I'm at an age where it's hard to remember much about my first night working at the Mirror, or even the date. The one thing I do recall clearly is the first person I met that early fall 1990 evening at the newspaper's old building on Green Avenue.
That person was Frank Polito.
Neil Rudel broke the news to me after the Penn State game on Saturday that Frank had passed away. He'd been battling illness for several years, but it was still a surprise to hear that Frank was gone - he just seemed so indestructible.
Maybe it's because Frank always seemed to be around. He left the Mirror several years ago. While he may have left physically, he was with us in spirit as there hasn't been a night since that his name hasn't come up or that we haven't relived stories about working with him.
And it always brings a laugh.
For example, his desk had its own unique filing system. Nothing was ever lost there, but just try to find it.
Frank was living proof that you can't judge a book by its cover. To the uninitiated, he could be seen as the crusty, cranky, cantankerous curmudgeon one might expect of someone who worked in this business for 40 years.
He didn't get the nickname "Salty" purely from his love of pretzels, which ranked right up there with cigars, Stan Musial and the St. Louis Cardinals.
Think of Lou Grant from popular 1970s television, and you've got a pretty good idea. Frank was no-nonsense. If you reported a game, you better be prepared: Frank had lots on his plate, and he didn't have time for you to add things up or give a sob story about "getting your doors blown in."
If you thought you were getting into sports journalism for the fun and the glory, he wouldn't hesitate to set you straight.
He'd see our creative kicker heads on the front of the sports section that sometimes took hours to develop, shake his head and say he had a better idea: "Steelers win."
Like Grant, however, Frank had a different side, too. He loved sports and loved the kids.
You didn't see Frank's byline or column a lot in my years at the Mirror. If you read the sports section, though, his fingerprints were all over it. He took the lion's share of the calls reporting local results, laid out the scoreboard page and holds a record for typing in Altoona Curve boxscores that, like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak, isn't likely to be broken.
His name didn't appear on any of it, and he was proud of that. He was a humble guy who didn't need the spotlight.
But when you'd see me doing a big high school playoff breakdown or one of John Hartsock's beautifully crafted columns, or all the writers we could devote to Penn State football, that was at least partially possible because Frank was willing to stay in the office and do all the little, anonymous stuff.
I always knew I could rely on Frank, and not just to get the job done. He was a source of great encouragement over the years. He told it like it was, even when you didn't want to hear it. I remember a lot of times he'd tell newcomers they should have been teachers. When I told him I should have been a teacher, he shot back, "No, Salty, you were made for this job."
That meant a lot.
In the last couple of years, I got to spend time away from the job with Frank, sitting on his porch, talking about his Cardinals, McGwire, Pujols, Pitt football, Altoona High sports, and I also got to know his family through knowing him.
You can tell a lot about someone from those who they are around the most, and Frank's wife, Betsy, and his sons, Matt and Mark, are among the nicest people I know.
I've been told I'm going to be just like Frank Polito when I get close to retirement. I take that as a compliment.
Cmor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 946-7440.