I’ve always loved Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The lyrics are a tragic poem with a pounding, dirge-like tune that puts you onboard the doomed deck of a ship with “a load of iron ore, twenty-six thousand tons more than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.”
And for me, there’s a story behind that song that had nothing to do with the 1975 shipwreck and everything to do with shaping a career path.
The scene was the blue-carpeted press box at Hillsdale College in southern Michigan. It was 1985 and I was a student media intern at the small college track and field national championships. There were some world-class athletes competing, so we attracted plenty of reporters, including Harry Atkins, the Michigan sports editor of The Associated Press, a soft-spoken gentleman with a relentless focus on feeding the wire. I was assigned to Harry, collecting result sheets results, running quotes, and generally making myself useful.
The work during the day was fun; hearing the stories at night was better. That’s when the lights were dimmed and the tub of beer was rolled out. It was in one of those sessions when Harry told me this story: Harry, it seems, had covered the actual wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. As good reporters do, he knocked on a lot of doors, including those of the Maritime Church of Detroit. In his story, he wrote the words that were eventually lyricized in the penultimate stanza: “The “church bell chimed until it rang twenty-nine times, for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
It’s the line that quietly, yet powerfully, drives home the tragic cost of the Lake Superior disaster.
According to Harry, Gordon Lightfoot read his AP story in a newspaper – I think he said the singer was on an airplane when he saw it. Regardless, Lightfoot was captivated and sought to memorialize the shipwreck in a song. The result was a Top-40 hit.
As for Harry? He went on to the next thousand stories, and his role became just another story to tell in dimly lit press boxes when the day’s work was done. It was recounted in this May 2 New York Times story following Lightfoot’s death. The article doesn’t mention Harry by name, which is a shame, though that’s the way it often is a for a wire-service reporter.
For me, then a history major trying to figure out what to do for the next 30 or 40 years, the anecdote opened a world of possibility. “So…that’s what reporters do. That’s pretty great.”
I searched for the AP article that had that line in it, and couldn’t find it, though AP republished Harry’s initial mainbar on the 40th anniversary of the sinking. Still, Harry’s recounting of the Lightfoot story that evening in Hillsdale gave me a glimpse of the power that words – when written just right – can convey to a reader. Think about it. That sentence could have been written many ways. But the way it came out on was lyrical — literally.
Harry became a bit of a mentor, ready to give feedback on stories I wrote for the college paper or give me advice on finding that first job. Sadly, for me, we lost touch. And by the time I reached AP’s headquarters in New York in 2008 as a business editor, Harry was long retired.
Today, I’m no longer editing stories for the wire, but I am helping Devine + Partners clients tell their stories in ways that resonate the same way that Harry’s story did with Lightfoot. Still, as the echoes of my career get longer and longer, I think back to that night in the Hillsdale press box and the promise and possibilities it created.