And … dooooown the stretch

As part of my nomad-like career, I spent about a year-and-a-half in the beautiful city of Lexington, Kentucky where I worked as a page designer for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

What a great experience. I was in my early 20s and making a modest career shift from doing mostly writing and editing to a more visual direction (though I would return to writing and editing down the road). It was also my first real foray out of the Midwest. While Kentucky isn’t exactly the Deep South, it was still a big culture change to a Yankee who grew up working in a downtown Cleveland, Ohio machine shop.

I learned a lot about newspaper design, of course, but also newspapers in general. The Herald-Leader was literally 10 times as big as the biggest paper I had worked at to that point, so it was a different world in many ways.

The perfect Kentucky combo.

I learned a lot about bourbon, of course. That’s where my long-standing relationship with Maker’s Mark and the magic elixir known as Ale 8 1 began.

But mostly, I learned about horses and horse racing. In the heart of the Bluegrass State, horses are a big deal and I came to appreciate not only the sport but the cultural impact. I worked two Kentucky Derbys at the Herald-Leader and what an experience. We would essentially work a double shift, putting out a larger-than-normal “regular” newspaper, then pulling together a massive special section all about the Derby.

As a 20-something making not a whole lotta money, a double shift and two really good catered meals was like hitting a prize on a lottery scratch-off.

But the biggest highlight of my time in Kentucky came on October 4, 1989. I stepped out of the elevator onto the newsroom’s fourth floor, ready to design the front page for the Thursday paper. But something was different. Most of the shades were drawn and a distinct hush had fallen across the cubicles. People were sitting with their face in their hands and a few were lightly sobbing.

I walked to my desk, where other designers and a few top editors were clustered. I asked what was going on.

The assistant managing editor put his hand on my shoulder and said calmly, “Karl [pause for dramatic effect] Secretariat died today.”

It was truly an evening like none other I had experienced in newspapers. It was bigger than any election night. All the top editors – many of whom we would never see at night – came to look over the photos being considered for the front page. Even the editor in chief, the legendary John Carroll, came by to have a look. So there I was, a 20-something kid from the North Coast, about to design what many saw as the most important Lexington-Herald front page of the decade.

I can’t find a copy in color, which is sad because black & white really doesn’t do the photo justice.

It turned out great and was part of my design portfolio for many years. Funny, but every time I’d look at it, I didn’t think of Secretariat. Instead, I would hear the Churchill Downs track announcer. You see among the nearly impossible to decipher chatter of the race, he would pause for a moment as they turned the final corner and bellow, “Aaaand DOOOOOOOOOOOWN the stretch.” And that’s the phrase I would hear every time I looked at that page.

My newspaper design portfolio is long gone, but I still hear that phrase every so often. The last few years, it rings in my ears (above my chronic tinnitus) around April when the Midshipmen return from Spring Break and begin the final sprint toward May. Rejuvenated after a week off, the Firsties set target lock on Commissioning Week, the Plebes dream about Herndon and “Plebes No More,” and the Youngsters and Second Class look to grind it out before ascending that next step up the ladder.

I love this time of the year on The Yard. Emerging out of the Dark Ages, there always feels like a new energy is flowing out of Bancroft, down Stribling, and through each and every Mid. In addition to finally seeing the finish line of the academic year, three-quarters of the Brigade are soon to have (or already have) their summer training assignments in hand and a whole new set of adventures to look forward to taking on.

You know, it was only a few years after I left Lexington that I truly understand how big of a deal it was to be given the opportunity to design the front page the day Secretariat died. Funny how that is. Sometimes the most important moments of your life happen and you don’t even realize it until they are long past.

I hope the current Brigade doesn’t fall victim to that. I hope they embrace the energy flowing across The Yard, drink it in and embrace the excitement that April and May bring to them. I hope they enjoy every minute of it and the adventures and opportunities that await them during their summer training.

Of course, the same goes for the parents. We sometimes get so swept up in “what’s next,” in particular finish lines whether it’s the Herndon Climb or Commissioning Week. So I hope we can all embrace where we are now, going DOOOOOOOOOOOWN the stretch and whether the finish line is the last one at USNA or just another stop along the four-year journey, enjoy every minute of it.

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