Sunday, November 22, 2015






November 22, 1963, began as a routine, even dull, news day for the United Press International broadcast news desk in Chicago. 

 Our newscasts were reporting the latest in an ongoing Soviet-American clash over policing of the Berlin autobahn. Roman Catholic bishops at Vatican II had approved the use of vernacular languages in the Mass. Some Koreans had been killed by a U.S. Army rocket explosion while gathering scrap metal on a firing range. The Navy was searching for a U2 reconnaissance plan that had crashed in the Gulf of Mexico after a flight over Cuba.

We were also reporting on President Kennedy's trip to Texas to act as peacemaker in the feud between factions of the state Democratic party. Tied to that, on some of our newscasts, was the report that former Vice President Nixon, in Dallas for a speaking engagement, had predicted that President Kennedy would replace Lyndon Johnson on the Democratic ticket in 1964. It was hardly world-shaking material, but it clacked out on UPI Teletypes, as our reports did every day, around the clock, to the company's 3,500 client radio and television stations across the country. 

When I arrived at work on that morning, John Pelletreau, the national broadcast news editor, assigned me to the first of the department's two editors' desks. He supervised the day shift and normally took the first desk, but he would be a writer that day, he said. He had some administrative work to catch up on and could do that better between writing assignments than as an editor. John put Bill Roberts on the second desk.  
As first desker, as the first desk editor was called, I would be in charge of the shift. I'd prepare 15-minute World News Roundups, which we filed, or transmitted, every fourth hour. I would read all the other copy to be filed on the broadcast wire and make whatever final edits were necessary to insure the copy was accurate and readable before handing it to a Teletype operator. Roberts, on the second desk, would edit five-minute World in Brief newscasts and monitor a bank of Teletypes that brought news to our desk from New York and London. We had two writers to whom we assigned stories to be put into brief and direct broadcast style. That day, they were Pelletreau and Phil O'Connor, a relatively new member of the staff.
Between 11:50 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., I filed the usual sports and stock and commodity market news, the hourly headlines and the Fourth World News Roundup. At 12:30, Henry Renwald, the Teletype operator, flipped switches that split the broadcast wire circuit to allow UPI bureaus around the country to send packages of local news and features to stations in their geographical areas. We in Chicago would take control again at 10 minutes before the hour.
At the split, Renwald stayed at his keyboard to type a feature story on punch tape that could be fed into the Teletype's tape reader later for automatic transmission. Pelletreau went to an office along one side of the newsroom. I got up to go lunch but, on the way, stopped at O’Connor’s desk to explain why I had edited a story he'd written as I had. I was talking to him when dinging bells on the main news Teletype alerted us that a bulletin was coming in.
Most of the stories on the wire were routine, but stories editors deemed more consequential could take precedence and were coded so as to trigger alarm bells on the Teletypes. Five bells signaled a "bulletin," major breaking news or an important new development in an ongoing story. A five-bell "urgent" was a story that was important but not as hot as a bulletin. The top priority story, preceded by ten bells, was a "Flash," given to only the most cataclysmic events. Flashes were so rare the edition of the "Broadcast Style Book" that we used then made no mention of them. Subsequent editions would.
The five bells chimed at 12:34. Roberts turned to the machine behind him and tore off the bulletin.
"Hey. Look at this," he said. 
The bulletin read:
“Three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas.”
As O'Connor recalled it years later, he heard me "shouting 'Jesus Christ!' after Roberts read aloud the first bulletin that came across. Larry practically flew across the room to get to the printer."
I told Renwald to take back control of the broadcast wire. He did, but it was difficult. All the bureaus were sending. Worse, New York tried to send the bulletin from Dallas.
"GET OFF GET OFF GET OFF," Renwald typed.
I edited the Dallas copy to put it in active-voice broadcast style: "An unknown sniper fired three shots at President Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas." Renwald began typing but got only as far as "President." The word disappeared in a garble.
Even as Renwald was battling the bureaus, the A-wire Teletype sounded 10 bells.

I took a pencil to that and gave it to Renwald and told him to send it as a flash. He had one false start before getting it out.


