Alfred E. Lewis has cleaned out his locker at police headquarters. He dispensed with all the yellowed clippings and commendations, the rusted padlocks, the torn precinct maps, the preposterous neckties and sport coats. He has cleaned out the locker and slammed it shut. After covering the police beat at The Washington Post for half a century, Al Lewis retires Friday.
"I covered my first murder for The Post in 1935," he said. "It was an ax murder. Somebody chopped a guy in the head with an ax. Split him right down the middle, I swear it. It was at night in an alley. The only way you could see anything was with a flashlight. I showed up on the scene and I asked the lieutenant, 'What's going on? I hear there's been a murder.' He said, 'That's right.'
"I said, 'Where's the body?' and he said, 'Kid, you're stepping in some of it.' "
In those days Washington was a five-newspaper town: The Post, The Daily News, The Star, The Herald and The Times. For decades after his arrival at police headquarters, fellow reporters referred to Lewis as "the new kid." Only a stint in the South Pacific with the Marines during World War II interrupted his career at the paper.
He has been padding around police headquarters longer than anyone still in uniform. He was a seasoned reporter when Police Chief Maurice Turner was a rookie. When he walks the dim echoing halls at headquarters, he is greeted by police officers almost as a colleague.
He is a rumpled figure of a slightly melancholy mien. His most familiar outfit consists of a battered blue Metropolitan Police cardigan, baggy pants, black oxfords and white socks. His creaky brown chair in the press room has worn a groove in the wall and his steel desk is fairly bulging with ancient memoranda and six-ply copy paper. Al Lewis is known, too, for his sumptuous lunches, typically an egg salad sandwich and a thermos of plain hot water.
Scores of young reporters have spent an exhausting morning at headquarters with Lewis playing the wise and patient guide. The second step of the initiation is to share a byline with Alfred E. Lewis. That byline has appeared on approximately 15,000 stories and he is the first and only Post reporter to have earned a 50-year pin, an award he received two months ago.
"Fifty years at this paper. That's a lot of fires and murders and disasters," Lewis said. "But it hasn't been all rape, murder and mayhem. I've had such a wonderful, wonderful time. I'm gonna try not to miss it too much but I know I will."
Lewis' best-known piece of reporting came after burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate on June 17, 1972. While other reporters waited outside, Lewis walked calmly into the building accompanied by the acting chief of police. From a desk in the Watergate Lewis dictated the first details of the story. He described the five men who had been arrested, their surveillance equipment, the amounts of cash each man carried, what they wore and even what they had for dinner before the break-in.
"What a great guy he is," said Bob Woodward, one of eight reporters to contribute to that first Watergate story. "Al knew all the cops and they just let him stroll on in."
At a lunch to honor him on his 72nd birthday on Monday, Lewis recalled his highlights as a reporter: "I covered a space shot, the marriage of Rita Hayworth and Aly Khan in Cannes, the Berlin airlift, the assassination of President Kennedy. The Hayworth wedding was a great time. You know how long that ceremony was? Seven days!" Lewis said.
"But the only reason I was in France was because I was having a battle with the police chief, who was Bob Barrett back then. He'd threatened to kill me. I don't know how serious he was but I thought that was a perfect time for a vacation."
James Palmer, director of the D.C. Department of Corrections, said, "Al Lewis has been like an institution. He's a wealth of knowledge and knows everything that's happenned in this city."
"I guess I'm part of a disappearing breed," Lewis said. He is the sort of old-time reporter who dictated his stories to a rewrite man.
Lewis grew up in Waterbury, Conn., and began his career in New York as a copy boy at the old Evening Graphic, where he ran errands for Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell. Later he helped compile stock tables for the United Press.
While on vacation in Washington in February 1935, Lewis ran into Raymond Clapper, who had just left the wire service for a job as a columnist at The Post. Lewis insisted he wasn't looking for a job -- he had one in New York after all, he was just on holiday -- but he agreed to help out one night at the paper by running copy from the news room to the composing room. He never returned to New York. Within a month the city editor, Luther Huston, made Lewis the night police reporter.
The "new kid" did fine for himself at police headquarters, developing a familiarity with an ongoing stream of police administrators and officers. That familiarity, his ease with people and their ease with him, produced some startling stories.
In 1958 a young burglary suspect named Andrew Mallory chose to turn himself over to Lewis instead of the police. Mallory said he remembered Lewis telling him to "try to be a good citizen and obey the law." Lewis had another front-page story that day, and in honor of that performance, publisher Philip L. Graham declared Feb. 25, 1958, "Alfred E. Lewis Day" at The Washington Post.
For decades he has been known as "Uncle Al" to his younger colleagues, a group that includes precisely everyone in the news room. For a mock issue of The Washington Post honoring Lewis' 50th year with the paper in February, publisher and former D.C. patrolman Donald Graham wrote the lead editorial:
"When Al came here, The Post was running dead last in a five-newspaper town. Nobody knew how long it could stay afloat. Al is -- sad to say -- the last Post person who remembers the bad early days of the 1930's . . . When they recite the names of the great people who built this place, Uncle Al's belongs right up there."
Alfred E. Lewis, for his part, wants it known that his retirement will not be total.
"Don't say I'm retiring, exactly," he said after covering a quadruple homicide in Southeast yesterday. "If you say I'm quitting I'll never get any calls. Say I'll be working from time to time. I'm not entirely finished with the beat."