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A true newspaperman

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Half of the world’s population has been born since Jerry Koepsell came to work at the Watertown Daily Times.

And since that day in 1972, he has been in the thick of wars, presidential elections, presidential disgrace, natural disasters, political upheaval, human tragedies and triumphs of every ilk and the mundane, perpetual day-to-day flow of life on earth. Jerry has been the wire editor at the Times since shortly after he arrived here and in that time, he has given readers of the Times a steady, even-handed presentation of what has been happening in our state, our nation and our world.

And now, Jerry is stepping aside. Saturday is his last day here, and then he will retire and pass the reins of the wire section along to someone else. Times readers will, we hope, not miss a beat in the transition. But we will have lost one of the most capable, professional and consistent editors I have ever had the privilege to know and work with.

Being the wire editor for any newspaper that has a commitment to provide its readership with the most complete possible report of news outside the range of its own news staff is a daunting task. The Times subscribes to a nearly complete range of wire services, from the Associated Press to the Washington Post, and there is a vast sea of news stories that flash past the eyes of the wire editor.

I suspect that Jerry has read several billion words in his time here. Each day (or, in the past decade, each night) he “trolls the wire” looking not only for the best and most important news of the day, but the most comprehensively written and most accurate versions of each of those stories.

He has never been content to just pick one version or another of a particular story; I have watched him as he has taken a story about some important issue or another from McClatchy News Service and interwoven it with a story on the same subject from the New York Times in order to provide Times readers with the most comprehensive, inclusive and nuanced story available. Jerry’s treatment of news stories incorporates the hands of a surgeon and the mind of a professor, and he has displayed those unique skills day in and day out for almost 40 years without, in the eyes of his colleagues, ever breaking a sweat.

And if his skills are titanic, his calm, steady demeanor has made the newsroom a far, far better place to work. No matter the crisis — impossibly late breaking stories, impossibly frustrating system crashes, unbelievably inadequate news coverage — Jerry has met them with stoic ease. His presence has had a steadying influence on everyone, especially me. Through it all, he has maintained a sharp sense of humor that has made this place a better place to work.

The day etched in my mind — in the minds of everyone at the Times who worked through it, I suspect — was a midweek morning in September 2001, when someone rushed in telling us “Turn on the television! Turn on the television!”, and when we did we saw, live, the stupefying, horrific attacks on the World Trade Center.

While the entire newsroom was filled with horror and rage and unimaginable sorrow, Jerry and Bert Gault marshalled the troops; Jerry led us through tearing up everything we had done and reassembling a very special wire section that provided our readers that afternoon with comprehensive and accurate accounts and photos of one of the most important news events in the history of the Times. Everyone was hurting terribly that day, in ways public and private, but our pages portrayed not our tears, but the tears of the entire nation. It was a stunning and courageous performance I’ll never forget.

The A section of the Times as it exists today is, really, Jerry’s creation. He has created and fine-tuned a page A2 that is, in reality, an extension of the broad, far ranging nature of his intellect. From stories about supernovas to genetic breakthroughs, from the latest news of medicine to the quirkiest news you can imagine (there ARE alligators in New York City sewers!), A2 has become the home of some of the most interesting and engaging wire stories presented to newspaper readers anywhere.

Through his career, Jerry has toiled in the anonymity of the copy desk. While his signature is writ large upon the newspaper you have read every day, his face is unknown to all but his circle of friends and colleagues. While my face, and Bob Gorman’s and Jeffrey Savitskie’s, appear on columns that showcase our opinions, Jerry’s byline never appears anywhere. Yet what he has provided you over the past 40 years dwarfs anything we could offer.

Jerry Koepsell is the epitome of the newspaper professional. He has done what he has done, he told the newsroom at a retirement gathering this week, because he loves it. “I can’t imagine having done anything else,” he told us, and when I shook his hand at the end of our last shift together last night, he told me he has been blessed to have been able to do what he loves with so many wonderful people.

Jerry, it is we who have been blessed. You are one of a dying breed: you are a true newspaperman. I, and we, salute you.

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