“Melville transformed the Geographic from a Victorian to a 20th-century organization,” says Tom Smith. Like most others of his generation who worked with Melville, Smith remembers the experience as the happiest and most fulfilling of his life. “He was like a father to us—a wonderfully unorthodox father, and that was very stimulating to young people,” Smith says. “When you’d done something he liked, he’d put that big paw of a hand on your shoulder, and with a huge smile he’d let you know that he liked you and liked your work. You treasured those moments.”
Assistant Editor Peter White remembers returning from Laos to find that deep changes had been made in one of his stories. He stormed into the Editor’s office. White was so upset over the violence that had been done to his prose that he actually shouted at Melville. “Peter, you’re not well!” Melville cried in shocked tones. “You have worms. Somebody else came back from a trip financed by point five loans and talked to me like this, and he had worms.” After calling Garrett into the room to calm White, who by now was misty-eyed with loyal affection, Melville picked up the telephone and dialed a number. “I’m going to send you over to my own doctor right this minute!” he said.
Severy and Paine took the dummy of a 436-page book about ships to the Editor’s home on a Saturday morning, expecting to spend about an hour going over the material. “We stayed for lunch, dinner, and many mint juleps—somebody had sent Melville 23 kinds of mint,” Paine recalls. “When he saw what the dummy was, ‘Wow! The ship book! I’ve been waiting for it!’ So we crawled around on the floor of Melville’s study until ten that night, changing the layout around. Time flew.”
Predictably, this sort of management released creativity. The whole aspect of the magazine changed; the staff felt itself involved as members of a family. It was impossible to lose interest because the head of the family insisted on living in an atmosphere of new ideas and boundless optimism. Old constrictions fell away. Gone were the acorns, the rigid rules about the size of pictures and the way in which pictures might be trimmed, cropped, and laid out on the page.