October 19, 2009

Golf Lesson

Filed under: Atlanta,Family,Uncategorized — schroder @ 7:54 pm

I played golf today in a client’s foundation golf tournament and shot pretty well. After people see me drive the ball far down the fairway, they inevitably ask me how often I play. The answer is, not much, perhaps five to 10 times a year. Not that I don’t love the game, I do. In fact, if I had to cherry-pick my dream career and start all over again, being a touring golf pro would be hard to beat. My problem is time: Running my own company keeps me glued to my computer and phone. That, and I don’t belong to a club.

Golf lesson

Chris David, right, squaring my shoulders at High Hampton Inn golf lesson.

I did, however, get a golf lesson last year that was the best ever. I’ve probably had four or five lessons in my life. I still have notes the pro wrote from one in high school and I have the videotape from an afternoon I spent at a Hilton Head vacation golf session. So when I accompanied my wife on a travel writers trip to the High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, NC, I was eager to learn that I could take a free golf lesson, even though I was a tagalong.

I had nearly two hours with High Hampton’s golf pro, Chris David. He not only explained what I need to do to improve my swing, he also explained the whys – the philosophy behind the golf swing. Suddenly it made so much more sense to me. In fact, Chris’ analysis of my golf swing rang a familiar bell. My approach to golf is apparently similar to the same critique other professionals have made of other parts of my life: my dancing, my public speaking and my opening up in intimate relationships. In all of them, counselors or instructors have told me I hold back, that I need to loosen up, put more of me into what I’m doing.

Ah, the lessons you learn later in life … If only I had taken these lessons to heart earlier.

While I only played golf twice during the summer, I did get to play golf two days this week – both games had been postponed by the September floods in Atlanta brought on by weeks of rain. The other time I played with my brothers, Jack and Mike, and my nephew John Waddy.

Picture for CS

Nephew John Waddy, with brother Jack, me and brother Mike.

But my favorite golf memory is when Jan and I visited my son Thomas in Scotland, when he was enjoying a semester abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. Thanks to Jan’s travel writer connections, we were able to stay in the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews, overlooking the Old Course, of course. While we didn’t call in time to get a tee time on that course, we did get to play the adjacent Duke’s course.

We were treated to an array of Scottish weather: sun, clouds, rain and wind. What would Scottish golf be without it? Thomas and I did get to pose on the famous bridge on the Old Course’s 18th hole. On Sundays, the course is closed and is open to the public to walk around at will. For such a storied tradition, I was surprised but happy to learn that the famous course is, after all, a public park – and on Sundays, everyone can walk it as if they were Bobby Jones or Tiger Woods.

I’m still not that great at golf. When I get to the greens I inevitably have an errant chip or a three-putt, but my approaches in the fairway are much more impressive now. And now I do try to throw myself all the way into it. Dancing, eh, that’s still is another thing. Maybe Chris can help me with that, too!

St. Andrews

On the course at St. Andrews with my son, Thomas, right.

May 28, 2009

My Days Are Numbered

Filed under: Atlanta,Media,Public Relations,Uncategorized — schroder @ 1:30 pm

In 1982, when I worked for the newspapers in Greenville, SC, I not only labored in the newsroom — writing, editing and designing the pages of the daily papers — I also walked the streets of my neighborhood just a few hundred yards north of downtown on North Main Street, delivering the paper to readers’ front steps.

As I carefully dropped the paper at my customers’ front doors, I remember being puzzled by the few neighbors — and there were only very few — who did not subscribe to either the morning or afternoon paper. I would drop off a sample copy with a handwritten note, asking if I could start delivering them a daily paper. I was usually successful in my sales effort, though there were a few intransigent ones.

These days, I walk out my front door and grab three newspapers delivered at 6am to my front yard: the AJC, the Wall Street Journal and, on weekends, the New York Times. Each morning, I remember that I am participating in a dying ritual, and it saddens me.

My days are numbered. As I watch our deliveryman drive down the street, I am amazed by how few — and there are only a very few — yards into which he tosses a paper or two. Sometimes I even feel responsible, as if I’m letting a 250-year-old American tradition die on my watch.

