Paperweight sparks memories

Published 8:23 pm Tuesday, January 28, 2020

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Among the little things that define your life are the mementos you collect along the way.


A favorite of mine is a paperweight made of lead. It’s about an inch and a half square and clearly shows saw marks from when it was cut from a larger lead “pig.”


A makeup craftsman, known as a compositor, at a shop trading as Beacon Press in Richmond, made the weight and gave it to me in 1967. I was in college at the time and was editor of a little school publication titled The Proscript, the school newspaper for Richmond Professional Institute.


I had the pleasure of hearing the rhythmic clack of Linotype machines at Beacon, as well as at the Richmond Times Dispatch, the Alexandria Gazette and the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot in the early years of my career. In the union shops that manned all those places, those of us in the newsroom were forbidden from touching the “galleys” and “chases” that held lead type. We could only point with a pencil to something that needed to be changed or corrected and wait for the Linotype operator and/or compositor to make the changes. It was a unique and rigid world, and the smells and sounds of a makeup room linger in my mind to this day.


As I was making that circuit from Richmond to Washington (a Navy duty station) then back to Norfolk (another duty station) and eventually home to Smithfield, the world was changing so fast that it was hard to keep up, and the changes often came to small papers faster than they did to larger ones.


When I returned home in 1972 to begin working for Tom and Betty Phillips, here sat another Linotype machine, which Tom used to produce exquisite print jobs for local businesses, but already the tiny Smithfield Times was being paginated from “cold” type, printed sheets produced by a typewriter that could “justify” lines of type, making them flush left and right.


That was just the beginning. As computer technology began to take root, the first big transition was to phototypesetters. The Compugraphic Company helped drive the revolution by developing relatively inexpensive machines for small newspapers and printers. Those marvels of technology could set columns of photographically imaged type and headlines. Compugraphic equipment sprang up all over the country, but were soon made obsolete by desktop computers. By the mid 1980s, small papers were shifting from phototypesetters to tiny little Mac Pluses, and the world was never the same thereafter.


Meanwhile, many daily papers were essentially stuck with massive amounts of outmoded equipment and the union contracts that went with it. They changed — everyone had to — and it was a painful transition, particularly for the tradesmen who had melted and reshaped lead into readable pages for their entire adult lives.


Here in Smithfield, we went from stripping headlines and galleys of photographically created type to computer-generated strips and eventually to computer pagination, and today, the paper is electronically transmitted every week to the Virginian-Pilot, which prints it and returns it overnight for delivery.


When I first came back to Smithfield, I would come to work on Tuesday morning at 6 a.m., and we would usually finish pasting up, photographing and preparing page negatives of a 12-page paper anywhere from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., depending on how smoothly things went.


Then, in the wee hours of Wednesday, I would deliver page negatives to a newspaper print shop in Franklin or Suffolk and wait while a press generated that week’s paper. I would then bring them back to Smithfield for delivery.


Today, the paper is ready to be transmitted to Norfolk by about 3 p.m. most Tuesdays, and sometimes sooner.


Fifty-year-old technology would not fill the need today, but it’s nice to be able to look at a tiny paperweight and recognize how far things have come since then.