The Washington Post

William Mohr, U.S. Senate’s last shorthand reporter of debates, dies at 95

Mr. Mohr, an official reporter of debates of the U.S. Senate, writes with a quill pen as he stands beside Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in 1976. (AP)

William Mohr, an official reporter of debates of the U.S. Senate for 23 years, preferred the furious speed of shorthand to the steady click of a stenotype machine. Long after his colleagues adopted modern keyboard technologies, he went to work with a notepad cradled in his arm.

On his retirement in 1989, Mr. Mohr was the Senate’s last reporter of debates working with pen and paper. He died June 20 at a hospital in Washington at 95. The cause was pneumonia, said his wife, Lynne Mohr.

Mr. Mohr was a stalwart member of the team of stenographers who took down the speeches, debates, outbursts and utterances on the Senate floor. When he came to Washington in 1966, he joined the generations of reporters who had used shorthand to contend with the onslaught of words.

His profession, today regarded as a critical role in the legislative process, was created during the early years of the U.S. government, and seemingly as an afterthought. Initially, the Senate, like the U.S. House of Representatives, employed no official reporters and relied on newspapers to chronicle its proceedings.

That arrangement, while easy on government coffers, provided an inconsistently accurate record of the goings-on of Capitol Hill. One independent reporter of House debates during the First Congress, Thomas Lloyd, identified speakers simply as the “baldheaded man” or the “man in blue coat and wig,” according to a publication of the Senate Historical Office.

Over the years, note-taking on floor proceedings became more regular, less outwardly partisan, increasingly professional and, eventually, official. The Congressional Record containing the debates of Congress was established in 1873.

The introduction in the late 1840s of Pitman shorthand — a phonetic form of stenography that, to the unacquainted, might look like a garble of curls and loops — improved accuracy significantly, Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie said in an interview. A century later, it was Mr. Mohr’s favored form of stenography.

He was born Feb. 28, 1919, in New York and began his shorthand training after high school, frequently competing in speed contests. In the early years of his career, he was a court reporter in New Jersey.

Mr. Mohr and his Senate colleagues worked on the floor in rotations, returning to their offices to dictate the shorthand notes that were then converted into written English.

During a filibuster or prolonged session, Mr. Mohr and his colleagues worked gruelingly long hours, sometimes resting on cots between turns. Some senators used regional slang that required special attention. At least one senator expressed his enthusiasm in whoops that Mr. Mohr found difficult to render on paper, his wife recalled. Fast talkers, however, did not pose particular difficulty.

“He didn’t mind the speed,” said Jerry Linnell, the current chief reporter of the official reporters of debate in the Senate. “Everyone admired him because of the fact that he was the last pen writer, and they looked up to him because he had so many years of experience and was very good at what he did.”

As stenotype technology became more advanced, pen writers were replaced through attrition by reporters trained to use the keyboard. Mr. Mohr said that he briefly considered experimenting with it.

“I thought I would see what the machine was like and start learning it on my own,” he once told The Washington Post. “But I realized that if I achieved the ultimate speed on the machine, I’d be just where I was now. So I couldn’t figure the advantage in putting in all that time and effort.”

Mr. Mohr found his skills in demand outside the Senate, particularly among scholars who required the deciphering of historical documents written in shorthand. His projects included translating the notes of John G. Nicolay, a personal secretary to President Abraham Lincoln, and Martha Strayer, a journalist who attended the press conferences of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

After Mr. Mohr retired, the Senate hired him to translate for publication the 2,800-page journal of Montgomery C. Meigs, who was the supervising engineer for the Capitol extension project before becoming the Union Army’s quartermaster general during the Civil War. The resulting book, “Capitol Builder,” was an “eye opener” that would not have been possible without Mr. Mohr, Ritchie said.

Mr. Mohr’s first wife, the former Joy Serpico, died in 1982 after 34 years of marriage.

Survivors include his wife of 26 years, Lynne Grant Mohr of Potomac, Md.; two children from his first marriage, Maryann Mohr of Waynesboro, Pa., and Joy Ellen Jenkins of Thurmont, Md.; three grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

When Mr. Mohr retired, the Senate passed a resolution in his honor. “With the retirement of William D. Mohr, as the United States Senate’s last pen shorthand reporter,” it noted, came “the end of an era.” The resolution, naturally, was entered into the record.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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