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‘Doing words’

Warren native shares zany stories from career in news, public relations

This is Roger Yohem’s press card from his time at the Tribune Chronicle from 1977 to 1979.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of Saturday profiles of area residents and their stories. To suggest a profile, contact features editor Burton Cole at bcole@tribtoday.com or metro editor Marly Reichert at mreichert@tribtoday.com.

Once, he was caught in the middle of a deal to remove a utility pole to make room for Burt Reynolds’ luxury van during the filming of “Cannonball Run II.”

Another time, Warren native Roger Yohem mistook a call from U.S. Sen. John Glenn as a prank and hung up on the national hero.

He remembers vividly crawling nearly blind through a smoke-filled house on a practice burn with the Brookfield Volunteer Fire Department — and making it out alive with a 3-inch memento where an ember found exposed neck skin.

Years later, his face adorned “wanted” posters in the Occupy camp after he satirized the Occupy Tucson takeover of a park.

“On one poster someone had drawn devil horns on my head with red lipstick. On another, there was a red bull’s-eye target on my face,” Yohem said. “Had they no sense of humor?”

Now retired from a series of newsroom and corporate public relations offices, Yohem has collected his favorite stories from 40 years “doing words” in a humor-filled memoir titled, “Bizarre PR and Doozie Newsies: True Stories From a Career in Words.”

“While at Inside Tucson Business, I wrote about some of these experiences as a columnist. They were well-received by readers — not so by certain bureaucrats — and got more feedback than my business beat stories. When the Wall Street Journal picked up my parody of the Baja Arizona Movement, I realized I was on to something,” he said.

GROWING UP IN WARREN

Born in 1955, Yohem rolled through McGuffey Elementary and West Junior High before graduating in 1973 from Western Reserve High School.

“I’d say happy, energetic, typical kid describes my youth,” said Yohem, 65, who retired in 2015 and remains in Tucson, Ariz. “I grew up on north Tod Avenue when, at the time, there were only three or four other homes west of Crestwood Drive to the old Crouch Farm at the top of the curve.

“We — older brother Tom and BFF Matt Ecker, now a retired Trumbull County sheriff’s deputy — had free run of Crouch’s pastures and fed his horses, collected butterflies, played combat and climbed trees; ice skated on a pond over the hill; and hunted rabbits and squirrels in the woods. Along the riverbank, we scouted for Indian arrowheads and speared, skinned and fried frog legs.”

He earned all-star honors as a Little League pitcher at Burbank Park, raced — like a turtle — in the Soap Box Derby twice, played trumpet in band and lettered in tennis. “My tennis game was aces thanks to a rocket serve, but not much else,” he said.

“I worked at McDonald’s on West Market Street before I could drive. Then as a junior and senior, I worked several nights a week at the downtown YMCA doing towel room check-in.

“When I was a senior, Karin Hummell caught my eye, but I was too shy to approach her,” Yohem said. “Karin was a brainiac, a junior graduating early to do her senior year in Norway as a foreign exchange student. Between classes, I’d go out of my way to walk past her locker. On the times she was there, I froze, never said a word, and kept moving.

“By fate, we ended up in civics class together. I changed seats with a friend to be near her and we hit it off. Our first date was Reserve’s variety show, and we’ve been together ever since.”

In 1994, Karin Hummell Yohem, Ph.D., was inducted into the Warren City Schools’ Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame, honored for her cancer research at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and for training students for careers in medical research. In 1998, she changed careers and became a lawyer specializing in estate planning.

CHOOSING A CAREER

“I never conspired to get into journalism,” Yohem said. “In college, I wanted to be a veterinarian but was overwhelmed by the science. A business career in finance seemed solid — who didn’t want to build wealth? — but I struggled with the math and economic theories.”

An Ohio University tennis buddy talked him into a news class as an elective. For class, he interviewed Cleveland Indians manager Frank Robinson after borrowing money and a car to get to Cleveland. Karin couldn’t believe he wore a dark green polo and bright red, plaid golf pants as his “professional attire.”

“Next, we sampled an advertising class, and the professor loved our offbeat ‘creative flair.’ The takeaway message was to make an impact, it’s OK to be different and take some chances,” he said.

