While wandering through our local Hyde Brothers, Booksellers, I came across From Office Boy to Reporter, or the First Step in Journalism (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1907). It’s the first in an early 20th century children’s book series by Howard R. Garis, best known for the Uncle Wiggily books. This particular copy was inscribed “Edward Jackson — From father, Oct. 24, 1912.”
Perhaps Edward was a boy with a dream like 15-year-old Larry Dexter, the hero of this story, who is forced to find work in New York City to support his newly widowed mother and three younger siblings. While pounding the proverbial pavements, boyish curiosity sends him to the scene of a dramatic building fire caused by a lightning strike. There he meets Harvey Newton, a reporter from the Leader — one of several fiercely competing newspapers. In the pouring rain, Larry offers to hold the umbrella so Mr. Newton can take notes.
Impressed with the young man’s initiative, Mr. Newton helps Larry get a job as an office boy, or copy boy, at the newspaper. Larry becomes one of many boys newspapers employed (several for each department) to literally run copy and proofs within the building — reporter to editor, typesetter to composing. A copy boy would also accompany a reporter to a scene or to cover a trial, run copy back to the office, then run back to gather more from the reporter as the story unfolded. Most of the boys, if not all, are supporting themselves or their families; some attend night school, as Larry does when he decides to work toward becoming a reporter. This is a time and place when, for good or ill, teenage boys are expected to function as adults.
Garis, who himself worked for the Newark (New Jersey) Evening News, captures the hiss and thunk of the pneumatic tubes that carry proofs, the blue pencils, the clacking of the typesetting machines, the inky type, and the hustle of a turn-of-the-century city newspaper. He understood the nuances of getting a story on an evening paper’s news cycle and being able to provide details the morning papers would not. Breaking a story first mattered (a ton), but so did getting it right.
Larry, a too-good-to-be-true 15-year-old, is beset by one challenge or danger after another on the job. A jealous fellow office boy has it in for him. He gets kidnapped while helping Mr. Newton cover a strike. He takes it upon himself to keep an eye on suspected counterfeiters living in his apartment building. Always, his good nature, bravery, and dedication save the day. Finally, after a harrowing race against time, the elements, and the aforementioned nemesis to deliver copy while covering an epic flood, he is promoted to reporter.
“There have been written many good stories of newspaper life and experiences,” the author writes in the preface. “I trust I may have added one that will appeal especially to you boys. If I have, I will feel amply repaid for what I have done.”
It would be easy to dismiss this as formulaic juvenile fiction from journalism’s male-dominated dark ages. However, what sings through all the derring-do is an absolute love for news — finding out what’s happening, getting the facts, and delivering them in the most efficient, responsible, and helpful fashion to readers who want the truth. We need people who can and will do this now more than Garis could likely have imagined.
There are several more books in the Larry Dexter series, but these are just a few of the many books Garis authored, both under his own name and under several pseudonyms. He and his wife, Lilian Garis, who was also a reporter for the Newark Evening News, were considered two of the most prolific children’s authors of their time.