Local & State Voices

To the outside world, he was unknown

At 10:52 Saturday night June 28, a journalist you've probably never heard of, Roger Mikeal, pushed the final button on his last story before he retired. It was the Regional Briefs, and – of course – he made deadline.

Mikeal, 62, is probably the least-known significant journalist in both Carolinas. For 25 years he headed The Charlotte Observer's night copy desk. Wednesdays through Sundays, his were probably the last newsroom eyes to read everything on the front page.

To be a copy editor is to work in obscurity. Most readers don't even know they exist, although the Observer has roughly 20 nowadays. Copy editors read stories after reporters and other editors have finished or, at least, think they've finished. Copy editors correct typing, spelling, grammar, punctuation, math and fact errors. They are not proofreaders, who used to read things already set into type. (One memorable proofreading goof at the Observer failed to notice the dropped “R” in an ad for “knit shirts.”) Copy editors look for succinct and precise language, fairness and balance. They extract redundancies (“set a new record”) and notice if pertinent facts should be there but aren't. They write headlines, capturing the essence of an article in a few, accurate words.

A great copy editor, as Mikeal is, calls on a mental treasury of remembered fact. When I interviewed Mikeal (pronounced “MI-kel”) this week, he studded the conversation with allusions to Plato, Camus and Bach as well as these: “A peanut isn't a nut, it's a legume,” and “It's important to know that Harley-Davidson has a hyphen in it, as does Mercedes-Benz.”

It was Mikeal's job, in other words, to try to perfect human fallibility. He did it for decades with compassion, an even temperament and as much integrity as it is possible to find in a single human being.

Loving books and facts

His life story is classically Piedmont. He grew up in Caldwell County with parents who worked in the cotton mills, married at 16 and never finished high school. Mikeal grew up loving books and even poring through some encyclopedias in the back of a seventh-grade classroom.

But it isn't the trivia – such as knowing the difference between Stanly County and Stanley, a town in Gaston County – that made Mikeal such a widely respected (and yes, occasionally feared) newsroom presence. It was his relentless insistence on fairness, as a supervisor and as an editor.

If you worked for him, you knew how hard he tried to treat everyone equitably. Even more important was his dedication to fairness in news coverage. He noticed – sometimes annoyingly if you were a reporter on deadline – when a story needed comment from someone to be fair, or when seemingly minor words hinted at bias. Consider abortion. Under Mikeal, the Observer chose to use the neutral “anti-abortion” and “abortion rights supporters” rather than the baggage-laden “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” He insisted the adjective should be the proper “Democratic” – not “Democrat.” “It's just a small thing, but it's an effort to make the paper more neutral,” he said.

Mikeal paid attention to those things, large and small. When the newsroom gathered to celebrate his retirement, the traditional, fake front page carried a piece by a one-time Observer copy editor, Fred Vultee, now teaching at Wayne State in Detroit.

‘A thing done well'

Vultee wrote, “John Updike already wrote my favorite Roger Mikeal story, except that he wrote it when Ted Williams retired. What Updike remembered was not necessarily how Williams played in the spotlight, but how he played ‘on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill.' ”

I tried to get an audio clip of Mikeal, one last time, explaining why it's proper to say “an N.C.” or “an S.C.” rather than “a N.C.” or “a S.C.” (It's because, in your mind, you say “en-cee” or “ess-cee.”) I goofed, and recorded nothing.

In the end, I concluded the fates knew best. He isn't a multimedia, YouTube kind of journalist. He devoted his career to the printed word. And for decades readers benefited, even if they never knew about Roger Mikeal.