Chap 4: “Up The Ladder”

Having completed two years at the Dekalb Daily Chronicle, I was, in the summer of 1954, taking the next step along my newspapering journey.  That step, to the Elyria (Ohio) Chronicle-Telegram, a 30,000 circulation six-day daily in northeastern Ohio, turned out to be more fortuitous than I had any right to imagine at the time.

I was going to work for Charles Bennett, who, as I look back now, was the most outstanding boss I worked for during the 58 years I was in the business.  Charlie had been hired as managing editor at the Chronicle-Telegram only shortly before I was brought on board. From Schenectady, N.Y., he brought with him a charismatic personality that thrived behind those dark-rimmed glasses and that receding hairline that had long-since given up to baldness. I quickly came to appreciate his people skills, enthusiasm, and indeed his superb editing talents.

Russ Davies was moving out of the sports editor’s chair and John Jackson was taking over. I was taking Jackson’s place. Charlie, rather than occupying an office as most managing editor’s do, placed himself out in the news room among his staff and where the action was.  Charlie, most likely not by accident, put Russ at a desk next to him.

Thus Russ had a ringside seat to Charlie’s editing talents, and at one point exclaimed: “I’ve never seen anyone go through a story the way he can.”  Through decades as sports editor, Russ Davies had become a rather beloved Elyria figure, but had a bit of a banty rooster presence, both in stature and demeanor. It was apparent that Charlie Bennett wanted a change in the sports department and a close assessment of Russ’s talents.

Now, on my first day at the C-T, as the Chronicle-Telegram was known, Russ had decided upon one final gasp as the sports rooster. He had devised a test for me on my first day on the staff: I was to cover a golf tournament of rather obscure importance being held in an eastern suburb of Cleveland, some 50 miles away. To add to the geographic challenge for a sports scribe who knew nothing about Cleveland, I was assigned a company car designated YT 75.

Each of the half-dozen company cars carried an Ohio license beginning with YT. This one, YT 75, was a light-blue, four-door, stick-shift, Plymouth of some years vintage with a chronic list toward the passenger side and a tendency to stall now and again.  Jackson, just stepping in as sports editor, was not in cahoots with all this, but was going along with it. He did warn me of the eccentricities of YT 75.  Russ probably could hardly wait to see what my first assignment would bring.  What it brought was some decent golf coverage and a safe return aboard YT 75.

Months later, there was a day when Charlie Bennett walked into the news room, arms  loaded with gear he’d cleaned out of YT 75 following an accident in which one of the C-T reporters, Don Miller, had been involved. Miller spent a bit of time in the hospital, but YT 75’s career was over.  Miller was one of the two or three most talented and versatile reporters I worked with over the years and figures in another segment of my writings.

The Elyria Chronicle-Telegram was located downtown in a nice looking two-story building on East Avenue a city of 50,000-plus, the county seat of Lorain County. The New York Central’s main line ran not three blocks north of the paper. Small  industrial plants abounded and significant Polish and Hungarian (Magyar) populations thrived.  The paper’s full-time news staff of a couple dozen was augmented by part-time correspondents in most of the communities in the area. Many of these people were housewives, like Cora Shepherd in Wellington, known for the rubber bands she wore around her sneakers.  The C-T, as the Chronicle-Telegram was often called, was owned by Art Hudnutt  and his sister Molly, who inherited it from their father, who died in 1950. Art was being groomed to take over as publisher, but in the interim, Otto Schoephle, a shrewd and financially successful area resident, had been entrusted with the course of the paper.

Schoephle possessed most of the characteristics that would be expected of his German lineage.  One attribute that seemed to surface prominently at the C-T might tactfully be called thriftiness.  Typical of rumors that circulate in news rooms was that one day Charlie Bennett confronted Schoephle with the fact that he had worked for some time at $120 a week, and now he was ready for a fitting raise.  Charlie’s quest for higher pay most likely didn’t unfold to his satisfaction, because several months later he took a job as managing editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, a newspaper about 10 times the circulation of the Chronicle-Telegram. Charlie’s abilities were testified to, not only by this unusual leap ahead in his career, but be his later selection as managing editor of both the Daily Oklahoman and Oklahoma City Times.

