Pressman extraordinaire Ostwald calls it a career after 52 years

By Mark Wicks, Managing Editor

Marv Ostwald stands in front of the web press units he has overseen at the Charles City Press for the past 14 years. The longtime press operator and manager, who turned a high school job into a 52-year career, retired following Thursday’s press run. Charles City Press Publisher Gene Hall called it, “The end of an era” Thursday.

“I’ve known Marv for 37 years and he’s been my printer for that long. I can’t begin to tell all of the stories of how many times he’s baled us out with his stick-to-it-iveness and his never give-up attitude. He’s been a lifeline — and I’m going to miss him.”

After a 52-year career that began while he was still in high school, Marv Ostwald completed his last press run on Thursday by writing his own headline — “Retirement, here I come!” Ostwald, 69, has served as the Press’ production foreman since 1994, the last stop in a distinguished career that began in his hometown of Whittemore, Iowa, just west of Algona.

I got a job at the Whittemore Champion, our small town weekly newspaper, while I was still in high school,” he explained. “I took it because I wanted money and needed a job, but then I found out I liked what I was doing and have been doing it ever since.”

Starting out hand-setting type and linotype for newspapers, Ostwald learned most of what he knows right on the job. “Marv started with hot lead and finishes up working with state-of-the-art equipment — and never missed a beat,” remarked Hall. “His knowledge of the printing industry is huge. He knows pre-press, printing and post-press ... and if it’s broke, he can fix it. “Plus, he’s an artist. His color work, whether it be on a web press or a flat-sheet press, is spectacular.”

Color is not an easy operation when it comes to newspapers, as it involves a four-color separation process that then has to be precisely aligned and fine-tuned in order to get the proper registration and the desired color shades.

“We used to have to cut out all of the color by hand and make all of the separations ourselves. It was very labor-intensive and you can’t really cut all that accurate and do perfect (individual color) overlays by hand. Sometimes we had 10 burns per plate with all the overlays,” Ostwald remarked. “It all worked out pretty well, though. The imagesetter today has made a lot of difference.”

Imagesetters came about in the early 1990s and can electronically produce exact color separation negative film sheets — complete with alignment aids. That made the press operator’s job a lot easier because it eliminated darkroom work, having to shoot negatives, cut in the color and spend a lot of time re-aligning everything. “It is night and day from when I started, no comparison,” he said of hand-setting and linotype.”

That being said, it is still up to the press operators to line up the images, make sure everything is in registration and produce crisp images and a quality product. In addition, there’s the regular maintenence, repair and tender loving care of the press units themselves — many of which are nearly 40 years old. “The man knows what he is doing and has been doing it well for a long time,” noted Hall.

He added that a good press operator is always in demand. That’s why shortly after the Whittemore Champion closed down the same year Ostwald graduated from high school in 1957, he found a job in Emmetsburg. He worked for Emmetsburg Publishing for 32 years.

“That’s where I first met Marv, who was the production supervisor there when I was the general manager of the Northwest Iowa Shopper in Spencer,” said Hall. “We were experiencing a newsprint shortage unprecedented in the industry and our printer at that time was out of newsprint. I found out that Emmetsburg had newsprint, I went there in April of 1971 to talk with Marv and the relationship’s been going ever since.”

Ostwald was transfered to Fort Dodge, where he managed the Messenger Printing commercial printing plant for five years. When Hall became in need of a production manager at the Charles City Press in 1994, he called on one of the best pressmen he knew to see if he was at all interested. And the rest is history.

Throughout the years, Ostwald was gone from a hand-fed press in Whittemore, “where you had to put big sheets in one at a time, a single-revolution press, then turn it over and print the other side,” to the Goss web press used at the Press today that can produce publications in a wide range of colors and sizes — and do so quickly. The Press plant currently prints nine different publications for a number of area communities, along with several specialty publications throughout the year.

During his career, Ostwald also operated a Duplex web press that printed on both sides, with a big cylinder and a bottom and top deck, then a Harris web print system similar to the current Goss.

“These units were built in the early 1970s and never designed for color, just black and white,” he noted. “Adding color wasn’t too bad, though — more or less fine tuning and getting the register right, plus changing out ink trays all the time. It was a challenge, but there’s always a challenge. That’s what keeps it interesting.”

The hardest part, he said, was learning to get up in the wee morning hours when the Press switched from an afternoon newspaper to a morning paper. That meant instead of getting the paper to print at noon, the press crew had to come in at 3:30 a.m. in order to get the paper out the door before 6 a.m.

“I was used to sleeping in a little later than that, he chuckled. “Now we go home before noon, but you are so tired you have to take a nap. I plan on sleeping in a little more now!” His favorite part of the job, he reported, was the stripping up of the pages and making of the plates. “I kind of glance and read them as I am working, which is interesting because everything is upside down and backwards,” Ostwald said of the type on the pages as they are prepared for the press units. “That makes it hard once in a while to read a newspaper the right way after it’s printed, because it’s not what you are used to.”

Still, he takes pride in watching the public read the fruits of his labor, “even when they kid me about mistakes they might find.” That pride can also be found in the quality of his other work and the way he maintains his press units.” “They will last forever if you keep taking care of them,” he commented.

The secret in being not just a competent pressman but a good one, Ostwald said, is in caring about what you are doing. “It’s not always a homerun, but you try,” he explained. Being a press operator is a specialized field, and not something you can just pick up overnight.

“It’s getting simpler all the time because of the technology, but you still need some training to know what you are doing,” Ostwald reported. “You can learn in a week or two, but you always have to pay pretty close attention to what you are doing. You also have to keep up with the changing industry, continually learning as you go, reading the trade books and talking to salesmen.” Hall added that it is extremely hard to find exceptional press people like Ostwald. “We’re fortunate here at the Press because we’ve got a great crew that’s going to be taking over for Marv, so we shouldn’t miss a beat. But it’s been difficult to replace him,” said Hall.

He pointed out that Ostwald will be retained by the Press as a consultant for the next 12 months. “(New foreman) Carrie Schmidt is more than qualified and Kris Olson is an experienced press person, so we are in great shape, but its comforting to have that lifeline out there with all of his knowledge,” Hall commented.

As for Ostwald, he said he plans on enjoying life without a daily deadline and getting in some rest, relaxation and fishing. “I’ve also got some remodeling to do at home, my wife’s got a few projects for me,” he remarked of his bride of 42 years, Arlene. “The grandkids, I suspect, are planning projects for me, too.” Being a handy man, after all, means always being in demand.

Webization by K. Kittleson