Forget the awards and the thousands of columns I wrote and all the people I met and helped — and who helped me. Looking back on 20 years as a columnist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — a career that ended with a layoff last week — I’m proudest of the little box.
The box is called “Voodoo Lou’s Office Voodoo Kit.”
It sounds silly, I know. But I’m proud that I never felt the need to open it.
Voodoo Lou was my backup. My nuclear option. If things ever got too tough for me in the hard-assed politics of a newspaper newsroom, I could open the box, pull out the doll and start sticking pins in it.
Life is a test. Do they get to you? Or not? I bought that box in New Orleans. Where else? But as long as that doll stayed in the box, I controlled my destiny.
To understand why that matters is to know my close relationship with the Star-Telegram. I dreamed of joining a newspaper as a columnist since I was 14. After 22 years of learning how to write and hundreds of rejection letters from across the country, S-T editor Mike Blackman hired me as a columnist in 1993 with instructions to practice what he called “New York style journalism.” The dream had come true. I was a columnist! But I was so naive and new to Texas that I didn’t realize that New York-styled anything doesn’t necessarily play well.
I came down here from New York where I grew up and Philly where I attended Penn and later worked at the legendary Philadelphia Inquirer during its Pulitzer prize-winning heyday. I wrote a comic story about my Yankee-to-Texan transformation in the Pennsylvania Gazette here.
As a new Texan, I was oh-so-rough around the edges. The S-T polished me up. Taught me how to behave. Act proper, as Texans say. Learning that the “you” is more important than the “I.” Listening is more important than talking. Getting both sides of every story and being fair to everyone. That’s what matters here.
As part of that, I was drilled in customer service techniques. I bought into it, so much so that I eventually taught the course in training sessions to the rest of the company. (Me? Ha!) For 100 years since it was founded by the legendary Amon Carter, the Star-Telegram has worked to be nice to people. Positive stories. Millions donated to the community. Embedding its staffers in committees, boards and foundations.
Being nice? At a newspaper? Really?
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“There’s no bogging Dave down with office politics or other concerns. He knows who he is and what he wants to accomplish. But he doesn’t come across as arrogant or above the work that others at the Star-Telegram do. He shows respect for them and may be the first to tell a colleague they’ve done a good job.” — From Dave’s annual job review, August 2012.
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It’s 1993. My first column. By way of introduction, I ask readers if chicken-fried steak is chicken or steak. I know. It’s a dumb way to begin. Maybe the dumbest. As I struggle to find my columnist voice, the bosses assist by assigning me extra duties. I am ordered to sell subscriptions door-to-door at night so I can understand the product. I am assigned to sit on a United Way committee creating an emergency hotline number. And there’s the company picnic committee. I get that plum assignment, too.
Twenty years fly by. Lots of good things happen. I’m The Watchdog columnist. Thousands come to me each year with their pleas for help with unsolvable problems or tips about government or corporate corruption. Newspapers may be dying, but my column brims with life. “So many problems, so little time,” my outgoing voice mail greeting explains. My plate is full.
Then it all stops.
I’m the latest casualty in the slow death of one of the most important industries in the history of the world – the 400-year-old newspaper business. Former Kansas City Star columnist Bill Tammeus writes on how my departure fits into the bigger picture here.
I knew the inevitable was coming. So I prepared. Jeff Prince wrote about my layoff and future plans in Fort Worth Weekly here.
The Star-Telegram gave me many gifts in 20 years. The freedom to write what I wanted. To kick butt like all newspapers should (and hardly do anymore). To root out corruption, chase after bullies, right wrongs, tell great stories, give folks a laugh and help make lives better. Wow.
With the publisher’s approval, I co-founded the Summer Santa children’s charity, now in its 17th year. The paper backs it with thousands of dollars worth of publicity and donations.
The S-T allowed me to propose marriage to my future wife, her two children and her doggone little dog in my Sunday column. You can read that national award-winning story here. Or listen to me read it here.
The paper gave me room not only to write a column but also launch a national consumer rights movement, WatchdogNation.com.
I had lots of old-fashioned stupid newspaper fun, too. Ran my young son Austin for governor of Texas. (And raised money for Summer Santa in the process). Watch his TV commercial here.
And against the editors’ best advice, I rode bulls in rodeos, too. Don’t believe me? Here’s the video.
Most important, I got to partner with a brilliant editor, Lois Norder, who for all of those 20 years helped me work toward being what Oregon columnist Bob Welch so kindly described me as “America’s quintessential columnist: likeable, passionate, and hard-driving. Nothing could stop him.” Bob wrote an uplifting column about what my layoff means for him here.
Lois is now investigations editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the paper where I began as an intern. I wrote a tribute to Lois here. In this pic below, Lois doesn’t know what to make of me showing up for a meeting in a Revolutionary era costume. Why? Watchdog Nation is revolutionary!
