My friend Ed Tribble died Monday. Like everyone else who worked either with or for him at our old paper, The Washington Star, I was swamped with memories, mostly pictures of a most improbable city editor.
I see him standing, spare, erect behind the city desk quizzically looking out on the assemblage fate had dealt him to join in the impossible, exhilarating business of putting out five editions of an evening paper.
These exertions came to be appreciated less and less by the Washington public, which began receiving its news through television, a medium he disdained because he found it shallow and incomplete. In 1981, The Star, to which Tribble had come in 1933, ceased publication.
The Star was a marvelous collection of people who ranged from individualistic to eccentric. We had shouters and drinkers, drones and poets -- and an obituary writer who absent-mindedly dialed his own number one day, and was unctuously expressing condolences until his wife broke in impatiently and said, "Snub, you damn fool, you called your own house."
Edwin Tribble was not a person that people who derive their notions of newspapering from Hollywood would expect to see presiding over the barely confined chaos of daily deadlines. He was a gentlemanly Georgian, a person of early American probity, a wit and a scholar, who loved literature, music and opera. He regarded newspaper work as a high calling and felt that a paper had a duty to be rational, objective and truthful. He was unruffled amid the tension and panic. But he had a bleeding ulcer, which made us realize that the perfectionist paid his price.
He fought an endless war against wordiness, distortion and hype. His instructions were crisp, issued in a deep southern accent. Accuracy, simplicity, brevity, he preached to several generations of reporters.
He refreshed himself, after coping with the day's dose of bad leads, jumpy transitions and tangled syntax by reading succinct writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
"A prose poem," he would say dryly of some piece of copy that had gone through an editorial pencil less austere than his own.
What made him special was that he felt an obligation to share his endless pleasure in the human comedy. He knew that many were in the business literally for the fun of it: Salaries were nothing much. At the old Star, rampant careerism, which makes many a work place a joyless site, was in check. The paper was family-owned and the highest posts often went to family members. If that frustrated strivers, it also created a notable lack of uptightness.
We gathered every day in the lunchroom to rehash the day's events. Tribble was our commentator, spilling out gibes and gems on what he had read, what he had observed of the encounters between the paper's characters and personalities and what he had noticed in walks around the city.
Tribble had rather a distinguished military career during World War II with the Allied Military Government. All he told us about it was his enjoyment of walking around London.
On integration, he was firm, laconic. The bred-in-the-bone southerner was a quiet progressive.
He read every line in the paper and was much diverted by society coverage. I remember his chortling delight over a lament about one of the "casualties" of the Korean War -- "the shortened stag lines at the debutante parties."
He hated glitz -- and adored New York City. He gravely introduced his grandson, Frank Hart, to its wonders as part of his education. He never lost his country boy's relish in the racket. He said once, "You know it's a serious responsibility to pause on the streets of New York. I stopped at 42nd Street to glance at the headlines in a newspaper, and I felt the pedestrians piling up behind me all the way to 68th Street."
He began his life's work while in college. As an undergraduate at Mercer University, working his way through, he became the youngest city editor in the history of The Macon Telegraph.
Upon retirement from The Star in 1972, Tribble began to write his own copy, editing the letters of Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling Galt.
"A President in Love" had considerable success. Tribble was bemused by its sale to television.
He followed it with "A Chime of Words," a collection of the letters of English essayist Logan Pearsall Smith. He was working on a biography of America's first career diplomat, William Short.
I saw him just before he died. He was weak, but showed flashes of the old spirit, voluble, stoic -- and touched to tears by a letter from his old Star editor Newbold Noyes, who wrote him that "you held the place together."