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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 Martin, and remembered the time she came over from Weatherford to audition for Billy Rose, dressed all in black and singing a song about suicide called “Gloomy Sunday.” Billy Rose advised her to go home, marry a service station attendant, and have babies. And Sally Rand’s indignation when one of the chorus girls’ babies stretched out and suckled on one of those legendary breasts right there in the wings of the old Casa Mañana. And Pat Boone, standing frightened and gawky, right in front of his very desk, weaving slightly as Gordon drafted a letter of introduction to Ted Mack.
“This has been my home away from home,” he said, looking off at the ancient ruins of the pint-sized city room, at the coal chute and the noisy fans that substituted for air conditioning, at yellowing files and vintage typewriters and permanent coats of dust. “I feel permanently dislocated. I feel very sad. It’s like being evicted from a grand old mansion.”
Marvin Garrett, a kindly old man with an apprentice nun’s smile, returned to his desk by the stair door and started shuffling stacks of press releases and letters to Action Desk, as though nothing had happened, as though there would be another day and another deadline. He clucked his tongue as he read the news that would never get printed.
In the back shop, foreman Bill Stringer walked along rows of black dwarf Linotype machines, the old hot type machines that had been obsolete for years, along strands of heavy metal tables, by the panel of fading pin-up pictures — “something for the boys in the back shop” — photographs of Mitzi Gaynor, of Dagmar, of Jayne Mansfield, of Ann Blythe. Twenty-five of Stringer’s men had been at the Press for fifteen years or more, and the new technology of the printing trade had passed them by.
Several of the young reporters who hadn’t been hearing the rumors long enough to disbelieve went out and got traditionally drunk and talked of the legendary times of Growald, Shrake, Jerre Todd, Blackie Sherrod, Dan Jenkins, and of Mary Crutcher and how, after all this time, they would surely miss her.
The final edition of the Press sold out 30 minutes after a record press run. A week later it was a collector’s item. Somebody finally did something right. If only Scripps-Howard had trusted them to say farewell. At least they could have written over-the-wall columns. At least they could have told their versions. Instead, Delbert Willis told it for them in a streamer across the bottom of page one. It said: FW’s TOMORROWS BRIGHTER THAN EVER.
The Fort Worth Press was a place to grow up, but you only grow up when you’re young. It had an anti-institutional, sub-establishment, combat-residual quality, like a favorite uncle or a creek bank where processions of young minds study processions of cloud formations.
It had started in a one-room building in 1921, when Fort Worth was the huckster capital of the West Texas oil boom. Fortunes were made and lost in the lobby of the old Westbrook Hotel, which sits vacant now, like the Press building, and like the streets of downtown Fort Worth. The city supported three newspapers in those days, the Record and the Press, both owned by syndicates, and Amon Carter, Sr.’s home-owned and sanctimonious Star-Telegram.
Now Fort Worth has the morning and the evening Star-Telegram, both owned by a New York corporation. What happened to the Press is what has happened to competing newspapers all over the country. What with production costs and wages and unions and television and apathy and bad journalism, one newspaper after another has gone under. With the demise of the Press, there are only three cities in the country — Philadelphia, Baltimore, and San Antonio — that support competing afternoon papers.
A few weeks after Black Friday Dean Singleton, a young publisher from the Fort Worth suburb of Azle, bought the Press name and subscription list and announced plans to publish a morning paper, starting August 10. Given the quality of its competition, Singleton’s newspaper should do okay, but it will bear no resemblance to the place I’m talking about.
I had already put in two years on the police beat at the Star-Telegram, and I knew about air conditioners and elevators and freshly sharpened pencils, so my first morning at the Press in 1958 was like descending into hell. Correct that, it was like ascending into hell, since up is the only direction you can go from the Star-Telegram.
It was a little after 6 a.m. and I was late as usual. Taking the stairs three at a time, I bolted across the waking city room and through the swinging gate that separated sports from the other departments. That’s when I realized that the only other person in the department was Puss Ervin, a retired postman who wrote our bowling column, frogged our arms when we looked too smug, and dished out advice like “Take two and hit to right.”
