Hal Knight didn't know what he was getting himself into 47 years ago when he applied for a job as a copy boy at the old Salt Lake Telegram.
He had never taken a typing class and never spent a day in college. All he knew was that he loved to read books, and a newspaper seemed as good a place as any to stay close to the printed word.He got a lot more than he bargained for.
As any journalist knows, an innate curiosity and a way with words can be a ticket to a life of exciting and wide-ranging experiences.
And a wry sense of humor doesn't hurt, either.
In that sense, Knight, who is retiring from the Deseret News next week after 40 years, was more than qualified. During his career (he quickly was promoted from copy boy to reporter), he interviewed two presidents, Harry Truman and John Kennedy, as well as several Nobel Prize winners and countless celebrities. He covered the launch of Apollo 11 from Cape Canaveral in Florida and spent the moon landing at mission control in Houston. He used the German language skills he obtained on an LDS Church mission to win over rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun in an extensive interview.
He visited both sides of the Berlin Wall during the height of the Cold War, and he spent the better part of a year writing a book, "111 Days to Zion," that made him an expert on the Mormon exodus to the Great Salt Lake Valley and a favorite on the local speaking circuit.
Always, his friendly charm and disarming wit has been an asset, helping him gain entrance to sensitive places while other reporters stood outside fuming, their noses pressed to the window. It worked in Houston during the moon landing, where he found an old acquaintance who had become an astronaut and who took him to places off limits to the rest of the press corps.
It worked again as he covered a tragic plane crash and gained the confidence of grieving relatives. While other reporters were kept outside, he was allowed in with those relatives for a special briefing by airline officials.
At a prison riot, a rather bizarre incident in which an LDS Church basketball team was held hostage, he again was allowed in to speak with relatives of the hostages.
Later, after being sent on an assignment to the American Fork Training School for disabled children, he was allowed free reign to investigate complaints about substandard conditions. The newspaper later published his revealing reports in a booklet that was widely distributed among lawmakers and that led to many changes at the school.
As always, Deseret News readers were the beneficiaries of his skills.
Knight's name may be unfamiliar to many modern readers of the paper. That's because he has toiled in anonymity for the past 13 years, writing many of the unsigned editorials printed under the imposing title, "In our opinion." Yet for years he was the Deseret News science editor, one of the most visible figures at the paper, and he wrote a popular science column.
It's a position that still makes him marvel, considering his own lack of higher education.
"I fell in love with science fiction when I was young," he said. "That's probably where I got an interest in science. I wasn't aware that I was educating myself. I just liked to read."
The reading paid off. One of the highlights of his career came when Edward Teller, a Nobel Prize winner, ended an interview by asking Knight where he had received his physics degree.
"I was perversely pleased to mention a class at Jordan High," he said.
Actually, he could have mentioned the Midvale Public Library, as well. Knight is the first to admit that he wasn't like other kids his age. Not that he didn't enjoy sports and the games associated with youth. He just liked to read better.
"My mother used to worry I was going blind," he said. "She would get upset. We'd visit our cousins' house and they would be out playing and having a good time. I'd discovered a room where they had five years' worth of Reader's Digest magazines."
He spent countless hours at the Midvale library and decided to systematically read his way through the shelves. On Saturdays, he would check out the maximum number of books allowed, and by Monday he would have many of them read.
Unfortunately, the reading didn't help him win any scholarships. Like any good journalist, he had a healthy rebellious streak. He drew a thick line between required reading and pleasure reading.
"I was an indifferent student," he said. "I didn't want to read what the school wanted me to read. I read what I wanted to read."
His self-made skills nearly took him away from Deseret News readers. In the early 1960s, he won an international Rockefeller science writing fellowship at Columbia University's graduate school of journalism in New York City. While there, the ABC television network offered him the job of assistant to the science editor - a position that would have led to national prominence.
But he turned the job down out of a sense of loyalty to the paper and because it would have cut short his fellowship. ABC's loss was the Deseret News' gain.
As he looks back over his lifelong pursuit of education, Knight has few regrets, and he said it wasn't necessary to travel far to have the best experiences.
"One journalist said people always said he must meet a lot of interesting people in his job. He would answer, `Yeah, and they're all journalists.' " he said. "That's the way I feel. I've worked with enormously talented people at the Deseret News. It's been a nonstop learning experience for someone who likes to read."
As his fellow writers, editors and readers well know, that works both ways. Good luck, Hal. You'll be sorely missed.