Frank Augustine sent me this photograph of the Watertown Daily Times newsroom, election night, November 1951. Frank's retired now. He told me the Times has just started printing a Sunday edition, and it was kind of a shock. The paper's gone metropolitan. I probably wouldn't know the place today.
That's Frank there on the rim, third from the right, with the long slicked-back hair, the long face and glasses and the somewhat wistful look. I'm sitting third from the left, practically a college kid still, two years out of Harvard, already married and a father.
I didn't mention the Harvard part any more than I had to.
The personage dominating the center -- I mean, the center of attention -- at the left foreground is Gordon W. Bryant, the city editor, at home in the slot.
I remember him better than I remember some people I met last week. With that hook nose and those prosecutor's eyes, he looked like a rooster when he got mad. And always the cigar, in his mouth, or held delicately between his fingers like a cigarette, or resting on the nearest flat surface. His hands were wonderfully articulate, almost dainty, and he could rip a newspaper neatly down the column lines with a surgeon's sure, quick movements.
The guy standing second from the left is John B. Johnson, the editor and publisher. I was the first person John hired, for $40 a week. His father, the redoubtable Harold B. Johnson, who had built the paper up into what someone called a liberal (though Republican, of course) beacon in northern New York State, had died just a few months before I came up to try for a job, straight out of college. It was 1949.
The first day I reported to work was a Sunday. I climbed the narrow, steep, dark staircase from the street -- very Upstate New York, those boxed-in wooden staircases -- and entered the city room on the second floor left.
Gordonwas alone. He had his back to me, but he knew I was there, all right. I walked clear up to the desk before he half-turned. I introduced myself. A one-shake handshake. Eyes narrowed behind the rimless glasses. A grunt.
"You got a place to stay?"
"No, uh, Mr. Johnson said you -- "
He handed me the phone book. "Mrs. George Kieff," he said, and turned back to his Sunday New York Times in one swift motion. I made the call and got a room.
Gordon scared the pants off me. It was at least two years before I realized that he liked me.
You can see we had a classic slot and rim at the Times. Gordon sat in the center of that curved desk, his chair raised on a dais, as was only fitting. There were five of us editors ranged around him on the rim. That's Howard Lennon sitting on the far left. He handled the wire news. All day he sat there cutting and pasting, a pencil behind his ear. He wore a hat to work, a tall fedora that he left undented, giving him the look of a banker in a western. Regularly he and Gordon would go across the alley to the Arcade where a barber named Speedy H. DeCastro would give them both haircuts inside of 10 minutes.
Gordon spent his lunch hours watching the stock ticker in some nearby broker's office and his evenings bowling. All the rest of the time he was in his slot, handing out assignments and mail (talk about control: he sorted the mail for the whole paper), checking every piece of copy on its way to the composing room, growling into the phone, compiling the paper's best-read column, the news briefs on the back page, and skewering anybody who got a middle initial wrong.
The reason we were all there on election night is that before everybody had TV, people called the paper to find out how it was going. We had runners who brought in the precinct counts and women from Classified collated the totals on adding machines. The rest of us were on the phones, reading off the totals to callers. It was the same with the World Series.
The Times covered a huge area of northern New York, from Syracuse to Lake George, from the St. Lawrence River to practically Utica. There were dozens of hamlets hidden in the Adirondacks, Faulknerian retreats where strangers rarely intruded and usually regretted it when they did.
We covered every one of these places. In each we had a correspondent, paid a nickel an inch, most of them old librarians or retired telephone operators or simply the local gossips. They remained loyal to their neighbors, so one of our main jobs on the desk -- aside from slashing back the ramping prose caused by the space rates -- was to read between lines, to search for the real story that the correspondents were keeping from us.
One woman sent a four-page report of a bridge party in Pulaski, written in a beautifully cursive hand in pencil. She described the prizes and who won them, the refreshments, even a couple of dramatic bridge hands. The last sentence read, "Sadly enough, after they left the party, driving home in the snow, Mr. and Mrs. Lapointe went off the embankment and were killed."
As it happened, we had covered the accident two weeks earlier. But this will give you an idea of what we were up against.
If the mail was slow, the phone service was all but useless. Everybody out there had party lines, and they knew that so many rings was Mrs. So-and-so's phone, which meant that everybody listened in, which meant that the call got extremely faint.
We had a couple of special booths built into the wall, and when old Mrs. Winthrop phoned in from the farthest reach of Essex County, one of us would have to go into this hot little closet, close the door and strain to hear her news.
