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The Factor at 30 - Reflections of the Founding Editor

By Tom Hawkins
June 2008

Shown in a 1982 photo for the Combined Federal Campaign, Hawkins, center, poses with Ernest
Shown in a 1982 photo for the Combined Federal Campaign, Hawkins, center, poses with Ernest "Chappy" Chapman, right, and then NIEHS Deputy Director Robert Goyer, M.D., seated. (Photo courtesy of Tom Hawkins)

When I began work at NIEHS under then Public Information Officer Hugh Lee as a new hire in April 1978, my priority assignment was to start an Institute newsletter. I worked at what was later known as the North Campus, where all the employees at NIEHS, including then Director David Rall, M.D., Ph.D., had their labs and offices.

There had been an attempt at a newsletter a few years earlier, but it hadn't survived. This time around, Rall and Lee were committed to making a go of it with me as the editor.

My first thought as editor was that the newsletter needed a name, so I canvassed employees to get nominations and put them to a vote. While I was at it, I made a few suggestions of my own, one of which was The NIEHS Environmental Factor. Other suggestions included NIEHS News, which seemed a little bland, and The Retort, which sounded somewhat adversarial, although it is also the name of a piece of laboratory glassware.

When the first issue came out in June 1978, it bore the name I'd suggested, and it featured a hand-drawn masthead of decidedly primitive appearance. Hugh thought we should print the newsletter on bright gold paper to distinguish it from all the memos and other material that in those days went out on plain white. The distinctive stock became a Factor trademark until the mid-1990s when a succeeding editor experimented with several colors before finally choosing to use white.

The first issue of the Environmental Factor announced itself with a hand-lettered banner.
The first issue of the Environmental Factor announced itself with a hand-lettered banner.
Unlike the case in some later issues, the humor in the first issue was entirely intentional.
Unlike the case in some later issues, the humor in the first issue was entirely intentional.

Later, I had the graphics shop create a more professional-looking masthead for the front page. I wrote the copy and supplied many of the photographs for the newsletter myself. For more than a decade, the Factor was reproduced by a small, locally owned print shop that valued the business and took a personal interest in doing a quality job in a timely manner.

If I had been a graphics person, instead of a writer, I think I would have eventually gotten into what was then called desktop publishing, perhaps commandeering a Macintosh computer and what software was available at the time. But in 1978, it was still too early for that kind of automation, and I liked the independence of performing layout and paste-up by hand.

Hugh and I kept the layout and production at the most basic copy-shop level, reasoning that since we had been specifically charged with producing this newsletter, we didn't want it to get cut out of the budget by either the Institute or NIH. By keeping it essentially a copy-shop job, it fulfilled the task and cost almost nothing to produce.

For many years, the Public Affairs Office, as it was then called, was a three person operation. Headed by Hugh, the staff included me and an administrative support person, first Kathy Holbrook, who left to become an Air Traffic Controller, and then Ruth McFarland, who was a sort of administrative/management dynamo, master of travel, procurement and succeeding generations of computers and office automation.

Looking back, it is marvelous that the Environmental Factor is still a major conduit of employee communication at the Institute. Soon after it began publishing, Dr. Rall's wife, Edith, met me and commented that the newsletter was truly interesting to read - "Just like a hometown paper," she observed.

Now, all these years later, I see the Factor through the eyes of someone who is in an entirely different office doing completely different work. I am delighted to say that Edith was right about the newsletter then and that what she said is still true of the newsletter today.

(Tom Hawkins edited the Environmental Factor from its birth in1978 until 1991. He served as NIEHS news director until accepting his current position in the Office of Program Planning and Evaluation as a program analyst.)

Editorial note: Back issues of the Environmental Factor published prior to its going online are available at the NIEHS Library.



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