Dallas Voice has grown in page count, readership and scope. But the memories of those early days live on for one longtime staff member.
My first day of work at the Dallas Voice was Monday, June 6, 1988. And when I stepped into that office at 2525 Wycliff, I stepped into a whole new world.
Dallas Voice had just marked its fourth anniversary a couple of weeks before I started, and the staff and office space were both small, especially compared to today.
The office then included a front room, with Robert Moore’s office to the right. Down the hall, Dennis Vercher’s office was on the left, and Don Ritz’s office was on the right. The hall then opened into the production room, with a camera room in one back corner and a bathroom in the other corner.
My desk was right up front, the first desk anyone saw when they walked in. Also in that front room, right behind my desk, was the desk of Dennis, the advertising sales rep’s desk. I am ashamed to say that I cannot remember his last name, but I remember what he looked like. He was about my height and slim, but muscular. He had red hair that he kept in a buzz cut and a bushy, droopy red horseshoe mustache, the kind that makes me think of leathermen or bears.
He left before too long and was replaced by Tim Self. Tim and I had never met before he came to work for the Voice, but we had a connection. We were very close to the same age, and his best friends in high school had been two of my closest friends in college.
David Armstrong was the man in production back then. He was tall and slender, very quiet and always dressed in black.
But for me, the heart of Dallas Voice comprised four people: Robert Moore, Don Ritz, Dennis Vercher and Heda Quote.
Robert and Don, of course, were the owners. They and a third partner — William Marberry — had started the Voice four years earlier. I never knew Mr. Marberry; Robert and Don had already bought him out by the time I started.
Don was the quiet one. He was the one who kept all the finances on track, and he was the only one who had a computer on his desk when I first started — one of those ancient Apple machines with the green words and numbers on a black screen.
Don loved to travel, especially to Germany. I think he actually took lessons to learn to speak German. He also played the piano, and one of his greatest treasures, as I remember it, was the baby grand piano he bought for his home.
Don resigned as controller and retired from his day-to-day duties at Dallas Voice in 1998, but retained his ownership stake in the company until his death in January 2001.
Robert was the advertising manager, more outgoing and talkative than Don. He was the one who sold the ads that brought in the money Don managed.
Dallas Voice may have been a "niche" publication, but I knew that Robert had a vision for Dallas Voice, and he was always pushing to reach outside that niche and pull in mainstream advertisers, bringing in the money that would allow the Voice to grow.
Robert loved to travel, too. I remember one year, he went to Venice for vacation, and when he came back, he had gifts for all of us. He gave me a small ceramic mask, painted in black and white with a court jester’s hat.
I was amazed; I had never had a boss who had come back from vacation with gifts for the staff.
While I always found Don rather intimidating — you know, they always say it’s the quiet ones you have to watch — Robert had — and has — a playful side that never failed to make me laugh.
I remember those weeks when we would have an especially large issue. Tensions would mount as we worked furiously to make our deadline, and as could be expected, tempers sometimes frayed. But then Robert would walk into the production room, pop a Petula Clark CD in the boombox, and insist that all of us join in on singing along to "Downtown."
(Sometimes he substituted Doris Day for Petula Clark, and at Christmas, it was the Barbra Streisand Christmas album.)
Robert became sole owner of the Voice in 2001 when Don died. He had already launched a statewide glossy magazine, Qtexas, in 2000, and in 2004, he bought out The Texas Triangle, another LGBT newspaper, and merged it with Qtexas to create TXT Newsmagazine, which was in publication throughout 2005.
At the same time he bought the Triangle, Robert acquired the Lambda Pages LGBT directory. In 2005, he headed up the effort to retool Lambda Pages and launch the new print and online version of the directory, which in 2008 was renamed the Dallas Voice Yellow Pages.
Next in line in the Dallas Voice hierarchy was Dennis, the editor. He was a total perfectionist who didn’t want a single page of the paper to leave our office until he had checked it over. It made him a great editor, but it also made for some long nights on production days.
We had a kind of running joke in the office: As the hour grew late on a Thursday — the day we sent the paper to press — someone would ask Dennis how much longer he thought it would be until the paper was ready. He would say, "About an hour," and we would know it would be two, maybe three hours at least.
I think Dennis is probably the prototype for "multi-faceted." He came to the newspaper industry from a career in radio, and in high school and college, he had been a champion debater. He had a deep love and respect for both the written and the spoken word, and for the power of language to change the world.
He also had a dry wit and dark humor that could catch you off-guard and leave you laughing at the most inopportune of times over the most not-funny topics, like the fact that he had AIDS.
When I first started at the Voice, we didn’t have desktop publishing; we printed out copy in long "galleys" and then used Exacto knives and hot wax to arrange the copy on the page. I remember once, I was trimming down a galley and managed to, once again, slice off the end of my thumb.
As I was bandaging it up and trying to stop the bleeding, I joked, "Ya’ll watch out. I am dangerous with sharp instruments." Dennis immediately shot back, "No, I am the one you have to watch. My blood is deadly."
