Every graduate needs unsolicited advice

Published 9:29 am Saturday, June 15, 2013

“God is in the details.”
— Gustave Flaubert, writer; and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, architect; and Aby Warburg, art historian

Allow me, new high school graduates, a few minutes of your time.

Lest I forget, sincere congratulations to those of you who’ve earned your diplomas. Whether you worked both hard and smart or just struggled, a new opportunity awaits to make more or less something of yourself. Please choose more.

Whether you’re going to college or vocational school this fall, please keep this in mind whilst writing term papers or learning the science of auto repair:

Carelessness will cause you more grief than anyone’s malice.

I hasten to add that the sting is sharpened because there’s no one else to blame.

These thoughts come to you courtesy of someone who’s experienced more work-related embarrassment than there’s space to recount on this page. But two lasting past and personal examples might sufficiently serve.

1. Within my first year at The Suffolk News-Herald, I wrote the last name with alternate spellings of a bride-to-be for her wedding announcement. Not for laughs, of course, but because the job was done too quickly and not thoroughly proofed.

To the best of my recollection, her mother replied in a justifiably sharp note that if that was my idea of humor — thinking it was somehow deliberate — perhaps I should consider writing for comic books. Saying ‘Ouch’ is putting my reaction mildly. My friend the late Eric P. Brooks (rest his soul) knew the family.

After discreetly pointing out my error, he conveyed my sincere apologies, assuring them that as he knew me, there was no malice involved. The announcement was reprinted correctly.

To the family’s credit, they never brought up the matter again, even when I saw the mother at a holiday house tour. Actually, I’m not sure she recognized me. Remembering that mistake still makes me wince, especially because the suggestion that error was intentional.

2. Late one night years later at the same paper, I was designing the pages for a tabloid about Isle of Wight. Having exhausted material generated mostly by the newsroom, I was looking around the office for something to fill the last gap when I came across a map of the county. It fit perfectly and I soon finished the project.

About a week later the editor calls me into his office and is obviously looking less than pleased. He asked, “Do you know what plagiarism is?” I replied, “Yes, it’s the deliberate taking of someone’s work and claiming it as your own” That’s when he pointedly showed me that the map I had used belonged to The Smithfield Times. The illustration was not, as I genuinely thought at the time, in public domain.

Perhaps because my mistake was recognized as carelessness and not theft, I got to keep my job. John Edwards, the publisher for The Smithfield Times, was gracious and forgiving, even when by chance I brought up the topic to him a few years later. Thank you, sir.

Now I’ve shared these incidents not merely to fill space, but as concrete evidence of my theme. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy reading about other people’s foibles, eh? Heh. Heh.

You, young ladies and gentlemen, will almost certainly make your own mistakes large and small. So step as carefully as you can at work and in life. But when you stumble, then you own up and apologize. At best, embarrassment might be your only penance.

Then you get up and move on.

STEPHEN H. COWLES is a staff writer at The Tidewater News. He can be contacted at either 562-3187 or