Something to be said for being remembered

WILL FLEET

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

this column.

Like most things about Eli Isenberg, his opening statement was

brilliantly simple.

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

hear snickering.

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

Saturday."

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

Hour.

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

newspaper.

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

anyone.

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,

but kind.

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.

Imagine that.

* 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.

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