Puss had removed his shirt and was sitting in some BVDs that looked as though they’d been washed either two or three times since the New Deal. It was January, but it was hot as hell in there; black flakes snowed down from the coal chute. Puss sat hunched over his typewriter, a bent and frayed old sandlotter, sipping Bellows bourbon from a paper cup and trying to direct his gnarled, arthritic fingers to the typewriter. He didn’t seem at all disturbed that nobody was making a move to put out a newspaper. Finally, Puss stood up, tugged at his baggy pants, then looked me over and said: “You’ll never make it, son.”
Half an hour before deadline our slot man, Sick Charley Modesette, arrived. Charley had been out all night, looking for his car. “You must be the new man,” he said. “All the other bastards slept in, huh?” Charley started plugging the first edition with old pictures of sailfish and badly dated syndicated columns by Joe Williams and Harry Grayson. Charley never sweated it. Years before, when he worked on a paper in Douglas, Arizona, Charley learned that he was dying of Hodgkin’s disease. His newspaper gave him a one-way ticket to New York, where he could undergo treatment if he could afford it. Miraculously, the swollen lymphoid tissue began to shrink. Charley had beat Hodgkin’s disease and pickled liver and a bum heart and Douglas, Arizona. He wasn’t about to let the Press take him under.
Every two or three weeks Shrake, Todd, Dan Jenkins, and I would be drinking beer at the Oui Lounge and we’d remember that tomorrow was Charley’s day off, which meant he’d be working late, putting out the next day’s edition. Todd, who could do great imitations, would call the sports desk and say: “Mr. Modesette, this is Dutch Meyer. I enjoy reading the Press and I admire your work. I’m going to resign as TCU’s football coach and I want you to have the story first.”
Charley would labor over the story — he was one of those writers who didn’t believe in using the same word twice, so “game” would come out “tussle” and “putters” would be referred to in second reference as “greens sticks” — then he would head for the Champagne Room, where he’d lose his car again. We’d come down the following morning and kill the story, and Charley would forget the entire episode on his day off.
Then a couple of weeks later, Todd would call again and say, “Hello, Mr. Modesette, this is Dr. Sadler, chancellor of Texas Christian University. Our board of regents has just voted to drop football and we want…”
There was an overlapping period in the mid-Fifties when the Press must have had the best sports staff anywhere. Blackie Sherrod would eventually move to the Dallas Times-Herald, where his column still wins every prize ever thought of. Shrake and Jenkins would becomes stars at Sports Illustrated. Jenkins would publish two best-selling novels, and Shrake would write a number of novels better than best-sellers. Todd would open one of Fort Worth’s most successful advertising agencies.
We didn’t have the budget or space or manpower to compete with the Star-Telegram, not on a traditional level, which wouldn’t have been worth our while anyway. So we wrote free and wild. We respected nothing. The term “New Journalism” hadn’t been coined then, but that is essentially what we practiced. Every story tried to answer the question why.
No one took the Press seriously, except Walter Humphrey, the editor, who walked around with a pipe in his belt, advising everyone to let sleeping dogs lie: Humphrey was so preoccupied with cutting production costs and promoting golden wedding anniversaries and spelling bees that he seldom bothered to check what we were doing.
“I’d get called into Humphrey’s office every week or so,” Jenkins recalls. “It wasn’t so bad because it was the only air-conditioned office in the building. He usually wanted to know what Himalayas was doing in a story about Birdville basketball.”
Every day was a new war: there wasn’t a man jack among us who didn’t feel infinitely superior to the best man on the Star-Telegram. We could out-drink them and out-fight them and out-write them. If we didn’t have a good story we’d make one up, if necessary we would live one, and it would be closer to the truth than anything published by the Star-Telegram.
We were all young, restless, fiercely competitive, frequently bored. We invented a sportswriter named Crew Slammer and damn near got him elected Sportswriter of the Year in a national contest. Blackie promoted chinning and broad jump contests on the way to breakfast at the White Way Cafe, and punished us summarily for coming in late. His favorite punishment was ordering you to telephone Houston and wake up that old grouch Jess Neely and ask him how the hell his Rice football team was getting along.
We started a bulletin board of pretentious literary leads clipped from other newspapers, and we celebrated great events in songs that we wrote. The genealogy of “You Never Went to That School, Buddy,” says a lot about the pride we took in our profession.