It was so bad that she had to spell out almost every word. And she had a small eccentricity: Instead of saying "b as in boy" like anybody else, she would say, "that's 'v' as in the third letter of 'love.' " Or "h" as in the fourth letter of "Washington." Or "g" as in the third letter of "August." It took awhile to get the hang of it.
Some of them wrote nothing but nature observations. We got a lot of items every spring about the crocuses and the ice breaking up on the Black River. In fact the paper ran a daily meditation on nature, just under the daily photo depicting Watertown's history: old baseball teams, deceased buildings, forgotten lawn parties. The nature column ran about eight inches, mostly adjectives, and I had to edit it and put a headline on it every day for two years. I got so I rather looked forward to it.
One Easter Saturday I slipped past Gordon a head that read "Et Resurrexit!" A high point of my career.
In all my four years of reading the Watertown Times correspondents, the item that most sticks in my mind is a fire outside Malone. It was a terrible fire: A large frame house burned to the ground, and two families were left homeless. We got the story by telegram, pages and pages of it pasted by the line onto yellow paper. Gordon gave it to me to edit because I was good at figuring out the typos that invariably crept in during transmission.
Halfway into the story, the correspondent mentioned that a young boy had jumped from a third-story window and landed in a rain barrel. I thought this was kind of amusing and read it aloud. We all laughed. What an image.
Then someone said, "Boy, that must have hurt."
Well, yes. Of course. A rain barrel isn't that big. He surely was injured. Quickly, for we were on deadline, I phoned the correspondent. What happened to the kid who jumped into the rain barrel?
The correspondent didn't answer for a moment. She cleared her throat.
"Well, you see," she said. "Uh. The boy was killed."
Suddenly the story was banner news.
"Oh," I said.
She cleared her throat.
"I was saving that for tomorrow," she said.
The guy standing on the very left is Harry F. Landon, our managing editor. He wrote a series of North Country histories, all of which appeared first in the Times, already set in book-length lines. He was the one who put me on the desk.
"That's where the money is," he said, as he raised me to $45 a week.
Every six months he would beckon me into his glass office -- out of sight here, just to the left -- and look up from his crossword puzzle and give me a $5 raise. I was making $75 a week when I left after four years, lured away to California by a paper that paid $85.
Next to him, John Johnson looks rather diffident. Once a year or so, Gordon would storm up to the executive office with some beef or other, but I suspect John's quiet confidence was not easily shaken.
There was a famous story about his father H.B., whom I never met. He had witnessed a boating accident from his summer place on the Thousand Islands and wanted us to run a map of the site. Bob Pettit drew a conventional map with north at the top.
No no, said H.B., it had to be the way he had seen it from his porch, with east at the top.
You can't do that, Bob said. North is always at the top.
H.B. summoned Gordon. You can't do that, Gordon said. North is always at the top.
Harry Landon said the same thing.
H.B. phoned Rand McNally in New York. Took him half of a Monday morning to reach a person with enough authority to tell him that, no, you can't do that, north is always at the top. Always. Absolutely. Never any other way.
H.B. turned to Harry, waiting there on the old leather sofa among the antique photos and dusty histories.
"Well," said H.B., hanging up the phone with a good-fellow smile. "Well, Harry, it looks like ... we're both wrong!"
Gordon never went to college. He was brought in during an election before World War I, when H.B. asked the local high school to send him its brightest student to help with the tabulations. Except for the war, when he went overseas -- picking up a surprising amount of French along the way -- Gordon remained at the paper until he died, three years ago.
I remember the time Gordon sent one of his young college hotshots out to interview a famous retired bootlegger (Watertown is right next to the Canadian border). Kid comes back white-faced. No story.
"He threw me down the stairs," the kid says.
Gordon takes out his cigar, taps it with his ring finger, juts his chin out.
"Go on back up there," he snarls. "Go on up and bang on his door again. That old jailbird -- he can't scare me!"
That's Alan S. Emory, now an Old Washington Hand, standing just to the right of John. Alan had an MA from Columbia Journalism, as did Fanny Rinn, sitting at the far right in back with her elbow out. Fanny, a former Brookings fellow, is now a political science professor at San Jose State University in California. Alan covers Washington for the Watertown Times to this day.
Our master political writer was Bill Pearson, third from the right in the far rear. Bill died young. He was always grumbling that nobody bothered to teach the new kids a thing about journalism. He was right. They didn't then and they still don't.
Something else: You didn't get bylines automatically, by any means, in those days. They were given out like medals, for exceptional work. No one would dream of writing one's own byline at the top of a story.
