The Mailbox | The time has come to bid farewell to a faithful bunch of readers

Ray Stein
The Columbus Dispatch
Ray Stein works from the press box at the Ohio Stadium in 2009. Beside him are reporters Ken Gordon, Tim May, sports columnist Bob Hunter, reporter Rob Oller and reporter Bill Rabinowitz.

Thanks for your letters this week, but this dance floor will be mine alone. Here’s my story:

On the day I first walked through the doors at The Dispatch, I was able to meet two of the three people I admired most who were connected to the newspaper.

This was Sept. 27, 1980. At the time I was attending classes at Ohio State and working at a warehouse in an industrial park on Alum Creek Drive, to pay for college and earn extra scratch for other, um, pursuits. Not necessarily in that order.

I worked for an outfit called Colamco, which manufactured things for the interiors of cars and trucks and vans. I was a purchasing agent, or maybe an inventory control specialist. Regardless, the job paid real money and was enjoyable enough, in the sort of way that working at “The Office” might be oddly satisfying. Lots of similarities, actually.

Ray Stein, circa 1981.

At the time, it was not a life goal to be a purchasing agent, nor an inventory control specialist. I was just a young, dumb kid who loved sports and loved to read about sports, and needed a job.

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Then an opportunity emerged to work part-time at The Dispatch as a clerk in the Sports department, which brought a dilemma. If I took the job, I surely would lose at least one weekend night of, um, pursuits. But I was not that dumb, no.

Looking back, I already had fallen in love with sports reporting without realizing it. I devoured baseball books by Roger Angell, to this day the best sportswriter I ever encountered. (Belated happy birthday to Angell, who turned 100 in September.) And I religiously read Columbus’ two papers, The Dispatch and the Citizen-Journal.

Ray Stein in 2016.

I was a Dispatch man for two reasons. First, it was an afternoon paper, and I was not a morning person. Second, they alone published a Sunday edition, and that meant three weekly staples: Jim Murray, John McNeely and Dick Otte.

Murray was sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times whose fine work appeared each week in The Dispatch, whether he was sticking a needle into Woody Hayes’ backside or waxing about the Dodgers or the Rams.

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McNeely was a Dispatch staffer — assistant sports editor, I would learn — who essentially challenged his readers each week with a baseball opinion piece that ran with his mustachioed mug shot and an in-your-face title: Let’s Argue. Well, let’s!

Ray Stein discusses his loss at a foul shooting contest with Northland basketball player Julian Sullinger in 2004.

And Otte was the newspaper’s sports editor, a gruff but affable man who employed tact and grace and humor each week in answering readers’ questions and comments on page 3 of the Sunday section — sometimes all of page 3, excepting a few tire ads. Before starting some of those Mailbox columns, you’d better pack a lunch.

Thus, on my first day in my new part-time job, I met two journalists who already had taught me lessons I would try to heed for next four decades: Engage the readers. Give them a voice. Listen to them before you speak to them.

Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer answers questions from Ray Stein at a clinic on Feb. 13, 2013.

(Am I consigning too much weight and romance to my 1980 introduction to two familiar sports-media figures? I am. Truth is, I arrived late for my opening shift because an Ohio State football game ran long, and therefore I didn’t receive as much as a handshake from my new bosses, let alone a perfunctory interview. They had a Sunday section to put out. I was keeping them from that. Best to sit down and stay out of the way.)

Today I break the rules that Mr. Otte and Mac taught.

The occasion for this solo flight is my pending departure from The Dispatch after 40½ years. After seeing home one final pet project, I will step away in June knowing how fortunate I have been to work alongside an incredibly talented and dedicated group of reporters, editors, photographers and support staff.

Ray Stein greets scholar athletes, their families and guests during the Scholar Athlete Awards in 2019. Stein is the backbone of the Scholar Athlete program and will coordinate it one more time before retiring in June.

This also marks my last Mailbox column following 18 years as sports editor, a position that allowed me to serve as caretaker of this weekly patch of newspaper real estate. In that time, I have tried to make this an open market for ideas and airing of grievances — sometimes responding through gritted teeth, far more often with a smile and a laugh.

Above all, I have strived to make this a spot where our readers — the lifeblood of this enterprise — can have their voice. We did not always agree, but I hope that we were usually civil, occasionally informative and once-in-a-blue-moon entertaining.

Regardless, I wouldn’t trade a word of it, and I want you to know what an absolute pleasure it has been. Thanks for playing along.

Former Ohio State football great Archie Griffin shakes hands with Ray Stein during the Scholar Athlete Awards in 2017 at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

rstein@dispatch.com