There was once a TCU journalism student named Jim Hendrix who was a friend of mine and later became editor of a national aviation magazine, but on this particular day Hendrix couldn’t rise to the occasion, as was absolutely required in the peer group. It was the 1956 TCU-Texas A&M game. The Aggies won it, 7-6, in the final quarter. It had to rank as one of the most bitter defeats in TCU history, but when Blackie ordered Hendrix to the dressing room to gather some post-game quotes, Jim refused.
“I can’t do it,” he said. “I can’t face those guys after what happened.”
“That’s not a very professional attitude,” Blackie told him.
Hendrix gave him a hard, hurt look and said, “That’s easy for you to say…but you never went to that school, buddy.”
To which Todd and Jenkins quickly penned these words:
You never went to that school, buddy.
You never lived in Tom Brown Hall.
You ain’t had no dealings with M.E. Sadler
You never attended a Howdy Week Ball.
I’m not certain, but I would guess that song had something to do with the fact Jim Hendrix soon left Fort Worth and never returned.
Todd drove a delivery boy nutty squirting him in the back of the neck with a water pistol. The kid never figured out who was tormenting him. He once complained to the managing editor, “You’ve got a leak in here and it keeps following me around.”
Jenkins recalled the day Todd came to apply for a job at the Press. “He came racing through the gate and did a hook slide at Blackie’s feet,” Dan says. “Blackie loved him on sight.”
Even though we were constantly broke and knew better, we gambled heavily on football and basketball games. Great songs such as “Duke Over Miami (Why Did I Pick Duke?)” were born on Saturday nights in front of the UPI sports wire. Our only distinguished visitors were Big Circus Face, Puny the Stroller, and Jawbreaker King, who made faithful trips to collect their winnings.
On one such Saturday night, the phone rang, and it was two juiceheads drinking at the New Gem Hotel across the alley. They demanded to know who won the Charles-Walcott fight in 1949. Todd told them Charles. “Hey, what did I tell you!” the voice at the New Gem shouted over the sound of saxophones. “Hey, would you tell this man here what you just told me?” There was silence while the phone changed hands, then Todd told the other sportsman Walcott. Then we collected a pot and sat back and waited for the first sound of an ambulance.
One of the side benefits of working at the Press was hanging out at the composing room window, watching through the shadeless windows of the New Gem as the black hookers worked their trade on soiled mattresses under naked light bulbs. The hookers would be waiting around our car when we got off early Sunday morning. “One of them offered to screw me for a peanut patty,” Shrake told me. “I took a look at her and decided to keep my peanut patty.”
But mostly what we did was learn now to newspaper. Everyone learned to do it all. Get the stories, write them, edit them, fix them with headlines, dummy them on the layout page, and fight for them on the composing room floor. We learned to type on ratty, triangular-shaped copy paper with machines that must have come from Thomas Edison’s attic, and compose great leads in the back of a bus returning from a wonderful weekend in College Station. The pay was rotten and there were no benefits like Christmas bonuses and retirement funds. When Shrake first started, he worked on a space rate. “One week I made $32 and they put me on full-time — for $20,” he recalled. “When I got married Humphrey gave me a whopping raise to $35, and told me that would be the last for a long, long time.”
“Danny,” Humphrey told Jenkins when it came time to replace Todd, “you’ve just lost a man and now you want to replace him. That’s not progress.”
When it came time to quit, as of course it would, Humphrey tried to get us to stay by telling each of us that we were being secretly groomed to replace Jack Gordon.
If you don’t include its death — which came years after rigor mortis set in — the biggest thing that ever happened to the Fort Worth Press was shrinking from eight columns to a tabloid’s usual five.
The Press went to its sensational tabloid form in the mid-Fifties, not long after the death of Amon Carter, Sr., the iron-willed patriarch who ran the Star-Telegram and almost everything else in Fort Worth. In his lifetime, Carter could have killed the Press with a flick of his finger, but he allowed it to exist, possibly because it reminded him of something out of his childhood, a disfigured monk or maybe a mangy cat. In the weeks that followed, the Press circulation hit an all-time high, something over 60,000 (it was 45,000 on Black Friday), but the novelty wore off and a deathwatch that would span two decades began.