It would be several years before Art Hudnutt took over as publisher of the Chronicle-telegram, but he already was making a name across Ohio and beyond as a golfer. He won multiple championships at Elyria Country Club and later in his career would win the Western Amateur.  One day in conversation with me and John Jackson, he invited us out to the club for some golf, knowing full well that our greenhorn status indeed was greener than the putting surfaces on any golf course. To complete a foursome, John Moore, who did some part-time sports work for us, was invited along.

Art figured he was laying the ground work for a bunch of laughs, considering  neither Jackson nor I had ever played. Moore had played, but was far from being in Art’s league.  Amid dozens of wayward shots, Jackson and I exposed our ineptness over only nine holes, and we had Art doubled up with laughter. He played both par golf and the gracious host by treating us to a sumptuous steak dinner in the club dining room.

Changes in staff were frequent at the C-T and it wasn’t long after our golfing adventure that Jackson left the paper to sell investments and I became sports editor.  While Art Hudnutt waited in the “on-deck circle” to take his turn as publisher of the paper, a program of preparation included him gaining experience in various departments. Shortly after I took over the sports department, Art ,who at 24, was the same age as I, was trying his hand at covering sports .

One autumn Friday night Art and Lou Rotunda, who worked in the C-T composing room and moonlighted covering Elyria Catholic High School sports for us, headed out to Fostoria, Ohio, some 70 miles to the west, to report on the local team’s game against St. Wendelin.  Art and Lou spent a rainy evening trudging the sidelines (no press box) as Elyria Catholic rolled up more than 40 points, and Art was given a down-to-earth glimpse of what some of the C-T staff did on Friday nights.

I learned quickly as sports editor that you never knew for sure what you were getting in hiring an assistant. I brought Riley Johnson on board because his writing was impressive in the samples he submitted of his work on the Miami Herald. The samples were deceiving. I should have realized the proficiency of the copy editors who had handled his stuff in Miami. Riley didn’t last long.

Next came Pete Swanson, who was indeed a knowledgeable and proficient writer. Pete, however, had sudden temper tantrum. A vivid example of this erupted in the composing room one day, when, in an angry outburst, he picked up one of the wooden mallets the compositors used to tamp down the lead type in a page and hurled the mallet into the large reservoir of molten lead over in one corner of the room.

Not long after Pete’s dismissal from the Chronicle-Telegram we received news that he was covering Indiana University football for a paper in southern Illinois, and in another explosion had tossed his portable typewriter through the window of the IU pressbox.

Finally, we gave Bob Daniels, an Elyrian and recent grad of Bowling Green State University a try. Not only did Bob prove to be a dandy assistant sports editor, but eventually went on to a successful career on the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

One day I was approached about moving over to be state editor as part of the news room’s transition and expansion upstairs in the C-T’s building where I would be in charge of a universal copy desk, popular among larger papers. This move meant the end to writing a sports column entitled Ketch’s Klippings five days a week for most of a decade.  It also opened the way to my eventually becoming managing editor of the C-T, something I certainly hadn’t envisioned back in the summer of 1954.

The newsroom being upstairs necessitated a new method of getting news copy to the composing room, which was on the first floor, and toward the back of the C-T building.  The method devised to move the copy was a conveyor belt consisting of two strips of material snaking their way up near the ceiling on the second floor, across toward the rear of the building, down near the ceiling of the composing room, and then across to where the belt dropped down to a receiving point for the printers. Awaiting were the linotype and Ludlow machine operators.

This worked well – most of the time.

When it didn’t was when the pages on which stories or other information was written slipped out from between the two strips of the conveyer belt. Most of the time when it would happen, what slipped from the belt would drop into the composing room, and frequently would land on top of the large air-conditioning duct that had ran across the room just below the belt.  Thus, now and again, there would be a missing story. Sometimes very close to deadline.

