FRANK CLIFFORD People choose their careers for a variety of reasons. I chose mine because I wanted to be around people like John Neary. My career in journalism was dawning as his was ending. In so many words, he warned me: "I assume you know what you're in for, but just in case you don't ...." John Neary, who died Oct. 21, was like that, a vintage blend of Irish pessimism and Irish humor. He would have chided me for redundancy there.
I ignored his warnings. Why would I not pursue a profession that employed people like John Neary? Listening to him reminisce was like listening to a character from Jack London or Robert Louis Stevenson recall a perilous ocean voyage. The stories he told, the way he spoke of the perils, the low pay and the SOBs in charge, the more you wanted to head out on a voyage of your own. He had a writer's genius for spinning irresistible stories out of the grimmest adventures.
John wrote and edited stories for Life magazine before moving to Santa Fe in the 1970s. At least one of the books that celebrate the achievements of Life recalls him fondly. His work for Life endures in anthologies of the best of the magazine. After he left Life, he wrote a couple of books and numerous articles for magazines and Time Life Books. What I remember about him from that period are his descriptions of going back to New York every summer to work as a substitute for vacationing editors at Time Life. Hearing him chronicle the miseries of New York City in the dog days of summer and the thankless editorial chores worthy of a modern day Bartleby the Scrivener only made me yearn for that very life. He could not help but make journalism sound romantic. When he turned from journalism to blacksmithing, it was as if he were transferring his power of expression from one tool to another. Just as the typewriter had been, the forge was a precision instrument in his hands.
When I began thinking seriously of returning to Santa Fe to live, John was again full of dire warnings, about drought and wildfire and about how Santa Fe had changed for the worse. John was the opposite of lace-curtain Irish, and, to him, Santa Fe had become a bit lacey. He talked about hiding out in the Tesuque barrens and refusing to come any closer to the Plaza than the flea market. If Cassandra had been a 6-foot 4-inch Irishman, her name would have been Neary.
He was right about journalism, at least about the world of journalism he knew and I came to know. It was doomed. The newspaper where he started out, the Washington Star, is long gone, as are three of four papers where I worked. The fourth is in bankruptcy. If I possessed John's story-telling skill, I would write about getting stiffed for the last $9,000 I earned while bankruptcy court awarded the bosses millions in bonus money. If I were John, perhaps, I could tell the story in a way that might entice some green youngster to still want to be a journalist, to still want a taste of the bygone grandeur that John Neary represented.
Former Los Angeles Times reporter Frank Clifford lives in Santa Fe.