Five minutes had gone by and other bureaus were still trying to send, breaking up our transmission. Renwald tried to get them to stop.
There was still more interference.
When the A-wire bells sounded the flash, Frank Spencer, the Chicago bureau chief, looked at the A-wire Teletype at his end of the newsroom. He was a bulldog of a fellow with a powerful voice, and he yelled "FLASH" so that it carried through the room. It was a hair-raising shout, and I could feel gooseflesh breaking out. Conversation stopped. Someone turned on the television set at the far end of the room.
By then Pelletreau was back in the newsroom and he made instant decisions. Roberts and I would stay on the desk. John would write the main story. We sent O’Connor out for sandwiches and coffee.
Bulletin followed bulletin on the A-wire, and we kept pace, getting the story out to the broadcast clients. One of those was CBS, and within seconds after the first bulletin, Walter Cronkite, in shirtsleeves, appeared on the television screen paraphrasing what we had just sent.
In Dallas, White House reporter Merriman Smith, who had been in the press car behind the President’s limousine, sprinted from the parking lot into the hospital. When he passed Secret Serviceman Clint Hill, he asked how the President was. "He's dead," Hill said.  Smith included the quote as a paragraph in his running story that was coming out of the A-wire machine. The question was, should we go with it? My inclination was to put it out as a bulletin. I showed it to Pelletreau. More seasoned and more thoughtful, he ordered caution and set it aside on the desk. His reasoning was that Hill could not have made that final determination, and that if it were broadcast by our clients and found to be false, we would have panicked listeners unnecessarily. It occurred to me some years later that he may also have been thinking of the ill consequences to UPI's reputation of sending a flash that wasn't true. He knew wire service history better than I. We held Hill's quote for at least 15 minutes, then sent it out buried in a write-through of the story. We delayed reporting flatly that he had died until the official announcement came.
Operator Alice Guenther took over at the broadcast Teletype keyboard at 1:30. Four minutes later word was flashed from Dallas that Kennedy was dead. I had copy for a flash ready on the desk, but John waved it away. "Alice," he said, "type 'Flash President Dead.'" Alice took her hands from the keyboard, covered her face, bent over, and cried "Oh, my God." An operator supervisor, Jimmy Darr, suddenly appeared behind her, and in what seemed to me to be one fluid motion, put his hands on her upper arms, lifted her out of the chair, sat her on the floor and leaned over the chair and her and typed the flash.
While that was going on, I typed a bulletin and a follow-up paragraph.


HE WAS 45.
Alice recovered and was back at the keyboard to send that.
We didn't have a prepared obituary for Kennedy in the file, as we should have; who would have thought we would have needed one? As a result, we didn't have his age handy, and I was guessing that he was 45. I was wrong by a year, and John repeated the error in the sub, or write-through. But soon as the A-wire came out with the correct age, we sent a correction.
Dean Miller, the broadcast news manager, had been at lunch at a nearby saloon, the St. Louis Brown's Fan Club. He did not let the news interrupt his meal. He finished and walked back to the newsroom. He asked a few questions of John and disappeared into his office. He made periodic appearances later to read the file of stories we had sent out. On one of his trips, he read the correction and gave me a tongue-lashing for making the mistake. Then he retreated to his office again. That was the only comment Miller made about how we handled the story.
Tom McGann, UPR bureau chief and the third in UPR's chain of command, was on vacation. He came downtown from his home on the north side of the city as soon as he heard the news. We still had the stack of stories from earlier in the morning on the desk. He tossed them into a box under the desk where discards went. "You won't need these," he told me. That was the only work he did. He asked Miller if he could help, and Miller told him to go home.
We scrapped the usual format of sending a Roundup or a World in Brief each hour. We also cut out the splits. This was a national story, and nothing local could possibly take precedence.
In Dallas, Merriman Smith was doing a masterful job of reporting from Parkland Hospital. He questioned Secret Service agents about what they had heard; asked Malcolm Kilduff, the assistant press secretary traveling with the president, about the president's condition; buttonholed a presidential staff member to find out Mrs. Kennedy's condition. He reported that a carton of blood had been rushed to the emergency room. He told of a woman who, in the midst of all the confusion, brought in a bloody child for treatment. He reported that Kennedy had been given the last rites of the Catholic Church.
In Chicago, Roberts and I were writing many of those details as two and three sentence items, and I was putting the stories on the wire as urgents. Pelletreau was folding the new material into write-throughs. As soon as he had a new one ready, I filed it as a bulletin.
As usual, we carried the prices of the stock and commodity markets, but even those had an assassination angle: "News of the shooting of President Kennedy prompted active selling of grain futures and prices took a dive on the Chicago Board of Trade. The death of the President wasn't announced until after the close." About the only news that was not related to the assassination were three short sports items we filed shortly after 1 p.m. as "Late Sports Briefs."
At 2:52, we sent the third flash of the day:
I wrote another bulletin fleshing out the flash and followed that with more details about the swearing in aboard Air Force One. Pelletreau did another write-through, writing it as he had written nearly all of the other complete stories. He was fast, and his copy was error-free and graceful--somewhat surprising in light of what he told me later. He could hardly concentrate, he said. "All I could think about were those poor kids. I kept saying Hail Marys the whole time I was writing." At 3, the wire started to return to normal. We carried a national weather forecast, and then I wrote the opening summary for the Fifth World News Roundup:

