On Topic: Covering local business for 32 years, and a John Glenn memory

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After near-on precisely 32 years here, George C. Ford will retire from The Gazette at the end of this year, as will long-time co-workers Diane Langton and Orlan Love. It seemed a good time to learn what’s on George’s mind — about business in the Corridor and his own career covering it — before he walks out the door.

I keep meaning to convince George Ford to record the message on my phone.

His voice is among of the first things you notice about George. It’s a controlled, subterranean bass, something he put to good use in pursing his degree in musicology — his other major was economics.

It’s also why his father, the chief engineer at an easy-listening radio station in Long Branch, N.J., got George, at the age of 16, to start recording voice-overs.

Which led to his reading news on-air, to writing his own copy, to writing for the high school newspaper then cleverly selling rewrites of those stories to three separate area newspapers — “We found we could get paid by the inch,” he recalls with a chuckle — then to more radio, to building a career.

Fate sometimes got involved. It was back when he was writing for the school paper when he got a phone call. The high school newspaper editor had to drop out for personal reasons, and so George, overnight, became the editor.

Sure, he’s tried on other jobs along the way. For a brief time, he apprenticed as a jockey in Kentucky. But after he went headlong over the front of the horse, he reconsidered his options.

George was working as business editor for the Rock Island Argus when massive technical snafus in 1984 got its people to ask The Gazette’s people if they could send stories to the computer here in Cedar Rapids. He was one of the people involved in sending stories and photos from one location to the other.

Editors here must have noticed him. A job offer followed not long after.

His mission became part of redoing The Gazette’s business coverage. That was when stocks and a few stories were tucked at the back of the sports section.

“It was believed only men paid attention to stocks,” George notes with a shake of his head. “ The financial industry was changing, growing.

“We started a new Sunday (business) section,” he says, adding, “‘Iowa Farmer Today’ started around the same time.”

One Monday, after George was on the job as assistant financial editor for about all of three months, his editor told him he had a doctor’s appointment the next morning. When the editor didn’t show up on Tuesday, George telephoned the man’s home, to learn the man had been scheduled for heart surgery.

The boss wasn’t going to back in the office soon, and George became interim financial editor for The Gazette.

He worked long hours then, coming in early and on occasion staying until midnight as he waited for data on bonds sales to be transmitted — this was, after all, before the era of emails and the internet. The business section, with all the stock information, could balloon to 14 pages.

He began doing live five-minute business spots five days a week, too, on then-sibling station KCRG TV. To write those scripts, he’d start work at 4 a.m.

As one business reporter testified to me right after I started work here, George can be “a true Spartan.”

Over his 32 years here, he’s covered lots of people, companies and news, including two big floods and a bunch of recessions as well as the Great Recession. He saw Cedar Rapids remake itself after losing the sand out of much of its heavy manufacturing base — FMC and Century Engineering, among others. The Committee of 100 was formed, and its members went out into the world to sell companies on the merits of doing business here. “This community did something,” George says.

During his career here, he says, “I’ve met some incredible people, self-made people who overcame impossible odds.”

George remembers after what could have a been a devastating flood in 2008, residents and city officials refused to give in.

“I’d seen Louisville flooded,” he says of the Kentucky city where he lived for years. Yet here in Cedar Rapids, “we pulled it off.”

He was picked by The Gazette to go to Japan in 1990 along with 29 other western journalists as part of the Export to Japan Study Program, where he visited factories and other businesses and sent back stories. (George confesses his wife, Jani, decided to learn Japanese. He did not.)

“It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” he says.

One of his longtime beats has been The Eastern Iowa Airport. Will he miss reporting on it?

“It is my favorite,” he says with a sigh, recalling he’s covered four airport directors in his tenure.

Remember his father, the engineer? He worked on airplane radios, too.

“I remember being strapped into a plane, I must have been three, my brother would have been five,” he recalls. “I never had a chance to develop a fear of flying.”

George will continue to write about business for The Gazette as a freelancer. (I wasn’t going to let him get away that easily.)

“I’ve enjoyed being a journalist writing about the people I’ve met,” he says. “Cedar Rapids has offered me and my family opportunities. My boys were born here.”

He says he and Jani get asked if they plan move out of state. George is astonished by the question.

“Why would we leave?” he wonders. “This is our home.”

lll

Speaking of aviation, a few words about John Glenn, who died Dec. 8: I met him once, while he still was U.S. Senator for Ohio but after he dropped his run for the Democratic Party’s nomination to the president.

What struck me most was his calmness. But then, if anyone could exhibit tranquillity, it certainly would a man who flew combat missions in World War II and the Korean conflict, who as a charter member of NASA’s space program strapped himself into a large hunk of metal and blasted — an accurate term — into then-truly unknown space for four hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds.

What could frighten him?

It’s a leadership skill all could emulate.

l Michael Chevy Castranova is business editor of The Gazette; (319) 398-5873; michaelchevy.castranova@thegazette.com

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