20 years: Hammer reflects 

Memories of 20 years at NUVO

I first became acquainted with NUVO via Will Higgins, a great writer and editor who'd joined the staff in the summer of 1990. I'd written some pieces for him when he was the editor of a satirical monthly magazine.

Higgins liked me and gave me some work. That began the start of a 20-year journey with NUVO that continues to this day. When Higgins left, publisher Kevin McKinney brought veteran newsman Harrison Ullmann onboard as editor. I stalked him mercilessly until he gave me a job as managing editor.

Ullmann was a giant, one of the last of the old-school newspapermen. He believed in fighting for the underdog, sticking it to the establishment and having a tall mug of beer when it was all over. He was my kind of guy. And he believed in me.

Life with Ullmann was always interesting.

We'd have weekly mandatory staff meetings at his home at 56th and Central. We'd all gather around him in his living room, squeezed onto couches or on uncomfortable chairs, while he held court from a chair elevated on a platform. The effect was that everyone in his room was forced to look up to him. I later read that J. Edgar Hoover did the same thing in his office.

When he praised a sentence in your copy, he made you feel like you were the next Norman Mailer. But when he got angry, watch out. All hell would break loose. Once, I made the mistake of changing a few words in one of his columns to make it flow better.

The man was curious about everything: how watches worked, how pizza was made, how birds behaved. He devoured books like milkshakes. He threw out thoughts like confetti and expected everyone to admire the sparkle of each piece. He lived life as fully as anyone I knew.

The next few years rolled by and by the late 1990s, Ullmann was no longer editor. It was like trying to pull food from a grizzly bear. He fought mightily. Hard feelings arose on both sides. I was caught in the middle, powerless to affect anything.

The last conversation I had with him was positive. He said some nasty things about some people that there's no need to repeat, but he also talked about how much he loved communicating with people via print. He told me never to give up.

The next thing I heard, he was in the hospital, unable to catch his breath. Turns out it was cancer eating away at him. He didn't suffer long -- it was quick. When he died early in 2000, it was a heavy blow. My mother had passed away a few months earlier. It was a sad time.

I think about him often. I miss him as a boss and as a friend.

After he died, I was on my own at the newspaper. I'd have run-ins with the new management, manage to talk my way out of trouble and avoided being fired for years. Sometimes I was a good employee, sometimes I wasn't. I had some personal issues going on, illnesses, erratic behavior, private stuff.

I was the music editor for 10 years without ever having wanted to be one. But in the process I got to interview people like James Brown and Yoko Ono and got to see local bands and artists whose music still inspires me. Perfect Nothing, The Slurs, Emily Wells, even the notorious annoy-core band Dearnt. I was fortunate to have seen those acts.

In 2006 my luck run out. It was a relief in a way when I was let go. Most of it was my fault. I thought I'd spend the rest of my life at the paper; now it exists to me as a memory only.

But the original concept of NUVO, as I understood it, was to fight for the things that Ullmann did. Giving voices to the people who were voiceless in the other local media. To expose things other outlets wouldn't or couldn't expose. And to fight for the underdog, the person silently suffering from injustice of any kind.

McKinney started the paper with that vision and I know that's his goal today. And although you won't see me at any staff reunions or anniversary or holiday parties, I feel privileged that I have been a small part of accomplishing that goal over the last 20 years.

The city is a better place because of NUVO. Thanks for letting me tag along as long as I have.

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