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It’s not for lack of trying. I worked at six different daily newspapers in the South (including my hometown AJC) before starting my own monthly newspaper group in Intown Atlanta in 1994. But each day I read of yet another daily newspaper closing its doors. In fact, at least 120 newspapers in the U.S. have shut down since January 2008, according to Paper Cuts, a Web site tracking the newspaper industry. More than 21,000 jobs at 67 newspapers have been eliminated in that time, according to the site. These stats hit dangerously close to home. My prediction is that my AJC won’t be delivered to my home on Mondays and Tuesdays by the end of this year. Their business model is that fragile.

There are exceptions, thankfully. The Wall Street Journal showed a fraction of an increase in circulation last year. Locally, the weekly Atlanta Business Chronicleincreased its circulation last year by three percent — following other years of similar or larger gains. We maintain several subscriptions, to our office and our homes.

The Chronicle started the month after I graduated from college and for more than 20 of its years, the team of Publisher Ed Baker and Editor David Allison has delivered a well-respected paper, tightly focused on Atlanta’s business community. In addition to their print edition, they deliver a daily 3pm news alert via email, make their print edition available online to wacky folks such as me who download it as early as 5am Fridays.

In a sign of the times, the AJC’s well-respected business columnist Maria Saporta took a buyout from the daily paper and joined the ABC staff last year, where her years of institutional Atlanta knowledge will be a significant asset.

Maria is not content to write for the ABC alone. Schroder PR proudly designed and maintains her independent website, SaportaReport.com, which I predict will be one of the top 10 destinations to get local news and perspective in the coming decade of journalism’s evolution to the web.

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Our PR firm has evolved too. Nearly half of our revenue comes from writing and designing websites, producing videos, delivering eNewsletters for our clients and increasingly entering into the social media space.

I already have a laptop and an iPhone. I imagine this summer, I’ll give in and buy the new Kindle DX, a hand-held digital reader with a nearly-10-inch screen to which you can download books and hundreds of newspapers.

You may find me still sipping coffee on my front screen porch, reading the morning “paper” on my Kindle. I will be as well informed, but I won’t be as happy. For I will miss the sound of the morning papers hitting my sidewalk and the hours I now enjoy each day, turning their pages. I’ll miss the smell of newsprint and ink that has seeped deeply into my blood, on whose behalf I have sweated for decades and for which I will shed tears of sorrow to see them disappear.

February 8, 2009

Wallet and keys

Filed under: Atlanta,Family,Life Stories,Media — schroder @ 7:11 pm

Today, the weather was so nice and warm that Jan and I decided to take a long walk around the neighborhood with our dog, Riley. At the last moment, we decided to take in one more block of homes at the end of our street. As we turned the corner, we ran into Clark Gore, whom I’ve know for several years as he worked once for a client of mine in the commercial real estate industry – he’s currently leading the newly merged office of Jones Lang LaSalle.

Clark Gore

Clark Gore

“I was just catching up on some reading today and read about your wallet and keys,” Clark said, referring to the January 1, 2009 edition of the AJC, in which I submitted a New Year’s resolution for the Peach Buzz column. I had to laugh, I’ve had so many people comment on that little one sentence item.

Rich Eldredge of the AJC writes a near-daily column called Peach Buzz that is one of the most read items in the paper. In fact, President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn told Rich it’s the first thing they read every day. Or so Rich says. Each year, he asks for readers to send in their resolutions and then he publishes it on January 1. Most of them are really serious or spiritual, as they should be. I figured he needed a little comic relief.

It wasn’t just my imagination. A couple days after Christmas, I spent a day and a half looking for my wallet and keys. I actually drove to work without my license one day, which I never do. I had looked everywhere … at the office, in my closet, under the sofa, in my mail, coats, pants, briefcase, car … everywhere, two and three times. Even Jan joined in the search for a couple of frustrating hours. Nothing!
 

My wallet and keys, in case you find them.

So I was faced with that age-old dilemma: cancel all my credit cards or hope that nobody else finds my wallet before I do. I kept checking my credit cards online … things appeared dormant.

Finally, after retracing my steps again, I remembered that I had them last in some pants and went through them again … and they weren’t there. Then I looked below in my closet … only shoes. But wait, there was something shiny there. Voila! Seems they had fallen out and right into my shoes, a pair I didn’t look in earlier!

So when I read Rich’s request for resolutions, I emailed him mine: “I resolve to spend less time in 2009 looking for my wallet and keys.” I didn’t tell Jan I submitted it … I only showed her when it published, knowing she had suffered with me. It stood out among the longer,  weightier resolutions.