Oh Lord. There are the Pepp brothers, John the obit man, in the center, looking skeptical, and Dominic the police reporter on the extreme right, who quit once and moved to Ohio but came back. John H. Brior, next to Dom, covered City Hall and always wore his belt buckle to the side. We never knew why. You can see it there.
The Times covered the world. But though its outlook was staunchly international, it had what you would have to call an obsession with the local angle. Our front page would carry, say, a wire story about the Hindenburg disaster. On the back page, which was our main local page, would be a separate story telling how the Hindenburg had once flown over the North Country. With map and dotted line and quotes from eyewitnesses.
One great story, to become an Adirondack legend, was about a fish. A game warden had caught a man with a 5 1/2-inch brook trout in his creel. The man protested that he had caught the fish several hours before and that it had been the regulation six inches ... but had shrunk.
Well! The case went to court. The Times covered it every day. And at the climax, a professor from St. Lawrence University testified that, yes, a fish could shrink as it dried. Possibly even a half-inch.
No story was too big for the Times; no story was too small. Shirley Doxtader, our society editor (just left of center, with the smile and the curly hair), once interviewed a couple I knew who had come back from Rome. The conversation was getting nowhere until they finally worked out the problem. The couple had been to Rome, Italy. Shirley thought they had been to Rome, N.Y. That's another thing that couldn't happen today at the Watertown Times.
The social news item is gone now, I guess. You have to drive a long way off the interstate to find a paper that runs stories about how Mr. and Mrs. Al Trimble went to Ithaca last weekend to visit their daughter, Mr. and Mrs. John Baines. Or how Miss Evelyn Cortland was surprised at a wedding shower by her classmates (named). Or how Peter Barlow is laid up with a sprained back from falling off his hay wagon and wants to thank his friends.
We used to laugh at those things, we college kids. We collected funny names. Hattie Squackhammer. Mrs. Alan Clapsaddle. Shaheen J. Shaheen, who lived at the Kiklevitch Hotel. But gradually we realized that those items were what life is all about, someone's life, anyway, along with the 12 pages of pickle recipes in the Farm and Garden section, and the small boys who brought snakes in jars into the newsroom, and old Dave Lane's reviews of the Watertown Little Theater that recounted the entire plot and mentioned not only the actors and directors and stage managers but the costumes, scenery, lighting, programs, prompters, prop donors and half the people in town.
We college kids wrote acid little reviews of local productions, but rarely more than one each. Because the victim -- a living, actual person -- would march into the newsroom and confront us furiously across the desk. Very educational.
I could tell you about the time we saw a numbers racketeer counting a hatful of bills in a car parked just under our window (both our photographers were out on assignment, naturally). I could tell you about Lois Van Arsdale, the beautiful blond reporter, 6 feet tall and wild, who wore a leather motorcycle jacket -- this was 1950, remember -- and frightened Ogdensburg to death. And reporter Bill Hills, who almost died of polio but was nursed through it by his skiing buddy, Marion Jones, and recovered, and married her.
And the correspondent in Adams Center who brought God into every story and even into her memos, e.g.: "Greetings in the Name of the Risen Savior. I see I am almost out of large envelopes ... "
And the town characters: Tex, who went around in full cowboy regalia complete with two toy six-guns and rode among the milk trucks in the Fourth of July parade, on a saddle mounted behind a cop's motorcycle. Tex would come into the office now and then and sing a facsimile of "Red River Valley." And Clarkie, the 50-year-old newsboy who would say whatever some sly printer told him to say when he hawked his papers downtown. He was so fierce-looking it was an act of courage to buy a paper from him. After the death of H. B. Johnson -- that journalistic pioneer who had created a great newspaper practically from scratch -- Clarkie shambled through the Arcade shouting, "Old Johnson died -- used to work for the Times!"
And the wedding stories I wrote, including the gowns and flowers and ring-bearer's outfit, and the features about the Jefferson County Fair, down to the third-prize winner in string beans, and the time I took over the Lowville bureau for three weeks in an emergency, knowing no one in town, and almost got arrested by the state troopers when I showed up at a highway fatal, asking for middle initials.
And all those days in the old building -- it's gone now, the paper moved long ago to a new one -- in that familiar old city room, its vaguely cream-colored walls grimed with age and plastered mysteriously with calendars from York, Pa., the city room where we were expected to come in for a half day Saturdays and holidays just to show how we loved the place, that tangle of wires and lights overhead, the creaking floors, the littered desks, the paste pots, those old Underwoods, the peculiar phones that had lights on them so you could tell, amid the general uproar, which one was ringing ... Oh Lord.