Just before the flash reporting Johnson's swearing in, we had carried an urgent reporting that a policeman had been shot while chasing a suspect in the assassination through a Dallas movie theater. That timed off at 2:50. We led the fifth Roundup with an urgent reporting the suspect worked in a downtown building on the motorcade route where a rifle was found. Within the hour, I wrote my last bulletin of the afternoon:

The last of the fifth Roundup cleared the wire about half an hour later, at 4:21 p.m. When it was timed off--when the operator typed the time and his initials--my work for the day was done.
A year later, in the fall of 1964, I was in graduate school at Southern Illinois University, and I met the owner of the radio station in Anna, Illinois, just a few miles south of Carbondale. He was a UPI client, and when the bells went off on the broadcast wire Teletype on November 22, he told me, he put an extension cord on a microphone and went into the closet-like enclosure where he kept his Teletype machine and read each word as it was typed out.
Until that moment I hadn't thought about the people we reached with our reports. And I couldn't venture a guess, even, as to how many other radio stations operated as the Anna station did, or how many people got their first news of that terrible event from us. But it occurred to me that afternoon that millions of Americans, driving or shopping, working in offices or doing chores around the house, heard those words we wrote that afternoon as they were delivered in all the accents of small-town American radio, from the clipped sentences of Maine and Vermont, to the the drawls of Alabama and Mississippi:
"President Kennedy is dead. He was shot to death by an assassin in the streets of Dallas."

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Memorial Day and other holidays

The missus told me last night that I should put out the flag today.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s Memorial Day.”

Having served my time in the Army, I’m accustomed to obeying my commanding officer, usually without questioning why, so I put the flag out in its holder, between the door and the climbing rose bush, on which it sometimes is snagged.

A thought occurred.

“It’s Friday,” I said when I came in.

“What’s Friday?” she asked.

“Memorial Day?” I said. That’s May 30th.”

“It’s been changed,” she said.

“When? By whom?"

No answer. She sat down on the couch and called the cat over to sleep in her lap.

Finally I had stumped her. But where did she get that idea, I wondered

I fired up the computer, typed “Memorial Day changed?” in the Google box, then clicked to Wikipedia. Sure enough, Congress changed the date to the last Monday in May. In 1971.

