Grassroots Editor, Summer 1988
Gradually we taught him all about the country newspaper business that it seemed a collie dog could advantageously know, and he was as devoted to his office as to his home, sometimes going to work Sundays in the hopes that someone would open up … There were some who thought a collie dog had no place in a printing office, but Betty and I cannot image a printing office without one.
– Henry Beetle Hough of the Vineyard Gazette, in his book Country Editor
One of the founding staff members of the Santa Fe Reporter died last New Year’s Eve. His name was Ernie Pyle McCord, and he was a dog.
As fancy dogs go, Ernie wasn’t much. In fact, he was once asked to leave a hoity-toity purebred dog show, even though he was well-behaved and on a leash, because he was so obviously a mutt. He was a black dog, more Labrador Retriever than anything else, but there was other stuff in there too. He had white hair on his chest and on at least one foot, and his white-tipped tail curved up over his back like a jaunty banner. At first we thought he would grow up to be a big dog, but he never made it past middle size.
Many people said that Ernie was the quintessential Santa Fe dog: and that could be, for as a three-month-old pup he was rescued from an uncertain fate at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter. Though my own destiny was to become founder and co-publisher of the Santa Fe Reporter, I got Ernie out of the pound 15 years ago, a year and a half before the newspaper came into existence.
I don’t know that there was ever a conscious decision to make Ernie a newspaper dog. There just seemed nothing else to do. The small yard of the apartment where I lived was not a suitable place to leave a dog unattended all day long. At various times before the Reporter started, moreover, I had tried to make arrangements for him. But Ernie was an escape artist.
First I tried renting a family’s back yard, but Ernie could get over its six-foot concrete-block wall anytime he wanted to. Then I built him a dog run in that yard, and chained him to a long wire between poles; but he kept breaking the chain and his collar, and pulling the poles out of the ground.
Finally I left him at a friend’s place, behind a high cyclone fence that had successfully held two Afghan hounds for many months. In no time at all, however, Ernie had jumped up on top of the doghouse and then over the fence. The Afghans, who had never thought of such a thing, quickly followed. Soon all three dogs were happily running loose. After they were rounded up, Ernie was not invited back.
Then all of a sudden, it seemed, in June of 1974, a new company we had formed bought the old Santa Fe News and began publishing the Reporter in its place. It all came together before I could figure out what to do with Ernie, so I just took him down to the office. This dismayed Rudy Rodriguez, the man who had started the News and had sold it to us. “This is no good, Dick,” Rudy said, shaking his head. “You can’t have dogs running around. It’s not good for business.”
Well, maybe Rudy was giving me good advice. Thirteen years later, it’s hard to say.
At the Reporter’s first location, on North Guadalupe Street, Ernie liked nothing better than watching the world go by out in front of the building, preferably from atop the roofs of the cars parked there by people having business at the paper. On one notable morning, I remember, he perched himself on three Mercedes-Benzes – one owned by the head of an insurance agency, one owned by a millionaire arts patroness, one owned by a highly successful author. But he was just as happy on the Fords and Hondas of people placing classified ads.
When the Reporter moved to its current location on Montezuma Avenue, Ernie found a new perch. Like a stone lion outside a big public building, he would rest on the flat sidewalls of the stars leading to our front door, there to curiously peruse the steady stream of people entering the building. He was glad to see them all, and most of them were amused to see him.
Inside the building, Ernie loved all aspects of the newspaper business. He liked it when politicians and other dignitaries came over for important meetings, and he would show his interest by scratching on closed doors until he was let in to take part. He reveled in the bustle of our weekly production night, when the paper gets pasted up to be send to the printer – and he liked it even in the early days, when the night usually lasted until 4 a.m.
Ernie assisted me in countless job interviews, and his presence in the room told all those applicants far more about working conditions at the Reporter than my carefully chosen words ever did. During slow times of the week he enjoyed wandering around the building, visiting the folks in advertising, circulation and typesetting before climbing up the stairs and settling down in a corner of my office. Most of all he loved our not-infrequent office parties, at which he could count on more than his share of treats from soft-touch staff members.
Because of his friendliness and enthusiasm, Ernie acquired many nicknames. His official namesake was the great World War II correspondent (who was also a New Mexico resident), but he answered to several less formal handles as well. Among them were Ernley, Ernlah, Ermbuh, Beezer, Beasley, Ernesto (his Spanish name) Ernment (his French name) Ernie Old Boy, Old Boy, Old Boy (a favorite of mine) and Ernbee, the name used by many of his friends.
