Five decades later: a Q&A with a Beacon alumni

We set out on a very important mission with only one goal: to be transported back in time. To a time when typewriter ink and teach-ins about the Vietnam war were more prevalent than cell phones. To accomplish this, we talked to the 1968 Beacon Associate Editor, Mark Olshaker, to see what everyone’s favorite student publication was like back in the day. 


Responses and questions have been edited for length and clarity 


Q: What was The Beacon like when you were at Wilson?

A: The Beacon really was kind of a fixture of the school and I think almost everybody read it. It really was a community of like-minded people. I mean, most of the people I associated with—some of them I’m still friendly with—were all on The Beacon staff. And they were really smart people and really dedicated. You’ve got to remember, this was the 60s. So we got fairly radical in those days. I mean, we would criticize the administration and criticize what was going on in the city and occasionally, write anti-Vietnam war or pro-civil rights editorials and op-eds. Or, sometimes we would write editorials complaining about the food in the cafeteria, or, you know, whatever it happened to be. So, it really ran the gamut.


Q: Where did you get your funding from?

A: We had a big subscription drive at the beginning of the year to get people to support it. [For] everybody who subscribed, the issue would be delivered to their homeroom every month. I think it was $1 and a quarter a year in those days, which wasn’t a huge amount of money, but it wasn’t insignificant. And then the subscription drive would be started off in the fall with a play in the auditorium. We would put on a play written by the seniors called “The Beacon Play.” I wrote it in my senior year because I was considered the playwright of the group and the whole staff was in it. I wrote a take-off on the musical “Damn Yankees.” This was before the days of social media and all that stuff—your peers may be too sophisticated for that kind of thing now, but it was a big tradition in those days, and everybody looked forward to it.


Q: Who was The Beacon adviser?

A: The journalism class in those days was taught by a woman named Regis Boyle. She was one of the few PhDs in the school, and she was kind of famous throughout the system. She was a single woman and drove a big Cadillac. She was a real battleax in every sense of the word. We all called her “Doc,” and once you were allowed to call her that, you knew you’d been accepted. She was kind of stoutly built. She had a slight Southern accent. She was tough as nails. But she was also an incredible journalism teacher. She ruled The Beacon with an iron hand, she expected the best of you at all times, and her two watchwords were “accuracy” and “reliability.” I’ll never forget those, no matter how many decades it is, after that, and she demanded both. And she really was very strict and rigid again, and conservative in what she wanted. But she really taught journalism principles very well. Every year, we were medalists in the Columbia Scholastic Press Association convention, which she took the junior staff to every year in New York.


Q: What was the physical process of writing the paper like?

A: Everything was typed in those days. And I’m trying to remember, but I guess we must have typed using carbon paper so that we could have more than one copy. So you know, when I started out as a writer, I had a regular typewriter. So in those days, you either had to retype or literally cut and paste. We used a lot of scissors and tape in those days.  And we put the whole paper together on a Monday and Tuesday from after school until as long into the night as it took. Then we would take it out to a printer somewhere in Northeast, I don’t remember exactly where it was, but we could see the paper through from beginning to end.


Q: What did you take away from your experience on The Beacon?

A: The principles I learned on The Beacon really did set me in very good stead from then on. I worked for the Hatchet, the newspaper at GW, which I eventually became the Arts Editor of. After college, I worked for the Washington Bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a while during the end of the Vietnam War and the Nixon impeachment Watergate scandal. Then I became a freelancer and a novelist and nonfiction book author and a documentary television producer. I’ve published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Time, Fortune, Foreign Affairs and other publications. But the principles that I learned; the sense of responsibility; the need to be as accurate, objective, and truthful as you can—I learned all that on The Beacon.