Why hadn't I noticed that? Married only nine months, was I still in the goofy delirium of the honeymoon?  Why didn't I catch on to the change in some subsequent year?  Maybe because I was a university professor and the spring semester was over before the end of May. I was waking up every morning to the tune of that old music hall ditty “Every Day’s a holiday with me.”
But it’s not just Memorial Day that's been re-dated, I learned. Our hard-working Congressmen and women have praised famous men by ignoring their birthdays to give this great nation of ours four richly deserved three-day holidays each year. We've been celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday in January, though not necessarily on the 15th. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are paired on the same Monday in February, but on neither one’s birthday, necessarily, and Christopher Columbus we honor in October, but not always on the 9th, his birthday, as we once did for celebrating his discovery of this land.  Ignored, however, is the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, for whom this land is named. Celebrating his birthday, April 9, would give all of us another three-day holiday, the third month in a row.
Not content with those changes, our patriotic lawmakers up and renamed Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War I (at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918), to Veterans’ Day, though they kept it on November 11. As a veteran, I don’t mind being honored or remembered or whatever is supposed to be done for us veterans on that day, but couldn't the holiday makers find a day other than Armistice Day to do it? I suggest April 24, the anniversary of my discharge from the Regular Army.
To their credit, the legislators didn't mess with Independence Day, the 4th of July.
And, if  I remember correctly—cut an aging gent some slack here—Labor Day has been the first Monday in September since it was instituted more than a century ago—a sop thrown to working men while Pullman, Rockefeller, Carnegie and other plutocrats were working them to early deaths at subsistence wages and reclaiming that pittance at the company stores.

Back to Memorial Day. It was instituted after the Civil War by General John Logan to honor the dead of the Union forces.  Then we went and got ourselves involved in all kinds of adventures around the world, most of them we shouldn't have been in: the war with Spain in Cuba and the Philippines, the First World War, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan (I’d except WW II and Korea from the list). We piled the bodies high and included in our memorializing all of the young Americans killed in those wars. Congress even got around to including the Confederate dead, though the 13 states of the Confederacy still have separate days to honor them. But north and south, we now put out the flags on the last Monday of May.  

So ours is out front today, gently waving in the breeze. 

But I’m going to put it out again on Friday,  May 30th

I'm designating that Cantankerous Old Man’s Memorial Day. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Popo throws a curve

When Mexico's Popocatapetl volcano erupted last week, I was taken back 16 years, to the summer of 1997.

Popo, as the Mexicans call it, had been stirring that summer, too, blowing smoke and water into the air, just as my six-week stint of teaching in Loyola's summer program at the Universidad Iberoamericana was ending. I wasn't concerned enough to change my flight plans, though, and early on the morning of my departure, I took a cab to the airport as if everything were normal.

I was standing in line  to check bags and get my seat assignment for the 7:30 flight to Houston when a voice over the loudspeaker reported that flights, which apparently had been grounded, would resume, though they would be delayed because only one of the two runways was in use. 

I puzzled over the report; I hadn't read the morning newspaper yet, and I did not know flights had been grounded. It was only after I had checked in and settled in at the coffee shop that I read that the volcano had erupted the evening before, and the ash had blown north and west and settled onto some sections of the city, the airport included.

Both of the runways had been covered with it and, at that early hour, workers had been able to clear only one.

Nevertheless, we passengers boarded the plane on time, and it appeared that we would depart on time. Then, over the intercom, came the pilot's ominous "Ladies and gentlemen...." Because of the problem we wouldn't be pulling away from the gate for about an hour, he said. That turned out to be a good estimate.

When the plane finally eased out onto the taxiway we could see a thin blanket of white ash, scarred with the wheelprints of aircraft and ground vehicles. 

I wanted to see Popo breathing smoke. The volcano is only about 40 miles to the southeast of Mexico City, and I had seen it often, when it was in repose, on my earlier trips in and out of the city. But the cloud of smog over the valley that morning  hung so far down that I couldn't see the cone, and even when we were in the air it was hidden.

As the plane leveled off, the pilot came back on the intercom to thank us all for our patience in the face of what he called the "the curve ball Mother Nature threw at us this morning."

Some pitcher, that mother.

Monday, March 11, 2013

An Accidental Meeting

I ran into a Loyola student last week.


It was about 11 a.m. on Wednesday. I was making a right turn from one multi-lane avenue into another and the student, in the lane to my left, turned right in a slightly wider arc at about the same time. The left front corner of my car creased the front and rear doors on his passenger side as he sped past me. My bumper and left fender suffered some damage, and both had splotches of paint rubbed from his car.

After we had parked and shaken our heads at the damages, he told me that he had been speeding to get to school.

“Loyola or Tulane,” I asked.


“What’s your major?”

“Music industry studies, but I’m also taking courses in music business.”

“I retired from Loyola a couple of years ago,” I volunteered. “I taught in mass comm.”

