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Back in the 1970s I was a reporter for a newspaper up north. One fall evening the movers- and-shakers of the community got together in the banquet room of a local inn for one of those congratulatory events where every business owner of any consequence gets some kind of “prestigious award.”
Once the tables have been cleared, the windy speeches begin. One business owner will start by going on-and-on extolling the virtues of another business owner. They are almost always virtues everyone in attendance knows full-well the award-winner doesn't possess. The humble rascal will then be handed a plaque suitable for hanging. Most in attendance often think – in unison – that the award-winner should have been hanged, instead. The extolling and awarding and not deserving continues until all the plaques stacked behind the head table are gone.
At this point most people get up, say their goodbyes, and go home. But on this particular night several people stayed and basked in the afterglow of all those wonderful speeches. One of the evening's awards had gone to the truly deserving president of the local parent-teacher organization who had developed an innovative school writing program. Then, the talk among the stragglers suddenly turned to writing.
"Isn't it shameful what's happened to the quality of writing these days, what with emails, tweets and texting and all?" the chamber president asked to no one in particular. "I couldn't agree more," said the editor of my paper.
No one knows who first suggested it - it was either the slightly intoxicated newspaper editor or the mildly inebriated chamber president- but at some point one of these local luminaries boldly proposed a local writing contest.
The idea took off like a prairie fire. Suddenly the slightly tipsy stragglers began scribbling down contest rules, listing names of possible sponsors, and coming up with ideas for prizes. They even agreed to meet around 9 the next morning.
It was at that first meeting that cracks began appearing in the contest's hastily poured foundation. The chamber president assumed from the beginning that the newspaper would do most of the heavy lifting, including publicity and judging. For his part, the newspaper editor assumed that the chamber would do most of work and all he had to do was put a few ads and articles in his newspaper to publicize the contest.
"Why can't those reporters of yours read the contest entries?" the chamber president demanded to know.
"Because those reporters of mine are too busy putting out your daily newspaper, that's why!" the editor replied. "Why can't that chamber of yours hire some of those underpaid teachers to judge the writing entries?" he snorted.
From there things went downhill fast.
The newspaper ran an article about the contest, as well as a few ads. Entries poured in, more than anyone anticipated. The chamber spent what some thought was a small fortune on the judges from the local schools. The chamber president demanded that the newspaper help defray the high cost of the judging, but the editor absolutely refused. By this time, anyway, organizers were at each other’s throats arguing about every contest detail and whose responsibility it was.
When it came time for the contest awards, organizers weren't even speaking. Even after the contest was over things were so bad in town that members avoided chamber meetings. The next year's chamber dinner had to be canceled for lack of interest and there was even some talk of dissolving the crippled organization.
It took years for things in the town to get back to normal. The chamber president eventually sold his business and retired to Arizona. The newspaper editor didn't retire, but around the same time had a heart attack and died at his desk.
Folks in town who remember say it all started because the chamber president and the editor once lingered too long at a chamber banquet.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at or 899-1868.
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