When SI's new assistant managing editor, Paul Witteman, reviews his basketball career as a guard for the Middlebury College Panthers in 1963-64 and '64-65, he claims to have been the worst player in the entire NCAA. "I was the last man off the bench on the most pathetic team in the land," Witteman says, recalling the Panthers' 9-30 record during his time on the varsity squad. "I should mention, however, that in my senior season I did hit one monumental jumper. It had absolutely no effect on the game's outcome, but it was monumental in that I'd never made one before."
Apparently, Witteman was a head case. "Our basketball team dubbed him Head because at that time Paul's head was wider than his shoulders," says Panther teammate Joe McLaughlin, now a Philadelphia-based lobbyist. "On the court Head always seemed to have a dark cloud over him, like that guy [Joe Btfsplk] in the L'il Abner comics."
Seven years after graduation, when Witteman accepted his first magazine job as a reporter at TIME, he was still a harbinger of doom. During his 15-year stint as a correspondent and bureau chief for the newsweekly, citizens around the world came to dread the prospect of a Witteman appointment. As soon as he arrived in Detroit in 1977, the bottom dropped out of the U.S. automobile industry. Next, Witteman volunteered for an assignment in Teheran during the early days of the Iranian revolution; the fighting there immediately escalated. He did two tours of duty in TIME'S San Francisco bureau, during which he covered the 1989 Bay Area earthquake, as well as the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in Washington and the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska. So synonymous is Witteman with tumult that upon his arrival at SI in December, we fully expected National Basketball Association players to go on strike.
Between disaster stories Witteman sandwiched in articles on such diverse subjects as Vietnam veterans living in the Hawaiian jungles and the political fortunes of Clint Eastwood. For TIME'S sports section he produced profiles of Princeton basketball coach Pete Carril, skier Jean Claude Killy and batting champ Rod Carew. But even on the sports beat, mishaps occurred. He was dispatched to San Diego to chronicle the America's Cup competition in 1990, only to learn after he arrived that—because of a miscommunication among his bosses back in New York—he was more than a year early. Witteman also coordinated the magazine's Olympic coverage beginning with the '88 Summer Games in Seoul and continuing through the '94 Winter Games in Lillehammer. He also supervised the 19 overseas bureaus from '91 to '94.
Though Witteman's own achievements in the athletic arena have been modest, he's quick to point out that his wife, Ellie McGrath, an editor at Self, has run three-hour marathons. And according to Dad, 20-month-old Kate Witteman is already an accomplished bed-top gymnast. When pressed to explain how he wound up at SI, Witteman has a ready answer. "I guess you could say that's just another accident," he says, "but the most fortuitous one of my career."
Witteman is now the victim of a happy accident.