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Originally published July 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 15, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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Steve Kelley

Thanks to the men who propelled a career

Seattle Times staff columnist

In 1973, I was driving a forklift in the basement of North Country Fruits in Chelan, wondering what I was going to do with my life.

The basement was cold and musty, and the eight-hour work shift felt like jail time.

I already had been a sportswriter for the York (Pa.) Dispatch for a year, but I felt that job was leading me nowhere.

I quit the paper and now, a little more than a year later, as I drove in the dark to my life with the fork lift, I was beginning to feel I had permanently lost touch with my profession.

Recently it came to my attention that this summer is my 25th anniversary at The Seattle Times, a milestone that, back in the fall of 1973, when I was 24, seemed as remote as the lovely, but then-lonely town of Chelan.

Last week, when I was interviewing new Sonics general manager Sam Presti, he began asking me about Chelan and forklifts. It started me thinking about the small group of people who helped me to somehow make it to Seattle.

Late in my college life, I scheduled an appointment with a family friend, Gorman Walsh, who had been a well-respected radio reporter before going into advertising.

He made me wait what I thought was a rudely long time, before inviting me into his office. Then he began grilling me as if I were being cross-examined in a murder trial.

He asked me to describe the waiting room outside his office. What color was the carpet? How many lamps were in the room? What was the design on the wallpaper, the titles of the magazines on the coffee table, the theme of the pictures hanging on the wall?

Flummoxed and red-faced, I had none of the answers.

"You're not ready yet for this business," he told me. "Good reporters observe. They notice things other people don't. Every little detail is potentially important to them."

The experience felt over-the-top harsh, but later I realized it was the most valuable advice he could have given me.

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After college, I landed that job in York, Pa., as a general-assignment writer, but the position felt like a dead end.

I left and moved into a room on campus at the University of Delaware and worked as a repairman for Sears, mostly installing air conditioners, washers, dryers and TV antennas.

You might call this a career detour.

The university library was across the street from my rooming house, and on sweltering summer evenings I often went to the air-conditioned library, usually winding up in the poetry section.

One night I read the poem "Lake Chelan" by William Stafford.

"They call it regional, this relevance -- the deepest place we have ... " the poem began. Stafford wrote about "a ferryboat, lost by a century" and "the pelt of the mountains."

The poem moved me -- literally.

Several years later, I met Stafford, who taught at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, and told him, "Everything good that has happened in my life began with 'Lake Chelan.' " That sentiment remains true today.

"It's good to know words still have power," he told me.

On my days away from the apple shed, I drove to newspapers and introduced myself. The experience was beginning to feel humbling and discouraging. One weekday, I scheduled a meeting with the managing editor of the Longview Daily News.

On the drive, I had to chain up over both Blewett and Snoqualmie passes. The managing editor, who shall remain nameless, stiffed me.

After spending about an hour feeling sorry for myself, I felt I had to salvage something from the long trip, so instead of heading back to Chelan, I drove north to Seattle.

Early the next morning, I knocked on the door of Jim King, who was the managing editor of The Seattle Times.

He was gracious and encouraging, complimentary and sincere. He gave me an hour of his time and practically assured me he would find me a job.

Only a few days later, the owner of the Lake Chelan Motel, my home, found me in a coffee shop and, with a big smile on his face, told me I had a phone message.

"Call Eric Hoxit, the managing editor of the Centralia Daily Chronicle." A week later, I was back in the business.

Eventually I got a job in Portland and my first sports editor there, Lynn Mucken, taught me I always should believe the most important story of the day was the one I was working on.

Later his successor, Wayne Thompson, was trusting enough to give me the Portland Trail Blazers beat and shepherded me through all of the early rough spots.

While covering the Blazers, I met my mentor, David Halberstam, who was working on the book "The Breaks of the Game." Until his death this spring he was my most vocal champion and my harshest critic.

After the publication of "The Breaks of the Game," I asked him to inscribe a copy for Gorman Walsh, who was dying of cancer.

Nobody could write more poignant and touching notes than David and as Walsh read David's kind words, thanking him for the early direction he had given my career, Walsh grinned, then cried and hugged the book as if it were kin.

Excuse me for the self-absorbed nature of this column. But I owe these men so much. And, although they deserve more, the very least I can do for them is write this one column of thanks.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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