“Tell him about some of the crazy jobs you’ve had!” It was a 20ish friend of mine asking me to tell her friend about jobs I’d had. But “crazy”? Well, I replied, there was the time I was a taxidermist’s assistant. They both laughed. Do kids not yearn to become taxidermist’s assistants these days? Probably not. Then there was that job as a night watchman at a water park. He asked: How did you stay awake all night? Easy, I said, I turned on the waterslide and would slide into the pool at all hours of the night. Then, I gave them what I consider the best trivia question about me: What job followed the taxidermist’s assistant job?
That answer would be the White House Mail Room. I always follow that answer with: “Is America a great country or what?” How did I get that job? I applied, with some direction from my aunt, who worked in the executive branch. But really, back in 1974 you could just apply for these summer jobs, meant to give America’s idle youth some idea of the working world. I wasn’t an intern, but the interns at the White House, who all had names like Skip and Jeni (with an “i”), let me hang with them even though I didn’t wear Topsiders. But it was while working in Washington, D.C. – at my aunt’s church, actually – that I met a guy who really introduced me to the world of journalism. Neil Scott was a freelance photographer for the Washington Star and other publications. Like many D.C. residents, he didn’t have a car, so I would ferry him around seeking that perfect shot. Scott knew D.C. from the darkest, stinkiest back alley to the top of the well-lit Washington Monument. One example: When a Supreme Court justice announced his retirement, Scott knew where the justices parked, so he got the only shot of that justice that day and his picture ended up on the Washington Star’s front page. In your face, Washington Post.
Knowing I wanted to be a writer, Scott introduced me to some of the Washington Star editors and writers, including a guest columnist that summer, the awesome Jimmy Breslin. But there were others, less well known, who gave me advice. I recall one long-haired, hip reporter saying simply, “Keep writin’ man,” before turning back to his typewriter. Maybe the best – or at least most practical – advice I’ve ever received. That, really, turned out to be my internship, though I had no idea at the time.
Since taxidermy assistant jobs seem few and far between these days and I suspect the White House Mail Room has more stringent requirements for interns now than in the days of President Ford, internships have now become a common part of college life. We have several interns at the Fort Worth Business Press this summer and despite our lack of a well-structured formal program, I believe they’re learning a bit about journalism. I asked one intern, Courtney Fillmore, why she sought an internship with us and she said: “I want to learn about the industry, journalism, especially since I have always been a big reader,” she said. “I love Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journalist. I wanted to try my hand at the world of journalism.” I also asked Shannon Merchant, a Texas Christian University College of Science & Engineering consultant, what advice she gives interns.
“At the Center for Career and Professional Development, we tell students to realize that their internship is not only an opportunity for learning, but a place to demonstrate their value to a company,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you have an idea, share it! Ask for the opportunity to take on additional responsibilities and see if there is anything you can do to take your assignment beyond the basics of what was asked of you. “Be a go-getter, not a person who sits back and waits. Employers will take note when you show initiative and this will improve your chances not only for employability with that organization in the future, but also for a glowing reference. When your internship is over, be sure to stay in touch with the contacts you made while there.” Hearing Shannon’s answers make me realize even more that I had an internship, no matter how unofficial. I’d endorse Shannon’s advice, but I imagine my advice would be closer to that unknown bearded hipster from the Washington Star: “Keep writin’ man.”