Dick Growald celebrated the birth of his new tabloid with one of his ingenious cartoons. It showed a bunch of midgets queuing up to the newsstand. C.L. Douglas, the fat managing editor who wore a beret and sat behind his desk eating green peas on a toothpick out of a can, modeled the tabloid after the sexy old New York Graphic, crimson headlines and all. They loved to play weather headlines. “Golfball-Size Hail Pummels City.” The city would turn out to be Buffalo, New York. When it developed that the deer hit by a police car and served up at the policemen’s picnic was someone’s pet, Shrake scored with this headline: POLICE EAT KIDS PET.
They tolerated and even appreciated ingenuity — Mary Crutcher instructed her reporters in the art of extracting murder confessions between editions. Smart reporters learned the trick of removing photographs from the wallets of murder victims while dumb reporters were across the room grilling some idiot detective who just got there himself.
The speciality at the Press, however, was first-person stories. Growald was mortified to pick up the Press and see his byline under this banner: I HELD THE PLASMA BOTTLE THAT FED LIFE TO THE MAN CAUGHT IN THE JAWS OF THE IRON MONSTER. The iron monster was a machine that ground animal bones to fertilizer, and Growald got an exclusive interview with the unfortunate operator by pretending to be part of the emergency medical team. The Press printed Growald’s picture with the story. In the best tradition of the trade there was a cigarette hanging out of…could it be?…yes, if you looked closely, the cigarette was dangling from Growald’s nose.
When they were constructing the Continental National Bank Building, Delbert Willis dispatched Shrake and photographer Norm Masters up its fire escape (the elevators weren’t yet installed) to do a picture story on how you could see Dallas. Of course you couldn’t see Dallas. Shrake was prepared to pose for a picture, lighting a cigarette and leaning against a railing, when the railing slipped off his elbow and dropped thirty stories.
“Damn you,” Shrake screamed at Delbert. “I could have been killed!”
“Could you see Dallas?” Delbert asked.
“I couldn’t even see Poly.”
“Okay,” Delbert said, waving his crutch at the rewrite desk, “give me about a thousand words.”
No telephone tip was too trivial to ignore. One Saturday night a hysterical woman called the city desk and said she was about to kill herself. Mack Williams, who was assistant city editor then, yanked Shrake off the police beat and sent him out to reason with the wrought-up lady.
The address was a little shanty on a dirt road next to a garbage dump, way the hell and gone on the Northside. Shrake knocked on the door and a dog leaped out and tore his pants. Shrake kicked the dog through a hole in the screen, sent him howling and yelping clear into the kitchen where he banged against the icebox. A man in overalls came out of the kitchen carrying a shotgun, and Shrake said, “Where’s the lady who wants to kill herself?” The man pointed to a heaving, washed-out lump in a torn slip sleeping on a sofa surrounded by empty gin bottles.
“I woke her up and asked if she really meant to kill herself,” Shrake told me. “She said goddamn right she did, nobody cared about her anyway. I told her to go ahead, I wanted to watch. The man with the shotgun told me she threatened to kill herself every Saturday and he sure wished she would hurry.
“Anyhow, I called Mack and told him what had happened. Then I went back to the police station, where all hell had broken loose while I was out. I worked my ass off the next few hours for two stories that barely got in the paper. Sunday morning I pick up the Press and there’s my picture on page one. The headline said something like I SAVED THE BEAUTIFUL BUT TROUBLED LADY FROM SUICIDE.”
Covering the police beat, especially at the Press, was a great way for a young reporter to get off and grow up. We were right out of The Front Page. Growald ordered one of those standup telephones and charged it to the Press, which was a first and I’m sure a last for that worthy institution. Elston Brooks, who had once done the Teen Times page at the Press and was then covering police for the Star-Telegram, told all of us his professional secret. Blend in. Look like a detective. That meant you had to wear a gray hat, smoke Lucky Strikes out of the corner of your mouth, and call all women “sister.” Growald listened to Elston’s advice, then showed up in a straw sailor and checkered vest. This was Chicago, not Forth Worth. It was the Twenties, not the Fifties. Somebody had been putting Brooks on.
