After many of its employees take early retirement, The Star shines a little less brightly.

Kansas City Strip 

After many of its employees take early retirement, The Star shines a little less brightly.

Freedom, oh freedom: The Star's Mike Hendricks can't seem to let up on Johnson County for dissing Martin Luther King. On January 15, Hendricks scolded commissioners for not closing county offices and instead treating the day "as if ... this was one of those second-string holidays that doesn't matter all that much. This seems like questionable public relations for a predominantly white county known for excluding minorities not all that long ago." He followed up two days later with a recap of the whipping he'd endured for daring to suggest that the whitebread county celebrate the civil rights movement. But we think Hendricks might just have been expressing misplaced frustration over the fact that his own benevolent employer didn't give workers a day off in honor of the dream, either.

Not to worry -- plenty of Hendricks' colleagues now have lots of days off. Last week The Star threw a bash at the Doubletree Hotel for the 51 employees who've taken early retirement buyouts -- they got a year's salary or two-and-a-half weeks' pay for each year of service, whichever was higher. The exit packages helped trim the payroll at the end of a year during which the paper's total advertising declined by 5.3 percent, "tying it with the Charlotte Observer for the worst drop among Knight Ridder's fourteen largest newspapers," reports the Kansas City Business Journal.

The departures left remaining Star columnists weepy. Writing "with an enormous sense of loss," editorial page editor Rich Hood called editorial writer (and 46-year employee) Robert Sigman "a classy gentleman I am proud to call my friend," while assistant business editor Rick Babson moaned that "years and years and years of Kansas City knowledge and countless stories walked out the doors" with his coworkers. We only wish Jerry Heaster would have joined them; instead he used the occasion to write about how he was now "the official newsroom geezer." But we already knew that.

Despite some behind-the-scenes grousing that Knight Ridder's bottom-line mentality has left the newsroom feeling like a Jakartan shoe factory (while leaving a local news hole only slightly larger than the obits), Westle Woods, a prepress worker who started at the paper 43 years ago -- back when the type "was still all hot metal" -- says the buyout was a great deal. "I was 63 the week it started," he says, and he didn't even consider waiting another two years. "I said, 'No way -- I'm going to go.'" Woods made up the paper's front page when Harry Truman died and "was there the day that John Kennedy was assassinated and everything went crazy." He also looks back fondly on the year the paper won the Pulitzer Prize. "I was involved in a number of big happenings over the years. I do reflect on that nowadays. I'm an old man."

Not as old, however, as photographer Talis Bergmanis, who says the only way he could afford to take the buyout was to plan on a post-Star freelance career. "I'll be knocking on doors of agencies around here," he says. Although Bergmanis' tenure doesn't officially end until March 1, we caught up with him at his home, where he was relaxing before retiring. "As part of the package they don't pay you for your vacation time, so I'm taking my four weeks now."

But didn't the buyouts leave another celebrated Star retiree, society editor Laura Hockaday, feeling screwed? Hockaday also received a goodbye serenade from Hood when she left last summer -- just a short six months before the paper made its go-away-now offer to longtime employees. No hard feelings, says the ever-gracious Hockaday. "I went to New York and lived for two months and had a great time. It would have been nice to have the money, but money's not everything. This was the first fall I'd had away from the job -- fall is the busiest time of the year [on the society page], and for 38 years I could never be away in the fall. I'd planned my life and went ahead with it and wasn't sorry that I'd done it when I did."

The paper might want to consider hiring Hockaday back, however, if for no other reason than to get the facts about its own celebrities correct. This month's edition of The Star's internal newsletter makes note of employees' January birthdays -- including one for Helene Christopher Jr.

Inside sources connected with the newsletter's production deny that "Helene" really is a secret nickname around the office for the paper's highly read gabmeister, Hearne Christopher Jr.

"Man, oh man," Christopher says (insightfully zeroing in on the nature of the error). "Sounds like somebody found out about my sex-change operation before I did."

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