I gave him my name.

“Oh, yeah, geez. Now I know you,” he said, “You lectured on public speaking to my business communication class. You were awesome.”

That calmed the storm that had roiled my innards..

And seeing as how we had established our bond, he said, “I’m really sorry.”


I asked his name. “Timothy,” he said. (Why does no one under the age of 30 seem to have a last name?)

Both, we discovered are insured by State Farm. And while he called the company, I dialed 911.

Afterwards we looked at the damages again. “I know a guy who can pop that right out,” he said, looking at the long crease along his doors. Mine would have to go into a shop, certainly, but I didn’t know of a reputable one. And the shop would probably keep the car for a week, probably more. I swore under my breath.

I heard Timothy say, "This is my first accident." I silently swore again. Lucky me.

At least the weather was pleasant, and we took to the curb and made small talk. He told me about his dream to go on to law school and become an entertainment attorney. He also wants to buy a hat when he becomes an attorney and wear it to his office downtown as other attorneys do.

“Hats are coming back, I think,” he said. “I see lots of men wearing them. When did they go out of fashion?”

I said that President Kennedy didn’t like to wear hats, and that set a style for younger men.

“What about that president before him?” he asked. I forget his name.”

“Eisenhower. He wore hats, like most men of his time.”

“A hat will keep me from getting dandruff from the sun beating down on my head, too,” he said, and he bent his head and parted a swatch of thick, black hair. He did not have dandruff.

We talked about all the potholes that pockmark New Orleans’ streets, the broken streetlights, the city’s broken infrastructure generally, its underclass and their housing, the failure of office holders to improve conditions. And so we killed little more than an hour, and during that time no squad cars drove past the intersection in any direction. We remarked on that, too, because the intersection is near a relatively high crime area, and it is rare not to see one.

I did see a small car make the same illegal turn. It had the State Farm logo and an agent's name painted on the door.

 Nearly an hour and a half had gone by when a parade of some five or six squad cars drove past us.

“Must be heading from the donut shop to lunch,” I quipped. Timothy laughed. Another point for him.

All the drivers ignored my waving—all but the last, and I think he must have been the officer who had been sent to the scene after my call.

We gave him our licenses and registration and insurance cards. He handed us forms on which to describe the circumstances. That’s an improvement, I thought. Some years back, when one of my daughters was involved in an accident, the officer listened to the versions she and the other driver gave him and wrote the report. It would have received a D for spelling, grammar and composition from a sixth grade teacher. A generous sixth grade teacher.

Timothy and I gave the officer our completed forms, and he told me they matched in the important particulars. He gave Timothy a ticket for “improper lane usage” and handed back our credentials.

It was close to one o’clock.

Timothy and I shook hands. Neither of us said it had been nice to see the other again. Then he drove off to campus and, I can only suppose, to explain his absence to his professor. I drove home to explain my tardiness to the missus.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Elderly? Not quite.

      elderly Use this word carefully and sparingly.
      It is appropriate in generic phrases that do not
refer to specific individuals:
concern for the elderly, a home for the elderly, etc.
      If the intent is to show that an individual‘s physical or mental capabilities
have deteriorated as a direct result of age, cite a graphic example and give attribution for it
      Apply the same principle to terms such as senior citizens.
                                             --The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual

Most mornings at the breakfast table, the newspaper spread out in front of me, I come on references to someone about my age as “elderly” or even “old.” “Damn kid reporters,” I mutter. “They probably see anyone over 30 as ‘I mean, you know, like, ancient’” And they have not read the “AP Stylebook,” as they should have.

I have no objection to “senior citizen” as long as I’m getting the discount. I do object to “elderly” and “old,” however, and not just on journalistic grounds. It’s personal. (My use of it in the blog's standing matter is just funnin', as we say down South.)

I know I have some gray hair. Well, maybe most of what I have is gray. Regardless, I notice when I comb it that it is thinning (but who wants fat hair, I might wisecrack to my grandsons to watch their eyes roll). And when, with razor in hand, I look in the mirror every morning, I recognize the face right away. It is the same face I’ve been looking at since I began shaving, though it is somewhat wrinkled now and sags a bit in spots.