“The competition on the police beat was furious, especially if you covered it for the Press,” Growald said. “Especially between me and Brooks. I tried to screw him any way I could, and I’m sure he did the same for me. I really got to him one time by plastering the police press room with Jesus Saves stickers. The whole room — the ceiling, the walls, the desks, the typewriters, even the chuggy old overhead fan — Jesus Saves stickers everywhere. This offended Brooks, because it offended the Star-Telegram. There was such a thing as image. Brooks got a tank of winos out to scrape them off, but they never could get the one off the fan. Brooks had to watch Jesus Saves in twenty RPMs.”
One thing we learned at both Fort Worth newspapers was the meaning of the “nigger deal.” We didn’t write nigger deals. Or if we did, they didn’t get in the paper. Once when I was still at the Star-Telegram I stumbled into a great story. There was an old black preacher who every day for 40 years walked the short distance from his dirt street hovel to the emergency room at City-County Hospital, there to pray for the sick and afflicted and pass the time with appreciative sisters of his flock. This was semiremarkable, since the old man was 82 years old and totally blind. Then they built the South Freeway, smack in the middle of his well-trod path. The inevitable happened: he was struck by a car and killed. And there he was when I first saw him, laid out among the weeping and wailing of that same emergency room.
I wrote it just like that and sent it by copyboy to the night city desk at the Star-Telegram, where a frightened and disturbed old editor, whose name I won’t remember, read it and called me back. He complimented me on “a nice little yarn,” then reminded me it was a nigger deal. But I said that — it ought to be in the first sentence of the second paragraph. But the old editor wasn’t buying yarns, he was buying news.
“Just give us a couple of graphs to protect us,” he told me in that whining voice that finally ran me off. “Say something in the lead about how many traffic deaths we’ve had in the city and county so far this year.”
It wasn’t any different at the Press, not where nigger deals were concerned.
Growald told me: “I once turned in this sensational murder story to Mary, and when she finished yelling I understood that it was a nigger deal. She told me not to come back with any more nigger deals unless they were triple axe murders. So the day before I left the Press to go into the Army, I got a triple axe murder nigger deal. It got two paragraphs in the paper.”
What you learned at the Press, and every other newspaper I ever heard of, is you can’t tell the story. Not under those conditions. How could you, anyway? How could you describe detective Grady Haire flicking cigar ashes on his necktie and telling us, “Boys, that fellow’s so crooked he can’t carry shit to a dead bear!” Or Lieutenant Chick Matlock turning to the Houston detective with the opulent life-style, asking, “How long did you say you’d been on the vice squad?” There were gang wars in Fort Worth then, gamblers and hoods were getting blown away every week or so — frequently, it was said, by a professional badass named Gene Paul Norris. When Tarrant County and Fort Worth police along with the Texas Rangers riddled Norris with hundreds of rounds of live shells on a pleasant afternoon while Gene Paul was rehearsing to rob the Carswell Air Force Base payroll, the real story never came close to print. Gene Paul was grandly executed. They had been months setting him up for the Carswell job, and when they learned his plans also included kidnapping a woman bank employee and her young son, they decided to get it over with a day ahead of time. Get him on the run-through.
But none of it got written, except in one of Mary Crutcher’s memos.
When I worked police for the Star-Telegram Shrake was on the same beat for the Press. We trained a fourteen-year-old copyboy named Steve Perringer to cover for both of us. We practically gave him his own bureau. Steve was a bright, aggressive lad who learned quickly to check with the desk sergeant, get chummy with the dispatcher, butter up the nursing supervisor, check the hospital emergency calls against the desk sergeant’s report, and never fall for any fire alarm before using the criss-cross directory and calling a neighbor. We taught him about nigger deals, and how to be alert anytime two homicide detectives came racing up the steps or burned rubber down Tenth Street.
Once we got Steve working right, Shrake and I would retire to the Office Lounge, a dark little beer joint frequented by burglars and transvestites, and there we would while away pleasant hours talking about books we planned to write, if we could ever get around to it.
The great thing about Steve was he’d never bother us for anything trivial. Anytime he interrupted our drinking, there was a story there somewhere. No one was sober enough to recall all the insane details, but there was a murder one Saturday night, in one of the suburbs. Shrake and I and Harold Williams, another police reporter who worked for the Press then, were swilling free drinks at an osteopaths’ convention when Steve raced in, his face red from running all the way from the police station. Heavily fortified with the osteopaths’ liquor and ice and ice buckets, seven or eight of us crowded into Harold’s old Plymouth with the police radio. I do remember we got stopped twice going down the wrong side of the Jacksboro Highway. We showed them our press cards.
