As a lowly dictationist at The Star during 1967, long before computers, it was my job to snap on a headset and furiously type the stories that reporters in the field dictated by telephone. The Star didn't hire typists for the job. Young people with some journalistic experience who wanted to get a start in the business were hired. With a 6-month-old journalism degree and that much time as a reporter at the Northern Virginia Sun in Arlington, I considered myself ready for the big time.
At the family-run Star, nearly everyone was friendly, kind and helpful. People I had only dreamed of meeting someday would stop to chat with me, a dictationist.Haynes Johnson and Mary McGrory were about the biggest names at the paper then. They would[TEXT ILLEGIBLE] -- and really want to know -- how my budding career was coming.
Typing mistakes were considered bad form and since the dictationists were treated as an important part of the news-gathering business, I soon got good at my job. And so I typed the important fast-breaking stories sometimes with editors leaning over my shoulder taking the copy out of my typewriter by the paragraph. Lyle Denniston would call in with a landmark Supreme Court decision issued on The Star's deadline. Johnson would dictate one of his "Mood of America" pieces from some unknown town in the Midwest. My first international telephone call was from a White House reporter traveling with President Johnson. That's when I learned that only one voice is transmitted at a time. I couldn't interrupt the reporter to tell him I had missed a word or phrase. The ultimate ego booster was one reporter who would ask me how to write her stories.
In quiet moments, Star dictationists wrote the newspaper's obituaries. It was a way of showing that we could report and write too. We worked under the city editor, Sidney Epstein, a terrifying man whose first name happened to be the same as mine. When it was a big story or he was made, Epstein's face would turn red and he would puff on his cigarette. Dictationists quivred for fear his cutting remarks would be aimed at them.
The sub-editors all had a healthy respect for Epstein too, but they did like to have their little jokes. When someone telephoned with an obituary, the sub-editor would call out to a dictationist, "Barry, take an obit on [line] three." But when fun was afoot, the sub-editor would boom, "Sid, take an obit on nine." From the back I could see Epstein's shoulder twitch and an ear turn red as everyone burst out laughing. The Star was a wonderful place and I always wanted to go back there after my children were big enough. Now I can't.