If Ted Gup hadn't forgotten his wallet at the Akron Beacon Journal office in 1974, he may not be the reporter headed to the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame on October 25.
The Case Western Reserve University Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism recalled that he was a story away from being fired by the newspaper during a six-week tryout.
That all changed when he was on his way to cover a sewer board meeting and stopped for dinner. After eating, he realized he had no wallet. When he apologized to the owner of the Tasty Drive-in on Manchester Road, south of Akron, the owner replied "pay later" and that "people do that all the time." The kindness inspired a news article.
"That feature saved my job," said Gup, who has gone on to write investigative works for the Washington Post and Time magazine and a host of bylined freelance articles for such magazines as National Geographic and Audubon.
"If I had remembered my wallet, I would have been out of work," said Gup.
Along the way, the English major from Brandeis University with aspirations to become a poet, was assisted by a host of people who taught him the craft of journalism.
Those mentors included Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee whom Gup began corresponding with after being refused an internship at the paper, to Terry Oblander, now a Plain Dealer reporter who was formerly at the Akron Beacon Journal and rewrote and shaped Gup's epic "15-line leads that read like 'Virgil's Aeneid'" into the standard 25 words or less.
"Terry would say, 'what are you thinking,' and then run it through his typewriter and generously give me a byline," added Gup.
Oblander recalls how "Ted was all about the newspaper."
"He wanted it," Oblander said.
According to the former copy editor, Gup would come back from a meeting, pull off his shirt, sweating, and talk his way through the story.
Oberlander also said that it is rewarding to help a young reporter, "who goes off and becomes a star."
Gup's career path is marked with memorable milestones.
His first byline story was in 1972 about a high school football game in Kennebunk Port, Maine, that ran in the York County Coast Star. Since then, Gup estimates he has probably had at least another 1,000 articles with his name attached.
Among his headline grabbers was an investigative piece for the Washington Post that revealed a hidden bunker for congressmen under the posh Greenbrier Resort in White Sulfur Springs, W.Va.
A government contract story with Jon Neumann was among the three finalists for a Pulitzer Prize in national reporting.
"Wrong Man" is another memorable Washington Post headline that ran above the fold for Gup. The investigative reporter found that Maurice Williams from East St. Louis, Ill., was wrongly convicted for a string of burglaries in St. Louis. Gup found the real villain.
"The story got Maurice out and the next day he was on The Today Show."
The reporter has no "delusions of grandeur" that his work has impacted the world, but as a whole he says journalists have made a difference. "The world chugs along with or without me," he said.
But say that to Williams or the African American children in rural Fauquier County, Va., who were denied the joys of skating on a public rink and gained access after Gup's story led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation for discrimination.
"I have had an effect upon some people and some of my stories have materially affected people's lives, and they have had an impact on certain sectors of the community," Gup said.
What stands out in his career is the publication of his first book, Book of Honor: The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives (2001) that revealed the names and stories of fallen CIA agents who remained anonymous on a wall of honor at the CIA headquarters.
Today Book of Honor is on the recommended reading list for all new CIA recruits. "The agency has never endorsed the book because it would mean that the information within it was confirmed," he said.
Gup described many of the stories he has investigated as "high adventures." Those adventures include tagging polar bears off the Siberian coast; traveling around the world to Japan, China, India, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Switzerland and back to the United States for more than two months to track down the illegal ivory trade; and being in Hiroshima to cover the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing for National Geographic.
The wanna-be poet, who admitted to lacking the requisite gift to become one, said he has never thought of journalism as a second choice. "I was fortunate to discover it, but was incredibly ill-prepared," he said.
Today Gup's challenge is to leave a legacy to the next generation of journalists. He said that just learning the mechanics of writing will no longer lead to survival in today's information age. This fall, Gup introduced his students to the new technology used by journalists—from blogging to videography.
"The last thing the world needs are more disciples of Ted Gup bound to paper and print. That is a death sentence in this profession," he said.
"Students have to be conversant in new technology or they are not going to have a career." He plans to bring guest speakers to address new technology and its role in journalism.
A few words of wisdom that Gup plans to leave behind are that "as important as all the new platforms are to the survival of journalism —whether it is the Internet, audio clips, videography or whatever medium—substance is the most critical element and all the bells and whistles in the world cannot make up for substance.
"Everyone in journalism recognizes that print is going to be subordinate in the near future, if it isn't already, to these new technologies," said Gup.
While people may have moved away from print and paper, he added that the providers of content on the Web remain principally the old workhorses of print.
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