A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
My first day as a professional journalist was very nearly my last.
It happened on January 15, 1960 in Champaign, Ill, where six months earlier, having ignored warnings from my high school journalism teacher that I possessed zero aptitude for journalism, I earned a communications degree from the University of Illinois.
Then, after six months of active duty with the National Guard at Fort Dix, NJ, where I learn enough Morse Code “dahs and dits” to qualify as a radio operator, I need a real job and write to Harold Holmes, avuncular editor of the Champaign News-Gazette.
I remind him that I'm no stranger -- while a reporter for the Daily Illini, the campus newspaper, I interviewed his son, Harold Jr., a wizard on the championship Illinois gymnastics team. Young Harold was newsworthy as one of the first to perfect the double-backflip -- two complete revolutions of his small but muscular body, “sticking” his dismount as if landing in wet cement.
"You're hired. $60 a week," came the reply. "Report to City Editor Bill Schmelzle in the newsroom right away."
Stopping only for gas, I drove my new Plymouth Valiant 600 miles from New Jersey to the familiar, tediously flat central Illinois fields of corn.
Mr. Schmelzle, on a sunny January morning, issued my first reporting assignment. "Grab lunch, kid, then hustle out to cover the monthly meeting of the sanitary district. One o'clock, sewage treatment plant outside town."
Two years of journalism school and four years on the Daily Illini staff had not prepared me for my near-fatal professional initiation. Blame the pale winter sunlight glaring off a field of fresh snow. Or a blast furnace masquerading as a conference room. Or heavy eyelids, courtesy of a hastily gulped Italian beef sandwich. Or all three.
All I know is that Schmelzle’s raw rookie fought unsuccessfully to stay awake while a boring man in a dishwater-gray suit flipped charts and droned on about "artists' concepts." The room was emptying by the time I regained consciousness and made my fateful decision: No news here.
Back at the office, I informed Schmelzle and Ed Borman, the executive editor.
In those days, as gone forever as T-Rexes and honorable politicians, our 75,000-population community managed to support two afternoon daily newspapers. Our bitter rival was The Urbana Courier, smaller, feistier and relentlessly hungry for journalistic victory. At 4:30 p.m. each weekday, a half-dozen copies of the Courier arrived in our newsroom, to be combed for stories we might have missed. Across town, Courier staffers in turn were checking out our front page.
At exactly 4:30 p.m. on my first afternoon, Borman is galloping toward my desk, shouting like a wounded rhino.
"Damn it! Damn it! DAMN IT ALL!"
Brandishing a rolled up copy of the Courier, its ink barely dry, he screams: "WHAT THE HELL, COHEN!"
Borman's sclerotic rage terrifies me –- I never had seen someone actually stroke out. Slamming the newspaper on my desk, he jabs an index finger at a headline of a size usually reserved for aviation disasters, religious miracles or the infrequent Illini football triumph.
"PLANS FOR NEW SEWAGE PLANT" (The words seem to pulsate.) By Dudley McAllister, Courier Staff Writer.
I had never formally met Mr. McAllister, but clearly he attended the same meeting and managed to stay awake. In the ensuing minutes, hours and days, I’ll learn much more than I wish about Dudley.
But in these first panicky moments, I can only cringe and croak, in my best Elmer Fudd imitation. "Never ha-ha-ha-happened! I swear!"
Bad enough to be scooped on a big story, but my disgrace is compounded when Borman informs me, at decibels suggesting he was unaware of the proximity of my eardrums, that the site for this project is currently a golf course -- land owned BY MY NEW EMPLOYER!!
Bill Schmelzle, the no-longer-genial city editor, confines me to my desk as the room explodes in furious activity, with staffers begging anybody remotely qualifying as a news source to shoot down McAllister's "exclusive."
We are dismissed at midnight; the frenzy resumes at dawn.
I discover that although I still am technically (if temporarily ) employed, the unspoken message remains: "Stay out from under foot, Cohen. Real journalists at work."
The result that afternoon: Our own tasteful retaliatory headline: "COURIER SCOOP FLUSHED DOWN SEWER!"
A classic journalism war is launched. The papers trade volleys.
Courier exposes on Wednesday, the News-Gazette debunks on Thursday. Repeat. Repeat again.
The day after The Gazette's oh-so-delicate scoop-flushing headline, there is shocking retaliation -- a front page Courier editorial whose gist is:
"The other paper is trying to say their reporter, whom nobody has ever heard of, is more worthy of your trust than Dudley McAllister, who has been covering the Sanitary District and everything else in Champaign-Urbana longer than their reporter has been alive. A 35-year veteran of the Courier, Mr. McAlister is the most respected journalist in the history of this community. The other paper's reporter is a total stranger."
(Well, technically not total, since I have been in town for four years. But it is not easy to simultaneously quibble and cower.)
It concludes with this dart to the heart: "He drove away from the meeting in a car WITH NEW JERSEY LICENSE PLATES!"
Subtle. The Courier is equating my little red Plymouth Valiant with Sonny Corleone's getaway limo. Low blow. And me only half-Italian.
The war rages on, and I remain benched to my desk. But it's becoming obvious even to casual observers that the Courier has bigger guns and more ammo. My name seems destined to be a verb in journalism's Hall of Shame: "Cohen-ed -- the act of being axed before ever typing a word."
Happily for me but most unhappily for Dudley, the Newspaper Gods intervene.
His car windows rolled up tight against howling prairie winds and blinding snow, Dudley McAllister probably didn’t hear screaming sirens of the fire engine rushing through a red light at the downtown intersection.
That afternoon, both papers printed front-page obituaries for Champaign-Urbana's “legendary reporter,” the Courier's melodramatically wreathed in black.
Next morning, Bill Schmelzle releases me from Purgatory. "Go interview this guy who invented a unique fishing lure -- instead of bait, a package that just smells like worms."
My lede: "Sniff. Strike. Bam! Dinner! Smell-a-fishin'!"
Schmelzle loves it.
I never looked back.
Postscript: Six decades later, the new sewage treatment plant on land owned by the News-Gazette never got off the architectural drawing board.
Ron Cohen, a prize-winning author, was a senior journalist and executive at United Press International and the Gannett News Corp. in Washington, DC