• Media,  Public Relations

    Ink By the Barrel

    Mark Twain coined the original phrase, I named this blog after it, but the first time I heard the words, “Ink By the Barrel,” I had just finished a plate of warmed-over baked chicken, mashed potatoes and green peas at the Kiwanis Club of Augusta, Georgia.

    Then-Richmond County Sheriff J.B. Dykes was addressing the civic club and I was in the audience, sipping very sweet iced tea, along with lots of other radio and newspaper reporters. As J.B. said to start his speech that day in 1980: “My daddy always told me, ‘Never pick a fight with lawyers, doctors or men who buy ink by the barrel.’ ” In case we didn’t catch his drift, J.B. went on to say, “I see there are a lot of reporters, so I better watch what I say here.”

    The Kiwanians loved it and we in the media squirmed. J.B. seemed like a nice guy, but I certainly never wanted to pick a fight with him. Well, as it turns out, he had good reason to keep reporters at arms’ length. A few years later, he was charged with taking bribes to fix warrants for driving under the influence of alcohol. He eventually pleaded guilty to two federal charges of obstructing justiice for firing a secretary and threatening to kill a deputy – both of whom were cooperating with federal agents. The sheriff was sentenced to four years in prison.

    I’ve spent more than 25 years in the newspaper business, from editing my high school and college papers, to working for six daily newspapers in the South, to starting my own neighborhood papers in Atlanta in 1994. I eventually sold the papers to Atlanta developer Tom Cousins in 2001 and moved on to the Public Relations business. I’ve run Schroder PR for five years now and a month hasn’t gone by when someone didn’t stop me and mention how much they miss my newspaper and my monthly column. I always say I miss it too and maybe I’ll write a book someday. Of course, I’m too busy with PR client work and not disciplined enough to write that book. The latest was a lawyer in Austin, Texas, named Hamp Skelton, a high school classmate, who wrote me last month: “I miss your column. You should do it as a blog.”

    Here I am in PR, urging and selling my clients on writing a blog and I don’t have one. The cobbler’s son has no shoes …

    So here it is, the start of my blog, named after what I would have named my book. I knew the minute J.B. Dykes said those words that “Ink By the Barrel” would be the name of my memoir. I’m not sure my life has been that interesting to write a memoir – at least not one people would pay to read. But it certainly rates the name of my blog – and it’s free to you and your friends.


    All of my columns from my seven years of publishing neighborhood newspapers are housed here for your – and Hamp’s and all the other fine folks’ who have encouraged me through the years – enjoyment. Today, the phrase still applies … I don’t print a newspaper, buying ink by the barrel to print on newsprint, but my professional team tries each day to get my clients all the “ink” they can.

    Today begins my new path of writing – not a book, not a newspaper, not a press release, but a blog. Enjoy, visit often and post your own comments.

    And thanks to my lovely bride, Jan Butsch Schroder, a published author who got tired of me complaining about me not following my bliss and engaging my passion – writing. She started this blog, posted my old columns and said, “Here, now start writing.”

    Thanks to J.B. Dykes (Sheriff, wherever you are, I hope you’re well) and Mark Twain, too, for the title. Thanks for reading. Stay in touch.

    Photo: My lovely bride, Jan Butsch Schroder, a published author in her own right, who inspired me to re-publish my columns and start my blog.

  • Fatherhood

    Model Behavior

    In grade school, our teachers made us write Valentine cards to every student in our class. I found this exercise frustrating and never quite understood the value until I opened my stack of cards. As contrived as it seemed, it provided one moment each year for everyone in my little world to think a nice thought about each other.

    Holidays can be a double-edged sword – for many, they are a time to be with family, friends and loved ones; for others, the picture-postcard images that bombard them only serve to heighten their loneliness.

    There are so many ways to counter this – and they take no more effort than we expended in grade school. My friend Ann Morris’ church has a group that gathers each February and sends a Valentine to every member who is over age 50. Much like the Martin Luther King holiday is evolving to promote community service, it could be time for Valentine’s Day to evolve as well.