“At that point, I was hooked and realized journalism was my gig. I also realized the key to success was versatility, to fuse together the related fields of journalism, PR, media relations and marketing.”

TRUMBULL COUNTY REPORTER

In March 1977, Yohem went to work at the Tribune Chronicle.

“The Trib was my training camp. I learned to be objective, work independently and to chase my own stories. I learned news judgment, time management (deadlines), and most importantly, personal responsibility as an employee and young adult,” he said. “Mastering the fundamentals, thanks to Editor-in-Chief Jim Brown, provided a solid foundation for my 40-year career.

“Also, I was proud to be part of the Tribune’s Sunday edition launch in 1977. Mr. Brown needed more local content, and I staffed the new Howland Bureau, covering the Route 82 corridor to Brookfield. The ‘Boss Lady’ — Helen Hart Hurlbert — was so, so aglow when the first edition rolled off the presses late that Saturday. Upstairs were refreshments and many off-shift employees came in for the historic event.”

It was during his 2 1/2 years at the Tribune Chronicle that he hung up on John Glenn, crawled through a burning building, took heart-breaking photos of a fire that killed a family of six, and went nose-to-nose with a striking trucker with a crowbar and blood on his shirt who was intent on taking Yohem’s camera.

MOVING TO ARIZONA

“As newlyweds, Karin and I moved immediately from Ohio to Tucson, where she had a post-grad scholarship to the University of Arizona. We didn’t know a soul there, had never tasted tequila nor seen a rattlesnake. We weren’t sure how to say ‘saguaro’ or ‘quesadilla,'” Yohem said.

“On a 105-degree day, we moved into a cheap, barren apartment. Upstairs. No curtains. No microwave. No dishwasher. We didn’t own a sofa or bed. I was jobless. Undaunted, we had each other and dreams of opportunity in a strange new state.”

Yohem landed the job as public information assistant at Tucson Electric Power. The boss, Barry Burdett, taught him that when executives called, “Immediately stop what you are doing. Drop everything. Be happy they need you.”

Yohem worked there for a dozen years, including the “dark days when the utility almost went bankrupt. The execs, employees, stockholders, ratepayers, regulators, lawyers and Wall Street were irritable. The publicity was national and nasty.”

Over his 40 years in the business, Yohem also held high-profile posts with Southwest Gas Corp., Inside Tucson Business, the Tucson Association of Realtors and the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association.

He credits Dr. Tom Peters at OU for teaching him “SA: Situation Awareness.”

Four of the eight companies he worked for changed CEOs. One went bankrupt. One was sold. One collapsed during the Great Recession. Two failed at mergers. Yohem said he learned there was no lock on job security and Situation Awareness enabled him to move on before it was too late.

“DOING WORDS”

His book recaps his career in words in 83 episodes, including, “When Steve Thomas of PBS-TV’s ‘This Old House’ went gaga over a centuries-old plaster mix that used cactus glue. Was it legit or Indian humor? While recruiting the Colorado Rockies to spring training, I whiffed on the significance of the moment. During a nasty grazing dispute, a nervous caller wanted to know if cattle rustling was a felony. The Letters to the Editor page editor wrote a letter to the editor to himself.”

Yohem promises plenty of oddball adventures, famous people, snark and a behind-the-scenes of how professionals “do words.”

“I think Warrenites will like my book for several reasons. First, it pays tribute to a community and state that supported education. Warren’s taxpayer-provided school system enabled me to go to college, earn a degree and work for 40 years in my field of choice.

“Thank you, Warren, for giving me the foundation to succeed,” Yohem said.

“My book shares life lessons, the most important being SA: Situation Awareness. If you become complacent and don’t pay attention to what’s going on, someone else will make decisions for you regarding your job, career and life,” he said.

“The memoir is also part historic, looking back at journalism before the Internet age. It was an era when reporters were out in the field every day and enjoyed occasional shenanigans in the newsroom.”

He’s already working on a second book of stories that are more family focused than job related. The working title is “Doozies from the Yohem Home.”

He’s also plotting possibilities for historical fiction books.

“We’ll see how that goes,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed writing. It’s something that gets into your blood.”

Yohem’s self-published book is available at www.yohembooks.com.

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