by John Whittaker
April 29, 2016
Life Well Lived
All around the building are small reminders of a man who spent most of his adult life here in the building.
A Tandy remote computer stashed in the corner near Scott Kindberg’s desk is a reminder of Riggs teaching a rookie sports reporter how to use the appropriate coding and how to get the Tandy to dial to the newspaper from any phone line in order to file a story from the road.
A photo Jim took of Steve Christie and Frank Reich after the greatest comeback in NFL history (ironically against Jim’s favorite NFL team, the Houston Oilers) still sits on top of the desk where Jim used to work. Matt Spielman occupies the desk now. It will always be Jim’s desk to me (no offense, Matt) just as the corner desk in our redesigned newsroom will always be Manley Anderson’s no matter how many reporters have sat there since Manley retired. A corner of my office, even now, is reserved for Cristie Herbst.
A box of photos with prints Jim had taken over the years reminds us how gifted a photographer Jim was, particularly without the safety net of digital photography.
I still have, in my desk, copies of some of the sports stories I wrote back in the late 1990s. Jim was my first boss at The Post-Journal almost 20 years ago. After my freshman year at Allegheny College, I walked into the front door for an interview with Jim for a summer job answering phones and typing rewrites. That was one of the best summers I can remember. I was getting paid to write about sports. Little did I know that summer job would turn into my career.
That summer, I watched Jim and the way he went about his work. Things were different in the newsroom that first year. The Post-Journal was still an afternoon paper then, so we would come to work in the afternoon and work until about 2 a.m. when the computer system shut down for maintenance. Jim would come back later in the morning to lay out the sports pages. Nothing flustered Jim – not computer crashes that ate his entire story or page layout, not a photo that didn’t turn out as well as he wanted, not a rookie part-timer who stored stories in the wrong file while he was learning the ropes.
It was Jim who taught me how to properly take information over the phone via the computer because it was much more efficient than writing it with a pen and paper and then typing it into the computer. It was a skill that served me well in my years as a reporter. I never tape-recorded phone conversations because Jim had taken the time to train me the best way to assemble information. I thanked him for it every time I talked to Sam Teresi and Andy Goodell for news stories. I could never have kept up with them taking notes with a pen and paper.
Everything Jim did was with an eye to serving the sports page’s readers the best way he knew how. That’s why he was such a stickler for the words we used in youth soccer roundups and for double-checking names. It was why you never used words that might demean a team no matter how lopsided the score. The kids had done their best. The score just didn’t go their way on that particular night. Every team had something they had learned or gotten better at during the course of a game. He cared about the tiniest note in his section because you never knew if that was the piece that ended up on a refrigerator of a proud parent or grandparent.
I’ve long thought the best training we could give any new reporter is to spend a week working under Jim Riggs handling sports at night. Anyone who can take four basketball games, three swimming meets and handle youth sports calls has the skills to be a reporter. Not all reporters can do what Jim’s sports staff had to do every night. I know that from experience. It is little wonder that Jim’s eye for talent was visible throughout the newsroom. For several years, the city editor’s desk, the region editor’s desk and the news/wire editor’s desk were all former sports department employees hired by Jim. The top two people in The Post-Journal’s sports department right now are people Jim found. Craig Harvey, the sports editor of the Dunkirk OBSERVER, is another of Riggs’ many protoges.
A lot of people have written in to the paper this week to share their memories of Jim. I hope you take the time to read them, because they truly are a wonderful introduction of Jim by the community he served for so long.
My remembrance of Jim is of a guy who was here for the important milestones I have had professionally and personally in the last 20 years. I will never forget Jim allowing me to cover Frewsburg’s run to the state softball finals early in my career. Jim was the happiest guy in the room when I moved from the sports department to news, even if it meant he now had a hole in his schedule to fill. He was one of the first to shake my hand when I was named one of the desk editors. He gave some sage advice when he learned I was engaged to my wife, Shelley. He was one of the first people to know when I had been named as the successor to Cristie Herbst as editor of this paper. He was over the moon when I told him Shelley and I were going to have a little girl.
As a colleague, I loved the way Jim went about his work. As a friend, I loved the way Jim lived his life. He had a way of appreciating the things he enjoyed that I’ve tried to take with me as I’ve gotten older. Jim always enjoyed a new photo of his grandchildren or talking about Sharon or Jimmy, the perfectly struck golf ball and a brisk walk to hit his next shot, a cool Diet Coke on a hot night in the office, a fresh-from-the-oven slice of Lena’s Pizza, a well-sung rendition of the national anthem before a ballgame, a crisply turned double play, a well-executed trap block on a random football field on a Friday night or snapping a photo at the perfect time (especially gratifying when you’re shooting with film). I will always remember the late-night talks, the guidance and the laughs Jim and I shared. I’ll miss not smelling hot dogs or popcorn in the office at night. I’ll miss not seeing Jim’s smiling face in my Saturday newspaper. I admire that Jim was so committed to this newspaper and the sports community that he served so well for so long that he continued writing columns even as he struggled to regain his health. I can’t imagine what I would have done if I were in Jim’s shoes, yet knowing Jim, I wasn’t surprised that the columns kept coming.
There’s one more thing I’ll miss – the thought that one day, I’d look up from my computer to see Jim walking into my office, feeling no effects from his illness, with a Penguins hat on his head, a smile on his face and golf clubs in the trunk of his car.
Since leukemia robbed us of that, Jim, let me say in print what I didn’t have the chance to say before you left us. Thanks for your support and friendship over the years. I always appreciated the example you set, the work you did and the kind words you offered. I wouldn’t be here without you, and for that I’m grateful.
Goodbye, my friend. I miss you already.