How Not To Get A Job (Even Though It Worked Once For Me)

Dec 9, 2017

I'm writing this for those of you who may be just out of college and looking for a job; or those who a bit older but who are looking for a change of scenery in the workplace.

It is the story of how you can do something incredibly stupid in the middle of a job interview and still get the job.

Not that I recommend this method, mind you. But I am proof positive that it can be done.

Allow me to explain:

During the first few years of my journalism career, I did a lot of bouncing around from job to job, until, in 1977, I found a newspaper reporter job at a place I really liked, and do to this day – the Troy Daily News, which is in Miami County, about 75 miles up Interstate 75 from downtown Cincinnati.

I stayed there five years, making next to nothing in wages but loving every minute of it. I might have stayed longer, but the opportunity came in October 1982 to take a job at the Cincinnati Enquirer – a place where I already had friends and a town I really loved. An added plus – I could work only a few blocks from Riverfront Stadium, home of my beloved Cincinnati Reds.

I stayed at the Enquirer 29 years, six months and two days before I left and came to WVXU and Cincinnati Public Radio, where I get to work every day with good people in a good atmosphere.

I just turned 65 years old, but I am not in my dotage. At least not yet. I really like what I am doing here; and I'm sure it will be the last full-time job I ever have.

But, in early 1976, I was very young and very unemployed and was struggling to find a job in what, at the time, was a very tight job market for newspaper journalists.

I was living with my folks in Dayton temporarily while I searched for a job. In those days, long before Al Gore invented the Internet, looking for a journalism job meant flipping through the classified ads in the magazine Editor & Publisher, which each week listed job openings around the country.

I'd go to Wilke's, the bookstore downtown, which was the only place in Dayton which sold Editor & Publisher.

I was constantly banging out letters on an old Royal typewriter (still have it) and sending them along with my resume, which wasn't particularly impressive at the time. I'd usually follow it up with a phone call to the editor, looking for a job interview.

After a while, I had several fish who had taken the bait, all of them in the Midwest and all small-town or suburban operations. I started setting up interviews over a four-day period.

First was The Republican, the newspaper in Columbus, Indiana, which had a junior reporter position open. That was day one.

For day two, I set up an interview with the Dubuque Telegraph Herald in Iowa, a nice town which sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. They needed a city hall reporter; I was convinced I was their guy.

Day three was set aside for a late day interview with a suburban newspaper chain in Chicago which was looking for a young reporter to cover suburban governments.

The Lake County Courthouse, Painesville, Ohio
Credit Wikimedia Commons

And, on the fourth day, I set up an early morning interview with Vern Henry, then the editor of the Painesville Telegraph in Lake County, Ohio, located exactly 22 miles east of Public Square in Cleveland.

The one thing all of these publications had in common is that they were looking for a young reporter who would work cheap.

That was me, to a tee.

I had an old car that was in terrible shape and really wasn't up to a four-day run through the Midwest. So, my dad told me I could use his second car – a 1972 Pontiac, which was a decent car and in good shape mechanically. He gave me his AAA card, as well, just in case.

And off I went.

Columbus, Indiana, was a complete bust. I didn't hit it off with the people running the show; and I could see they weren't buying what I was selling.

The next day in Dubuque was more promising. They ended up telling me that they liked my clip file, but that they had two more people they wanted to interview before making a decision.

I got to Chicago and the next morning and killed time until my late afternoon appointment with the editors of the suburban newspaper chain. That went on and on for hours; and, after it was over, I left with a bad feeling that this wasn't going to work out. I also left with an empty stomach, so I found a Chicago-style pizza joint and had a nice meal.

It was dark by the time I finished.

I knew that I had to be at the Painesville Telegraph office at 7:30 the next morning. I also knew that it was a nearly 370-mile drive from Chicago to Painesville. But I also knew that it was getting late; and I had no choice but to drive straight through. And I knew it mean I would arrive in the wee hours of the next morning.