Otherwise I’m not aware of any major changes. In fact, I weigh the same as I did when I got out of the Army half a century ago, though I’ll concede that the weight is redistributed somewhat and, perhaps, a bit flabby When I change my shirt I notice—well, I’d rather not mention those.

Oh, yeah. One leg has become a touch gimpy. Putting on my shorts and trousers in the mornings has become a balancing act. And I’ve long since stopped practicing my Chevalier “Stairway to Paradise” routine.

I’ve experienced a few other changes, too. Once upon a time I had a doctor. One. Now he’s my “primary care physician,” and in recent years I’ve added enough specialists to seat around a poker table.

The eye doctor, whom I used to visit only when the golden arches logo on McDonald’s billboards got a little blurry, not long ago took away my spectacles—I’d worn glasses since I was eight or nine years old—removed cataract-clouded lenses from both of my eyes, and inserted machine-made lenses in their place. But while I can see him and his “E” clearly now, he still has me in for regular visits. “You aren’t getting any younger, you know,” he reminded me the last time. I still have glasses for close reading—five or six pairs in various places somewhere around the house. Give me a minute and I can find one.

I’ve acquired a cardiologist who is young enough to have two pre-school children. She observed that I have some sort of leakage in my heart. “But don’t worry,” she told me. “A lot of older people have that.” She told me she wanted to make sure that I didn’t have any fluid buildup. She prescribed a pill for me to take every morning that keeps me draining fluid all day, and often. She warned me not to take to the pill before going to bed. It would keep me going to the bathroom all night, she said. As if that would be a change in my routine.

There’s the GI doc, too, though I see him rarely now. When I was a young fellow of 58, he peered down into my esophagus fairly frequently for two or three months to see how a cancer that had developed there was responding to treatments by my chemotherapy and radiation docs. A few years later, he peered up into my colon—finding nothing, I’m happy to say. In my slightly drugged state during that exam, I thought I could hear him humming “I’ve looked at love from both sides now.”

Getting rid of the remains of the cancer, by the way, took a general surgeon and a thoracic surgeon. I didn’t meet the latter until he walked into the prep room to introduce himself just before the operation. Frankly, I was concerned, because he looked to me to be too young to be wearing scrubs. A Boy Scout uniform, yes. But he and the surgeon successfully took me apart, cut out what they were looking for, and put me back together. Is there a merit badge for surgery?

Most recently I acquired an audiologist. For a year or two—maybe more; I forget exactly—I endured the missus yelling “Get a hearing aid!” every time I asked “What?” in response to something she had said. So I finally had my ears tested and, after, bought a pair of hearing aids.

“How much were they?” she asked, when I came home wearing them. I told her--and it was her turn:  “WHAT?” she exclaimed, and I thought, but did not say—being only aging, not crazy—that if she had always spoken to me with that volume, I would not have needed the hearing aids.

Then, one recent evening I walked into the den while the missus was watching a college basketball game. I looked at the screen just as the scene switched from the court to the commentators’ booth. In the center was a much-lined, almost wizened, face I thought I knew. I will concede that I have a problem remembering names occasionally (the only folks I know immediately are the ubiquitous “whatsisname” and “whatsername”) and it took me a minute to slowly run through the alphabet testing names until I got to “N.”

“Knight!” I exclaimed. “Bobby Knight!” Of course. For many years he was the successful and controversial Indiana University basketball coach. Who could forget him?

I moved closer to the tv set and squinted.

“My gawd, he’s gotten old!” I said.

The missus said nothing. I looked at her. She stared at me with an odd and curious cat-that-swallowed-the canary expression on her face that pretty well told me what she thought.

I went up to my workroom and sat at the computer.

“Bobby Knight. He can’t be much older than I am, I thought. “Five or six years? Maybe seven?”

I typed his name into the Google search box on the screen and clicked to a biography.

“Born: October 25, 1940. “

Three and a half years younger than I.  I was astounded.

“My gawd!” I whispered. 

I could see in my mind’s eye that look that the missus had given me.

Since then, I have admitted to myself that I am somewhat worn, no longer quite the same fellow who worked at the peach-fuzz on his face with a Gillette blue blade safety razor.

