We columnists at U.S. 1 don’t run photographs along with our columns. I’m not sure why that is — maybe because I was the first columnist for the paper 27 or 28 years ago and I was afraid my picture would scare off readers.
Over at the Trenton Times they apparently don’t have that fear. The mug shots of the columnists run right alongside their columns. And for that reason when I picked up my copy of the Trenton Times last weekend I recognized immediately the smiling face of Arnold Ropeik on the cover, and I knew in a heartbeat that the news about him couldn’t be good.
The Times put the news of Ropeik’s death, at the age of 90, on the front page of its Sunday paper. Good call. Ropeik had worked for the paper for 45 years, and he had been a columnist for 22 years, cranking out more than 2,500 personal opinion pieces on a wide range of subjects. For many of us he was the face of the paper — warm, smiling, approachable, and intelligent, all wrapped up into one mug shot next to the words that matched the face.
A few days after Ropeik’s death the Times reprinted his last column for the paper, printed on February 7, 2006. Here are some excerpts:
So, here it is. The last column. The coup de grace. How will I pack these last 45 years into one 15-inch column? The answer is I won’t.
From a cold historic day in 1962 to this very fair day of 2006, I have felt welcome here. I have felt at home at The Times of Trenton . . . or The Trenton Times, as we used to call it. I will always call it that in my heart of hearts.
. . .
As the column grew in scope and content, I was happier and happier. The mail got heavier and heavier and my head and heart lighter. I got to write three times a week for a number of years. I was very happy.
Then came trouble. I endured what the doctors called a minor stroke. I did not see it as minor. My “minor” injury to my brain left me unable to fathom the keyboard any longer. From being a speed typist to resorting to hunt and peck, I did the best I could, one key at a time. But it slowed me down to one column a week.
But the fundamental thing applied as time went by, and I made it work. Until now, that is. I finally got very tired and began to think more and more of this sad day.
. . .
One last piece of advice. Do not turn your backs on this newspaper.
The biggest bite we have taken is through the Internet. But that device will never replace your local newspaper. We still connect you with your local heart and soul. Don’t forget us. We need each other.
We always will. Farewell.
I thought I would end this column with a memory of Arnie Ropeik, whom I read hundreds of times but didn’t meet in person more than two or three times in my life. The last of those times was a year or so ago, when my son performed with three other high school kids in a trombone ensemble. The group had a gig at a nursing home, the Greenwood House in Ewing.
After the 45-minute recital, and an enthusiastic ovation, the boys began packing up their instruments. One of the residents, getting around in a wheelchair, made his way over to chat with the young performers. He may not have recognized me (there’s no photo with this column), but I knew the face right off. Like all good reporters, Ropeik probably would have said that he preferred to stay in the background and observe others in the spotlight. On this day I turned the tables on him, and gave the high school kids a brief history of Ropeik and his role at the Trenton Times. I think he enjoyed it.
I planned to end the column with that Ropeik story but then I ran into Robert Landau, proprietor of the Nassau Street clothing store. Landau knew Ropeik not only as the newspaper man but also as the manager of a Witherspoon Street grocery store — Ropeik’s father-in-law owned the store and Arnie worked there in the 1950s between journalism stints.
That experience led to an Einstein story — one of the better ones that has come to the attention of Landau, whose store is also a repository of Einstein memorabilia. Einstein was a customer at the grocery store and often would stop by on a morning walk and leave off a paper bag of returnable bottles. Later in the day he would return to collect the deposit owed him. Someone once asked him why he didn’t just ask for the deposit on the spot and save himself the second trip. Einstein noted the various deposit amounts charged for the different bottles — two cents for this one, three for that one. “I wouldn’t be able to figure it out,” he said.
From beyond the grave, another Ropeik story. Don’t turn your back on the newspapers or the story tellers.