When a 96-year-old typewriter repairman named Manson Whitlock died the other day, it made national news. The Washington Post carried word of his death as soon as it was announced and The New York Times accorded his obituary prominent space in its Sunday edition. Even the small-city daily near my home in Central Florida told of his passing.
As someone whose work often deals with building and protecting the reputations of people and businesses, I was fascinated that the conclusion of this particular human life should be accorded such widespread attention. The fact that it did holds several lessons on what it takes to build and maintain a reputation deserving of such notice.
Part of the reason for this attention is doubtless due to the fact that Whitlock was part of a quickly fading profession that was once ubiquitous; therefore, there was an historic aspect to it. It's probably difficult for anyone younger than 40 to recall a time when desktop computers were not the dominant office machine. Those of us with longer memories recall that offices could be very noisy places, filled with the sound of clacking typewriters – electric and manual – and the aroma of Liquid Paper or White-Out correction fluid being brushed over misspellings and first thoughts.
Whitlock was a living reminder of this period. He kept his repair shop near the Yale University campus going until this past June when health matters finally drove him into retirement.
A second reason is probably the fact that Whitlock serviced an elite clientele of students, academics and writers over the course of more than 80 years. So he was well-regarded by people who tend to voice their opinions on such matters.
He had been selling and repairing typewriters in New Haven, Conn., since 1930, and his customers included authors William Manchester, Robert Penn Warren, Archibald MacLeish, John Hersey and Erich Segal. If you made your living telling stories through a machine that was built to last a lifetime – and most manual typewriters can easily last several – you develop a certain fondness for the contraption and for the person who can keep it tuned.
I can never think of a time from my early career when I saw a fellow reporter or colleague complain about his typewriter the way I have seen computer-induced murderous rages when a screen freezes or when several hours of work is mysteriously converted back into electrons. By contrast, the worst failure of a typewriter seemed to be when it got too dusty and a key would be slow to retract.
But a third and, I think, most important reason his life was celebrated in newspapers far and wide is simply that he did his job well and he did it reliably for an extraordinarily long time. If this were not true, the other factors wouldn't matter, and his story wouldn't have received such widespread attention.
It can take a long time to build a reputation. It usually requires years of consistent, disciplined performance and for reliable third parties to attest to your work. This process may sound as quaint as a typewriter's clacking to some ears, especially when you consider that a reputation today may be seriously damaged with just a few 140-character tweets, but it's true nonetheless.
Maybe it's because of my own fondness for typewriters: I own several that I still use. And maybe it's because I like a man who reportedly attributed his longevity to "cheap scotch and strong tobacco." But I was very glad to have read of Manson Whitlock's life's work, and I hope those people who also read his obituary around the country take a moment to think about why it was such news.