There are people you meet in life who make an indelible impression, who change the way you look at yourself and your world. For me, Jules Field was one of those people. If I could sum up what he taught me in two words, it would be “plastic fruit.”
I first met Jules during a job interview in 1998, a year after he bought Aquatics International and brought it into what was then the Leisure Publications family, which included our sister publication Pool & Spa News. I’d had my interview with the editor and it seemed to be going well. Then she paused, took a deep breath, and said with some concern, “Well, it’s time to meet our publisher, Jules.”
He was 82, and he still had a discerning mind, I was warned. He knew what and who he liked and could be cranky, dismissive, even a bit mean. In short, if he didn’t like me, I wouldn’t get the job.
At first,couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Here was this skinny old guy sitting behind a desk, all bushy white eyebrows, beard and spectacles. He looked like everybody’s grandfather. Then he fixed those blue eyes on me and I got it. Here was a man of extraordinary intelligence and character, someone who didn’t see the world in shades of gray, but rather, stark black and white. He knew what was right and wrong. And he let you know it.
He also possessed a deep, abiding appreciation and understanding for journalism. We began discussing the journalist’s role, and what constituted good writing. He referred to his copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, which today sits on my bookcase as I write this column. I still crack it open when I need clarification. I was immediately impressed that a publisher cared so much about the written word. Mostly, I listened. And, apparently, he liked me because the next day I was hired.
Over the next three years, I sat in that same chair many a time and heard many lectures about his three watchwords, “clarity, consistency and accuracy.”
The one I’ll never forget, the one that still guides me today, is the plastic fruit lecture. It was the annual plasterers issue, and I’d been assigned a piece about plasterer’s tools. The story was ready to go to press. But as was the rule, it first had to pass muster with Jules. When my story hit his desk, he called the entire editorial staff into his office.
The plaster package was a disaster, he told us. It had nothing of value. He drew out the word, “value,” the way he could when he was making a point, said it with particular emphasis, raised his hands Evita-style, as if it pained him. Then he pointed to my story. I felt the blood rush to my cheeks. He said it read nicely, but when you got right down to it, it didn’t say anything. “It’s like plastic fruit,” he said. “It looks nice and pretty, but if you try to eat it, it has no food value.” I didn’t like that he called me out in front of a group, that he picked on my story.
But he was right.
And ever since that day, I have endeavored in the various positions Jules granted me at Pool & Spa News and as the editor of this magazine to never allow plastic fruit into my work again. In some ways, it is the guiding principle I’ve applied to Aquatics International. With any article, I always ask myself, and I encourage my staff to ask themselves, “What’s the value for readers?” Put another way, “Is this plastic fruit?”
I’d like to think the answer more often than not is “no.” But I imagine Jules would find reason to differ. That was the thing about Jules: He always pushed you to be better, always challenged you to find something within yourself you didn’t know you had. Knowing that I’m editing the magazine he once guided pushes me a little bit harder. Because of Jules, I don’t abide plastic fruit anymore. And that may be the best tribute of all.