Since that day I have done better. I try to put them in my mail slot at home when I arrive … a place where my mail piles up, ashamedly. A few days later, I saw my classmate Eric Bleke at our high school reunion planning meeting and he said he read my comments and laughed.

“Do you have that problem,” I asked, searching for kinship.

“Oh no,” he said. “That was one thing my dad drilled into me as a kid … ‘Everything has its place!’ So I always put them in the same place every day.”

My son emailed me earlier today, saying he saw the item when a google search delivered it to his computer. Others have mentioned it to me in the past few weeks.What a life that column has, post-publishing.

Thankfully, Clark said he suffered from the same malady and has spent a lot of time in his life looking for his wallet and keys. I told him I had done a lot better here in 2009, but I have a whole year to mess up again. Here’s to keeping this resolution!

January 8, 2008

Hank Payne: A Treasure Passes On

Filed under: Atlanta — schroder @ 12:40 pm

I just heard that Dr. Hank Payne died yesterday. Our city has lost a true treasure.

Hank was a remarkable man … humble, brilliant, inspiring, self-effacing and an excellent golfer. He was a devoted family man, proud of his wife, Deborah and two sons. As president of Woodward Academy since 2000, Hank brought extraordinary experience to one of the oldest academic institutions in the metro area. His previous experience as president of Hamilton and Williams colleges was exactly was Woodward was looking for when it embarked on a $100 million expansion.

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Hank not only helped raise funding dramatically, he raised the standing and stature of Woodward throughout the community. He also challenged the College Park school to build new buildings sustainably … with the environment foremost in mind. Woodward hired our client, Perkins+Will, the leading sustainable architecture firm in the world, to design buildings on its campus that saved energy and water usage, employed recycled materials, planted native vegetation and took advantage of the sun’s radiant energy. Some of Woodward’s buildings were constructed by another client, SG Contracting.

I first met Hank when my buddy, Tom Murphy of Murphy’s Restaurant was selected to introduce Hank to his fellow classmates in Leadership Midtown. Tom was not only fearful of giving speeches, he was intimidated by Hank’s intellect and record. He asked me to help with his speech. The next day I called Tom with an idea he couldn’t refuse: “What if you just stood up in front of Leadership Midtown and pressed the Play button on a DVD player and sat down?” I asked. “Sold!” Tom said – and thus began Schroder PR’s new venture into video work. I called my friend Larry Matré and together we produced a short video featuring Tom and Hank, poking a little fun at both.

The video, and the bloopers, were a hit, bringing down the house at Leadership Midtown. You can view the video on our website (just scroll down to the bottom of the video page). I later invited Hank to speak at the Inquiry Club, a group begun by Ralph McGill, one of my childhood heroes. I asked Hank, a northerner, historian and insightful analyst of Atlanta’s strengths and weaknesses, to speak about the growth of Atlanta and to critique its development. It was a fascinating evening, with Hank describing how downtown Atlanta was originally built on a grid to serve its railway-hub origins and how we’ve had trouble meeting our urban-planning and growth needs ever since. Hank walked in the room to speak to the Inquiry Club, looked around, noticed video equipment set up and said, “You’re not showing the video again, are you?” “Well, Hank,” I said. “I wanted to introduce you in the most clever way I could!” He was a great sport, again.

Hank was kind enough to invite me to play golf a few times with him at Ansley Golf Club’s Settindown Creek course, an old-style “links” course with very challenging roughs. In the roughs were where I spent a good part of my days with Hank, while he smoothly glided down the middle of the fairways on his way to the speedy greens and another birdie or par. As we played, he talked his stewardship of Woodward, dealing with donors, challenging his faculty and staff, or soothing parents whose kids might have to be expelled for disciplinary reasons.

Recently, Tom Murphy and I were having dinner in Virginia-Highland, when Hank and Deborah walked through the restaurant. They stopped at our table and talked for a long while, and we all giggled as Hank told a few of his many, funny stories.

Atlanta was richer for Woodward having brought Hank to town. We’ll be a bit poorer for his leaving us, way too early. The term is often used loosely these days, but Hank Payne was truly one of the finest examples I ever knew of “a gentleman and a scholar.” I’ll miss him and so will Atlanta.

Photo: Hank Payne, scholar and gentleman.

