NAPLES — When a fellow named Mike Trephan came to me eight years back with the idea of having the local Marine Corps League sponsor an "Honor the Free Press Day," I was all for it, yet a bit skeptical.
Trephan’s plan called for a day of observance each year in Naples featuring a noted American who had been a U.S. Marine before embarking on a career in the news media.
I figured we would have a hard time finding someone to fill the bill.
I’ve been wrong.
On March 16, American humorist and political satirist Mark Russell will do the honors at the Naples Hilton during the seventh annual observance.
He’s perfect for the job: a Marine who went on to host PBS television specials and to write newspaper columns.
A Web site devoted to his four decades of social commentary states that whenever he is down in the dumps, he opens the newspaper and immediately cheers up.
"Some days," he quips, "the jokes jump off the pages and write themselves."
That’s one of the charms of a free press.
The same site carries samplings of his wit and wisdom.
"Mark Russell readily admits that when he was a kid he dodged the draft," his site says before providing the punch line. "He did it by joining the Marine Corps.
As in past "Honor the Free Press" days, doors open at 10:45 a.m. and lunch is served promptly at 11 a.m.
Promptly is taken seriously. Everything runs on Marine time.
Russell will address the gathering after lunch and a military salute will conclude the observance outside in front of the Hilton.
The E.T. Brisson Detachment of the Marine Corps League of Naples stages the annual event with an assist from the Naples Press Club.
Ernie Pyle, the legendary World War II correspondent for Scripps-Howard newspapers, was posthumously honored at the first observance. He wasn’t a Marine, but he died like one -- on a battle-torn island in the Pacific.
The second annual observance honored Eddie Adams, a U.S. Marine Corps combat photographer in the Korean War, who went on to win fame -- and a Pulitizer -- for his photo work with the Associated Press in Vietnam.
Lou Reda, who produced hundreds of war documentaries after serving in the Pacific during World War II, was honored the following year.
James Brady, the noted author and newspaperman, was the 2008 honoree. He saw his combat as a Marine in Korea. His journalism career ended in 2009. He wrote a weekly interview column for Parade magazine right up until his death.
The next honoree was Bill Gallo, who was a newspaper copyboy when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. Weeks later he enlisted in the Marine Corps and saw action at Iwo Jima before resuming a newspaper career as perhaps the most noted sports page cartoonist of all time.
Last year, Jim Lehrer, a Marine Corps captain who went on to moderate presidential debates and host the PBS Newshour, was the speaker.
It was standing room only.
Tickets are $30 again this year and can be reserved by calling 352-7611.
Phil Lewis is editor of the Daily News; his email address is email@example.com