by Mark Gilman

Many of you can probably look back on your years in academia and point to a class or particular discipline that you have leaned on in your professional career. In my case, that class didn’t involve math, science, or English; it involved a specific way of using your fingers. 

And no, it wasn’t a piano class. 

My late Mother (who apparently was an only-child handful) used to regale us with stories about how, in high school, she was sent to the Principal’s office so much that he ended up giving her a secretarial job. But to do that job, she needed to learn a discipline to get it done—typing. So, when I began my freshman year in high school, she demanded I enroll in a typing class. “It’s a skill you’ll have for the rest of your life,” she would repeat over and over as my friends on the baseball team punished me verbally for taking a class where I was the only boy. Honestly, the demographic split never bothered me and was the precursor to my taking Home Economics my senior year, well, because of a similar gender breakdown. 

I have zero memory of who the instructor was or anyone specific who was in the class with me. All I know is that typing class literally changed my life. I could then bang on a typewriter to finish my term papers, mainly because no one (including me) could read my handwriting.  And then, in my senior year, with my Dad’s pronouncement that he had no money for me to go to college, I started entertaining offers from military recruiters who would pay for it.  

Taking My Talents to the Navy 

I loved to write – and talk. I was editor of my high school newspaper and hosted an afternoon radio show in town my senior year, so I wanted to leverage that in the military. I wanted to be a military journalist and broadcaster. The problem was that no one in New England had been admitted to the Defense Information School in five years. 

Honestly, I didn’t care if I went into the military or not. I figured I’d just get a job and hang out with my friends for a couple of years. So, I told them, “Without a guaranteed journalism school placement, you aren’t going to get me.”

And wouldn’t you know it—the Navy came through. But there was one barrier that many prospective military journalists (at that time, there were less than 500 for all the branches in the military) found impossible to overcome: I not only had to pass a military physical, but I also had to pass a typing test to be admitted. That I did.  

For the next six years in the Navy and another two years after, I banged on manual and electric typewriters with white-out stained fingers (ask your parents), delivering articles to Navy Times, the local news and later the vaunted weekly Monadnock Ledger in Peterborough, NH.  

The Ledger was my first job out of the military and I was told by the co-publisher (the soon-to-be ex-wife of the publisher) that because of my doggedness, I had beaten out over a hundred (I never bought that number) applicants for a job that paid $9,000 a year in 1982. But first things first – could I type?  And yes, I was submitted to another typing test, and if I failed, I would have had to pass my position on to one of the other 99 applicants for the chance to make the $9k a year.  I did not. 

What’s a Word Processor?

So, for the next two years, I banged away on my IBM Selectric typewriter, writing articles about local police corruption, school board meetings and high school baseball – until a strange new device was introduced to the newsroom. I was told it was a computer with a word processor.  What? I had to type my stories in there? The crazy thing was I never trusted it.  I saw so many people lose entire articles by pushing the wrong button (no folks, there was no Cloud backup in 1984) that I would type the articles on my typewriter and then copy them onto the word processor just to be safe. Needless to say, this was not the most efficient way to meet a deadline, but I did that the entire time I was there. 

Jump ahead 40 years, and after a career where I’ve typed my way through national and local news organizations and radio stations and handled communications for Fortune 100 companies — I still bang on my keys for various national publications and my company PR clients at Fulkrum and Pitchnoise

I remember working as a Capitol Hill TV reporter in the U.S. Senate Press Gallery in the early 90s, where there was a lonely bank of 20 IBM Selectric typewriters that were never used and covered with dust. My office was next door to the great and late CBS TV News veteran Bob Schieffer. On one particular day there was an intern using one of the forgotten typewriters. Bob walked out of his office, cupped his ear and said in his distinctive Texas drawl, “I recognize the sound, but I can’t really place it.” 

Typewriters have become one of those things, like phone answering machines, payphones, and 8-Track tapes, that you now have to explain to multiple generations. But my vast manual and electric typewriter past has not come without victims. Today, I like to write with a cigar in my mouth and I do that regularly in the morning at a local cigar bar.  One of the morning patrons loves to come in and make fun of my typing and how hard I pound on the keyboard. Yes, I still bang on keys like it’s a Selectric, rendering the letters on my laptop rubbed out and unreadable (see photo above). 

The good news is that, yes, I now trust a computer’s backup capabilities and write an article only once. The bad news is that my laptops only last about two years. 

Was that typing class in 9th grade the reason I’ve had the career I always wanted?  Probably not, but I may have never left the starting gate without it.  Thanks, Mom!