    Last summer, I took a larger role in my daughter’s life. We moved into an apartment together in Charlotte while she attended her senior year in high school and I commuted a few days a week back to Atlanta. We had some adjustment problems – after all, it had been eight years since we lived in the same house for more than a week or two. In the end, it was a wonderful experience.

    Some of my friends thought, given the circumstances, I was going too far in my fatherly duties – that she had to learn that certain behavior results in certain consequences. I was torn. I didn’t want to stand between her and a life lesson. But I also knew that on my deathbed I wouldn’t look back and wish I had spent more time in the office last year. Was I making this sacrifice to make me feel better or was it truly the right thing to do?

    I was burdened by two theories I once read about fathers. One says the way a father treats his children is instrumental in their adult perception of who and what God is like. The other says that a father should take his daughter out “on dates” – open the door to the car for her, hold her chair at dinner and have nice conversation across a table – to model how she should be treated later by a real date.

    My daughter is now 18. I occasionally watch her pursue guys that her mother and I don’t feel are, let’s say, appropriate. Despite our desire to control the situation, we know she is getting old enough to make her own choices. I keep hoping that somewhere, in the back of her head, she remembers our evenings together and is only going through a phase.

    Our time together as roommates has ended. But I know my role as her father hasn’t. When Valentines Day comes, I will send her a card and perhaps a gift. And if we aren’t able to have dinner together that night, I will try to remember that Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be what the commercials are telling me. It is not just a day for people who are in love, but yet another reminder of how to act for those who love.

  • Family,  Life Stories

    “The Journey” Together

    My friends tease that I’m related to everyone in Atlanta. What is true is that I am “the baby” of my immediate family of two brothers and two sisters. We are rather spread out: by the time I was born, my oldest sister was nearly college-age. While some of us had traveled together through the years, it occurred to me that we had never all been on the same trip when we boarded the same airplane two years ago to go to a cousin’s wedding in Maine. (In hindsight, we probably should have split up on different flights.) The trip was a success and we agreed to get together each year.

    One of the things about my big family is when we get together, we often only have time for small-talk. When we planned this year’s annual weekend together for August, I was interested in finding a tool to break down the normal barriers.

    In July, I ventured into and was incredibly surprised by the premiere of a locally produced film. As the 90-minute film rolled along, I realized the experience of watching “The Journey” is similar to my life: It isn’t filmed particularly well, the sound is rough in spots, the plot is unpredictable and isn’t even laid out in a logical sequence. Then I began to listen for the pearls of wisdom hidden amidst its rocky scenes. And there were many.

    After I emerged from the theatre, I had one urge: to ensure my family saw this film together. I wasn’t sure why, but I had a hunch that if anything could hot-wire an emotional reaction from my siblings, The Journey might be it. I was right.

    After a glass or two of wine, we all sat down to view it. They laughed, they listened and some cried. As we prepared dinner, each one pulled me aside to share a significant emotion the film had triggered. At the table, instead of the normal banter, I asked each person, including in-laws, to share the thoughts they had quietly told me. For my family, this led to the most significant discussion we’ve ever had.

    One sister said she realized her grandmother was the only family member she felt had ever really connected with her and she lamented she didn’t have such a relationship yet with her own grandchildren. A brother lamented that he had let issues prevent him from sharing his appreciation with our dad before his death seven years ago. One questioned why her approach to her son was so restrictive and why she didn’t appreciate his novel nature. She realized it was because that was how she was raised. Another feared for a grandchild’s self-esteem as he exposed his sensitive nature to his “macho” world. My mom was suddenly struck by never having told her long-deceased mother thanks for all the unappreciated sacrifices she had made when trying to raise three daughters during very, very tough times.

    For me, I learned that, despite my nature to hide in tough times, it is okay to ask others for help when I need it. I also reaffirmed that, in the end, being a good father, manager, lover or friend is more about listening than lecturing. I need to listen more. That night at dinner, when I did listen, I could not believe the stories I heard.