But elderly? I don’t think so, no matter what those twenty-something reporters say.

Edging up on it, possibly.

But old? Hell, no.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Get It First, But Get It Right

George McGovern's death this week brought to mind an unlikely incident from election night in 1972, one that would tell me that I might be getting through to at least some students. At the same time, it would offer me a teaching opportunity that I missed that night but made good use of in the future.

I was an assistant professor in the Marquette University College of Journalism in those days, and I moonlighted as a reporter and news announcer for WISN. Too junior to teach summer school courses, I had jumped at the chance to be a summer replacement at the station when the news director, Don Froehlich, offered me the opportunity a year or so earlier. That turned into weekend work, as well, and stints covering special events like election nights
On election night in 1972, Don gave me the keys to the news department car and sent me downtown to report on the doings at the election night headquarters of the Democrats and their presidential candidate, George McGovern. McGovern had long trailed in the polls and was given no chance of winning, but how low he had sunk I did not know until then. Headquarters was in the Wisconsin Hotel, on Third Street, just north of Wisconsin Avenue.

Major candidates for statewide office and for the presidency, or their representatives, normally had suites in upscale hotels like the Schroeder Hotel, on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Fifth Street and the elegant old Pfister, on the East Side at Wisconsin and Jefferson Street.  Their supporters ate and drank and danced to live orchestras in the ballrooms. It was my observation (“Lorenz’s Law, I was bold enough to call it) that those candidates destined to win took up election night residence in the Pfister, and that held through the years that I was reporting.

I had never known a candidate’s headquarters to be at the Wisconsin. The hotel seemed to me to be about half a star above those establishments that rented rooms by the hour. Sailors going through boot camp at the Naval Station Great Lakes stayed there when on liberty in Milwaukee. But that’s where the McGovern operatives had settled. 

When I walked in, I spotted a telephone sign over an alcove off the lobby and I went over to it. On a bench seat in the alcove were two of my students, also reporting for radio stations that night. I greeted them and looked over at the pay telephones. Both had “Out of Order” signs on them.

I asked the boys if they knew where another telephone was. 

 “You can use one of these," one said softly. "We put those signs on them to make sure we had a phone when we needed one.”

The two of them had taken my history of journalism course the year before, and they had heard me lecture on the importance that reporters, over the years, had placed on establishing communications.

 I usually told the story of the excellent 19th century reporter Henry Grady, who was in Tallahassee to report on the award of the state’s disputed electoral votes in 1876. Before the decision was released, Grady checked on telegraph service and found that the  lines out of the city had been cut. He hired a buckboard and driver and they drove until he found a telegraph office with communication to the outside world. They returned to Tallahassee. When the decision was handed down—Hayes would get the votes—Grady jumped into the buckboard, and  while the driver lashed his horses to get full speed out of them, Grady sat alongside writing his story. When they reached the telegraph office, his story was not quite ready, so he gave the telegrapher a speller to send, thereby establishing his claim on the line until he finished the story. (There was a side lesson there, of course, on the reporter’s concern that he spell correctly

Later in the course, I told my students stories about Merriman Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning White House correspondent for United Press and its successor, United Press International. In April, 1945, he was at President Franklin Roosevelt’s Little White House at Warm Springs, Ga., when reporters were called to the President’s cabin. Smith spotted a telephone next to a chair when he entered the living room, and sensing something important was up—an end to the war in Europe or, possibly, an announcement about the president’s health—he hid the telephone behind the chair. When the press secretary announced FDR’s death, the other reporters ran out to find telephones. Smith waited until they were gone, retrieved the hidden phone and then called in his bulletin.