When we reached the murder scene, everyone had gone. We backtracked to the district attorney’s office where the suspect had been taken for interrogation. The first person Harold spotted was a frail, frightened woman in a housecoat, sitting alone on a hard bench. I believe she was the victim’s wife. Harold pushed his camera in the woman’s face and quacked, “You sure don’t look like a killer to me.” That was enough. They threw Harold in the slammer, and threatened the rest of us, unless we got the hell out of there. Captain Jimmy Woods of the Fort Worth PD came to our rescue.
I don’t know why I remember this, but one of the funniest lines I ever heard was delivered by Captain Jimmy Woods that night as he was driving us home. Harold had said, “Jimmy, I think I’m gonna throw up in the back seat of your fine police car.” And Jimmy answered, “Harold, if you do that, you’ll kiss Alligator [town drunk] goodnight tonight.”
Ah Alligator! Loved to cadge money from the press room. Shrake once got Alligator into a game of strip poker, apparently had him on the ropes, then gave up when Alligator offered to take off his pants.
And Steve Perringer, our little copyboy. God, he was eager. He loved the rush. He loved the action, the closer the better. He was blown up a few years ago when he got his TV camera too close to a flaming oil storage tank.
The Press was “that scandal sheet,” which is a good tip-off of what constituted scandal in those days in Fort Worth. The Press took on the Ku Klux Klan and championed Alcoholics Anonymous and changed its mind according to its mystical reading of the public mood. Like underdogs everywhere, the Press talked a lot about “the people,” but the word wore thin and the message long ago lost its punch. The biggest crusade I remember was Carl Freund’s tireless (and endless) series exposing pinball machines.
From its beginning to its end, the Press was more style than substance. The principal reason that the Press was so interesting to read in the 1950s was its writers, particularly Shrake, who worked rewrite, along with six or seven other duties. There was a time when Shrake would write all the police stories, most of the city and county stories, handle club news, obits, stock markets, call-ins about five-legged dogs and eighty-pound turnips. Then in the afternoon Delbert would let him write features.
“I’d do highly descriptive features about subjects I’d never met, except on the telephone,” Shrake recalled. “Gene Gordon would go out and take some pictures, and I’d do the captions. Then Delbert would put the features on his spike, where they’d stack up for weeks. At one time I had 37 features on his spike waiting for space in the paper.”
On an average day Shrake would write fifteen to twenty stories under other reporters’ bylines. He did a great Carl Freund, with lots of references to “nickel-gulping monsters.” He made Harold Williams’ stories extra racy, using as many action verbs as he could, and making sly use of terms like “beautiful, scantily clad housewife.” Under Shrake’s keen eye all of John Ohlendalski’s stories read like labels on detergent boxes.
There were other good writers on the paper, but almost all of them were in sports. Not that the Press sports page read like a sports page. Some of Jenkins’ best columns had to do with how hard it was to open a package of crackers or buy gasoline. Todd was the only writer I ever knew who wrote his lead in advance of a game. Every Press sportswriter knew it was bad form to tell the score until at least the fifth paragraph. The first paragraph usually started out, “He was an old man who fished all alone.”
Delbert Willis fancied himself a writer and longed to find the Jap who blew off his leg in World War II. This dream came true in 1966 when Delbert and his wife traveled to Japan for a reunion with twelve survivors of the Japanese battalion that had been blown apart at the battle of Morotai Island in 1945. Four of the Japanese soldiers who attended the reunion held out on the island until 1956. Delbert wrote a moving piece about the reunion, and about Morotai Island, “a little bit of real estate which no one really wanted.”
The Press was “that rag”…“that other paper.” What a beautiful disgrace. How pathetic. How like itself, and like the city it reflected. Lovely, crumbly, sad, misguided, vulnerable.
