David Wiessler was a great boss, and he will be missed
I’m having regrets that I didn’t stand up and speak at my former UPI boss David Wiessler’s memorial service. Dave would understand that I composed this after the fact because he appreciated the written word over speeches and he wouldn’t judge me for a missed opportunity.
Remembering Dave’s life reminded me how lucky I was as a young woman to have had the great bosses I had in the beginning. When I started out in journalism, women were just entering the workforce in big numbers and it was new territory, although I didn’t think of it that way at the time.
It was a challenge for a woman like me, who came from the South, where we were often told to sit quietly, look pretty and for God’s sake, not say anything offensive. I didn’t have an Ivy League education, mentors or sponsors.
When I went to UPI what I did have was a couple of years of experience at a newspaper in Monroe, LA, where I worshipped my Lou Grant-type boss who occasionally yelled but also liked my leads and gave me a baseball bat for protection before putting me on the police beat. When I got one of my first big stories, he took me to the basement of the building to watch the papers roll off the presses — my name on Page 1.
Later, I couldn’t believe I had convinced UPI to hire me. At the time, it was one of the most recognizable news organizations in journalism — a venerable wire service with bureaus around the world. Few knew that when it faltered financially in the 1980s it was the canary in the coal mine of journalism.
But, by the time I got to Dave I had some experience, though not in Washington, where I had longed to be since I watched the Watergate scandal unfold while in college. UPI had no training for managers — not unusual in journalism — but I had already had a lot of good ones, and Dave kept up the tradition.
Dave was tall and he was the boss — which was enough to intimidate me. But he had a way of hunching his shoulders, thoughtfully rubbing his chin and pushing up his constantly slipping glasses that lessened the effect. He was quiet, but he wasn’t unassuming. He was calmly and thoughtfully in charge.
A lot was said yesterday about the way Dave led the Washington team in covering the shooting of President Reagan by John Hinckley in 1981. UPI was the one major news organization not to report that White House Press Secretary Jim Brady had died, winning a Pulitzer Prize nomination in the process (but coming in runner-up). I wasn’t there but after I got to Washington there were plenty of other examples of Dave’s leadership in handling disasters — the Challenger explosion, the Iran-Contra scandal and my attempts to be a reporter on Capitol Hill.
It was a given that Dave was there and I took him for granted, frankly, until I left UPI for other news companies.
That’s when I learned just how special Dave was because what followed was a long line of bosses who weren’t measured or calm, and oftentimes, not even in charge. Usually they ruled by ego, self-interest and their own fear — examples of the typical asshole boss with whom I thankfully hadn’t become familiar until later in my career.
A few years ago, I had my own opportunity to become the boss. I immediately found myself harkening back to my days at UPI with Dave, Ron Cohen, Billy Ferguson and others under whom I had worked. I used them as my models. When issues came up with the young reporters I managed, I often asked myself, “What would Dave do?”
I wanted to believe it came naturally for Dave, and maybe it did. (The Reagan shooting is a great example, if you think about it. UPI was willing to wait — extremely difficult under the pressure of breaking news — while the biggest media presences on the planet were reporting one of the biggest “scoops” in history.) But I learned as a boss that being quietly in charge and putting your own ego aside, is the much more difficult choice. Being an asshole boss is easy, and lazy. It’s a parent saying do this because I say so, rather than because I’ve taught you another way.
Dave wouldn’t have wanted anyone on his staff to do what was easy, and I know now that he carried that ethic over to his own management style. He was never once the asshole boss, and I’ve learned to understand how remarkable that was.
After Dave’s memorial service, my husband, Bill Trott, also formerly of UPI, asked me if I thought it was the company’s culture — with its slightly outlaw mentality — or our youth that made our time there seem so remarkable. I have to think now that it was the leadership — the bosses — who at least contributed a great deal to the experience.
Dave and the other exceptional editorial leaders at UPI came from an assumption that their people were good at their jobs. They had hired these folks and they played to their reporters’ strengths, letting go of the rest.
When you talked to Dave he listened. He didn’t criticize, knowing we’d live to fight another day. Until he didn’t. But he gave those of us who worked for him such a gift in the process.