Joe Lamb was unique

“Now that is the way to write—peppery and to the point. Mush-and-milk journalism gives me the fan-tods”—Mark Twain

Joe Lamb, who died last week, likely would have agreed with those sentiments. He wasn’t inclined to go by way of Shanghai to get across the street. Joe was always one to get to the heart of the matter.

I called him the “Peckerwood Philosopher.” In his more than 30 years in this business, he had soaked up a lot of wisdom about life and people, and he used it to good advantage. He used to smirk at that appellation which is a reference to his Arkansas origins.

We worked together for many years in the silo by the Rock. And we shared a similar approach to newsgathering. Both of us learned long ago that honey draws more flies than vinegar.

But behind that folksy, down-home “how y’all doin?” facade was a razor-sharp mind, guided by native intelligence and inherent shrewdness. He was a very good judge of people. While he had an ample supply of honey in his approach, there was more than enough vinegar when the occasion demanded.

There undoubtedly were many times when he chafed under the restrictions of corporate journalism. Had he been fully free to fly, he would have soared almost out of sight. Even so, he hit more than he missed.

Joe had a mischievous side, too. One of his little jokes nearly stood the tower on its head. I never told anyone this, but Joe was the mastermind behind the infamous Barry Manilow episode.

That was back when Manilow played the MetroCentre for the first time. In those days, I was doing what Joe had also done for a good while—running the police beat.

He suggested I go to the Manilow show and do a tongue-in-cheek piece on Barry’s performance. In his shrewd way, he knew the idea would appeal to me, one renegade to another.

So I did it. I spoofed about how Manilow ran around the stage while the piano kept playing, and said the pink lighting made him look like a flamingo. I said, “The audience was pregnant with housewives,” and etc.

Joe went to the editors above him and told them: “Here’s a page one piece.” They bought it. When the paper hit the street next morning, all hell broke loose—just as Joe knew it would.

The tower phones were ringing off the hook with outraged women fans of the New York crooner. He wrote the songs, but I wrote the words and now they were coming back at me. The female fans were howling for my head because I had dared lampoon their idol.

Joe, you see, did not tell the editors that the article was not the review of the performance. Consequently, it did not carry anything to clue the reader that it was just spoofin’. The phones kept ringing, and the mail kept pouring in. Some of those ladies were switched over to me, and a couple of them used language that would shame a mule skinner.

By this time the publisher, who happened to be a guy named Watson, was getting more than a little agitated; maybe fearing a hostile mob would advance on the tower. Joe had to keep his head down at the city desk so they wouldn’t see he was grinning from ear to ear.

As it ended up, I ran a contest inviting entries of 25 words or less on the topic of “why I hate Joe Baker.” Would you believe it? We filled four broadsheet pages with these products of angry authors.

I took a lot of razzing from cops and others I encountered daily, but Joe was feeling fine. He just kept smiling for days afterward.

Then there was the time he was covering a student disturbance down in DeKalb. Joe shocked a state trooper pretty good then. He was standing next to the trooper behind a barricade when somebody hurled a bottle in their direction. The bottle smashed to smithereens, and a shard of razor sharp glass struck Joe in the leg. He just kept on taking notes.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” said the incredulous trooper. “I don’t feel a thing,” Joe said. A farm accident at the age of 16 had cost him a leg and he wore an artificial limb. That’s where the glass hit. When the trooper found out, he just looked sheepish, and Joe had a good laugh.

Like all good reporters Joe didn’t tell all he knew. His mind was like a file cabinet of salient facts. Some were never revealed, others were pulled out and put to use when the time was right.

Neither of us was a college graduate, but we took naturally to the news biz because both of us wanted to know what the news was all about. Now that he’s gone, maybe those who confused the two of us will get it straight.

They gave him a big write up and pictures in the daily paper; almost made him into another H.L. Mencken. Joe would never go for all that hype. If he wrote his own epitaph, he would probably say, “I’m just a cotton picker from Arkansas who tried to do the right thing.”

So long, Joe. You made it to deadline.

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