Death of a legend“A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs—it's jolted by every pebble in the road.”
—Henry Ward Beecher
Often when I sit down to write this column, I think to myself, “How would Woody approach this?”
Many of you won't know the name, but Herbert Watson “Woody” Lockwood led this frequently puckered town around by its funny bone for many, many, many years. Four decades, kiddies—and that was just his time in San Diego!
Woody died last week at age 91 near his family in the Bay Area, having lived a life—by his telling—that most of us couldn't even dream up. African-safari leader. Witness to Charles Lindbergh landing in Paris following his history-making transatlantic flight in 1929. Co-founder of Densa, an un-stodgy alternative to the smarty-pants Mensa. Goldmine aficionado.
And to top it off, he was a crack reporter—really, a crack up—and a brilliant wordsmith.
A native of New Jersey, Lockwood experienced tragedy early in his life when his father was killed in a hunting accident on Chesapeake Bay. Still, that didn't stop Lockwood from regaling colleagues about his youthful fishing exploits with Dad, including the time they stumbled upon a boathouse stocked with liquor during Prohibition.
His journalism days in San Diego began in the 1950s, as a copy editor for the Pacific Beach Sentinel. He would go on to become editor of the Independent, where he wrote “The Skeleton's Closet,” a weekly column that blended fact with humor about San Diego's quirky history.
When the Independent folded, Bob Witty brought Lockwood aboard the revamping San Diego Daily Transcript, the local business paper. “When I joined there, we didn't have a news staff,” said Witty, then the Transcript's editor. “So he was among my first hires.”
Gene Cubbison, now one of San Diego's best television reporters, at NBC affiliate 7/39, was also at the Independent with Lockwood. Cubbison recalled how Woody's recommendation helped gain him a staff spot at the Transcript.“I remember him saying—and demonstrating in his writing—something to the effect of ‘Make heavy stories light; give light stories weight,' and I've always tried to follow that advice,” Cubbison told Spin Cycle.
Not everyone was amused by Lockwood's humorous take on local history. One local history professor, in reviewing one of two volumes of “The Skeleton's Closet” columns that Lockwood published, sniffed: “His work does his readers—and local history—a disservice…. History such as this is best left unpublished; Lockwood's anecdotes should have remained entombed in the backfills of the San Diego Independent.”
But Ray Brandes, a history professor emeritus at the University of San Diego considered by many the dean of local historians, said such critiques missed the point. “He wasn't trying to write history as some of us did,” he explained. “He tried to put life into it and was criticized for that. Woody just wanted people to lighten up a little bit.”
Tim McClain, editor of San Diego Metropolitan magazine, agreed. “He was more humorist than historian…. Heck, he used to go to annual meetings and spend more time writing about the food served, goodies available for taking and manner of the presentation than the actual substance.
“While far shorter of factual recitations than what other Transcript reporters provided,” McClain added, “I'll bet a hundred bucks his stuff was more likely to be read to the end.”
One of my favorite Lockwood columns was headlined “Damned Old Crank,” about newspaper mogul and land baron Edward W. Scripps. Here's a snippet: “E.W. drank more whiskey a day than most people drink water. On four quarts a day, he had a perpetual buzz on, but was seldom observed to be drunk. At night he kept a bottle under his pillow so he could have a snort whenever he woke up. He also puffed his way through 40 large Havana cigars a day. Drunk, he was a better publisher than most were sober.”
I had the honor of working alongside Woody in the 1980s when I was a fresh-faced, Watergate-inspired cub reporter at the Transcript looking to put bad bankers in the gutter—or better, in jail.
I knew diddly about financial writing, but Woody was among those who taught me that readers cared less about the balance sheets than they did about the personalities running these institutions. And when criticism came my way, his simple retort: “Screw 'em!”
As Harold Keen, the late dean of local journalism, once wrote in an introduction to one of Lockwood's books: “His style is not one of irreverence; he is properly impressed with the achievements of our ancestors, but he treats them with a fine eye for human frailty, and thus makes them come alive.”
San Diego was extremely lucky to have Woody Lockwood grace our little corner of the universe for the decades he did. Stories about hopping a freighter to Cuba, or learning to fly in Africa only to give it up because it was “too boring” up there, or J.P. Morgan stepping on his foot in an elevator as a child won't likely come this way again.Rest well, old friend, and know that you continue to inspire.
Got a tip or comment for Spin Cycle? Write to at johnl@sdcity beat.com .