The Star-Telegram might be a disgrace to journalism, but it was Amon Carter’s paper. Whereas the Press’ surrogate publisher, Walter Humphrey, went big for golden weddings, Santa Pals, enlarged turnips, spelling bees, teen news, and, if you can believe it, soil conservation (nobody ever discovered what Humphrey thought soil conservation was), Amon Carter, Sr., was partial to oilmen, ranchers, and government contracts.
Amon Sr.’s all-time hero was Will Rogers. He commissioned a statue of the old Oklahoma Cowboy and donated it to the city in November 1947. This was when Elston Brooks and the rest of us were in high school, but Elston remembers it well, since he was one of the seven teenagers arrested for desecrating the statue, or rather the crate it was packed in.
The statue sat in front of Will Rogers Coliseum for nearly a year, still crated in its shipping container. The reason was, old man Carter wouldn’t allow anyone except Harry Truman to preside over the unveiling. Truman must have had other things on his mind that year. Anyway, it became a local pastime to go out at night and rip the boards away from the likeness of the old Oklahoma Cowboy. The last straw was when some of Carter’s drunken friends at the Fort Worth Club decided to do it. Carter was outraged. The next edition of the Star-Telegram promised to bring future vandals to justice and offered a $5000 reward.
It was the next night when Elston accidentally found himself swigged out in the back seat of a car parked in front of the crate, which six of his teenage friends were happily dismantling. The cops had them all by morning.
“I was just a teenager, but I was living alone in a flophouse at the time, paying $9 a month in rent,” Brooks recalled. “I had my own radio show…Ballads by Brooks on KXOL…and I had produced a teenage musical called ‘Is Your Juvenile Delinquent?’…the answer of course was of course not, I mean we were sponsored by the Fair Department Store and all. Also, the Press was interested in hiring me to do the Teen Times page. Then suddenly I’m down at the police station, my whole career in ruins.
“They had all seven of us. The others brought along their parents and were taking it pretty well, but I didn’t have any parents. Then Mr. Carter walked in in his camel’s hair coat and Shady Oak hat. He walked with this aura of great power. Everyone except me and Blackie Sherrod, who was covering police then for the Press, stood up and came to attention.
“Carter was very kindly. He lectured us on what a great person Will Rogers was, then told us we wouldn’t be formally charged. But he was going to do one thing, even though it violated his own, long-standing rule. For the first time ever, the Star-Telegram was going to publish the names of juvenile offenders.
“Well, there was general elation. The other six went out and bought extra copies of the paper. But me…I mean, I was losing everything. Nobody was about to hire a teenage hoodlum.”
The Star-Telegram eventually hired Brooks (he’s now the amusements editor), but only after the Press broke him in on Teen Times. Brooks would have still been at the Press on Black Friday except he was fired by mistake by C.L. Douglas, who didn’t understand that the reason Humphrey was taking Brooks off Teen Times was to become a full-time citywide reporter. The Press never learned to communicate too well at the top level, probably because no one up there ever understood for a minute what was happening or why or how.
The Press was a sanctuary for freaks, for idealists, for demonologists, for outcasts, for drunks, for honest young writers and reporters and curiosity seekers. I forget some of their names, but I remember them. The chap on the copy desk whose lunch always consisted of raw carrots, each bite of which he chewed exactly 88 times. And Nat Lehmerman, who drove a cab, sold doughnuts, and wrote sports on the side. God, can I see that afternoon at Colonial! It’s May and there is electricity in the air, the tortured figure of Ben Hogan is walking up to 18, leading the tournament by a stroke, the worshipping hometown crowd silent as a maiden’s prayer. And right there with him, marching step for step in his tan cutoffs, waving his arms and talking a mile a minute, is Nat Lehmerman.
Nat is saying, “C’mon, Ben, baby, open up. What are you thinking right now?”
The Press brought out that side of you. If you didn’t take yourself too seriously, how could you take Ben Hogan any other way?
Nobody will miss the Press except the people who used to work there, and maybe an occasional practitioner like one Fort Worth doctor’s wife, who told me, “I liked it because it was little. I could take it with me in my sitz bath and fold it over when I got ready to turn a page.”
A long, long time ago, a Press editor is supposed to have told a cub reporter, “The poor folks take us because we’re the least expensive newspaper in town. The rich folks read us to find out what we’re telling the poor folks.”
A long, long time ago, that may have been true.