    Soon, it was time to clean up the dishes and call it a night. As we wandered off to bed and even when we have reconvened since, my family returned to our normal ways of relating. Yet something is slightly altered. For we have opened up and shared a deep fear or regret with our group and now, having shared that, we will are able to reconnect on a deeper level as the happy and sad scenes are written into our individual journeys.

  • Life Stories

    Crossing off the List of Life Things to Do

    Somewhere along the way, I developed the strange notion that life could become one great scavenger hunt, whereby I would compile – and then complete – a list of goals or “Things to Do.” Having just celebrated a birthday that my older brother Jack, an avid golfer, says qualifies me to be “playing the back nine of life,” I decided it was time to evaluate my efforts so far.

    Early in life, I posted the typical sports goals a young man thinks about: attending a World Series game, catching a winning touchdown pass, scoring a birdie on my favorite golf hole, making a hole-in-one, coaching my son’s baseball team to a championship, living to see the Braves win a World Series and the Falcons play in (I always knew it would be asking to much that they win) the Super Bowl. I still haven’t played Augusta National Golf Club, so that remains on the list.

    There were a few random achievements that still bring pleasure when I remember them: owning and renovating a 90-year-old house, being elected president of a class here or an organization there, speaking to groups and having them laugh or applaud, running a 10K, seeing a double rainbow. Still on the list: I still haven’t found a four-leaf clover, a shark’s tooth or an arrowhead.

    Meeting certain people always ranked high on the list. I’ve met favorite authors, three men who later became U.S. presidents and then – just a month ago I crossed off a 20-year-item on the list. Since I graduated from college, I’ve wanted to meet a singer named Emmylou Harris. The first time I ever listened to one of her albums, I fell in love with her voice – and later her photograph. I’ve learned to instantly detect her angelic sound harmonizing in a duet or blended into a chorus. Earlier this year, I saw her in concert for the first time – at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. But I didn’t get to meet her.

    Then a couple of months ago, my friend Charles Driebe invited me to a concert in Seattle in which a band he manages – The Blind Boys of Alabama – would be opening for Emmylou (and another rock star, Dave Matthews). Despite September 11 tragedies, I immediately booked a flight to Seattle and began begging Charles to introduce me to my longtime heartthrob. The concert was on a Sunday, but on Saturday night, Charles suggested I drop by a hotel lobby to meet some people organizing the event.

    As we walked to the door of the hotel, I looked through the front door and instantly saw Emmylou sitting by a fireplace. I played it cool while Charles talked with her and other musicians. Then Emmylou stood to leave. Charles stopped her and casually introduced me. I shook her hand and tried to figure out what to say. We ended up talking about the Braves. She said she was headed back to her room, noting this was the first Saturday night in years that she had nothing on her schedule. My heart pounded in my chest. “Should I? Dare I,” I asked myself. “Maybe this is why I was put on this earth – to spend Saturday night in Seattle with Emmylou!” But then she yawned and wandered out the door.

    The next night, when Charles was able to sneak me backstage, I rode up an elevator with her. I don’t think she recognized me. But after the show, I was able to take two photographs of her backstage talking with Dave Matthews.

    As I flew back from Seattle, I thought about more important goals I have met: being married once and being the extremely proud father of a daughter and a son; serving as publisher and owner of these newspapers for the past seven years; not embarrassing my friends or family too much – so far. And I thought of what is left on my list:
    • parachuting from an airplane;
    • writing and publishing books of fiction and non-fiction;
    • throwing a truly memorable party before I have a funeral;
    • proving next time a marriage can be blessed until death do us part;
    • b eing a good grandfather and, my number one goal:
    • seeing my children happy and outliving me.

    With nine holes to play, I think I can make it. I’ll keep you posted.

  • Family

    Mom and her new PC

    For years, my mother has lamented that she does not hear often enough from her children and grandchildren. “I call and leave messages at your office, but I never get anybody,” she’d say.
    I usually had one response: “Mom, it’s time you got a computer. If you sent us email, you would hear back from us immediately!” She said she was “too old to learn something new and complicated” like a computer, but I kept assuring her that lots of people in their 70s, 80s and 90s were internet-adept.

