Long ago, the back section of this newspaper was called “Not Strictly Business.” For two decades, Frank Basile wrote a personal column that filled the upper-left corner of each week’s final spread.
In 2000, when Basile laid down his pen, section editor Tawn Parent e-mailed a query seeking potential replacements. One of my colleagues shared it, thinking I might know someone who’d be interested.
You see, I’ve been a ghostwriter my entire career. You might’ve heard my words uttered by politicians or corporate honchos. You might’ve seen my stuff in bylined articles, grant applications, cover letters, news releases, white papers, advertisements or even road-closure announcements.
If I were a literary character, I’d be Cyrano de Bergerac, writing witticisms to my beloved for some handsome hunk to deliver. If I were in a musical, I’d be Billy Flynn, the “Chicago” lawyer who crafts razzle-dazzle lines that get Roxy Hart acquitted.
Yes-sir-ee, I’ve run the ghostwriting gamut from birth announcements to eulogies. Truth to tell, it left me with a pent-up pining to have my own say and sign my own name.
So I called Ms. Parent and told her I was interested.
She requested six weeks of column ideas.
I sent her six months’ worth.
She said we’d give it a try.
I told Basile I’d last a year or two. That was 14 years ago.
IBJ gave me 800 words per column. Freedom to write about anything except my clients. And a Tuesday deadline that could, on occasion, be pushed to Wednesday. (I pushed it frequently.)
In my first submission, I promised to “share some business ideas, relate some experiences, comment on trends and whine about wrongdoing.”
But between you and me, I had big ambitions. I wanted to make like Plato: “Be a good person speaking well. Make the truth persuasive.”
I wanted to compose like Hemingway: “It is all very well for you to write simply and the simpler the better. But do not start to think so damned simply. Know how complicated it is and then state it simply.”
Ever the liberal arts advocate, I wanted readers to see connections between seemingly disparate ideas: harebrained hypocrisy and aha moments alike.
So I wrote about a few things you’d expect in a business newspaper, and lots of things that affect people’s lives.
When I started this, I had 11-year-old twins. They’re now 25. So I’ve written about parenting, the funny things kids say, and the bittersweet feeling of an empty nest.
When I started this, I owned a business. After 19 years, I shut it down. Now, I’m a college professor. So I’ve written about clients, management, marketing, hiring, team-building, what to wear, success, hardship, professional rebirth and the rewards of teaching.
When I started this, I lived in suburbia. Then I spent a decade downtown. Now I live in exurbia. So I’ve written about living in different kinds of places among different kinds of people.
When I started this, Bill Clinton was president. Then George W. Bush. Then Barack Obama.
When I started this, Frank O’Bannon was governor, followed by Joe Kernan, Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence.
When I started this, Bart Peterson was mayor. Now it’s Greg Ballard.
When I started this, Democrats held sway in the Statehouse. Now it’s Republicans. So I’ve written about good policy and failed policy, the dedication of public servants and exasperation with elected officials.
When I started this, Lance Armstrong was my hero. Now, he is not.
When I started this, there were twin towers in New York City. Now, they are gone.
When I started this, there was no such thing as Facebook, Twitter or blogs. Mainstream journalism was king. Now, it is not. So I have written about change.
I almost quit once. My wife Pam got cancer. Soon after, we learned it was inoperable and terminal. A year later, she died.
When Pam grew ill, I told my then-editor, John Ketzenberger, that I might need to hang it up. He said I should stick it out. He said it might be good therapy.
So I wrote about love, and sickness, and death, and grief, and love reborn.
But after 14 years, this is my last “Notions” column.
A few years ago, “Not Strictly Business” became “A & E, etc.” My column having been a misfit too long already, it’s time for something, well, artsier and more entertaining in this space.
Rather than writing “Notions,” I’ll write occasionally for IBJ’s op-ed page.
So this is not goodbye; it’s a change-of-address notice.
Most important, it’s a thank you to all who’ve read these essays, commented on them and shared them.
I leave you with one final notion: Recognize how complicated life is, explain it simply, make the truth persuasive and be a good person speaking well. In this oft-angry age of social media, it’s a Plato/Hemingway mash-up that would serve us well.•
Hetrick is a writer, public relations consultant and visiting professor of public relations for the IU School of Journalism at IUPUI. He can be reached at [email protected]