Woodworking: Our profession is no different: Plenty of tall tales to tell
I suppose every occupation has its reminiscers. Teachers talk about professors they've known (usually absentminded); plumbers have grisly stories about septic tanks; politicians tell of solons of the past who really knew how to turn a phrase.
I got into journalism late in life, when I was over 40.
Until that time I had admired the famous practitioners, like Addison and Steele, H.L. Mencken, Walter Lippman, Woodward and Bernstein.
So once I joined the Fourth Estate, I was somewhat shocked to learn that many of my idols in the journalism game had feet of clay.
I learned about their weaknesses every noon when I gathered with old-timers for lunch at The Little Wagon, near City Hall and the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.
The long termers liked nothing better than to tell about writers, editors and journalists they'd known over the years.
My new friends didn't relate stories of great derring-do and scoops that toppled presidencies. They told about the foolishness that went on in the business.
Columnist Robert T. Smith remembered that when he was a cub reporter, he sat on a train bound for a Minneapolis Millers game with Halsey Hall.
"Halsey had a suitcase with him, full of whiskey. I asked Halsey why the suitcase, can't we drink in the club car and put it on our expense account.
"Halsey replied, 'Kid, you never know when you're going to hit a town where they're having an election.'"
Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Earl Seubert told me about how he was sent with his superior and an older photographer to cover a room fire in the Leamington Hotel.
"When we got there, the fire was out, the tenant had vamoosed. All that was left was a smoldering bed and a kitten. My superior asked the hotel manager whose cat it was. The manager said he didn't know.
"My superior said, 'My granddaughter wants a cat. Can I take it with me?' Sure thing. We took a picture of the cat and the bed, then jumped into his '36 Ford and headed for the office.
"Halfway there the old guy grabbed the cat, rolled down the window and threw the kitten out on the street and said, 'The Pioneer Press can get their own cat.'"
Smith jumped in.
"I knew that guy. When I was a cub, the city desk sent me out with him to cover a traffic fatality on Highway 12. A rarity then. We got to the site, the wrecked car was there, but no dead guy.
"The old picture dink grabbed a sheet out of his trunk and said, "Lie down there, kid. I did, he covered me with the sheet, took a picture and the next morning I made the front page of the Tribune, lying under the sheet on the berm. And me just a cub."
Someone else remembered the same fellow who was sent to the City Hall to take a picture of local dignitaries greeting Queen Marie of Romania.
"They were standing in lines on the city hall steps. The photog yelled out, 'Hey lady, you with the hat. Could ya move to the left, sort of snuggle up with the mayor?"
And if memory serves, he was the same fellow, who was sent out to Wold Chamberlain airport to photograph the Dionne Quintuplets, looked at them coming down the ramp of the DC-3, said, "My God, there are five of them."
Of course there were always stories about management, which usually received the short end of the stick from those old cigar-chomping hacks.
There was the son of the publisher, who was learning the ropes as a cub reporter during his summers away from Harvard.
"He never could remember that the Tribune is a light comma paper," recalled Don Morrison, who worked as a copy editor.
We say, 'When in doubt, leave out the comma,' and he always put one in. So once on his day off, copy editor Will Jones brought a rasp to work and filed the comma off the kid's typewriter."
Years later, Morrison became a popular columnist and Robert T. Smith the youngest city editor in American journalism history.
"I told Don he should ride an elephant in the Aquatennial parade," Smith recalled after Morrison had died. "Don said he wouldn't do it. So I ordered him to do it. He did. He wrote a wonderful column....and he never spoke to me again."
That's not the end of it.
Smith went on to become a very popular columnist, much more so than his more elegant officemate, Larry Batson.
Smith joshed Larry, saying "I take an hour a day to write my column, and I have twice as many readers as you, and you sit here all day, polishing and editing."
Batson's reply: "It doesn't take long to slop the hogs, Bob."