November 16, 2007

The Reluctant Speaker

Filed under: Atlanta,Media,Public Relations — schroder @ 9:07 pm

A few weeks back, when I read the email from the Atlanta Press Club that John Huey, editor-in-chief of Time, Inc., was coming to speak today, I immediately signed up for three tickets. Not just because John oversees 140 different magazines and has one of the most interesting media jobs in the world, but because he grew up on East Wesley Road next door to Tom Murphy.

Tom is an old friend whose family I knew back in the old elementary school days at Christ the King. Many years later, when I started a neighborhood newspaper called Atlanta 30306 in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood (later renamed Atlanta Intown), Tom was one of the first people I visited to try to convince to advertise in the start-up. He did, for many years. In the process, we renewed our friendship and became best buddies.

A few years ago, I was having a beer with Tom when he was discussing the upcoming 25th anniversary of his restaurant. I suggested he publish a book, recounting his many entrepreneurial adventures, but he was reluctant, wanting instead to print a book of recipes. I kept pushing him. “This will brand you in ways you’ll never predict,” I said. “The very fact that you have a book about your restaurant will elevate your brand, but it will be a great book because you have so many great stories. Besides, I know the perfect writer.”

Murphys

So thus began the long journey of Tom and my former editor and later bride, Jan Butsch Schroder, of compiling the book now known as Murphy’s, 25 Years of Recipes and Memories. The book published to great acclaim and a large, front-page story on the front of the AJC Living section. It is full of great recipes, photos and, most of all, stories … stories about being embezzled, robbed, about having to fire his wife after she threw a wet towel at him when a patron kissed Tom on the cheek, about the many great chefs who got their start at Murphy’s.

Tom, like Jan, is a private person, whose nature is not to step in the spotlight. And he hates public speaking. Once, when he had to introduce Hank Payne, president of Woodward Academy, Tom was too intimidated by the thought of standing in front of fellow classmates at Leadership Midtown and introducing the former college president. So when I suggested producing a video instead, Tom jumped at the chance.

As a child, Tom also had the distinction of growing up next door to John Huey in Garden Hills in Atlanta. As Tom tells the story, John grew up in a nice Southern Baptist household, but next door were the wild and crazy New York/Irish Catholic Murphys, with five children. Not only that, Tom’s parents also housed unwed mothers and, later, when Castro took over Cuba, dozens of Cuban refugee families. People were coming and going at all hours of the night at the Murphy household. John would look out his window and just shake his head at all the activity.

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So when Jan began to assemble the book, getting quotes from celebrities who once ate there was one of her many tasks. Katie Couric, a frequent visitor to Murphy’s when she worked in Atlanta, was a non-starter. Her office said she was contractually obligated not to endorse restaurants. John Huey, after a number of emails, wrote back a wonderful quote that we included on page 10 of the book: “I grew up next door to the Murphy family. They were an exotic family, to say the least. Dad ran a cheese business out of the back yard and did a lot of ministering to the poor. Mom was a nurse and there were lots and lots of kids. Tom, or Tommy, as we knew him, was always my favorite because of that personality he still has today. My most vivid memory of him is as a young child, standing down by the curb of East Wesley Road, selling hot dogs from a little stand he had cobbled together. As you might expect, they were good. And they sold. So maybe Murphy’s is really a lot older than 25.”

One thing Jan tried to secure was a photo of John. But she couldn’t find one on the Internet and his assistant said, “There are no photos of John.” So we published the book without one, one of many loose ends we were never able to tie up before printing.

So, two years later, when I saw John was to speak to the press club, I bought tickets to the luncheon and VIP reception for me, Jan and Tom.

When the big day arrived, today, we drove down to the Commerce Club and took the elevator to the 18th floor reception. I brought along a copy of the book. We had sent one to John’s office, but we were always unsure if he ever received it. When he recognized “Tommy” and shook his hand and started telling old stories, we asked if he had ever seen his quote in the book. He said he didn’t. I said we weren’t able to get his photo to publish and John said in his dry humor, “No, there are no photos of me.” So we showed the book to him, gave him the autographed copy and walked away. I then saw Spark St. Jude, a photographer snapping away at the reception, so I went over and asked her to shoot a photo of the two boyhood neighbors, holding the book. She was able to take one or two, when an alarm went off.

The fire alarms went off in the Commerce Club, so we all had to walk down 18 flights of old dirty stairs to the street. A crowd of people stood on Broad Street downtown until the firemen came and inspected each floor. We were finally later able to get back to the 16th floor for the luncheon and the speech by John Huey, which was hilarious.

