Anyone who knew Jack O’Dwyer has a story to tell. The last 13 years have given me a lifetime of them.
I met Jack during a difficult time. I was 29 years old and had moved to New York on a whim. No employment, no permanent place to stay, no prospects. $850 in the bank. To call it a foolishly impractical venture would be an understatement. Then, three weeks after I’d arrived, the impossible happened: The Topps baseball card company wanted to hire me to oversee their production department. They offered a salary with benefits, from a well-appointed office in lower Manhattan. That quixotic dream of wayward romantics everywhere had fallen into my lap. A respectable and secure workaday career in New York with the chance of upward mobility. Truth be told, that was the very life I’d run away from.
Several minutes after I’d gotten off the phone with the recruiter, this guy who’d seen my résumé phoned me up. I’d met him at his office the day before and thought he was nuts. He’d rambled on about the publishing conglomerates that were trying to put him out of business and this industry group I’d never heard of called PRSA. He liked the fact that I’d written for a daily paper but also had a newspaper production background. He wanted to know: could I cover stories and put them on the web quickly? Could I come up with new design concepts for their printed products? Sure. He asked if I leaned left. I didn’t get a chance to respond. “We’re Bolsheviks over here!” The red flags came flapping into view, but I was intrigued. “Well, do you want the job or not?”
To this day, I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t take the Topps gig, but I have an idea. I gravitate toward eccentrics. For a person like me, there’s not a lot of daylight between a corporate job and a prison sentence. I didn’t like baseball.
At first, I didn’t know what my job was. I went on reporting assignments. I paginated sections of the magazine. I mailed entry forms for our annual directory. In my experience, this just wasn’t how publishing worked. It was bare-bones, we wore a lot of hats, and being there made you feel like you were part of some transgressive, underground operation. I liked it. A few months later, Jack gave me the monthly magazine. He wanted me to redesign it from the ground up. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. I didn’t sleep much during that time. I worked long hours, late nights and weekends. I developed ulcers. I got the sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t very good at my job. I got better at it, but that impostor syndrome that comes with being gifted an undertaking I didn’t think I deserved never left. I’m still wrestling with those feelings 13 years later.
We didn’t always see eye-to-eye. We argued a lot in the beginning. Truthfully, I said some things that would’ve gotten me fired anywhere else. I was also one of the few people who was able to walk him back from the ledge on decisions I disagreed with, which, as anyone who knew Jack can attest, was no easy feat. This is something about Jack I don’t hear enough. He was a tough nut to crack, but if you were in his corner, you were family. And family knows where the buttons are (boy did we push them). The question soon became not why I picked him, but why he picked me. I’m still trying to figure that out.
Jack didn’t like my writing in the early days, and he didn’t mind letting me know. During one meeting he read aloud a 2,000-word article I’d stayed up writing the night before about a panel of pharmaceutical executives I’d covered. He said it was overwritten, unpublishable. He suggested I read Hemingway, specifically, “The Old Man and the Sea.” I thought Hemingway was outdated and prosaic. Nevertheless, I bought the book and read it in a day. I saw what Jack was getting at. Cut down on your modifiers. Use simple sentences. Don’t equivocate. Get to the point. I’ve taught a writing class for six years now and this is the first lesson I tell my students. Quality writing is clear writing. Write with passion or find something else to do.
Jack was fearless. When I’d get my hands on an RFP announcement that wasn’t intended for public consumption, I’d get the predictable litany of angry calls from middle management toadies threatening to sic their lawyers on us. Jack would take the phone away from me, tell them off about the First Amendment and spell out his name so they’d get it right on the cease and desist before hanging up. That’s how he was. Old school. He didn’t give a shit. It’s a quality that most of us don’t have.
Jack was a legend. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that Jack O’Dwyer’s Newsletter was where they signed their first client account or landed their first PR job, or how we broke stories the other trades were too scared to touch. His voice was authoritative. He did it first. He was a reporter’s reporter, and he understood that doing the job meant saying things you might not personally agree with. He pissed off a lot of people, which is a pretty good sign that you’re doing something right.
Jack was crazy. I’ve got stories to fill a book. The library he wanted to build to commemorate his career chronicling the PR industry. His screeds about PRSA. The Post-It notes paneling the walls, with detailed instructions on everything from how to use the fax machine to reminders to defrost our break room freezer. His conspiracy theories about cell phones. That was part of his charm. It said something about you if you got a kick out of being around him. Guilty as charged.
Jack was a lot of things. An industry watchdog. A fierce advocate of free speech. A stalwart supporter of the press. He changed the communications world and the publishing industry forever. He was my boss. He was my friend.
In July, we celebrated the company’s 50th anniversary. Jack made it a half-century, in the same office, with much of the same staff, doing things his way. It’s a milestone by any metric, but for an independent, family-owned publisher, it’s virtually unheard of. We will continue carrying on his mission, operating under Jack’s credo that the truth is all that matters.
All these years later, I've never regretted my decision. And I never got into baseball.
Rest in power, Jack.
Comments from our readers:
Jon: Great and personal column; thank you for sharing your personal "how it came about" story (the sign of a great writer). Jack was a complicated person and at times difficult to like. But he was someone I've respected as a journalistic for decades. He did great things for the industry and was a strong advocate for the PR profession even when he was fighting one of his many quixotic battles. I appreciated his passion even when on the receiving side of his venom towards PRSA. And all would pass when we got on the phone, spoke about the issue and agreed to disagree. Glad that is legacy will continue with folks like you, Kevin and John guiding the ship. Condolences to you all; and my love and best wishes to the O'Dwyer family.
Well written, and a pleasure to read Jon (and I didn't even know Jack ODwyer); Jack would have been proud of you.
God bless Jack. He was the last honest man in PR and his journalistic skills will be missed...though I'd imagine the PRSA must be relieved.
Well said, Jon.
I can totally relate because I worked in that office from 1989-1995. A staunch traditionalist, Jack would walk in each morning and head to his typewriter even though everyone else had computers. Jerry Walker, the media reporter, had stacks of newspapers/magazines everywhere. We assembled the directories and magazine issues with glue and exacto blades. We all had mismatched coffee-stained furniture. Jack didn't believe in being fancy and I'm not surprised he's been at the same address for decades. He was a good businessman; investing instead in the products and the people that made them.
Some days I would come to work and ask myself what am I doing here? The answer was always I love this entrepreneurial spirit and ordered chaos because we are truly doing something critically important -- telling the truth about PR and bringing transparency to important industry issues. Sure, Jack shot down my writing many times - but I learned a lot and became a better writer/editor. Jack was tough but fair. He wasn't afraid to state his opinion no matter how crazy it might sound. He didn't care if he made enemies if it defended what he believed to be true. And he wasn't always right but he admitted it when he was wrong.
Thank you Jack -- for jumpstarting my career and for 50 years of brilliant journalism.
Nice piece, Jon. I worked for a guy like Jack in my first writer/editor job at a trade magazine. I learned lessons there I never forgot, and you were privileged to be able to learn from Jack. And I always thought they were Bolshies over there. :)