Photo: Luis Sanchez Saturno, AP
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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Notepads were scattered all over reporter Steve Terrell’s desk as he foraged through various drawers in anticipation of cleaning them out before his final day in the office.
In doing so, he uncovered a slew of hidden treasures. Hearing aid batteries. Plastic packets of ketchup (“Probably 14 years old,” he said.) A Donny Osmond button. A copy of his 1981 music CD, Picnic Time for Potatoheads. And empty folders — lots of empty folders.
“I’m a great recycler,” said Terrell, 66, who is retiring from The New Mexican on Friday after 33 years at the newspaper and nearly 40 years as a reporter in Santa Fe. “I take crap people give me or leave behind and then use them for my own crap.”
What can’t be found in or around the desk are the close to 10,000 stories he wrote (more or less) since August 1987, when he came on board as a City Hall reporter. Or the memories of the people he worked with and wrote about. Or the awards and national nods he received over the years for his coverage of politics and his push for government transparency.
On Friday afternoon, he’ll leave all that behind after turning in his building access card and other work-related materials.
“It’s gonna feel weird,” he said.
But he’s ready. He has a big stack of books he wants to read and a couple of adult children and two grandchildren who live in Austin, Texas, he wants to see more often. The worst thing about being a journalist? “Your children grow up fast and you realize how much you missed,” he said.
And the best thing?
“It sure beats working at the bowling alley,” he joked, referring to a job he once held at the long-gone Coronado Bowling Center on Cordova Road, where he used Lysol to spray down the rental bowling shoes.
“I loved getting involved in the stories,” he continued. “I loved covering City Hall, the crime beat, the political beat. I like seeing the sausage get made.”
And he’s seen a lot of sausage-making over the decades — not bad for a kid from Oklahoma City who grew up wanting to be a speech teacher and stumbled into journalism.
Terrell — who one work colleague described as “looking like an unmade bed” — was born in in 1953. His family moved to Santa Fe in 1968 and he has lived here since, graduating from Santa Fe High School and earning a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of New Mexico. He worked for some years as a substitute educator in Santa Fe’s public schools before the god of journalism called to him and said, “Get thee to a newsroom.”
Well, it wasn’t quite that dramatic.
Actually, Terrell was reading a national magazine’s 1980 roundup of the best 10 musical albums of the 1970s and, disappointed in the choices, thought he could do a better job. So he wrote up his own list and sent it, unsolicited, to the Santa Fe Reporter. (That list included the Beach Boys’ Holland and Tom Waits’ Small Change.) To his surprise, the piece was published in January 1980, and soon afterward, an editor from the alternative weekly called Terrell and asked him to conduct an interview with visiting folk musician Dave Van Ronk, who was performing at the old Armory for the Arts auditorium.
Terrell attended the concert, armed with a notepad and tape recorder and prepared to interview the musician after the concert. Instead, he, Van Ronk, their wives and a small band of groupies hit the bar at a local hotel where, Terrell recalled, “I got bombed.”
Still, he wrote an engaging story about Van Ronk, ending it with, “He (Van Ronk) even drinks with his fans.”
He didn’t quite learn his lesson when the paper asked him to follow up with a profile of blues musician Taj Mahal, who was playing in Pojoaque. Not only did Terrell again imbibe a little bit too much — waking up to discover his notes “were drunk” — but he and his wife had a fight and she left him in Pojoaque, forcing him to hitchhike home.
That’s when he realized you should never drink and report. But his high jinks didn’t stop the Reporter from offering him a full-time job. He wrote music reviews, crime stories, features and obituaries, among other pieces. In the summer of 1984, the Albuquerque Journal hired him as City Hall reporter for its Santa Fe bureau. Three years later, The New Mexican wooed him away.
He soon was covering crime, cops, con artists and cutthroats.
The newspaper briefly appointed Terrell as an assistant editor and, within a matter of weeks, both he and the powers that be realized what a mistake that was after he ran a story about masked female spaghetti wrestlers and placed a piece on a slaughterhouse on the food page.
Pretty soon, he was back to reporting, this time on the political beat.
He covered the state Legislature and other political matters for well over 15 years. “That was the most fun I ever had,” he said. “I went in thinking these politicians were crooks or clowns, but I discovered there are lots of well-meaning people serving who are trying to make a difference.”
Still, he said, “some of them were crooks or clowns.”
His dedication to the beat paid off when the Washington Post’s online newsletter The Fix named him the best political reporter in New Mexico in 2015. The following year, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government gave him a First Amendment award for his success in fighting the Public Regulation Commission to publish the Public Service Company of New Mexico’s new coal contract, which he obtained through a public records request.
“It’s always fun to talk about Steve’s idiosyncrasies, the fact that he’s a character in a time when being unique or unconventional is somehow looked at with some wariness,” said New Mexican Editor Phill Casaus. “But that’s just the veneer. The reality of Terrell is work ethic. You can’t be in this business for as long as he has and not have it. And so, even when it’s a pain in the butt, or inconvenient, or just no fun, he’ll make that last phone call to get one more fact. And I know that has rubbed off on a lot of young reporters who’ve learned from him.”
Terrell is hoping his last day on the job will be an easy one, maybe one in which he can quietly sneak out around noon. As for how he will leave his disheveled desk, the old reporter said, “I promise there will be no fire damage.”
Those who worked with Terrell from the political side of the beat said something will be missing when he departs.
“What I appreciated about Steve is that he was never a vicious journalist,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming. “He was straight up. I always found him to be very, very accurate in his reporting. I sort of hate to see him go.”
Former Mayor Sam Pick — who said the only time he had an issue with Terrell was when the City Council neared a vote on an open-container liquor law and Terrell found some empty beer cans in Pick’s car parked outside City Hall and then wrote about it — said his occasional foil was nonetheless always professional.
“He covered City Hall quite objectively and was critical when he needed to be,” Pick said. “And he appreciated it when we returned his phone calls — with Steve, you wanted to return the phone call.”
Terrell, who has played music since he was a teen and operated a couple of music radio shows on KSFR for decades, has no plans to quietly fade away. He may keep his “Terrell’s Tune-Up” music column for Pasatiempo going under a new name, like “Rock ’n’ Roll Retiree.” He’ll continue to host his Sunday night KSFR show, Terrell’s Sound World. And he’ll maintain his bigenchiladapodcast.com website, which might best be described as an online homage to the type of music a guy writing about serial killers would enjoy.
There are some things about the job he won’t miss, Terrell said: “Too many long nights, too many weird hours.”
On the other hand, he fears he will miss the fast-paced, meet-the-deadline environment of a newsroom — and the people who work in that environment.
On Sunday, the newspaper will honor him with a goodbye party at Santa Fe’s new bowling center, The Alley.
Terrell said he plans to bring a can of Lysol with him to the event.
“I’ll spray everyone’s shoes,” he said.
Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.santafenewmexican.com