No choice. Got in the '72 Pontiac and started roaring across Interstate 90, which would take me all the way to where I needed to be.

But I am not a non-stop, long-distance driver. I have always had to make pit stops along the way. In the old days, I could never pass by a Stuckey's without stopping; any Waffle House or truck stop was likely to lure me in.

I managed to turn what is supposedly a five-and-a-half hour drive into a drive of about seven hours.

It was about 3 a.m.; there was no point in trying to find a motel room. So I made another brilliant decision: I'd try to sleep in the back seat of the car for a few hours. I had a wind-up alarm clock in my suitcase. I could get up in time to get over to the Telegraph office for my interview with the editor.

So I pulled into an empty parking lot next to the Agora, a rock venue similar to Bogart's in Cincinnati. It was only a few blocks from the newspaper office. I crawled into the back seat of the Pontiac and tried to sleep, but mostly I just tossed and turned – too wired up from too much coffee from too many truck stops.

Just before 7 a.m., I gave up on trying to sleep. I pulled a fresh shirt out of the suitcase, put it on, knotted by my one and only necktie, and started walking down to the newspaper office.

The Telegraph was an afternoon paper, which meant people started very early in the morning to put out an edition that would roll off the presses about 1 p.m.

I walked into the building and told the receptionist at the desk that I had an appointment with Vern Henry, the editor.

He's tied up right now, but I'll tell him you are here. It shouldn't be long. Have a seat.

Instead of having a seat, I asked if I could use the men's room. She pointed me in the right direction and I went in and started trying to freshen up, because I was one miserable mess. I washed my face; combed by hair; and tried to look presentable.

I also filled up the sink with cold water, stuck my face in and started making motorboat noises, in a vain attempt to shake off the weariness.

I went back out to sit in the lobby; and it wasn't long before Vern appeared. He was a big man, with wavy black hair and thick, black eyeglasses. He was smiling, which I took as a good sign.

Howard, c'mon on in. Let's talk about this.

I followed him into his office. It was an old-fashioned newsroom, one where the editor had a glass-walled office, so he could look out at the staff and see what was going on.

We sat and talked for about half an hour; he was much interested in my previous experience, especially the work I had done at The Post, the daily student newspaper at Ohio University.

He talked to me about the job – how it would be general assignment, but that they could use someone with my experience (limited as it was at that point) covering politics.

This is going really well, I thought to myself.

Then, the city editor poked his head into the door and asked Vern to come into the newsroom; they needed him to make a call on something.

You sit tight; I'll be back soon, Vern told me.

I waited, shuffling my feet, looking around the office at the hustle and bustle in the newsroom. And, then, without even realizing it, I drifted into sleep.

I had fallen asleep in the middle of a job interview! There I sat, sawing logs, slumped down in a comfortable chair.

The next thing I remember is Vern's big bear paw hand shaking my shoulder, and hollering, Hey, Howard, wake up!

Then he started laughing, a great big belly laugh.

I started apologizing profusely, bowing and scraping: Oh, I am so sorry….I was so sleepy…drove all night from Chicago…really want to work here…..I am so sorry.

Vern wasn't angry at all – just extremely amused. He even called the city editor and the managing editor into his office.

Hey, guys, this is Howard Wilkinson! He's the guy in from Dayton, interviewing for the reporter's job. You won't believe this! I walked out of the room, and he fell asleep. Dead asleep! And snoring! Real loud!

The two sub-editors had a huge guffaw and shook my hand, telling me they were glad to meet me and hoped to talk to me after they got off deadline.

I was there the rest of the day, talking to other editors, reporters, and getting a tour of the whole operation from Vern.

At the end of the day, we were back in Vern's office.

Once again, I apologized for falling asleep. Vern laughed.

Don't worry about it. Funniest thing I've ever seen in this newsroom. You must really want this job, eh?

Yes sir, I really do, I said.

Well, you got it, son. I won't find anybody who wants it more. When can you start?