I also recounted the story of Smith’s work on the day President Kennedy was assassinated. He was riding the front seat of the wire service car in the presidential motorcade in Dallas and just happened to be talking on the car’s radiotelephone to someone in UPI’s Dallas bureau when he heard shots fired. He dictated the first bulletin, that three shots had been fired at the motorcade, and gave what other details he could as the cars sped to Parkland hospital. Jack Bell, the Associated Press correspondent, was sitting in the back seat, and began to beat on Smith and demand his turn with the phone. He raised welts on Smith's back, but the UPI man would not let go.  When the press car wheeled into the hospital’s emergency room entrance, Smith tossed the phone at Bell, jumped out of the car and sprinted past the president’s limousine. He saw Mrs. Kennedy’s roses lying in the president’s blood in the back seat and asked Secret Service agent Clint Hill, who was standing near the car, the president’s condition. “He’s dead,” Hill said. Smith sprinted into the hospital, found a telephone at a nurse’s station and began dictating those details. Smith scored a clear beat for UPI that day, partly out of luck, I said, but also because he knew that it wasn't enough to get the story, it was crucial to get it out and on the wire.  
The students sitting by those telephones had taken to heart the lesson of those stories, and I was proud of them. Years later, however, I also regularly taught a mass communication ethics course, and I used them as an example of going over the line in controlling communications. Grady using a speller to “own” the telegraph line was one thing;  their putting a bogus “Out of Order" sign on a telephone was another. And my comment to those ethics students was that while I would have given those two fellows an A for mastering the history lesson, had I had them in ethics, I would have had to give them an F. 

Did I use one of those pay phones, you might ask. You bet.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Kansas City Milkman

Marc Murdock, a longtime teacher at Kansas City’s Jesuit high school, Rockhurst, died recently.

I never had Marc Murdock for a class. How I missed chemistry or, especially, algebra with him I do not know. His obit states that he “scared the quadratic equation into hundreds, even thousands, of young men.”  But given my abilities in math, I doubt that even he could have scared the material into me, and my academic life might well have ended in his classroom.

But because I was on the staffs of Rockhurst’s monthly news magazine, Prep News, and the yearbook, The Chancellor, however, I did have frequent association with him. He took most of the photographs for both publications, and he was moderator of the yearbook. He was a very nice fellow, and I liked him and got along well with him.

At least until one morning during Christmas vacation of my senior year. Yearbook staff members were supposed to be at school that day to work on the book. But as dedicated to journalism as I was, I was crazy in love with the enchanting Helen Mary D'Arcy, and vacation time was better spent with her, at her house, my teen-age reasoning went, than with a bunch of other guys in that dank basement room at Rockhurst that was allotted to the yearbook (I still think so).

At some point there was a knock on the back door.


Helen Mary’s mother asked if I would get the door.

When I opened it, I came face to face with the milkman from Country Club Dairy: Marc Murdock.  A 25-year-old high school teacher with a family that would grow to 12 children, he delivered milk during vacation periods, and the families of a good number of his students were on his varied routes. On that day, he was delivering in the Indian Hills area of suburban Johnson County.

Mr. Murdock was not happy to see me, nor I him.

"Aren't you supposed to be at the school?" he asked. I said I was, or maybe I just nodded sheepishly. He handed me the milk and whatever else he was delivering and left.

Mr. Murdock never said word after that about my being A.W.O.L., and I continued to work on the yearbook up to the time we sent it to the printer. My picture appeared in the staff photos in the book.  

At the honors assembly in the spring, however, when staff members were called to the front, one by one, and awarded golden lapel pins for their work, my name was not called.

So while I never had Mr. Murdock as a teacher, he taught me a good lesson—one  that Woody Allen put in  words years later, and one that I passed on to my students occasionally: "Eighty percent of success is showing up."

A footnote. Ten years later, when I was working for United Press International, I picked up a novel about journalists with a foreign bureau of a fictional news agency. It was The Kansas City Milkman, written by a former United Press foreign correspondent. It took its title from an admonition to a rookie correspondent from the fictional bureau chief, though it was supposedly once spoken by a real-life UP editor: "And remember, you are writing so it can be understood by the Kansas City Milkman. If the Kansas City Milkman can't understand it, the dispatch is badly written."  I still have that book, and I've occasionally thought of  my vacation-day encounter with Mr. Murdock, that vacation-time Kansas City milkman, when I have glanced over and seen  it on the shelf.

And a footnote to that. If you have seen the movie Broadcast News, you will remember that there is a flashback in which William Hurt's anchorman character is shown as a boy with his father—a  Kansas City milkman.

R.I.P. Mr. Murdock.