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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

August 17, 2013 at 4:11 PM

Farewell to the sports MVP you’ve never heard of

Mark Akins after being named one of The Seattle Times newsroom's Journalists of the Quarter earlier this year.  Photo by Seattle Times

Mark Akins after being named one of The Seattle Times newsroom’s Journalists of the Quarter earlier this year.
Photo by Seattle Times

The Seattle Times Sports department said goodbye to one of its most popular and indispensable journalists Friday.

You’ve probably never heard of Mark Akins. But as Mark retires after a distinguished 29-year career at The Times, I want to change that.

All of you know the writers and columnists who write and blog for The Times. A few of you may have heard of me. Yet none of us could do what we do without people like Mark Akins, behind-the-scenes editors whose names rarely appear in print. These “inside” people labor in the office every night, editing the stories, catching mistakes, correcting  grammar, writing headlines and captions, designing pages and making sure we meet our print deadlines. They exist in the shadows of the night sports desk. Most of the newsroom doesn’t even know who they are.

Mark always liked it that way.

A little more about Mark. He’s from Pendleton, Ore., where he was sports editor of the East Oregonian, his first daily newspaper job. He went to the University of Oregon and he cheered for the Ducks even when they weren’t wearing weird helmets, a dozen different uniforms and beating the Huskies. He adores baseball and the Cincinnati Reds. He’s an avid cyclist. He’s a darn good bowler. And he’s one of nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Everyone in Sports loved working with Mark.

Mark held a variety of important jobs on our sports desk during a remarkable run here that began in 1984 and spanned four lucky sports editors.  Sunday sports designer and high-school sports editor were his first and last positions, but Mark has done every job on the sports desk. As Sunday sports designer, he helped plan and lay out our biggest section despite withering deadlines. As preps editor, he orchestrated staff writers, freelancers, photos and young news assistants to produce an symphony of informative, comprehensive preps coverage.

Even veteran newspaper editors are amazed at what Sports produces every Friday night during football and basketball seasons. It all happens because of people like Mark. It’s hard to describe the controlled chaos that goes on as dozens of games are phoned in, freelancers and staff file reports from games across the area and photographers and photo editors churn out photos. It’s a little like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, except for one thing: This all happens after 9:30 p.m., with our first edition at 10:30 and two more editions right behind it.

Mark was the unflappable eye of this storm of ringing phones and editors’ pleas to finish stories and send pages. Only Mark’s incredible organizational skills, temperament and lightning-quick, mistake-free editing allowed us to make virtually every deadline.

I worked with Mark at two newspapers. At the first, The Journal-American in Bellevue, he was a talented young lead designer and gifted writer who had a knack for catching errors, writing the perfect headline and designing bold, inviting pages. On a staff that regularly won national awards, Mark was our unsung MVP. I hated to see him go, but realized moving to The Seattle Times was the right career move for a guy clearly on his way up.

Two years later, after a stint at a paper in California, I joined him at The Times. As an assistant sports editor, and later as sports editor, I was his supervisor most of my 26 years here. But no one really had to oversee Mark. You simply penciled him into the schedule and let him do his job.

Two stories illustrate Mark’s dedication and willingness to do anything for a friend or teammate.

The first happened at The Journal-American in the early 1980s. I was at the office early one Saturday morning trying to finish a story for the Sunday sports section. It was probably about 2 or 3 a.m., and I was absorbed writing in the darkened newsroom. A banging sound startled me.  I jumped up.

It was Mark, slamming the drawer of a filing cabinet. He was filing wire photos after another long, hard Friday night. Both of us thought we were working alone. It made me wonder how many nights – and mornings – Mark had been doing that.

The second story happened a few years later. Mark had been at The Times for a couple of years, and I was coming in to interview for an opening as an assistant sports editor. Mark offered to pick me up at the airport, and he met me at baggage claim. My suitcase never arrived. I realized on a Sunday night that I had no appropriate clothes for the all-important interview the next morning.

Not to worry. Mark drove me to Fred Meyer, the only store he knew would be open, and I bought some clothes. I found a shirt, tie and socks, but was having trouble finding the right sports coat and dress shoes when Mark stopped me. A notoriously thrifty bachelor (which probably is why he was able to retire at 60), he offered to loan me his sport coat and shoes.

I eventually was hired, and I owe it all to Mark.  He literally offered me the shirt (or, in this case, the sports coat) off his back and put in good words for me with the sports editor and the writers and editors I’d be supervising.

That’s Mark. As he always did, Mark worked quickly but quietly behind the scenes to do what was necessary. And he never wanted any credit.

On his final night at The Times, most of the Sports team, some former teammates and many other staffers from the newsroom gathered to say goodbye to Mark. One by one, we all paid our respects to one of the unsung heroes of the newsroom. The common thread that ran through all our toasts were Mark’s efficiency, effectiveness, friendliness and selflessness. He was the perfect teammate.

Mark received many gifts from us. Ducks and Reds jerseys and caps, an Oregon banner for his man cave, a gift card, a 1954 Baseball Register. Mark graciously thanked us for everything, talked about what wonderful people he had worked with for 29 years, told us how much he would miss us and related a few stories. Then we ate cake and ice cream, and said our goodbyes.

It was very nice sendoff, but there’s more I want to say to Mark.

More than 30 years after I started working with you, I’m going to give you some of the credit you so richly deserved but never wanted. I want to acknowledge your incredible contributions to The Seattle Times and thank you for all you’ve done for the paper, the Sports section and me personally.

Every Seattle Times sports reader should thank you as well.

Want to be a reader contributor to The Seattle Times’ Take 2 blog? Email your original, previously unpublished work or proposal to Sports Editor Don Shelton at dshelton@seattletimes.com or sports@seattletimes.com. Not all submissions can be published. The Times reserves the right to edit and publish any submissions online and/or in print.

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