The persistent pursuit of plaques

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, March 29, 2014

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I majored in English in college for one reason, and one reason only.

I wanted to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

That’s why, after earning a bachelor’s degree in English and fielding exactly no job offers, I went to graduate school to get a master’s degree.

I thought “English professor” would be a good role until the royalties from my books started rolling in. A pipe, one of those jackets with patches on the sleeves, and the adoration of hordes of sincere freshmen would come with the territory.

I would retire, of course, as soon as I got a movie deal. Age 30 sounded reasonable.

I lasted a semester-and-a-half before I:

1. signed up for too many hard classes;
2. came down with “cedar fever” and
3. realized I didn’t exactly know what a “metaphor” was.

I dropped out, took a job as a sports writer and launched a colorful newspaper career. The metaphor thing has never been a problem – I do know at least 10 different ways to say “touchdown” – but I’m assuming it’s why the people from Stockholm have never called about the Nobel thing.

Also, I think they like for you to have actually written a book.

Apparently MI (metaphor ignorance) is to winning the Nobel Prize much as color blindness is to being a pilot – kind of a deal-breaker. I’m told when you’re flying an airplane, it can be really, really important to know if a particular light on your instrument panel is red or green.

And I’m told that some of the books people win Nobel Prizes for are just chock-full of metaphors. I don’t know. I mostly read non-fiction now.

This came up because I just sent off the last round of entries for all the newspaper contests the Messenger enters each year.

Those plaques you see on the wall in our office don’t just show up in the mail. Every year, someone has to pore through last year’s papers, decide what they think was our best work, and send it off to a poor, hapless volunteer contest chairman somewhere.

This person, who has somehow managed to talk a group of people into judging (they’re usually college journalism professors, another newspaper association or recent parolees), has to take in all the entries, make sure they followed the rules, organize them and get them to the judges. Then they have to rattle the judges’ cages a few times to make sure they do their job.

They pick them up, compile a list of winners and get plaques made to hand to gleeful journalists at a press convention some weeks or months in the future.

En route to being president of a press association, contest chairman is one of the jobs everyone has to do – and it’s one most people hate.

When I was very young, I had no idea winning awards was so much work. I thought honors just came to you. I seriously believed that scholarships, Pulitzer prizes, Grand Champion Steers – you’re just doing your thing, and they walk up and hand you a prize.

My first plaque broke me of that idea.

My dad never pushed me to play sports, but he did encourage me to enter the Optimist Club’s annual oratorical (speech, that is) contest. Perhaps that was because he’d listened to me talk, non-stop, since birth.

I think I was in the seventh grade when I decided to make him proud. I wrote a speech on their approved topic (I do not remember what it was, but it likely had something to do with being a good citizen) and he typed it for me, his fingers flying over the keys of the Remington manual he used.

I committed it to memory (mostly) and on the evening of the contest, put on my suit, went with my proud parents to the back room of Turner’s Cafe and hosted a flock of butterflies in my midsection until it was time to speak.

I finished second. The only other kid in the contest, a fifth-grader named Robin Kral, did a much better job and easily won first.

For years, I proudly displayed the second-place plaque in my bedroom, proving that old adage that “no one remembers who finished first” (or something like that).

I’ve won a few first-place plaques since then, but I’m not any prouder of them than I am of that second-place (out of two) in the Optimist Oratorical Contest.

A few years later, Robin won the National Spelling Bee. I like to think I helped season him for that triumph. He’s now a noted entomologist.

I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but I can’t imagine what it is.

Bob Buckel is editorial director of the Wise County Messenger.

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