Mekeel ends 40-year career at Lancaster Newspapers

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LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — In a darkened office in a corner of the Lancaster Newspapers newsroom, the blinds drawn against the daylight and illuminated mainly by the glow from two small lamps, reporters come to read their stories out loud and editors come to talk about headlines and chew over story ideas.

Their editor, confidant and mentor through the years has been Pete Mekeel, editor of the Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era and the Sunday News, who turns off the lamps for the final time Friday and closes the door on a 40-year career at the local news company.

Mekeel, who is legally blind, ends a career that was marked by his keen news sense, gentle sense of humor and endlessly curious personality.

"I wanted to connect with people, and connect with their day-to-day lives," he said of his work.

Mekeel, 62, of Manheim Township, has spent his entire journalism career at Lancaster Newspapers, moving from reporter to section editor to managing editor at the Lancaster New Era and finally to editor of the combined Intelligencer Journal and New Era, Sunday News and LancasterOnline in his four decades at 8 W. King St.

His co-workers will miss him.

"He's a consummate journalist. A word craftsman. A great storyteller. A reporter's editor. A questioner. A writing coach," said Executive Editor Barbara Hough Roda. "And, most significantly, a good and kind man whose caring ways have helped to create a sense of family in our newsroom."

The news business suited his personality and brought him great satisfaction, said Mekeel.

After graduating from Hempfield High School in 1970, Mekeel left home for the University of Maryland, graduating in 1974, but returned to his roots to make his living.

"It was always my dream to work for my hometown paper and to make decisions that shaped my hometown and improve the community," he said.

Mekeel reluctantly leaves his job, going out on medical leave due to increasing problems with his eyesight, which is hampered by a condition called retinitis pigmentosa and night blindness, which eventually developed into a more constant blindness.

Remarkably, Mekeel was able to lay out the paper, choose photos, write headlines and coach reporters on writing, all with steadily declining eyesight.

In addition to awards for writing and reporting, he even has won layout awards for his page design, joking about the likely surprised reaction of the poor person "who came in second to a blind guy."

He also oversaw the paper when it won the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association's Sweepstakes Award for being the top newspaper of its size in the state for five years in a row.

He uses two reading machines, that look like closed-circuit televisions, to help him do his job. In recent years, Mekeel also has made great use of audio programs that allow him to compose and read materials on his computer, phone and iPad. He has a watch that talks to him as well.

When doing layout, he draws the page configuration with his fingers in the air, as a designer takes notes about where headlines and photos should go, sometimes even "erasing" with his hands when he rethinks an idea.

Because of his sight, he never used notes, as a reminder or a crutch. His memory was legendary in the newsroom.

"In meeting after meeting, he meticulously pulled information not from a smartphone or a tablet, but from his mind's filing cabinet," Roda said. "He'd rattle off stories planned for the next day's front page, then continue on with the local news section."

Mekeel said he could not have done the job he did without the page designers, fellow editors and reporters who made allowances for his eyesight.

Co-workers will announce their presence when they come into his office, though Mekeel is adept at recognizing footsteps.

"The clicking of my high heels always announced my trek to his office long before I got to the door," Roda said of Mekeel. "Sometimes I'd kick off my shoes to throw him off, but he'd comment that he could smell my perfume."

Co-workers often will warn Mekeel, who does not use a cane or a seeing-eye dog but has memorized the layout of the newsroom, when he is about to unexpectedly run into someone or something.

"With the patience and professionalism of the people who work with me — God bless 'em all — it works more often than it doesn't work," Mekeel said, adding, "People just do things, and make adjustments for me. It's why I've lasted 40 years, when I've been legally blind for 35. I appreciate it enormously."

Mekeel came of age during a time when print journalism was experiencing a resurgence, thanks to the Watergate scandal in Washington, D.C. He had a ringside seat for it during his college years, when he was editor of the University of Maryland student paper.

Investigative journalism was catching hold, as was a more expressive, narrative style of writing.

Still, there were some old-fashioned traditions in the newsroom back in the mid-'70s.

Reporters used typewriters — not even electric ones — and made carbons of their stories. Lots of people smoked and, despite the ashtrays on every desk, threw their butts on the floor. Certain reporters kept a bottle in their bottom desk drawer.

The staff used a pressurized pneumatic tube system to shoot copies of their stories back to a composing room, where people set them into type on large, clattering machines.

A few years after he arrived, Mekeel moved from being a general assignment reporter to being the editor of the features section, called the "Family" section back in those days.

"I was obviously the first male to do that," he said. "It was very odd but it was one of those things that I liked doing."

He teamed up with another reporter to write a feature they called "It's Your Town," where they did lighthearted things, such as compete to see who could do the best $20 date, as well as tackled more serious projects, such as one about poverty in Sunnyside, a Lancaster community.

They also wrote personal columns, with Mekeel writing this about he and his wife, Audrey, expecting their first child:

"It's not easy to explain what it's like to be in love with someone you have never seen."

In his last column for the paper, he wrote this about his two grandchildren, the sons of that first child, his daughter Emily:

"They can be a royal pain in the neck sometimes, just like any other kids. But they also seem to have an uncanny knack for stepping up when you need it the most. ... Feeling sad during those long days after your father has died? A warm hug from little arms can ease the pain. No words necessary."

In his personal columns, and on the news pages, Mekeel tried to write about or choose stories that tell people about how they live, or explain things to them, or show them something unexpected.

He did that first at the Lancaster New Era and also at the combined Intelligencer Journal/New Era, continuing to guide the paper after the two editions combined in 2009, and then combined again in 2012 with the Sunday News.

He presided over the newsrooms as they continued to change, making the transition to computers, the Internet, the online news and the digital age.

Ernie Schreiber, a retired executive editor, said Mekeel had an uncanny sense of what readers would enjoy.

"His instincts about what would interest Lancaster readers were unfailing," Schreiber said. "People from outside the county would not always understand his page-one choices — a story on a small potato chip manufacturer or a large photo of fields being plowed. But Pete knew what Lancaster County residents wanted to see in their paper."

He also was a mentor to many reporters, who came to realize that reading their stories out loud to an editor was one of the best exercises in learning how to be a better writer.

Retired New Era editor Robert Kozak said staff members wanted to follow Mekeel, who had a method to his madness.

"In personal terms, he's friendly, easygoing and low-key," Kozak said. "But when it comes to journalism and editorship, he has firm opinions that he's more than willing to defend. As news editor, he was able to guide and advise countless reporters who often didn't realize they were being mentored because he did it so deftly."

Mekeel's family is deeply involved in the newspaper business. His wife, Audrey, is an advertising sales representative with a total of 30 years at Lancaster Newspapers. His brother, Tim, is the business editor at the paper.

His son, David, is a staff writer for the Reading Eagle. David Mekeel's fiancee, Karen Shuey, is a reporter for Lancaster Newspapers.

Mekeel's daughter and son-in-law, Emily and Chad Cauler, are both teachers and the parents of his grandsons, Ben and Nick.

Mekeel said he's looking forward to spending more time with his grandsons and family after he leaves the paper.

He leaves behind a staff that will miss him greatly, right up to the highest office.

Robert Krasne, the publisher of Lancaster Newspapers, said, "Pete has helped me as a teacher, colleague and friend, and his deep institutional knowledge and extraordinary recall have been invaluable.

"His collegiality and collaborative nature serve as a model for others in the newsroom."

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Information from: Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era , http://lancasteronline.com

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