Dennis was a total workaholic, fighting through the ravages of AIDS to keep on working, even when most people would have given up. I remember times when he endured extensive lung surgery, and we thought he would never leave the hospital. But he did, coming to work for weeks afterward in a wheelchair and with an IV drip.
But in early 2006, Dennis was diagnosed with lymphoma. Although he fought as hard as ever, the combination of HIV and cancer proved too much for him, and he died in September that year.
And then there was Rex Ackerman, fondly known as Heda Quote. "Heda" was one of the Voice’s original columnists; he knew the dirt on everyone, and he had no qualms in sharing it all each Friday in his gossip column.
Rex had a fulltime job with Southwestern Bell, and he came in to the Voice offices one night a week, usually on a Wednesday. He would sit down at the computer in Don’s office and type up his column for the week, and the next morning, I would go in and read through it, cleaning up the spelling and grammar and punctuation. It was a job I enjoyed, because it meant I got to read the dirt first.
But "Heda" was so much more than a gossip queen. In fact, I think the reason he got away with telling some of the tales he did was because he was also tireless in his efforts to raise funds for people with AIDS and the organizations that were springing up to help them.
Heda started out with two friends, Butchella and Louella Lye; the three of them together called themselves The Nasty Nymphos.
They would get dolled up in truly bad drag — full beards, hairy chests and all — and stage a show to raise money, not for themselves but for some other person or organization. The three of them started the Red Dress Party specifically for that purpose.
Butchella and Louella succumbed rather early to AIDS; I never met either of them. But Rex carried on, and his quick wit and willingness to help meant he was always in demand, especially when it came to emceeing a show.
Rex’s declining health eventually forced him to retire from Southwestern Bell and to retire the Heda Quote gossip column. He did come to work part-time for the Voice as distribution manager for a while until his death in May 1998.
Today, 21 years have come and gone since that June day when I walked into a new job and a new world. A lot of people have come and gone since that staff of six over on Wycliff, including me.
I left in March 2001 to go back to the world of the mainstream news industry, but I quickly found out that once you’ve had your dream job, nothing else comes close to be as satisfying. So when Robert offered me the chance to come back in May 2004, I jumped on it without hesitation.
Advertising Director Leo Cusimano, who joined the staff as a part-time graphic artist in 1993, recently gave me a list of Dallas Voice and Voice publishing employees, past and present. There are 55 people listed as past employees, and that list doesn’t include Dennis, the ad rep who sat behind me those first few months I worked for the paper, or Jimmy Davenport, who replaced David Armstrong as graphic artist.
Also on Leo’s list is a section called "Gone." It includes the names of 11 former employees who have passed away. In addition to Don, Dennis, Rex and Tim, they are Laura McIntosh, John Bode, David Armstrong, Tom Greco, Steve Tracy, Tracy Silverburg and Alan Gelman.
Then rounding out Leo’s list are the 15 current Dallas Voice employees. You’ll find our photos on pages 66 and 67 in this issue.
A lot of things other than the staff have changed in the last 21 years.
Dallas Voice is now housed in much larger, much nicer offices on the third floor of 4145 Travis St., and instead of Don’s Jurassic Era Apple, sleek new Macs sit on every desk, each one connected to the Internet.
Dallas Voice is read around the world each week through our Web site, DallasVoice.com. From the 28 or so pages a week we used to publish, we have grown to issues like this one with 124 pages. We have an online blog and the DV Yellow Pages and special sections.
The kinds of stories we are covering each week have expanded, too.
I remember one of the first "big" stories I wrote was about whether the Dallas Gay Alliance would change its name to include the word "lesbian" (it did). Now, we are writing about how many states have legalized same-sex marriage.
Back then, it was a triumph to get someone on the Dallas City Council — other than Lori Palmer — to return our calls. Now, we get regular comments from Mayor Tom Leppert and from state legislators and even U.S. Congress members. In 2008, Sen. Hillary Clinton — one of the Democratic frontrunners in the presidential race — did an interview with Dallas Voice.
Today, Dallas Voice carries wedding announcements and anniversary announcements and birth announcements, something we never even thought of 21 years ago.
But one topic of coverage hasn’t changed: AIDS and its impact on our community. Today the coverage is less about the protesters in the streets, demanding access to even the most basic of health care, and more about new, life-extending medications, about the changing face of HIV, progress toward a vaccine.
But still the death toll continues to rise, and still AIDS advocates and activists are fighting for every last penny in services, medications and research.
Because of AIDS, that "Big Four" from my first days on the Voice staff is now down to one: Robert. He is the boss who has to shoulder all the responsibility of running the company that he used to share with a business partner, and who still cares about his employees and his community.
And he probably still sings along with Petula Clark, even though we don’t have a boombox in the production room any more.
For all the people who have come and gone, all the changes in the community we cover, one thing has remained constant for me: 21 years later, Dallas Voice is still the dream job that let’s me be who I am and do something for my community, and get a paycheck for doing it.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 22, 2009.
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