Stephen Donnellan “Steve” Moss loved to argue about everything. If you agreed on a topic, he’d gladly argue the other side just for fun. For Steve, argument was exercise for the mind, which is perhaps why he was a natural newspaperman—intellectually curious, something of a contrarian, but a true believer that journalism was an honorable profession and those who engage in it owe a duty to the public.
Without a doubt, his lawyer father had much to do with who Steve Moss became. Steve held onto a fourth grade report card on which his teacher wrote, “Steve would have done better if he would have spent more time studying and less time on foolishness with his friends,” to which his father replied in the parent comment section, “We both appreciate Steve’s weakness for foolishness. It may yet prove a strength.” It certainly did. Few people appeared to have as much fun as Steve, who could light up and commandeer a room and engage with anyone on any topic.
Of course, like many gregarious people, Steve also had dark side, and social interaction frequently exhausted him. It didn’t help that he suffered from depression that would sometimes—especially toward the end of his life—drive him into seclusion. Even so, when he was “on,” he was “on,” and he loved a project.
Now 29 years after its inception, his 55 Fiction contest continues to be a popular endeavor that garners hundreds of entries a year from around the world. He compiled two anthologies of the best examples of the genre, the long-windedly titled 55 Fiction, The World’s Shortest Stories: Murder. Love. Horror. Suspense. All This and Much More in the Most Amazing Short Stories Ever Written, Each One Just 55 Words Long (1995), and the more succinctly named 55 Fiction, The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death (2000).
To his credit, Steve always placed journalistic freedom over advertising dollars, and though his writers have, over the years, lost his newspapers—New Times and the Santa Maria Sun—advertisers due to unflattering stories or sometimes even stupid blunders, it was never a firing offense. Instead, it was a learning opportunity. Steve understood that journalism is a human endeavor, and that humans make mistakes … and hopefully learn from them.
When rancher, inn owner, and construction company magnate Alex Madonna threatened to pull his advertising because of a New Times story he didn’t like, Steve went to the Madonna Inn and visited Alex in his private booth, winning him over and sparking a deep friendship that lasted until Mr. Madonna’s death in 2004. When Steve died a little more than a year later, he was buried near Madonna—two giants of SLO County who both indelibly shaped their community, albeit in different ways.
Engraved on Steve’s headstone are a few of his whimsical drawings, reminders that even in death, he was winking at the world, prompting us all not to take life too seriously but not to take it for granted either. Like a well-crafted story, it can be short.