The Last Obit

Died: The Dallas Times Herald, age 112, of natural causes. Survivors include a veteran columnist, who recalls better days.

My wife, Polly, took the message for me. I had thought my biggest problem that Sunday, December 8, was going to be getting back from the store in time for the Cowboys kickoff. I had gone out for cat food and the papers. The Dallas Times Herald carried a page-one story of the Pearl Harbor fiftieth anniversary ceremonies, but the lead story was about the bright side of a grim Dallas economy. The banner headline, curiously worded for its big boxcar type, read: BEST TIME TO BUY A HOUSE IN A DECADE. The irony wouldn’t sink in until I got home. Gently taking that Meow for More and the stack of papers in my arms, Polly said, “Ron Ruggless called. The News has bought the Herald, they’re closing it down tomorrow, and you get sixty days’ severance and benefits.” Once again I marveled at her. She’s never taken a formal journalism course, and she’s mastered the inverted pyramid lead.

Frank Luksa, the droll dean of Times Herald sports columnists, heard the news on his car radio, driving to his umpty-dozenth Cowboys game at Texas Stadium. He heard it from Jim Dent on the KLRD pregame show. Dent had left the Times Herald last spring after thirteen years covering the Cowboys. His departure had made paragraph two of a two-paragraph memo posted on the bulletin board. Paragraph one was pleased to announce the appointment of a new clerk.

My three incarnations at the Herald totaled thirty years. My first job there, in the mid-fifties, was as a sports-desk flunky. I kept adding new part-time duties in various departments. Finally I pestered Bert Holmes, the city editor, into hiring me as a cub reporter on the city news staff. The starting job for a cub was the obit desk. You rewrote clips from the Morning News about dead Dallasites, you called half a dozen funeral homes twice a day to see who was new, and you talked to a succession of grief-stricken survivors about the distinctions of their loved ones, their terminal sufferings, their wrongful or premature deaths. It was a surefire regiment for producing cynics and depressives. It also taught the importance of accuracy; this was the only time most of those people would ever get their names in the paper.

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In 1955 I was drafted into the Army, and when I was discharged two years later, the Times Herald offered me my job back as a general assignments reporter. There had been a steady hemorrhage of Times Herald writers over to the slightly better pay and much better local image of the News. The Times Herald executive vice president and general manager Jim Chambers announced his coup: He had hired away the News’s celebrity editor and artful writer, Felix R. McKnight. There was general jubilation in the newsroom. “Oh, boy,” assistant city editor John Weeks whooped. “They’ve been stealing all our Indians, and suddenly we’ve got Sitting Bull!”

McKnight brought a cachet of prestige and a dimension of renewed civic credibility that had been lacking at the blue-collar and pedestrian afternoon paper — not that the Times Herald hadn’t been immensely profitable through every year of its existence. It had its own loyal Dallas constituency. From 1896 until 1967, it had had only three publishers — Edwin Kiest, Tom Gooch, and John Runyon. Parks and schools and streets were named after them. These pillars of the Dallas establishment made the promotion of their fellow pillars Times Herald policy. Some of the more blatant stroking of Dallas’ leadership came in a months-long daily series called “Illustrious Sons,” fawning and heroic profiles of the heirs and scions who were in that burgeoning Dallas industry of “the son bidness.”

Through the twenties and the thirties there had been four dailies in Dallas, with an attendant scramble for scoops and exclusives, although they came mostly from the crime beat and other safe milieus that didn’t alienate any important people. When the board chairman of a major Dallas bank was convicted of misappropriations of funds in 1938, Dallas readers learned about it not from the local press but from Newsweek. Photostats of the story were still circulating thirty years later.

The News and the Herald were unfriendly competitors, but compared to the newspaper war that was to come, it was a pillow fight. Each paper had its own peculiar eccentricities of policy. Because of an edict from editor Allen Merriam, the Herald never ran pictures of snakes, reportedly because they scared his wife. Someone tested the policy in the early sixties, running a page-one photo of some school kids with a python at the Dallas Zoo. The press was stopped, and the page had to be replated between editions.

In the early sixties I was writing a page-one daily column blatantly patterned after Paul Crume’s eloquent “Big D” column in the News; it was part of the virtual cloning of the News that began with McKnight’s arrival. “Dallas Diary” was largely made up of harmless anecdotes, but it uncovered policies I hadn’t known were there. Once a column was killed because it involved a disgruntled customer of Orand Buick who was carrying an “I Bought a Lemon” placard in front of the dealership, a valued advertiser. Our irascible managing editor, Hal Lewis, had a standing order against using brand names. I could never convince him that something’s being “as big as a Buick” read funnier than its being “as big as a four-door sedan.” In 1962, at the height of the Cowboys-Texans pro football war, Lewis muttered that the clubs should have to buy ads instead of getting all that free promotion in the sports columns. The decision makers at the News were just as silly. Joe Goulden, an eventual Pulitzer-nominee author, was irate that his copy desk kept changing the phrase “had sexual intercourse” in the story about a rape trial to “had relations with.” Finally he wrote the phrase “testified that the defendant screwed her.” The desk changed it to “had sexual intercourse with.”


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