“Normally that fire drill trick works so I don’t have to give a speech,” John dead-panned. “In New York, if people walk down that many flights of stairs, they just go on back to work and the speech never happens. It didn’t work here.

“When the Atlanta Press Club invited me to speak, I said ‘no.’ (pause) I still feel that way,” he said to great laughter. He went on to tell many great stories of growing up in Atlanta, working for The Atlanta Constitution, and working with Alexis Scott, now publisher of the Atlanta Daily World. John claimed he had been duped into giving the speech after turning it down, when Alexis called to ask him to give a toast at the 10th anniversary of her being named publisher. Next thing he knew, he said, he was being promoted as giving the press club speech. So he proceeded to give Alexis her well-deserved toast, as well as talk about other aspects of journalism and Atlanta today.

At the end of his speech, John reached down and grabbed the Murphy’s book and told the crowd to buy it, as it contained “many great stories about Tom’s excellent restaurant in Virginia-Highland … and a quote from me on page 10.”

And there, many years later, I felt my prediction had been reinforced in spades, that Tom’s book would help brand him and his restaurant. For here Tom was being endorsed from the podium to a sell-out crowd at the Atlanta Press Club by the editor-in-chief of Time, Inc.

Now, if I can just get that photograph …

Photos: The book and the co-authors at earlier Atlanta Press Club Author’s Party, Jan and Tom

September 1, 2001

Boys on the Beach

Filed under: Atlanta,Family,Fatherhood,Media — schroder @ 12:00 pm

At least twice a year, I led a large crew of teenagers to Myrtle Beach or St. Simons Island for a week’s vacation. I’ve often taken my two kids and their two buddies. Other times I’ve taken four 14-year-old girls or three 15-year-old boys. In April, I rented a large van equipped with a TV/VCR/CD, picked up five16-year-old boys and drove them around the coast a week.

When my children were younger, our vacations were a very important bonding time for us. When they moved with their mom to Charlotte seven years ago, this time became even more sacred. I knew while I could not be involved in their daily lives as much as I would’ve preferred, I had to make the most of the time we were given. When I had the opportunity, I made a point to clear my work and personal schedule and spend my energies focused on Sally and Thomas. I would usually plan elaborate vacations to keep them interested. But as they became teenagers and friend-focused, I reluctantly accepted that our family vacations must include their buddies.

At first this past month’s trip seemed to be going similarly. Sally was finishing a particularly tumultuous year: moving to Atlanta, then back to Charlotte to finish her senior year, back to Atlanta in March and then back to Charlotte to take a final summer school course. Her graduation ceremony was scheduled for the day before our vacation. We had all hoped friends could go to the beach with us, but it didn’t seem to be working out. At the last minute, Sally decided to stay home and celebrate with friends.

Thomas_schroder_chris

Thomas surprised me with his decision. “I’ve seen my friends a lot this summer and I have a lot of summer reading to finish,” he said. “I think I will just go with you.” We rented movies, went to movies, cooked dinner, went out to dinner and just hung out all week. Each day, we wandered to the beach with our chairs, books, frisbee, football, cooler, CD player and his choice of music.

Somewhere near the fourth day, I had to laugh at how much my life had changed and yet, how much it had not. Thomas is 16. When I was 16, I was at the beach with my buddies, listening to much of the same music Thomas had selected, throwing a frisbee amidst the waves, sand and sun. Bob Dylan’s strange 35-year-old lyric kept ringing in my head and suddenly it made more sense to me: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

As the tide washed around our chairs, we had great talks about girlfriends, high school, college and family. He asked a lot of questions about the future of my business and I discussed how sometimes it is hard for an entrepreneur to work in a corporate environment. He admitted he hoped he could work for these newspapers one day.

When our week was coming to a close, I noticed sadness was beginning to emerge. I felt as if I had met a new best friend and he was going to leave soon.

“Thomas, I know it wasn’t planned this way, but I’ve really had a wonderful time just hanging out with you this week,” I said.

He thought for a moment and then said, “Yea, I might like to bring my girlfriend next time if her parents will let her. But in the future, I think we should also plan some trips with just you and me. Sometimes when I bring buddies, I don’t get to spend enough time with you.”

