The word Maureen O'Donnell used to describe Frank Sugano, in Sunday's typically spot-on obituary of the Sun-Times copy editor, who died last month, is "meticulous," and I have a story that illustrates why she used that word.
When I was hired by the Sun-Times—along with Patricia Smith, the renown poet—our job was to be the staff of The Adviser, a midweek publication intended to give practical household tips to readers: how to clean your garage, how to grow a better lawn, stuff like that.
I wrote a story, I'd say in late 1987. about what to do if you get a speeding ticket. It began something like this:
Everyone has had the experience. You're driving along, not a care in the world, then glance in the rearview mirror, notice the flashing red and blue Mars lights, feel that sinking in your gut while your mind grapples with one thought: Busted.
Frank Sugano called me over—this was before email remember. He was concerned, he said, about a word usage.
Which word? I asked.
"Busted," he said. Isn't that drug terminology?
I gazed steadily at him. I was 26 remember.
"What word would you suggest instead?" I asked.
Frank thought a moment.
"Caught," Sugano said.
"Caught," I repeated, without emotion. I gazed at him some more, assessing my options. I didn't realize it, but he was just a few years senior to myself, having left the Tokyo branch of Stars and Stripes two years earlier. Erring on the side of prudence, I told him, slowly and measuredly, that I thought "busted" works fine in this context. But he was the copy editor, and of course he should do whatever he thinks right.
When the next Adviser came out, my story was on the front page with a headline, in big letters: "BUSTED!" I'll have to dig in the basement and see if I can find it. But I still remember, 30 years later, how, with palpating heart, I had flipped to the story itself, to see if the second paragraph had been changed to "Caught."
It hadn't. "Busted" remained, despite Frank Sugano's concerns. A good copy editor knows when to raise a question, and knows when to yield the field, and Frank Sugano was a good copy editor.