My old friend Jeff Cohen sends sad word of the passing of Mack Sisk, who was a fixture in San Antonio journalism and something of a mentor to young reporters back in the days when Jeff (now editor of the Houston Chronicle) and I were starting out at the city’s afternoon paper, the now-defunct San Antonio Light.
Those were pretty wild times in local journalism. San Antonio had been the site of Rupert Murdoch’s beachhead landing in this country in the early 1970s, when he had purchased the San Antonio Express-News. Nothing had ever been the same since. (I’ll never forget the day the News led the paper with “Pregnant Cat Gunned Down.”*) We all had the sense that we were at the beginning of the end of an era. Smoking was still permitted–expected, actually–in the newsroom, but a few brave souls were starting to complain. The old veterans also made it clear to us Woodward-and-Bernstein-wannabes that our fancy college degrees meant nothing compared with having a few good sources at the courthouse and the morgue.
I was a 20-year-old summer intern from the University of Texas when I had the good fortune to be given a desk that adjoined the one in the back of the newsroom where Mack operated a one-man UPI bureau next to a leaky air conditioner. Mack was ruthlessly competitive, and also, professional to the core.
He also knew, I was to discover, a lot about how things really worked–especially in politics. The intern always had to work on weekends, which is how I got my first-ever interview with a Very Important Politician. This man, who was one of the most powerful figures in the state and held considerable influence in Washington, was in town for something ceremonial, and I got to ask him a few questions, which I dutifully wrote into a story. A few weeks later, I was perplexed when I got what appeared to be a letter of apology from the politician’s press secretary. The politician, the letter explained, had delivered a sermon that morning at a Baptist Church in Marshall, and was still in a “somber” mood when I saw him.
I showed the letter to Mack, and asked what it could possibly mean. I didn’t recall anything out of the ordinary in his behavior. Mack laughed as he handed the letter back to me, and gently explained that the politician in question was a notoriously mean drunk. Whenever he had had a bad day, his staff sent these letters to everyone he had encountered, figuring he had surely done something that warranted an apology. I still have that letter in my files, and never fail to think of Mack when I come across it.
*The actual headline, it turns out, was “GUNNED-DOWN PREGNANT CAT FIGHTS FOR LIFE.” You can find other classics in this story.