By Lara Pickford-Gordon
Vernon Khelawan, our ‘Frankly Speaking’ columnist, joined the media in 1959. This was after one year of trying to earn a living as a teacher at St Charles’ High School, Tunapuna. He was not “cut out” to be a teacher, recognising early he lacked the “patience” required.
The decision to join the teaching profession was “a matter of getting a job and helping your parents”; he was the eldest of four living with his parents on St John’s Road, Tunapuna. After leaving Fatima College, his father made it known that after educating him at $16/term he was not going to find job for him.
While teaching was not his “calling”, journalism was, and over the period of 60 years, he established himself working in the Trinidad Guardian, Evening News, Trinidad Express, the Mirror, and overseas in St Croix, US Virgin Islands. There were a few stints in the private sector but he always returned to writing stories while raising a family with his wife of over 50 years, Joan. They have four children: Kevin, Kerina, Kendra-Ann and Kendall.
Listening to him talk about his career is a glimpse back in time to the days of typewriters, lead plates and colourful newsroom characters. The production process may have changed but Khelawan maintains journalists should uphold the tenet of accuracy.
Khelawan was able to secure a job at the Trinidad Publishing Company, publisher of the Trinidad Guardian, after approaching his neighbour Felix Basanta, then personnel manager of the company. At short notice he was invited to a job interview with Jack Barker, one of the English editors of the Guardian. Barker had a reputation for his scathing critiques of newsroom articles he felt were not up to standard.
Khelawan was given a copy of the Guardian to read and instructed to spot the error. He read the story several times but could not find any grammatical errors. The story was on David Rockefeller, the governor of New York passing through Trinidad on his way to South America.
Barker lectured him about accuracy being the first commandment of the journalist. The error in the article was in the first name of the governor— Nelson. David Rockefeller was the head of the Chase Manhattan Bank. Khelawan was hired at a salary of $100 monthly.
He was assigned to work with Len Chonsing, the Sunday Guardian news editor who put him under the mentorship of Lennox Raphael. He was assigned to the Magistrates Court.
Khelawan said he enjoyed it because he could also contribute to the column ‘In the Courts Today by McGee’. “It was a jokey thing, the lighter side of the court—somebody cuss somebody on Charlotte Street,” he said. Although intended to be humorous, he said the facts had to be correct. It was six months before he got a byline for his court reports.
“In those days you looking to make a dollar; you not looking for fame, to establish yourself or anything you just glad you have a job,” Khelawan said. He moved from writing to being a “stone sub”, making corrections to the “proof”. “…the stone sub does not have to read every line, he will check the headlines and make sure everything in order if a story is too long,” he explained. Khelawan recalled a proofed page reaching his desk in which three cuts had to be made. He did not make all the changes thinking when it reached the linotype operations “they will fix that”.
He learnt a valuable lesson that day after ‘Smithy’, the foreman in charge of the linotype operations, a known ‘cuss bud’, knocked the lead on the linotype machine and told him, “that’s lead…when I want six lines, that is what I want…when lead could bend, four could work”.
Khelawan said he learnt a lot from different people who took pride in their craft, from the different topics he covered and from sub-editing articles.
From senior sub-editor, Khelawan moved on to Assistant Night Editor, Trinidad Mirror, and as Sales Promotion Assistant, Caroni Ltd. He moved on to Managing Editor of a journal in St Thomas, Virgin Islands 1967–1969.
Khelawan has practised journalism in St Croix, and Antigua, including a stint 1975–1976 as News Director and anchor at WSVI, TV Channel 8.
He returned to Trinidad in 1977 and got a job with Trinidad Express as Assistant Sunday/Features Editor. A lot happened over his many years and while he cannot recall everything, he remembers some highlights of his career: being the first staff reporter at the Mirror to cover university news; setting up of the Arima Bureau for the Guardian to which he became the Bureau Chief; a trip to South Korea; and being part of the media corps at the White House to question US President Bill Clinton. At the time, Prime Minister Patrick Manning and other CARICOM heads were in Washington to meet with the President.
President Clinton asked the US media to give their foreign colleagues a chance to ask a question. Khelawan got to ask one of two allowed.
He wrote the exclusive story of the merging of the TT Air Services, which serviced the domestic airbridge, and BWIA, his most memorable. It was breaking news and a page had to be redone at the Sunday Express.
Khelawan said he did not do much political reporting and never had any “big fall out” with anyone because of something he had written but there were people who got “vex”. Although the report was accurate, “they will try and dress it up and fix it up and say you didn’t have to do that”.
What advice would he give to young journalists today? “Stick to the facts. Forget all the hyperbole and all the ole talk. Social media, you have to be very careful about that. Remember everybody is on social media so someone can deliberately set you up…you have to verify your facts,” he said.
Khelawan once put the wrong position for someone in a story because he could not remember and called the newsroom “they say ‘yes’ he’s so and so but it wasn’t correct”.
He got called into the “cold room” of Chonsing while sub-editing at the Guardian for spelling “criminal” with two “l’s” in a headline.
Being a reporter is not for everyone; there can be days of drudgery. Khelawan went to work one morning and ended up at the scene of a fire. “I smelling smokey, all my white shirt dirty but I have to do the story, after I went home and change.” Khelawan had found his calling.