    Then one day, she called to say she had just returned from a meeting of the condo association and that everyone in the building, including her, now had broadband. “What does that mean?” she asked. “It means it’s time we bought you a computer,” I said.

    So I purchased a new, fast, inexpensive computer and she was suddenly typing again after a 50-year break from the keyboard. And it did bring us closer together, but not in the email-exchanging way I had envisioned. What mom needed more than anything was a tutor and I became one of several relatives who have spent time with her in front of cyberspace.

    She’s been frustrated all these years when TV news or the paper referred to web sites for more information. So, in a few minutes, I had her clicking through on the New York Times, yahoo and other sites of interest. She most enjoys researching an ancestor who once served as a congressman and a colonel in the Civil War.

    She will call me a couple times a week, getting computer tips. Often, if I have meetings in Buckhead, I will stop in and help her when she is stumped. One day she called and said she couldn’t get anything to download. I dropped by, looked at her attempt and noticed she only had two “w’s” rather than the required three in the internet address. We had a good long laugh about that.

    Several times a week, her children and grandchildren might receive an email from her asking about family or giving advice. Frequently, an email will arrive on my screen, urging me to get a flu shot or go more frequently to church. One, entitled “Renew,” suggested I “take a minute to get back your dependence on God. He is such a comfort, and wants to direct you. I’m afraid you have gotten in the same phase I am: too much world, and newspaper and TV. It clouds my mind!”

    My mother turns 85 years old this month. She is a wonder of energy. All her offspring wish we had her zest for life and ability to focus on people most important to us. Since my dad died seven years ago, she has been more active than ever, driving to the beach, the mountains and all over town.

    Her definition of family is large, including nieces, distant relatives, neighbors and ex-in-laws. Several times in the past few years, she has been thoughtful enough to send a little money to my ex-wife in Charlotte “just to help with back-to-school.” Recently, I drove Mom up for my daughter’s graduation. Mom held court at dinner the night before and at the ice cream store after the ceremony. She asked questions of my children’s step-dad and his kids and helped ease some awkwardness. Afterwards, my ex mentioned several times “how great it was to see your mother.”

    As my children reach college-age, I’ve begun to think how much I look forward to being a grandfather. I never knew any of my grandfathers; they died years before I was born. But I did know Mom’s mom and her grandmother, who lived to be a month or two short of her 100th birthday. I believe Mom will live beyond the century mark and will be there to serve as my role model. I am humbled by her awesome example. Happy birthday, Mom. I love you.

  • Atlanta,  Family,  Fatherhood,  Media

    Boys on the Beach

    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 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

  • Media

    Home Delivery

    A friend of mine is dean of the business school at Emory University. At dinner one night a few years ago, she said she would like for me to tell the story of my newspaper start-up to her students.

    Flattered, I tried to envision my audience and asked her, “Oh, you mean your graduate MBA students?”

    She laughed and said, “Oh no. The graduate students would tear you apart! You didn’t have a business plan or a five-year growth strategy or start-up capital. They’d think you were nuts. I meant the undergraduate students. They love hearing stories about entrepreneurs who had an idea one day and started into it the next. They’re much more forgiving.”

    When I was at the University of Virginia, I avoided math, business and science courses and instead, loaded up on English and History. Later, when I was working at the newspaper in Greenville, SC, the publisher invited me to enter “management” and suggested I pursue an MBA. I first had to take six college-level business courses.

    When The Charlotte Observer recuited me, I told the general manager I was about to begin my MBA-level course work and could continue it in Charlotte. “We don’t care that much about graduate schooling here,” he said. “We learn on the job and have our own training program. Your grades will be your performance and results.” Thus ended my formal schooling career.

    When I did concoct the crazy idea (seven years ago this month) to start my own newspaper, I tried to design one that could be distinguished from the other local publications. One such characteristic was mailing the paper to all the homes in the area. In so doing, we were able to build readership, foster a sense of community and guarantee an audience to the advertisers. It was a good idea, but it proved to be a very expensive one.

