Sign Languish

Remember the Miami News? Remember its great big neon sign? Want it?

The last day of 1988 -- the last day of Miami as a town with competing daily newspapers -- also marked a first: the uniting of Miami News employees, the paper's readers, other local journalists, the entire community. On this dire day, all Miamians shared the loss that had been brought on by a secret deal negotiated between Knight-Ridder (owner of the Miami Herald) and Cox Enterprises (owner of the News). In exchange for a share of Knight-Ridder profits to be paid to Cox over the next three decades, that deal nullified the Joint Operating Agreement that had kept the News alive since the mid-Sixties, whether it turned a profit or not. More people read the Herald, more people advertised in it. But the death of the 92-year-old News generated an outpouring of affection. Miami's oldest daily publication would not easily be forgotten. It was loved. Money can't buy that.

For many, memories of the News are priceless. And for some, those memories are tangible. Following a longstanding journalistic tradition, News staffers and others who felt an affinity to the paper pilfered bits and pieces of the local institution. News boxes were swiped from the streets. The photo morgue was pillaged. Columnist John Keasler snagged the clocks from the newsroom wall. Although he didn't steal anything, a man named Ron Miller also wound up with a unique memento, a big one.

Miller founded Community Newspapers, a Dade chain of neighborhood-oriented tabloids. And to this day, though he in effect competed with the News, Miller retains a passion for the defunct daily. "Sure I was a fan of the News," he says. "I had nothing to do with it, except as a reader. I applied to get the MIAMI NEWS sign because it would've ended up junked."

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The MIAMI NEWS sign -- an enormous aluminum-and-neon logo -- sat below the MIAMI HERALD sign on the west side of the building at One Herald Plaza, serving for years as a beacon for anyone crossing the MacArthur Causeway to Miami Beach. After the demise of the News, the twelve pieces that spelled its name were placed in storage, where, Miller says, the THE and the MIAMI letters were badly damaged, leaving only the NEWS intact. "When the News was shutting down, a columnist mentioned that they were giving away the sign," says Miller. "Over a period of months I called and wrote letters requesting the NEWS part of the sign. I guess I was the only one who was really persistent. A year passed. They had made the decision to give it to me; they just didn't tell me."

Eventually Miller heard the good news from Dick Capen, publisher of the Herald at the time. "He told me it was a difficult decision," Miller recalls, "because about 50 people had inquired. As a former newspaper publisher in the same community, they apparently felt I was the appropriate one." More time passed and still no sign of the sign. "I wrote another letter," says Miller, "and Dick Capen told me that he thought they'd given it to me already, that they meant to and didn't."

Once he learned he was the proud owner of the sign A which is about 23 feet long, its N standing roughly nine feet tall A Miller and several helpers toted the four letters in a truck to his house in East Kendall, where the NEWS remains, although Miller doesn't. Having obtained the unwieldy keepsake (it takes two men to lift a single letter), Miller checked with the county zoning department to make sure it was okay to store the sign in his back yard. And there it sat. And sat. And sat.

Miller, meanwhile, was going through some changes. After his wife died thirteen years ago, he leased the Community Newspapers operation to his sons. Almost two years ago, he recounts, he experienced a "spiritual reawakening." A couple of weeks later he met up with an old friend, also widowed, and romance blossomed. Thanks to some investments, his finances simultaneously took an upward turn. In April of 1992 he moved to the Palm Beach area. "I have everything I need and I'm grateful for what I have," Miller says. Late last month he was set to close the sale of the Kendall house, which Miller put on the market after Andrew. The NEWS sign has to go A somewhere.

The neon tubing is broken, and the letters, which Miller had stood up in the yard, were knocked down by Hurricane Andrew. Nonetheless the sign retained its appeal; on one occasion, Miller recalls, a houseguest expressed similar feelings of sentimentality and offered Miller $5000 for it. "And it's still not for sale," Miller says. "It has value as junk, all that aluminum. But my interest is in preserving it."

For the past year Miller has devoted the same persistence that helped him obtain the souvenir to trying to find the orphan sign a good home. "I could move it here and put it in a warehouse," he explains from his new home, "but no one would see it. And it doesn't belong in Palm Beach. It belongs in Miami. This is probably the largest piece of journalistic memorabilia in the state."

His efforts to give away the remnant began with the obvious: He called the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, which had inherited the paper's photo archives. "They said there was no room at the inn," says Miller, who next tried Miami-Dade Community College's south campus; he thought the sign would be a perfect complement to their new communications building. "They sent out inspectors," the NEWSman recalls, "but the college found it inappropriate."

He called local historian and erstwhile Miami News editor Howard Kleinberg, who wasn't interested, either. "I did say no," Kleinberg confirms. "He's been trying to force those letters off on people all over town. The sign is neither significant nor historic. The word news doesn't mean a damn thing by itself. The sign wasn't put up by the Miami News, it was put up by the Miami Herald on the Herald building. Why he took it in the first place I'll never know. He seems to be stuck with it."

Disappointed but undeterred, Miller heard from an intermediary that the sign was wanted by Mark Soyka, co-owner of the News Cafe, the popular Ocean Drive eatery. "I never contacted the News Cafe," Miller says. "He was going to open at another location and he wanted to put the sign there. But he didn't call me, and I'm not going to call him. I enjoy eating at the News Cafe, but I'm interested in an appropriate home, not a commercial place."

Finally the old journalist turned to what most journalists turn to when they're desperate -- fellow journalists. Once again, Miller's efforts to memorialize the News required the assistance of those who most benefited from its death. He called Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence, Jr. "They were very cooperative," Miller reports. "The Herald guys tried and tried to place it. They went through the same routine I did; they went to community service organizations."

Nothing.
"I contacted several former Miami News people as well," Miller adds. "Nothing."

Miller says that if he can't find a respectable site for the sign within the next few weeks, he'll be forced to transport it north, rent a warehouse in West Palm Beach, and store it there.

He says he tried the Herald once more late last month, as the sale of his house neared completion. "They were my last resource," he laments.

Anyone interested in helping Miller find a suitable spot for the largest remaining vestige of Miami's oldest newspaper can call him at 407-585-3593.

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