Writing, Principles of Marketing, Introduction to Public Relations, and Sports Marketing at several colleges, including Old Dominion University, Ithaca College and Cornell University. I have taught several writing workshops in Narrative Non-Fiction and Business Writing, and developed and delivered Communications and Public Relations courses for trade associations and non-profit organizations.

Consulting and Editing:  I developed a marketing plan for a professional sports team, a training program for the New York State 4-H, strategic business partnerships for a software company, and worked with various small businesses to improve marketing and public relations efforts.

Community Volunteer:  I serve on the Board of Directors, United Way of South Hampton Roads, where I am also Vice-Chair of the Community Funding Committee and lead the Marketing and Communications Committee. I have 30 years experience working with the United Way in various communities, serving in every possible volunteer leadership role except campaign chair, including Board Chair. I served as Board member and committee chair for the Chamber of Commerce in two communities, am a past Board member for Special Olympics of Virginia, and have served on several different community boards and committees.

Industry Leadership: I am a former board member of the Kentucky Cable Telecommunications Association, the Ontario Cable Telecommunications Association, and the Cable Television Public Affairs Association, as well as former Chair of the Metro Toronto Cable Association.

Factoids: I am Cara and Maria’s father. I coach their soccer and basketball teams. I dabble with photography.  I love words and ideas and enjoy discussion on many different topics. I am a news and information junkie. I was once very athletic. I am a very good cook, and a better eater. I enjoy good wine, single malt scotch, and single-barrel bourbon. I’m a 22 handicap. I have a large and eclectic music collection. I like to nibble on peanuts and chocolate. When I die, I will have an ice cream cone for my tombstone.

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