I have an idea and a plan to get you more business.
-- Eli Isenberg's advertising sales opening statement
Eli would not be impressed. I have no idea, no plan, how to write
Like most things about Eli Isenberg, his opening statement was
For me it started sometime in 1984. I came up with the bright idea
to start a newspaper in the Antelope Valley, and was astonished to
find that I had support.
Young and wannabe brash, I was just barely smart enough to
recognize that I had no idea how to operate a business, let alone
start one from scratch.
So, I called the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. and the
American Newspaper Publishers Assn. to ask the question that my
financial backers wanted answered: "How much is it going to cost to
start this newspaper?"
Today, as I recall the silence on the other end of those calls, I
Eventually, after a few more pestering calls, CNPA attorney Terry
Francke recommended that I give Eli Isenberg a call. Francke said Eli
was a retired publisher/owner of newspapers in Monterey Park, and a
newspaper management consultant.
Newspaper. Management. Consultant.
Perfect. Just what the doctor ordered.
I called Eli. He immediately took charge. "You work during the
week, right? All right then, I will meet you at 7 in the morning next
At 26, I hadn't seen 7 a.m. on Saturday since I was about 12, and
even then the alarm was set only to catch the Bugs Bunny/ Roadrunner
Eli arrived at Carrows on Palmdale Boulevard at 6:50. He wasn't
what I had expected. Eli was old, 70-ish, but he looked older to me.
To describe his suit as "rumpled" would understate history. His tie
didn't match his well-pressed vertical-striped shirt (they never
did). He wore a houndstooth hat that Bear Bryant might have donated
to the Goodwill 20 years prior. His thick head of gray hair -- longer
than you'd expect for a man of his age -- flowed out from the hat.
His shoulders were uneven.
My initial reaction was like Luke Skywalker's when he first saw
Yoda: You've got to be kidding.
For the first of a thousand times, doubt dominated. I thought,
"What in the world made me think I could start a newspaper?"
What a maroon.
Five minutes later, Eli had me convinced that I could pull it off.
By the end of breakfast, he had converted me to ad salesperson,
business manager, editor and publisher.
Through 16 years and three publishing positions, Eli remained my
newspaper management consultant, sometimes paid, usually not.
I discovered that this "old" man could, and did, run circles
around me. After a Saturday with Eli, which always started at 7 a.m.
or earlier, I was exhausted. He was amused that I played fast pitch
softball, but suggested that I take up tennis, which he played
regularly 'til the ripe old age of 77.
Whether employed by my newspaper or not, Eli would faithfully
write to me over the years. He always began critical phone calls and
letters with a compliment, and then he would carefully,
diplomatically explain everything I was doing wrong with the
He ended every letter with regards to my family and an update on
his own, including son Jerry, grandkids Kate and Tom (for whom he
needlessly and endlessly fretted), and his beloved Jo who he proudly
and frequently described as "a tough broad."
I should say so. Sixty-two years of Eli Isenberg would strengthen
His letters alternately lamented and celebrated the activities of
UCLA football and Dodger baseball. We went to a few Dodger games
together. Life doesn't get better.
Eli always mentioned their three dogs and what he and Jo were
doing in their animal charities. He enjoyed traveling with Jo and
spending the spoils of his newspaper successes, but felt he had sold
his newspapers too early.
He often included clips from his favorite publications, such as
New Yorker magazine and the New York Times. More than once I received
a copy of a clipping from the New York Times. The article by Susan
Allen Toth is headlined "The importance of being remembered."
Eli was an amazing conundrum of a man. He was almost overly
aggressive but gentle. He was relentless and intolerant of excuses,
And he was always, always, there for me.
Less than five years after that phone call to Terry Francke, and
largely because of Eli's contacts, I was asked to serve on the board
of directors of the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., where I
have proudly served since.
I have teetered but not fallen off the high wire in those years,
but there's nothing in this life like the comfort of a safety net.
My safety net is gone.
Eli Isenberg died on Christmas Day 2000. He was 87 years old.
The little letter in my box was from "Josephine Isenberg."
I did not want to open it.
She dispatched the news in wonderfully poetic prose. Jo is not
only a tough broad, but also a smart and talented one. Her sentence
took my breath away:
"You were a very important person to him during the all-too-many
years of his life when he no longer had a newspaper of his own."
I was important to him.
* Will Fleet is publisher of this newspaper. This column
originally appeared in the Jan. 7, 2001, edition of The Signal
newspaper in Santa Clarita, where Fleet was publisher.