I know parents can spend a lifetime working for their families and never feel as if they are appreciated. While I await a similar moment with my daughter, I knew I had just received such a gift from my son. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

Photo: Thomas and me as we are preparing for a trip to the beach

May 1, 2001

Quite a Spectacle

Filed under: Atlanta,Family,Life Stories — schroder @ 12:00 pm

Sometime in the past few months, I lost my prescription sunglasses. The lenses were only two years old, but I had nursed along the scratched and worn-down frames for more than 12 years. They weren’t pretty, but they were functional and much cheaper than new frames. I’ve looked everywhere for the glasses and even accused my fashion-conscious kids and staff members of hiding them until I broke down and bought a new pair designed in the past decade, but no one would admit to it.

As I looked over the rows of new spectacles at the store, I suddenly remembered the last time I lost a set of eyeglasses. At that time, I was married and my wife, Callender, and I were living in Greenville, SC. For more than nine months we had been, as they say, expecting. Our daughter Sally had been “due” on a full moon in early October, but we were still “expecting” her three weeks later. In fact, we were starting to get down-right “demanding.” We had tried everything to encourage her along: long walks, driving continually over old railroad tracks, riding up and down elevators, taking taxis, etc. Finally, we decided to risk an out of town trip. So we got in our old Datsun B210 “Honey Bee” car, which occasionally responded to manual shifting, and took our dog for a trip to Asheville, NC, an hour away.

It was a beautiful afternoon as we threw the tennis ball to our dog alongside the French Broad River somewhere beside the Blue Ridge Parkway. Then, suddenly, Callender grabbed my arm. “It’s time,” she said. We ran back to the car, but the dog did not want to get in. It was too nice of a day, I suppose. She took off running. I chased after her, tackled her and carried her back to the car. Somewhere in that effort, my old, classic style, genuine gold, intricately-etched rimless spectacles – with lots of scratches and a chip or two in the lenses from years of abuse – had fallen into the thick layer of new leaves on this riverside path.

I tossed the dog in the back seat, assured Callender I’d be right back and began frantically digging around. The dog was barking, Callender was honking the horn and I was frantically digging around sticks and leaves for glasses I needed to be able to drive back down the mountain to the emergency room. I finally gave up, jumped in the front seat, turned on the engine, backed the car up, pushed the clutch in to shift into first. The gear shift wasn’t moving. I tried, Callender tried, I think the dog even tried to shove that gear out of reverse, but no such luck. So we backed down a road, all of us screaming or barking until finally, the old car lurched and the gear shift popped into neutral. As we left the park, I dropped a note at the ranger station about my lost spectacles.

We raced to the hospital an hour away, but the labor pains stopped. A few days later, Sally was born. I called the Asheville park service lost and found for weeks, but never found my glasses. I reluctantly ordered a new pair.

Five years later, after we had moved to Charlotte, NC, Callender was making her weekly rounds at local antique shops when she stopped by the register and looked at a display case. Inside were some sets of old glasses. One was very familiar: gold, etched, chipped, bent. She asked the storeowner where she bought them. “From some dealer who comes through occasionally with odd items,” she said. Callender brought them home and presented them to me.

I put them on and I could see near-perfectly through the chips and scratches. I still have them displayed in bookcase at home. Say, I wonder if I could take them to the optician, fit some dark lenses on them and not have to order …

April 1, 2001

Buckhead Bricklayers

Filed under: Atlanta — schroder @ 12:00 pm

April has come to represent an exciting time in the life of this old Atlanta entrepreneur. This month, we start a new paper called Atlanta Downtown. A year ago, we started Atlanta 30305 for Buckhead. Two years ago, I hired my first employee to pull all-nighters, listen to James Brown’s Greatest Hits and crunch out Atlanta 30306 on two Macintosh computers.

I suppose my entrepreneurial streak started one April more than 20 years ago. I was in Florida on spring break with my friend Charles Driebe (our current music editor). My mother called and said if we hadn’t already figured out what we were going to do for a summer job, that she was going to send my Dad down to Atlanta Area Tech and register us for a bricklaying course. She needed some repair work in her yard and so did some of her friends, so she figured we could be somewhat useful that way.

I woke Charles up and asked if he wanted to learn to lay bricks. He grumbled, “Sure,” and thus a four-year company was begun. After graduation from night brick school, Charles and I had to make a few strategic decisions. One was the name of the company. Another was a slogan. Every company had a slogan. The next decision was whom to hire to be our first employee (read: mud mixer and brick hauler). Our final decisions centered around our marketing strategy.

