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Thirty-nine years, two months, and fourteen days before the fact a journalism teacher in Denton advised Mary Crutcher that the Fort Worth Press was doomed. Mary remembered the prophecy on Black Friday, May 30, 1975, the day nobody believed would be so long in coming.
FAREWELL, FORT WORTH mourned the 72-point gothic headline written by editor Delbert Willis and handset in secrecy by shop foreman Bill Stringer. Willis had lived with the dreadful secret for two months, a long time to suppress even the most commonplace news. He had been up most of the night composing the farewell story. It was still dark when he took the piece to the Fort Worth Hilton and submitted it for approval to the faceless Scripps-Howard lawyers and executives who had tiptoed into town to preside over the death rites.
There had been talk, of course, but there had been talk for years. Old-timers were inured to rumors. They assumed the change would be a matter of approach, of timing. They believed that Scripps-Howard would buy the morning Star-Telegram and combine operations, as it had done in El Paso and other cities. The morning Star-Telegram was a pitiful display of what can pass for journalism, one of those thin sheets that won’t last through your first cup of coffee, but at least it had a monopoly. People woke up to the Star-Telegram, or thought they did.
But Capital Cities Communications, Inc., the New York-based corporation which had bought the Star-Telegram from Amon Carter, Jr., saw no reason to unload a good thing, and the deal never came off. So now it was time for the coup de grace. Delbert called Mary Crutcher and Jack Gordon and Marvin Garrett and a few other old-timers into his meager air-conditioned office that morning, talking to them one at a time, sparing them the ignominy of hearing the news in the general staff meeting which would be held as the presses began their final run. Or worse still, sparing them the humiliation of reading it first in the Press.
“I’d been living with it for two months, waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Willis said, a few weeks later. “If word had got out beforehand, the entire staff would have walked out and I wouldn’t have blamed them.”
Crutcher, Gordon, Garrett, Willis, Stringer — all of them had literally grown up at the Press, 40 and even 50 years each, taking it one morning at a time and kissing the rumor good night. Everyone knew the Press would fold; the joke was, when? Black Friday. They couldn’t believe it.
Those who were old enough to retire were encouraged to do so. Severance pay was one week’s salary for each six months of service — up to a maximum of one year. Most of the young reporters would be absorbed into the Scripps-Howard chain. Goodbye, Fort Worth. Hello Cleveland, Evansville, Memphis, Denver, Albuquerque, Fullerton. The real squeeze was on that age group that was too young to retire, but too old to start over.
“Who wants a 64-year-old woman?” Mary Crutcher asked rhetorically. Mary was the city editor, one of the best I’ve ever known. She taught some fine journalists how and how not. Just two who come to mind were Bud Shrake, who went on to become a novelist, screen writer, and associate editor at Sports Illustrated, and Dick Growald, who graduated to UPI bureau chief in Europe, the Mideast, and Africa, and who had lately returned to Washington to cover the White House or Kissinger or anything else that caught his fancy. “When you phoned in a story to Mary,” Shrake said, “you’d better have it straight down to the last hair and survivor.” Growald has interviewed Kissinger, Sadat, Franco, Khrushchev, and Mao Tse-tung, but his strongest memory was dogging new clues until he was able to identify a young girl whose nude and trussed body had been pulled out of Lake Worth years ago.
Mary was still chewing ass and re-writing leads when Delbert called her into his office. She just sat there nodding, like what else is new. Then she slipped back to the newspaper morgue and began burning confidential memos, some of them dating back 30 years or more. “Some of this stuff could still be incriminating,” she said.
Sports editor Andy Anderson, the “old luckless fisherman,” was badly shaken. He sat at his desk under the “coal chute” — a storied ventilation duct that had rained black soot on generations of newspaper men — and he tried without success to recover his sense of humor. “Scripps-Howard claims the Press has been losing money for 25 years,” he said glumly. “Well, they’re ahead of me. I’ve been here 26 years.”
Jack Gordon, the amusements columnist since 1935, walked around in a trance for days. Not the most talented man, Gordon was nevertheless an embodiment of what the Press stood for, a chronicler of good tidings, a matinee idol who loved to emcee the newspaper’s annual Golden Wedding Anniversary Party at the Crystal Ballroom and chaperone tittering widows who signed up for the annual Jack Gordon Theater Party in New York. Gordon started as a cub feature writer 52 years ago, when the Press was just one year old and was located down the alley from the old Majestic Theater. Once, years ago, he wrote something critical about an actress. That night she telephoned, heartbroken and sobbing that his review had ruined her career and she didn’t know where she could go from here. Jack never got over those tears, and he never criticized anyone again, except to deplore X-rated movies and peddlers of dirty words.
He had known some of the greats. He opened a letter from his old friend Mary