Long-time employee shares special memories of The Witness

By Bret Fear

Special to The Witness

When I first started working at The Witness part-time in November 1986, one of the female staff members who worked in the same area on 4th floor had a huge phobia — fear of heights. Even being by the windows was too much for her, so all our windows had heavy cardboard taped over them, as well as heavy lined drapes which were always closed. You never knew what it was like outside until you went to another office that had a window you could look out, or went outside for a break. The cardboard and drapes came down soon after she moved to a new city. Let there be light!

For the first seven or eight years of working here, in addition to putting together The Witness (50 issues per year back then) we also had a commercial typesetting division of The Witness called Composition Specialists, Inc.

Gerald (Bud) MacFarlane and I did typesetting jobs for price lists for the Ertl Toy Company through Johnson Graphics and newsletters for Interstate Power Company. We also worked with an artist (Zelma Wilson-Clarke) from Galena, Illinois on advertisements for American Trust Bank, where she did the artwork. We set the type to go with the artwork. We also worked with Mr. Quix Printing on the Dubuque Golf & Country Club monthly newsletter, and with Pete Petersen & Associates from Galena, on ads for Chestnut Mountain, among others. As soon as The Witness went to press at 1 p.m. Wednesday, I started working on the Composition Specialists projects along with Bud. This division of The Witness was unincorporated in 1993 or 1994 when Bud retired.

For many years The Witness was in charge of putting together the annual Archdiocese of Dubuque Directory, where, in addition to the information that is contained in the directory these days, we also sold ads in the book. We had special ads on the inside front cover, inside back cover and back cover for a premium charge. These were coveted spots and advertisers would always say, “If a spot becomes available in any of these three positions, I want first chance.” We also sold smaller adswhich were contained on every other page of the book.

The refrigerator in the 4th floor kitchen­ette was here when I first started and it will undoubtedly be here (and still running) after this final issue is printed, just a few months short of The Witness’ 100th anniversary. It is not a frost-free freezer, so it had to be defrosted every year or so, or whenever it got so caked with ice that nothing much would fit in the freezer anymore. It took most of the day to get the ice thawed enough to get it all cleared. Lots of hot ­water and a fan were used to do this job.

I recall having to use the door access to go on the flat roof during the winter months on a few occasions to clear away excess snow and ice from the large satellite dish (late 80s to early 90s) that brought in the news from Catholic News Service and which printed out on a dot matrix printer and was then retyped on the old “Compugraphic” equipment to put in the paper before we switched to computers with disk backups. We would stand over the light table for hours and hours, putting the galleys on the pages, laying out the advertising and putting border tape around all the ads and photos.

We used a processor with chemicals to develop the long strips of paper with the printed text to lay out on the pages using a waxer, light table and Exacto knife. Every Friday at 3 p.m. it was my job to do a thorough cleaning of the processor, running clear water through it once or twice, then using a toothbrush to get down in all the crevices to get rid of all the remaining residue, then run clear water through it once more, then mix up new chemicals (two different types of chemicals in separate containers) to get it ready for use on Monday morning.

We used a large camera in the darkroom to get photos ready for reproduction. We had to use a densitometer attached to the camera to determine the lightest and darkest parts of the picture to get the photo processed, and, depending on how it looked when it was developed, had to do it all over again to get the best picture possible. We then waxed the photo and put it on the makeup pages, using an Exacto knife and pica pole to cut the picture down to the desired size and then using a roll of sticky border tape to put the border around it, cutting each corner at a 90 degree angle to get the perfect (or almost perfect) edge.

A highlight was when Sr. Mary Ellen Murphy, PBVM, would come in for her weekly (Thursday) afternoon of volunteering when the papers arrived to put the newspapers in the “clip” and “do not clip” binders, file the extra papers, and whatever else needed to be done. She would always bring in some sort of treat from the PBVM bakers and we would have a “coffee break.”  Each St. Patrick’s Day she would show up in her leprechaun outfit and we would have some Irish coffee.

In my long tenure at The Witness I have been fortunate to have worked with over 35 people, including three archbishops, three editors, subscription/circulation managers, secretaries, advertising sales people, interns, etc. I have many amazing memories of my time here which I will cherish and carry with me always. Thanks for the ride!

Bret Fear is production and advertising manager at The Witness. He has worked at the publication for over 33 years.

Cover image: Members of the 1997 Witness staff are pictured above. (Front row, l to r): Betty Berrie, circulation (deceased); Judith Bandy, staff writer and advertising (deceased); Sr. Donalda Kehoe, secretary and bookkeeper. (Back row, l to r:) Steve McMahon, staff writer; Msgr. Thomas J. Ralph, editor (deceased); and Bret Fear, production and design. (Witness photo archives)