The Heights Throughout the Century: Don Nathan, Former Features Editor
Taking a Look Back at 'The Heights' with a Former Features Editor Who Graduated in 1980
Published: Monday, April 30, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
Name: Don Nathan
Occupation: Chief Communications Officer, UnitedHealth Group
Year of Graduation from BC: 1980
Major(s): English and Philosophy
Heights: How and when did you first get involved with The Heights?
Don: The paper and other student groups had open houses early second semester my freshman year (January 1977). My parole officer encouraged me to go. I had a couple of satire ideas, so I visited The Heights and listened to a 10-minute pitch, which he later admitted was total b.s., from the then-Features editor, the great Bob McGrath.
Heights: What initially drew you to the newspaper?
Don: I was struck by how the paper overall didn’t conform to the dominant BC culture. But mostly, I really liked the Features section with its miserable attitude and sick sense of humor.
Heights: What position(s) did you hold while on the Heights board?
Don: Features editor. I was Pope for a while too, which not many people know.
Heights: How many years did you spend as a member of the board?
Don: You said this was an interview, not a history quiz. I think about two and half years. Might have been closer to 11.
Heights: What would you consider your greatest accomplishment while on the newspaper?
Don: Other than not getting fired? Stirring things up on campus, making it a bit livelier, and entertaining people. We were Features, after all.
Heights: What did you find most difficult about being a part of The Heights?
Don: “Look, I agree you’re the most talented writer since Joyce put down his pen, but it’s Thursday and I really need those 500 words, okay? We’re short this week—when do you think you’ll have the piece? What do you mean next week? The Soviets could be marching up Comm. Ave. next week for all I know, I need it now.”
Heights: As Features editor, what direction did you hope to take your section in?
Don: We tried to steer the section away from ending sentences in prepositions. We also wanted to be creative and interesting in ways specific to BC —not just running reviews of arts and entertainment that students could get anywhere. Plus, we wanted it to be sharp and funny.
Heights: What was the best piece, if you had to choose, that you ran in the Features section?
Don: No question—a mock interview with myself as if held in 2012. Okay, without going too “old fogey” on you, a couple of things come to (enfeebled) mind. One was an eight or 12-page satire of The Heights (“The Depths” – subtlety wasn’t our strength) on which everyone worked. It caustically lampooned everything in the paper, and showed we could take it as well as dish it out, which helped our image on campus. Another pretty good one was an allegorical piece I collaborated on with our twisted and talented cartoonist, John Long, related to the question of whether The Heights could run ads from clinics whose services included abortion.
Heights: What were some staples of the section at that time? (Regular columns or sections that were included?)
Don: We did most of the basics—music, film, theater reviews—but not too extensive. We ran satire and humor, much of it BC-oriented, often around a weekly theme introduced by one of John Long’s cartoons. We introduced a comics section by brilliant guys like Jeff Dornenburg and Jim Millerick, which worked really well, and tried a serialized detective story. We also tried a tongue-in-cheek gossip column (“Chestnut Chatter” as I recall—and as I cringe) that many students quickly started treating seriously, so we dropped it. Then there was the annual “Ten Best Deaths” feature, but we’ll skip right past that.
Heights: How did your Heights experience influence, if at all, your time post-grad?
Don: It enabled me to become the prima ballerina I am today. Beyond that, the biggest impact was that I made friends on the paper who are still my closest friends today. Coming out of college I looked for jobs on small daily papers and in politics, got a newspaper offer, but wound up on Capitol Hill. But many people in the kind of job I have now started out in journalism, so I might have ended up in the same place had I taken the reporting job.
Heights: What do you think the biggest difference is between the paper you put out and the one that is being made today?
Don: My incredibly incisive and terribly original view: look at the differences in the eras and you’ll see the differences in the papers of those eras. I read today’s paper and sometimes wonder if the editors and staff ever colored outside the lines in their coloring books—c’mon guys, it’s college, time to try new things, make mistakes and push the proverbial envelope. But then I remind myself that it is a different time, with its own pressures and incentives.
Heights: What was the biggest controversy or scandal going on at the University or the paper at the time that you were on the editorial board?
Don: I started BC just after some significant battles and litigation between The Heights and administration, which set the bar high for what constituted controversy. But we had thousands of people out to protest a tuition hike (“For Boston, for Boston, we’re paying through the nose .…”). There was a difficult struggle, led by the Heights news team, to open up BC Police records. And arguably one of the biggest issues faced by the paper was the administration telling us to drop ads by clinics that offered abortion services or we would have to physically move off campus and not be allowed to distribute the paper on campus. We dropped the ads (*sigh*). But what riled people the most during my time? Easy call—the football team going 0-11 one year.