Sam Solomon has worked around newsprint paper and ink so long that he can’t smell them anymore.
The pressroom boss can’t read a paper for pleasure, either.
His eyes involuntarily scan pages for flaws in print, edges and color, he says. Any smear, ragged edge or uneven hue galls him.
This year makes 50 for Solomon at The Eagle-Tribune, located in North Andover.
Fifty years of memories. And something else.
“Fifty years of headaches,” he says, smiling.
Fifty-two if you count the two he delivered the newspaper, when he was 12-14 years old.
Back then he collected his newspaper bundles for his 102-customer route from the corner captain at the Essex Street Projects in Lawrence.
It was a fortuitous job for the son of Toufic and Phyllis Solomon.
They were a well-traveled U.S. Army family with five kids who had landed in Lawrence’s Tower Hill in 1961 when Sam was 10.
Two years later, on his newspaper route, Sam met his future wife, Susan, the love of his life.
She was 13, and would visit a friend who lived at a house on Solomon’s route.
Solomon, 68, has a reputation for being tough, demanding and gruff.
Some say he has mellowed with age. He doesn’t share their opinion.
He’s the big bad wolf.
“Always have been, always will be,” he says.
He leans back in his office chair, hands folded with a big bad wolf grin.
Eagle-Tribune reporters have come and gone without having ever met or known of Solomon.
Early on in his career, Solomon was made to understand, by ownership, that mixing between editorial and pressroom staff was to be discouraged.
The two staffs are separated physically, but rarely do its members spend time on the others turf.
There was a practical reason. The production people typically had ink on their clothes and hands, and ink stains anything it contacts.
Also, he suspects, because the pressroom was, and is, a union shop, ownership didn’t want union employees to spread the notion of unionization to the editorial side.
To folks who have worked in or had contact with the pressroom, though, Solomon’s reputation precedes him.
Rumor has it he can hear a web break — a press line malfunction — miles away from the plant.
At the plant, his modest office butts right up against the press line.
When the line is running, it sounds like the world’s end. Or a rollercoaster. Or music. Depending on your perspective.
Newsprint rockets from the basement, shoots through rolling presses, folds into pages and shuttles over the conveyor’s tracks.
It’s an inky journey.
In 1985, Gary Pipitone was just graduated from high school and at his first day of work, bound for the Tribune’s loading dock, when he encountered a big irate Solomon.
Solomon’s hands and face were spattered with black ink. He roared at the new hire who had unknowingly broken a cardinal rule by walking between machines.
This was a verifiable Sasquatch sighting, thought Pipitone, now the newspaper’s packaging center manager.
Ultimately, Solomon’s anger was fired by a breach of safety protocol. His military family background makes protocol imperative.
Over the years, Pipitone would get to know Solomon as someone other than a boss with a gruff exterior. Solomon became a teacher, urging patience, focus, and persistence, and showing Pipitone how to solve a problem.
“He’s definitely a mentor of mine,” Pipitone said.
Solomon is on a mission.
He chases perfection and remains intrigued by print production.
“I was fascinated by the process,” he says. “Still am. I’m still fascinated. It could theoretically run forever.”
The plant’s bottom floor is a warehouse stacked with gigantic rolls of newsprint that feed the presses.
A standard roll, inside its brown wrapper, weighs 1,285 pounds, and, unfurled, extends 7.8 miles.
The bottom floor is where all new pressroom employees start. They learn to attach one roll to another and to another roll. As Solomon says, the newsprint could unroll forever.
But this is an ever-shrinking industry.
Solomon once ran a crew of 22. Now it’s down to 14, split between two shifts — and the paper has half as many pages as it did in its salad days of the late 1970s, early 80s.
The pressroom compensates by printing a slew of North of Boston Media papers in addition to The Eagle-Tribune, other newspapers, and mailers (wrappers for ad packets).
Solomon rapidly climbed the ladder of success. He arrived at a time when the company was owned by the Rogers family. In 2005, the family sold the newspaper and its sister publications to Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. of Alabama.
Solomon’s tenure started as a truck driver in 1969, the year he graduated from Lawrence High School.
He signed on to the printing apprenticeship in 1975, graduating to journeyman in four years.
A few years later he became night foreman. He was charged with a daunting task, printing a new product, the contracted USA Today, which published multiple colored pages of news and ads.
It was a nightmare, trial by fire and excellent training to learn to get it done right.
“If you didn’t know when you started, you did by the time it was over,” he said.
At the same time, The Eagle-Tribune’s circulation was growing.
Solomon became the pressroom superintendent around the Tribune’s 100th anniversary. By today’s standards the Centennial edition, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 1990, was a behemoth — 152 pages with 237 stories and 262 pictures.
An above-the-fold photo on the front shows new assistant superintendent Glen Bradish in the pressroom. He’s holding an open newspaper, scanning pages for imperfections.
Bradish, a calm and steady fellow, says Solomon has high expectations of his crew, and let’s them know it.
“He’ll get his point across,” Bradish says. “What he wants done. If you don’t do it, you have to answer to him, but he’s fair.”
He and Solomon share the same goal.
They want to hand off a viable operation to the next pressroom bosses, put them in a position to succeed. He has confidence in them.
“I have the best crew you could possibly ask for,” he says.
The younger generation is well versed with change, a crucial quality to keep apace with the speed at which technology moves, he says.
Bradish and Solomon have adjusted to change and met challenges in the digital age by communicating well with each other.
“The key to our success has been working together — we are on the same page,” Solomon says.
Asked if he intended the pun, he says, “No, I’m not that creative.”
Bradish and Solomon say they’ve had fun doing the impossible.
That has included jury rigging a million dollar system with a little piece of wood.
That includes the time, decades ago, when a fire broke out in the ductwork and water from the firefighters’ line knocked out a vital electric connection.
Again, the crew improvised a fix.
They have been through battles. Before the Blizzard of ‘78, the newspaper loaded 10,000 papers on to trucks for delivery to stores before the storm hit.
They have stopped the presses for the death of a pope, the Challenger explosion, and put out a Bulldog (street) edition on 9/11.
Last fall’s Sept. 13 gas explosion had them drawing on emergency plans, a cooperative agreement to publish through the Boston Globe’s press.
Right now, as the phone rings, Solomon deals with the latest headache, finding a part, a cable that they think is influencing ink inconsistencies.
Solomon schmoozes a press manufacturing fellow he has dealt with for years. It’s part of the job.
He’s got a million questions. Some general, some specific. The goal, through trouble-shooting, is to solve the problem.
Are you still selling, are you still in business, are you going to be around for a while? Solomon asks.
He gets down to business.
Where would we find that part? How much power is it going to need? Does the price include installation? How long does it take? How long is the warranty good for?
“Is there anyone else who would repair these things?” he says.”I don’t know why I asked. I know the answer.”
Solomon and his team have been through the battles that go with an industry that has seen enormous change in the last 50 years.
The challenges continue for the pressroom, the paper and the company. Solomon still enjoys challenges, figuring out ways to meet them.
“If you stop looking at the future, you might as well close the door, because eventually it is going to close,” the pressroom boss says.