The composing room foreman, Bob Neibling, who everyone called “Nibs,” came to suspect that a missing story was laying up there atop the air-conditioning duct. He kept handy a tall step ladder, and he’d climb up to take a look. Many times, there the story lay.  One of “Nibs” workers in the “back shop” was tall, lanky young Hank Janowicz,  a brother of Vic, who arguably was Elyria’s most famous athlete.  Vic won college football’s Heisman trophy in 1950, only the third junior at that time to do so.  Hank had been an athlete at Elyria Catholic. He was taller than brother Vic, but of course was vastly overshadowed.

Up on the second floor, at the universal copy desk, I was what was called the “slot.” This referred to my location in the middle of a horseshoe-shaped affair where I was surrounded by copy editors on the “rim.”  There were usually four or five copy editors. I would pass stories for them first to edit, then to write headlines — in those days with pencil and paper. If the headline didn’t fit in the space allotted for where it was to run in the paper,  the composing room would send it back for another try.

Upon finishing with a story, the copy editor would hand it to me, I’d approve the work, then slip it onto that conveyor belt and hope it wouldn’t fall off on the way to the composing room.

Perhaps I wouldn’t like the copy editor’s first try at a headline, and would ask for another attempt. One day this triggered some tears from a woman who was working on the rim. Due to her stature, another of the copy editors had nicknamed her Andy Robustelli, in those days a husky defensive end for the New York Giants.  What brought the tears, though, was her disappointment about the headline. Suddenly she rose from her chair and fled toward the ladies room. It proved to be the only time in working the slot on three different dailies that a copy editor had fled in tears.

Writing a headline to fit was a rather arcane skill involving certain width values for each letter or number. A copy editor with an extensive vocabulary of short words was a real find.

There was a constant turnover on the rim. One of our part-time copy editors was Glenn Warner, who had been the slot on the Cleveland News before it went belly-up. Glenn, gray-haired, middle-aged and quiet, was a short-word genius.

Another who spent some time on the rim, was Mike Waller, a moonlighter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Mike was to have an impressive career, winding up as a top news executive at the Hartford (Connecticut) Courant.

Russ Davies worked on the rim, certainly a different challenge than his days as sports editor. Russ, unlike any other copy editor who had worked for me, kept a running tally of the number of items he’d handled, regardless of their length or complexity. This seemed to me to be a bit like the rooster crowing about how hard he was working.

Another of the “rim rats,” as they were called, that we had for a time was Ed Witham, a veteran of other copy desks.  Ed tells a tale about he and Russ Davies one day having a conversation with a mutual woman friend. Suddenly, Ed said, there was both the sound and odor of someone passing gas. Ed knew it wasn’t him, but immediately Russ exclaimed, “Shame on you, Ed.”

Newspapers of that day still employed proofreaders. Their job was to make sure that the copy had been typeset precisely as written.  Unusual as it was for a proofreader to become a copy editor, two women who had been proofreaders came on to the copy desk and were very successful. One of them, Margaret Cotter, eventually went on to become managing editor at the paper in Traverse City, Michigan.  Another woman, a friend of my wife and I, who hardly had ever stepped into a news room before, became a copy editor for us, and was a very good one.

Being the slot proved to be a stepping stone on my path to becoming managing editor of the C-T. How this happened is told in the chapter describing coverage of a tornado in Elyria–“Tale of a Tornado.”  Actually, for a time, I was managing editor and slot both, quite an unusual combination. After a few months of this, there arose a situation between myself and Otto Schoephle similar to that had taken place between he and Charlie Bennett regarding pay.

It had been customary for me, and likely most others at rhe C-T, to receive some sort of annual bonus. During 1967, in my case, this had not happened. As time went by, I finally asked Schoephle about this. His explanation was that the raise I had received becoming managing editor took the place of the bonus. I had expected the raise as part of my expanded responsibilities as ME.

Like Bennett, I soon had an opportunity to join the staff of a larger paper, the Pontiac (Mich.) Press, more than twice the size of the C-T, with an outlook of appreciably more pay, and more career potential.

Both these looks ahead proved in time to bear fruit. So, in the summer of 1967, after 13 years in Elyria, I was off on another newspaper adventure.

 

 

 

 

 

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