I was shuffling around in the online archives when I came upon Cecilia Vega’s byline on a 2002 news story and was reminded that, since January, this former print reporter has been the official White House correspondent for ABC World News.
Cecilia has been a rising star since she left print journalism, including nearly four years at The Press Democrat, for TV news.
When I mentioned this to our managing editor, Ted Appel, who remembered Cecilia well, he asked if there were other former PD staffers who made it, as baseball players say, “to the bigs.” That set me thinking about the people I have known, and some before my time, who passed through the hallowed halls of Santa Rosa journalism on their way to fortune and glory.
I didn’t tell him about the quirky writer out of San Francisco who sold a funny story to the Sonoma Democrat in 1869, signing himself (wait for it!) … Mark Twain. Readers may have chuckled but they didn’t get excited. Who knew he was really Tom Sawyer?
Nor did I mention to Ted that there was a kid from Colorado who wandered the West from the age of 13, working at a dozen different newspapers before World War I, including this one. His name was Harold Ross, which may not resonate like Mark Twain, but, after World War I and on duty in Paris on staff of the military’s new paper, Stars & Stripes, Ross came home to New York to become the founding editor of a magazine called The New Yorker.
Those brushes with literary fame are too long ago to be meaningful in local history.
But there are closer encounters.
In the early 1950s, The Press Democrat seems to have been a veritable cradle of literary and journalistic talent.
There was Michael Demarest, who broke all career advancement records at the PD by going directly from our newsroom to Time magazine.
Demarest worked in Time’s London bureau and in New York. He was on assignment, covering the opening of the New Orleans World’s Fair in 1984, when he died of a heart attack. In addition to his three decades at Time, finishing as a senior editor, he took turns as editor of both Money magazine and Playboy.
In Santa Rosa in the early 1950s his daily “Memo from Mike” was the first of the “around-town” columns in this area, adding a level of post-war sophistication, dropping a foreign phrase on occasion.
There was Denne Petitclerc — another success story, along a very different path.
As an SRJC student in 1949, fired from a part-time job by the PD’s sports editor who told him he should “learn to write an English sentence,” Denne accomplished that feat by quitting school and sitting down at his typewriter with a novel by Ernest Hemingway. Typing Hemingway’s prose, he would later claim, he learned clarity and the order and rhythm of the written word.
Soon he was back at the PD, working his way up to the crime beat in the best Hemingway style. He won awards for creating hometown heroes of police, helping to catch a murderer. He even took a turn at war reporting, ala Hemingway, spending a month with an Army unit in Korea in 1951.