Back on March 12, 1908, 32 Washington newspapermen met and decided that the capital needed a press club, a place to conduct research, swap information and, if the truth be known, drink.
And when the rolls were thrown open, 152 signed up as charter active members -- many of whose names are still well-known to people of a certain age, such as correspondent Fred A. Emery of the Baltimore Sun, editorialist Ira E. Bennett of The Washington Post, reporter J. Russell Young of the Evening Star (later, by President Truman's appointment, a District commissioner), Mike Flynn, later the legendary tyrant of a managing editor at the Times-Herald, and Frederic J. Haskin, whose syndicated "Ask Haskin" feature produced answers to political and historical questions that win Trivial Pursuit games for many of us unto this day.
The last survivor among the 152 charter members of the National Press Club, the last link to the 1908 founding, died the other day. Jerome Fanciulli passed on at 97 in Leesburg. He spent most of his working life as an aircraft and truck salesman, but he was present as a reporter for two major aviation events, both at Fort Myer.
By all accounts, Fanciulli last visited the Press Club for its 75th anniversary celebration in 1983. He then reminisced that a fellow member -- club minutes disclose that it was Young -- made a motion, adopted after heated debate, that the club should not grant credit to members for food or drink.
An earlier press club had failed because "the club drank itself to death" on credit, Fanciulli said, but its modern version has "lasted all these years" on a cash basis.
As a young reporter for The Post in the year the Press Club was organized, Fanciulli was among the first to reach the wreck when Orville Wright crashed at Fort Myer and Lt. Thomas Selfridge died, the first aviation casualty in U.S. military history. The following year, Fanciulli covered the successful flight by Wright from Fort Myer to Alexandria and back for the Associated Press.
Both events made front-page news, and Fanciulli was doubtless the last reporter who witnessed them. But at least one other still-living person was at both events -- Oliver H. Renninger, now 101 and living in a Veterans Administration hospital in Pennsylvania. Renninger was part of an Army contingent assigned to support both flights. And Harold (Happy) Erwin of Fairfax, still actively selling Virginia real estate, viewed the Alexandria flight as a lad of 6.
A postscript: On Aug. 22, 1908, Fanciulli arranged for a meeting at the Press Club that led to the founding of another venerable Washington organization, the Aero Club. Among those who attended were Orville Wright, Lt. Selfridge and Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois, who was to become chief of the old Army Air Corps from 1931 to 1935.