And Ernie had a vast supply of friends. Though those who were generous with their sandwiches made friends first, 13 years’ worth of Reporter staff members became his buddies. Long after they moved on they would write about him in anniversary-issue reminiscences, and ask about him whenever they were in touch. Regular visitors came to know him well; and outside, first the kitchen crew at the El Toro Steakhouse across Guadalupe Street from the first Reporter office kept him well-supplied with bones, and later the city firemen at the station across Montezuma Avenue from our current building would share their lunches with him.
At home Ernie had just as many pals. My landlady, Mabel, virtually claimed him as her own. A neighbor kept him happy with bones and leftovers from the Plaza Café, where she worked. He frequently kept company with nearby housewives, while their husbands were away at work. And then Ernie gained a new, special friend: Santa Fe’s beloved 80-year-old painter and notorious dog lover, Tommy Macaione, who lived next door and almost every night would drop great mounds of Alpo dog food on paper sacks over the fence into my enclosed yard, where Ernie would wolf it down right after I had fed him dinner.
Ernie did his best to keep me sane, in a job that always tries to get crazy on me. So many nights – at 10 o’clock, 11, midnight – when we were the only ones still working on the paper, he would insist that it was time to go home. Yet he was always eager to come back for more the next day. Other times when I was worried and oppressed and scowling at the staff, he would tell me that things weren’t so bad, would get me to laugh, and would lighten the load.
Just as much as he loved to work, Ernie loved to play – on wilderness trails, at parties, at friends’ home, in the snow, on athletic fields, on the newsroom floor. He also loved to travel, and he took many trips with me.
One time in an almost deserted campground in Northern California I took a snapshot of him gazing wistfully up a little stream. I like to think that that was a picture of Ernie’s spirit – especially since he ran away through the forest immediately afterward and did not return for two hours. It wasn’t that he didn’t know he was supposed to answer my repeated calls (he once won a third-place ribbon in an obedience class), it was just that sometimes he decided not to.
I think the reason Ernie and I got along so well was that I always liked his independent nature. Far from wanting him to be a predictable extension of my personality, I prized his own, which he never held back. He had an endless capacity to surprise me. I never knew what he was going to do next.
When people asked me if I owned that dog I was jarred by the word, for I could no more imagine owning Ernie than I could imagine someone owning a wife or a child. Ernie and I were two individuals who lived together, for our mutual benefit. He understood it was his job to make life as good as he could, and I knew that my job was to do the same for him. We both took our work seriously and worked hard at it. And we both did pretty well.
Just a couple of years ago, late in his life, Ernie taught me an important lesson about love. We were at home, and he was asleep under the kitchen table, where I was reading. I gazed down at him, just and old, graying mutt, who could no longer run fast, leap six-foot walls or learn new tricks – and suddenly I realized that as long as he lived he would never have to do anything else for me. Already he had done enough, many times over, to last all the way through, no matter how old, ill, weak or troublesome he became. It was a lesson that never left me.
Though he lived no longer than most dogs do, the end came quickly for Ernie. Apparently his kidneys had been failing for some time; but except for a gradual and steady slowing down, normal in a 15-year-old dog, he never let on that anything was wrong.
All through the Reporter’s grueling holiday publishing schedule, when dealing with a crisis would have been very difficult, he never grumbled or complained, and never changed his ways. He still came to work every day and, with a little help, still made it up the stairs to my office. He celebrated Christmas with me and some of his dearest friends – and then a day or two later he just stopped eating.
I took him to the vet, who ran some tests and kept him for observation. Then when the test results came back, it was already too late. The kidneys were gone, the vet said, and Ernie had only two hours to live. We brought him home on the morning of the last day of the year and put him on the living room floor in front of the heater, one of his favorite places to lie. All through a sad afternoon and evening we talked to him, and not long before midnight on New Year’s Eve he slipped away. A true newspaperman to the end, he met his last deadline, with a little time to spare.
We buried him on a gray and raw New Year’s Day, under a spreading cottonwood tree on the land of a former staff member who thought of him as “legendary.” We dug the hole nice and deep, and we put the year-end issue of the Santa Fe Reporter in there with him. Then we gave him to the earth, and when our work was done we toasted his rascal spirit with a bottle of fine champagne.
Everyone is saying that Ernie had a wonderful life as a newspaper dog. It is true, and there is real comfort in that thought. But everywhere I look, and home and at work, there is an emptiness. After all those years I cannot imagine putting out the Reporter without him. But now I guess we must learn how.
Ernie old boy, old boy, old boy. You weren’t much, but you were my dog.