TimesLedger writer reminisces about his start in print

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A breakfast without a newspaper is a horse without a saddle. - Will Rogers

By Alex Berger

I love being a columnist. It is the only profession I can think of where a person minds his own business while minding yours. I get to meet politicians, community leaders, newsmakers and just plain folks with a story to tell (everyone in Queens has a story to tell). As the TimesLedger celebrates the 15th anniversary of Steve Blank's ownership, I also have a story to tell - how I became a columnist for the TimesLedger Newspapers.

Ever since I was a little boy, I loved newspapers and columnists. I would curl up with the daily newspaper and not put it down until I read it from start to finish. My favorites were the columnists, from Walter Winchell to James Reston to Jimmy Cannon. My appetite for reading was insatiable. My mother often complained of the black smudges on my hands and clothing after I read a newspaper.

From elementary school through high school I received high grades for many written assignments, and thoughts of becoming a newspaperman filled my head. However, a small thing happened - the Korean War intervened. Being the patriot that I am, I enlisted in the Air Force for a four-year stint at the age of 17, when I completed Stuyvesant High School.

Upon discharge, at the age of 21, I enrolled at CCNY and majored in accounting because I knew that newspaper positions were few and far between. I took accelerated courses, attended summer school and received a degree three years later. I then applied for a job at several New York City newspapers, but none wanted to take on a 24-year-old with an accounting degree.

To compound matters, I finally realized that I did not like accounting and accepted a job with the New York City Housing Authority, where I rose to the position of administrative manager in Queens District; however, to keep my hand in writing, I created newsletters for the housing developments.

I married Gloria, an early childhood teacher, in 1963 and wrote children's songs and stories for her kindergarten classes. As a Queens resident, I also became an avid reader of the Bayside Times.

I did not know what to expect when in 1989 Blank bought the TimesLedger Newspapers, which included the Bayside Times and the Glen Oaks-Little Neck Ledger. The Flushing Times and Whitestone Times were added and I was hooked. I seriously thought many times about submitting columns to the Whitestone Times but didn't know whether I should, would or could. Dare I try? Why not? But it wasn't until July 1991 that I finally turned dare into a reality.

I knew my first story would have to be a blockbuster for Mr. Blank to consider it and I wrestled with the problem for several days. Suddenly, it hit me. My neighbor, Mel Rifkin, a milk deliverer by trade, had an unfortunate accident. While getting out of his parked milk truck, the brakes failed. It rolled, pinning Mel against a wall. His leg was almost torn off. Mel was rushed to the hospital in time to save his leg.

Mel's daughter, however, was getting married in four months and he vowed from his hospital bed that he would walk her down the aisle, a seemingly impossible task. Through painful exercises, a cane and uncommon perseverance, Mel did it. I wrote that story and it was printed in the Whitestone Times, which I still have hanging on my wall.

Now I knew my follow-up must again be a blockbuster. I thought and thought and found the answer right under my nose. As you may not know, my son, Jon, began working for the N.Y. Football Giants as their computer consultant. The team won the Super Bowl in 1991 and Jon was given a Super Bowl ring for his part in helping the team defeat the Buffalo Bills.

I wrote a column entitled the "The Day the Super Bowl Ring Visited Whitestone," with a picture and description of the bejeweled ring. Again, my column was accepted. This gave me the confidence to make an appointment with Mr. Blank for a job as a columnist. I did and was hired.

My first editor was Dane Hamilton, a young man who was very business-like. He thought of my columns as strictly fillers and did not print many of my columns I had worked so hard on; however, Sheila Borgstrom, a reporter, took me under her wing and helped rebuild my confidence. I was sorry to see her leave for a job with a Connecticut daily newspaper.

Attorney Doug McKay had been the major columnist for the Whitestone Times. When he suddenly passed away, Mr. Blank called me into his office.

"Alex," he said, "I want you to become a second Doug McKay."

"I will do my best," I said, "but I'd rather be the first Alex Berger."

My next editor was Jack Ryan, a true newspaperman, who anointed me as the newspaper's "Holiday Man," an assignment I relish. I enjoy the feedback I receive from readers for my holiday columns. Last week I was eating at Aunt Bella's in Little Neck, when a woman at the next table lauded me for the "ecumenical" aspect of my Easter-Passover article.

Roz Liston, the next managing editor, and Heather Scroope, the news editor, are a joy to work for. I am fortunate to work with both of them.

There have been many good things happening over the past 15 years. The TimesLedger added many more community newspapers, making 16 in all, which cover all of Queens. I have won a few awards for my humorous and serious columns and have not lost the thrill of reading the fan mail from many of my readers.

I find it indeed appropriate that the TimesLedger is celebrating its 15th, or crystal, anniversary. The TimesLedger Newspapers shine with a crystal brilliance unmatched by any other community newspaper.

Happy 15th. May these anniversaries continue for a long time to come. And, readers, keep reading my column and continue sending in your comments.

Reach columnist Alex Berger at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 140.

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