We assembled a crackerjack marketing advisory board: our high school buddies. During a lengthy executive brainstorming session: our name and our legendary positioning slogan were born: The Buckhead Bricklayers: “We Lay for Less.” Following an arduous interview process, Charles and I agreed to hire our best friend, Mike Egan, as our mud man. He had all the necessary credentials: he had just been accepted as a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina, he was an ex-football play of considerable brawn, he had access to his parents’ 1954 Ford Fairlane (a.k.a. “The Bomb”) to haul bricks with a U-Haul trailer – and he was willing to accept $2 a hour.

Since I was the graphics guy, I designed a fine brochure with a brick border. We promoted our status as graduates of an Atlanta Area Tech course, our recently attained high school degrees, our name, slogan, phone numbers and the clincher: free estimates. Our marketing strategy thus set, we set about determining who was our “market.” We carefully selected our target audience as we drove around the finer streets of northwest Atlanta in The Bomb. Potential customers had to own a big house, seem rich and, most important of all, have lots of big shade trees in their yard. This was after all, going to be a summer job in Atlanta. We didn’t go to night brick school for nothing.

Our first “exhibition” was in my parents front yard. We added a couple of additional layers and wings and posts to their existing brick wall next to the street. With this drive-by resume in place, we set about distributing our brochures and sat back and waited for the phone calls. We were totally shocked: people actually called.

Our first customer was on Woodward Way. Big brick house, lots of walls needing repair in the backyard – and huge primary growth white oak trees all around. After our first morning of hard laying, we nodded with approval when our customer leaned out her back kitchen door and asked how we would like her chef to cook our hamburgers for lunch.

As we sat amidst the shade of a beautiful azalea garden, ate our hamburgers, potato chips and cookies off of antique Coca-Cola lunch trays, we sat back and tried to picture the paths our futures would hold. We talked about expansion and buying other bricklaying companies and becoming big bricklaying executives in air-conditioned offices. Little did we know we were enjoying the last lunch a customer would ever offer us.

After a couple of summers, Mike drifted off to pursue an education at Harvard Law and to become a partner at King & Spalding. Charles went to Georgia Law and practices with his Dad in Jonesboro and Atlanta. I became an itinerant journalist, traveling from town to town in the South. I’m the only one who kept up the bricklaying and have projects with my signature from Virginia to South Carolina.

And I never quite lost the entrepreneurial bug. Today I head up a two-and-half-year-old newspaper company and a few weeks ago we moved into our first air-conditioned offices. I never get too worried about whether things will work out. When things get tight, I look out my window beyond the big office buildings. Out there I see the rolling hills of Atlanta, full of large white oak trees and brick terraces and walls that surely need some repair.

March 1, 2001

Grade School Reunion

Filed under: Atlanta,Life Stories — schroder @ 12:00 pm

I’ve been speaking to civic groups in the past few months, retelling humorous stories from my early school days that first appeared in these columns. One in particular, about the day in fourth grade when my hamster accidentally got lost in the several-layered 1960s-nun-garments of Sister Susan Marie, seems to attract the most attention and laughs. Several times I’ve been accused of making up this story, so I was happy to get verification on a recent Saturday night.

A year ago, a reader passed along to her son in California one of my columns about my grade school years. I had not seen Tom Gonter since 6th grade, but last spring he emailed me that he was moving back to Atlanta and proposed we organize a reunion of our grade school class at Christ the King on Peachtree Road.

While high schools and colleges usually keep good records of alumni, we found that our early years existed mainly in our own minds and in the fragments of paper some of us have kept through the years. Our reunion effort began when five of us met for beers in Buckhead and played a game of sorts, writing out on two napkins the name of anyone who had been in our classes during the 1960s. As the list got longer, it took on the air of a Trivial Pursuit game with everyone giving a rousing cheer when a particularly obscure person was recalled. We then began an email campaign, slowing finding more than three dozen classmates through the Internet.

In early February, we gathered at a condo clubroom across the street from school to excavate long-buried memories of learning from the often sweet but sometimes fierce order of nuns. Nancy Sterne brought her first-grade report card, reminding us how we were judged in our early years on subjects such as “is reverent at prayer” or “ keeps profitably busy.” For years, we had suspected Nancy was a straight-A student, but we found Bs and Cs scattered across her scores for “handwriting.” Mike Egan and I admitted to failing in handwriting in first grade. I recalled how the principal, the most feared of all the fearsome nuns, Sister Mary Timothy – or “Big Tim” as some dared to call her behind her back – suddenly would burst into our first grade class and check our work. Once she looked over my work in handwriting class, tore it up in front of everyone and yelled, “Chop Suey – your handwriting is nothing by Chop Suey!” (I’ve never been able to eat the stuff since.)