    A month after my first issue was delivered, the post office raised its postal rates by 20 percent. But I have doggedly clung to the belief that mailing the paper was crucial. It hasn’t been easy. To encourage quick delivery, we have worked closely with the post office. If neighbors called to report they haven’t received their issue, I would flag down that carrier and ask about their delivery plans. We’ve delivered doughnuts to the post offices for what has generally been excellent service.

    Over the years, business consultants have urged me to abandon the mailing costs. We spend more than $100,000 a year in postage. Last fall, we invited some advertisers to lunch to discuss our products. When I asked about mailing, many said it wasn’t as crucial as long as we could get the papers in the hands of our readers. We found a service that could deliver the papers very quickly to our 35,000 home subscribers – for a quarter of the cost of mailing. It allows us to get later news and fresher advertising to our readers.

    As postal rates increased again this year, our costs have soared. We’ve also been touched a little by the slowing economy, though we are ahead of last year’s revenues. By cutting postage costs, we can keep on track to repay our business loans, expand distribution and continue bringing you a quality, positive community newspaper each month without a drastic change in our format.

    All this is to say, beginning this month, the 35,000 households that normally got this newspaper inside their mailbox will now receive it outside it. As for me, I can close another book in the advanced degree I am pursuing called Successful Atlanta Newspaper Management.

  • Media

    Follow Your Bliss

    Sometimes when I speak to a group of students, I tell them the story of when I was in high school and college and my father would urge me to follow our family tradition of becoming a lawyer. I watched as my cousins, brothers and friends entered into and prospered from the legal profession, yet I knew deep inside I was not cut out to be that organized, disciplined and steeped in research. My mind drifted toward more creative subjects, such as writing and design.

    To deflect the inevitable confrontation with my dad, I began developing a track record in my areas of interest and joined my high school and college newspaper staffs. In my third year at the University of Virginia, I even wrote a column for my weekly paper entitled, “Courting the Law.”

    As the time approached to register to take the law boards, I told him I was contemplating not even registering. He urged me to, saying I should “keep my options open.” I did register, but the night before the scheduled test, I intentionally stayed out too late and slept in that Saturday morning. He was not very happy.

    I drifted off to be an itinerant journalist, traveling the South, making near-minimum wage. My dad feigned support as best he could, but would occasionally mention that it might not be too late to go back to law school. I told him my dream was that I would one day be publisher of the Atlanta newspapers (hope I wasn’t specific about which ones). Yet, in my heart, I wasn’t positive where I was headed. At one point, when a mentor suggested I move into the marketing and sales side of the newspaper business, I left journalism behind for nearly 10 years. Friends would ask if I missed writing and I’d say I didn’t, but inside, something was gnawing at me.

    One day, the editor of my high school alumni magazine asked me to write a profile of fellow alum Clark Howard. I took the assignment, interviewed Clark in the studios of WSB-AM and went home to write a profile. Somewhere in the process of writing a feature story, I felt a passion and an energy I had not felt in nearly a decade. I discovered I did in fact miss writing very much.

    I then recalled a stunning series of interviews television journalist Bill conducted with mythology professor Joseph Campbell, who talked about the concept of bliss. “If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living,” he said. “When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

    Shortly thereafter I quit my job and, with guidance from God working through other people, published my first issue of my little neighborhood newspaper. No staff, no money, but plenty of bliss. My dad kept calling to urge me to bring over the first issue. He grabbed it, sat down and read it cover to cover. He walked out to my car in his driveway, hugged me and said something he had not said in a long time: “I’m really proud of you.” A week later, he suddenly had a stroke and died.

    I was then joined by writers and designers and advertisers – all of whom, by following their own bliss and investing their talents and resources, have enlarged my little idea to what it is today.

    When I tell this story, inevitably a couple of students will come up after my talk and say I have inspired them to do what they were meant to do, rather than listen to their dads. I am amused to hear that, particularly when I think about how I, in turn, sometimes give my own children too much advice. I suppose I secretly hope they will defy me and do what they really want to do. What I really want is for them to be happy. If they are, I will be very, very proud.

  • Atlanta,  Family,  Life Stories

    Quite a Spectacle

    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 …

  • Atlanta

    Buckhead Bricklayers

    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.