“If I were a government official in Texas and picked up the phone to hear, ‘This is Dave Lieber,’ my heart would skip a beat. And not from joy. Lieber is a classic watchdog journalist, looking out for the little guy — and he gets results. While it is admirable that he is an ombudsman, it’s his flair and skill as a writer that earn him this award.” — Judge in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists 2012 contest who awarded Dave 2nd place for large U.S. newspapers.
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When they call me in on vacation, I figure the meeting is about my contributing video reports for the paper’s new iPad edition. Before the meeting, I search my library for a history book called The American Newspaper Columnist. My plan is to show the editors the line in the book stating that I “pioneered” the “multi-media Internet column” at the Star-Telegram in the middle 1990s with a regularly produced “video column.” Going back to my roots. Whatever you need, boss. I’ll do anything to help us survive. That’s what I plan to say. But I can’t find the book.
It’s an omen.
The purpose of the meeting is to tell me it’s over. I’m not expecting this. Well, I am, eventually, just not at this moment.
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“Say it ain’t so.” — Missy Cook Beevers reacting to layoff news on Dave’s Facebook page.
“And Lieber did a lot of good for the community, looking out for underdogs, the voiceless, the aged, the conned, and the screwed over.” — Jeff Prince writing in Fort Worth Weekly
“If wealth is counted in friends, Dave Lieber is the richest man in Texas.” — Paul B. Moore on Facebook
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My father died at age 90 in July. He’s the one who sent me, as a teenager, out for the newspaper every night. That’s how I met the great columnists, including my hero Pete Hamill. My eulogy for Dad is here.
Aside from losing Dad, I’m losing a gazillion readers. We’ve been hanging out together several times a week for 20 years. Will they find me on the Internet? And what about my gutsy sources? Where do they go for help?
The assistant in the school superintendent’s office who secretly helps me analyze documents I received through an open records request so I can figure out what went wrong.
The City Hall tipster who makes an anonymous call from a pay phone at night.
The employee so paranoid about giving me information that she visits me in a disguise.
And the people, all the people with requests for help. Where will they go?
The friend of 5th-grade teacher Theresa Neil who tells me that Neil is dying of cancer. Her death wish is to meet Emmitt Smith. “Can you bring Emmitt to her classroom?”
The 100-year-old Arlington woman who writes a check to her insurance company for $480 instead of $4.80. Ruth Wingfield, shown below, has a hard time getting a refund. “Can you scare ’em?” she asks.
The big-time preacher, shown below, secretly running church members for city council so he can take over the local government. Perfect for zoning changes he seeks. “Can you expose that?”
The city council holding public meetings over dinner in restaurants at taxpayers’ expense. “Can you get them to stop?”
A press pass is a ticket to a front-row seat watching the world, Pete Hamill says. It’s also a way to make things better, day after day, year after year, column after column. What a truly American honor. Every day, I saw being a newspaper columnist that way.
“This past year, Dave’s writing has been more consistently strong. He’s conversational and punchy. He can take complex stories and tell them in simple and engaging ways. He listens attentively to editor feedback — and he has applied lessons he has learned from the coaching seminars he has attended on his own to help him as a public speaker.” — From Dave’s 2012 job review.
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I wrote my final column as a farewell column. I was taught to always write every column like it’s the last. Only this one was the last, but I didn’t know it at the time. That piece is here, as long as the link is up.
Then I went to Vegas on vacation for a “Laugh Lab” humor conference led by the National Speakers Association. There I laughed — and learned — for three days from the “faculty,” shown below, along with me and the other students.
On the last day, my wife Karen, Austin, the almost governor, and I flew in a small plane above the Grand Canyon. I listened to Ave Maria on my headset. I felt something strong up there. God was preparing me for my next step. (See, to my old New Yorker friends, that’s what talking proper like a Texan sounds like.)
If you’re gonna lose your job, I do recommend laughing your hiney off for three days, then having a quasi-religious experience above the Grand Canyon beforehand. Puts everything in perspective.
Fortunately, I’ve been building my new life for a decade. I’ve spoken to more than a thousand audiences in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. For me, writing and speaking go together. Now I get to do more of the latter.
Sure, I’ll miss writing every week in a newspaper, something I’ve done for 38 years. My online sites are WatchdogNation.com, YankeeCowboy.com and YourStoryBlowsMeAway.com. But I do love the platform and the live audience. The telling of stories and the sharing of ideas designed to make life better is a lot more fun in person than it is writing alone in a dark room. So helping others is the key to life ahead. Like a proper Texan.
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Last week my final piece of mail arrived at the newspaper. It was a card. “Thank you so much,” it said. But nobody signed it.
I’ll say in my proper Texas voice what my final editor at the paper, John Gravois, always says when he’s thanked for something:
“No, thank you!!”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
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