Mark Murray drove in from Greensboro and announced to all that, had it not been for the tight reins of the nuns, he would not be the successful husband, father and businessman he is today. The secret, he recalled, was that when he got in trouble with the sisters at school, he would walk home that afternoon to find his mother and father waiting on the doorstep to administer follow-up punishment. Parental responsibility back then was not delegated to schools as it often is these days; it was a 24-hour partnership. In his adult years, Mark has visited several of our sisters, including meeting Sister Loretta Joseph at her school in Philadelphia. He told her students of how she kept him straight at an crucial time.

As we left the reunion, we joked about how some things haven’t changed over the years. Despite our best efforts to keep this reunion top secret, the nuns heard about our plans for this mixer between the boys and the girls. They dispatched a proper chaperone, Sister Eileen, to monitor our fun for the entire five-hour party.

There’s talk of meeting again soon and watching one of our classmates, Libby Whittemore, perform on stage at her Buckhead cabaret. Given we may have a nun secretly watching us, she’ll have to have a G-rated set.
And though many classmates can now testify to the day my hamster ran amuck, before I give my next speech, I will be sure to scan the audience to see if any nuns have been sent to monitor my remarks. I just hope she doesn’t ask to see my handwritten notes!

January 1, 2001

Meeting The Moviegoer

Filed under: Atlanta,Life Stories,Media — schroder @ 3:30 pm

In 1977, I returned from my junior year at college and hurried to the funeral of my Great Aunt Bolling, I fell in with other latecomers behind the casket being wheeled down the aisle of the church. A distinguished gentleman was in front of me. He turned, caught my eye and nodded hello. He seemed somehow familiar. At the burial, my father introduced me to him: “Meet your cousin, Walker Percy.”
I had heard Walker’s name spoken with reverence just a few months earlier by fellow English students at the University of Virginia. During literary sessions at my fraternity, passages from his novels had been read out loud, alongside excerpts from William Faulkner. But I had not yet joined the ranks of his devotees. I wasn’t even aware we were cousins. It turned out we were related by marriage, through the very woman whose funeral we were attending. But in the South, even this tenuous a relationship is enough to call someone “cousin” – and to ask a favor.
Hearing I wanted to be a newspaperman, he set up an interview for me with his famous hometown newspaper in Greenville, Mississippi. I landed the job at the paper and the next day began my lifelong interest in Walker’s writings by spending a Saturday with him and his family at their home in Covington, Louisiana.
That fall, I vowed to read all of Walker’s novels and went to the college bookstore and ordered first editions. His second, third and fourth books were easy to locate. I purchased them for less than $10 each. But the store manager advised me not to buy the first edition of his prize-winning first novel, “The Moviegoer,” because sellers were asking $50. Today, it sells for $2,000.
At the time, both the price and the premise of the book seemed just out of my reach. I had committed my college years to enjoying every moment because I knew the experience was a short one. I reveled in all I saw and everyone I met. I was on a search for meaning every moment I was there.
Life beyond college had no roadmap or defining limits. And for a creative type like me, finding meaning in the drudgery of the everyday was a daunting challenge – the same one that haunts this perplexing book’s narrator, Binx Bolling – named perhaps for our relative.
Every few years, when I would feel lost in a holding pattern of despair, I’d pull this novel off the shelf to remember that the mere act of searching for more meaning in life makes it worth it.
When Walker autographed my first editions, I promised I would return with a first edition of “The Moviegoer” and thank him for helping me start my career as a newspaperman. But I moved, changed jobs, married, had children and life became all too ordinary in its busyness.
One day, after a pre-dawn business meeting in Buckhead, I picked up the morning paper. Walker’s obituary was on the front page.
I was crushed. I had allowed myself to be swallowed by the everyday. That morning, as I trudged into an office building with thousands of other seemingly uninspired employees, I vowed to do better. I promised I would begin a search for a more meaningful job, that I would find a way to thank Walker publicly and that eventually I would find that autographed first edition of The Moviegoer to complete my collection. That final search, at least, continues to this day.

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