Apr 19, 2012

In which I meet my journalistic doppelganger

Two Andrew McGills, both journalists, a generation separated.
"Two people with the same name meeting each other and shaking hands" by Midjourney

Last week, I got an email from a man named Jerry Green in California. “I saw your byline in a newspaper out here,” he wrote. “Are you the Andy McGill I knew 30 years ago working at the Detroit News?”

Unfortunately, I’m not. This Andrew McGill met Jerry at least six years before I was born, and I’ve never been to Detroit. I wrote and told him that with regrets. But the idea of another Andrew McGill in journalism fascinated me. What did he do at the Detroit News? What kind of reporter or editor was he? Did he have dashing good looks?

Jerry wrote back with more information.

I'm Andrew McGill, a product builder who turns delightful ideas into real things.

I used to make stuff at The Atlantic and POLITICO. Now I build things with people like you.

“Andy McGill, back in the early 1980s, was an assistant managing editor at The Detroit News, for which I worked in the sports department from 1963 until retirement in 2004 and actually for which I still work as a freelance contributor.

Andy was a very good guy… supportive and passionate about journalism. He left the paper, I’m guessing, around 1990 or so.”

My interest was piqued. A Google search of “Andrew McGill Detroit News” didn’t turn up much – a few bylined articles in the News dating back to the late ‘80s and early '90s. And he wasn’t listed on the paper’s website.

But a Lexis-Nexis search did reveal one Andrew Ralph McGill, now 67, living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Not only did this alternate Andrew McGill share my name, he shared my middle initial. (Mine is Robert.) The ages matched up, and I could see an old newspaperman moving to Ann Arbor to retire.

It had to be him.

I called the number. Got a voicemail. Halfway through leaving the message – “Hi, I’m looking for Andrew McGill, and my name is, uh, also Andrew McGill…” – Andy picked up.

He had just walked in the house and heard me leaving my message. If he was surprised that a 23-year-old was calling him out of the blue from Pennsylvania, he didn’t show it.

Andy McGill was born in Michigan, but his moved family moved to Florida when still a boy. That’s where he picked up journalism, writing sports for small papers and eventually working his way up to the Miami Herald. But Michigan called back to him, and in the early 1970s, he returned to the Great Lakes State as part of a team that intended to turn the Detroit News around.

There he stayed for the next 20 years. You could hear the pride in his voice. He left when the Gannett Co. bought the newspaper, briefly moving to California to head Automobile Magazine. As he put it, “I looked around, and everyone at the 10 or so jobs better than mine were all my age. They’d retire when I’d retire.”

So he headed back to Michigan and settled in Ann Arbor, teaching journalism at the University of Michigan. Even though he’s fully retired today, he still teaches a few web classes.

He remembered Jerry Green and had plenty of compliments. (Mr. Green, apparently, is one of the few sportswriters who has been to every Super Bowl.) He also remembered The Morning Call, saying he read some interesting coverage when he had reporters in Pennsylvania for the 1980 presidential election. And we had a good chat about what we’d like to see survive in journalism.

I gave him Jerry Green’s email and left him with a promise to show him around Allentown if he ever swung by. Jerry wrote me later to say Andy had immediately reached out and that they planned to talk soon.

What an affirming conversation. Long before I was born, Andrew Ralph McGill was paving the way in newspapers. What has come before will come again. More importantly, it was proof that you can still pick up a phone, dial a stranger and have a good conversation.

Thanks, Andy. Nice to meet you.

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