One who went before

Helen Deiss - Ky Kernel

Helen Deiss, editor, checked The Kentucky Kernel with head pressman Karl Davis in the old printing plant in 1948. (Photo courtesy University of Kentucky)

This photo in my spouse’s University of Kentucky alumni magazine — celebrating the university’s 150th anniversary —  caught my eye. The young woman, Helen Deiss, was the editor of the campus newspaper in 1948, and here she was checking an issue just off the press. She looks younger than a traditional college student, and yet she exudes calm and confidence at a time when women in editorial positions were few.

Helen Deiss Irvin passed away in 2015 at 86, but according to her obituary, she went on to become a reporter for what was then the Lexington Leader, receive a Ph.D. from UK and teach in Transylvania University’s division of humanities. She later attended Harvard Law School and practiced in Washington, DC, until she was 83. Along the way, she authored a book, Women in Kentucky. “She loved animals, books and sports,” the obit reads.

Helen sounds like a lady who sought and found a variety of outlets for her gifts and interests. It wasn’t “just” journalism, teaching, or law … she did them all. Many, if not most, of the women who followed her in journalism would also weave teaching, law, public relations, nursing, occupational therapy, or any number of other disciplines into their working lives. It’s a pluralism that has become a reality of 21st-century life and a time when journalism is struggling to retain the best of what it was and morph into its future self.

The Kentucky Kernel became an independent newspaper in 1971, operating without university funding, and it’s still going today.

But look at young Helen giving that newspaper the once-over in 1948. She knew what she was doing and would find many more ways to do it. So can we.

A boy and his newspaper

IMG_2370While 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.

What was, and what’s left

Indianapolis Star photo by Greg Griffo

Indianapolis Star photo by Greg Griffo

This is the Indianapolis Star building, which until a few weeks ago stood at 307 N. Pennsylvania St. The newspaper called it home for some 100 years before moving to what used to be a department store at Circle Centre mall downtown. For a relative snippet of time, I called it home, too.

My dad, Tom Crowe, worked there from 1960 to 1990, as an ad salesman, advertising director, and finally as vice president and general manager. Long before Take Our Daughters to Work Day was a thing, Dad was taking me with him to “the plant” with the rich, sharp smell of newsprint and ink and the inky footprints in the first-floor hallway. I peered over the desks of God knows how many poor souls trying to get their work done as I followed Dad around the building. He almost always whistled. The place reminded me of a Chutes and Ladders game, with ramps, steps, and corridors going off every which way. That’s what happens when you morph two or three old buildings into one.

The mailroom was the best, because you could watch and hear the presses running. The stories the people on the second floor had written — wrapped around the ads the people on the third floor had sold — were all coming out on those big sheets of paper rattling through the machinery. The finished, folded papers that came out on the conveyor belt would then go into homes all over the city. People read the paper. They talked about what was in it. Printed words mattered.

Many drawings and homework assignments were completed at the small conference table in the office Dad moved into after being promoted to general manager. It was off the New York Street entrance — just out of the frame in this photo. There were no windows, and while the daylight addict in me hated that, I never felt anxious or claustrophobic in there. Decades later, during an energy healing session, I was asked to picture myself in a place where I felt absolutely safe and at home. I went not to a beach, shady grove, or cozy fireside, but to Dad’s office, puzzling through social studies or perhaps just reading the comics in that day’s paper while he worked.

We were a large, often dysfunctional extended family. Charlie Simmons, one of Dad’s coworkers in the advertising department, sat with Mom and me through several of Dad’s heart surgeries. Other employees confided in Dad about their battles with depression or alcoholism, or their confusion over decisions their own children had made. We went to one another’s weddings and funerals, watched the fireworks together at the Fourth Estate employee park every Fourth of July, and knew at least something about what was going on in one another’s lives.

When I went to work in the business office during the summer as a college student, Don Bates in personnel — a sideline photographer who had taken my baby pictures — took the photo for my ID badge. “No bearskin rug this time,” he said, grinning as he clicked the shutter.

I could not have asked for a more educational, and fun, introduction to the working world. Wednesdays in the cashiers’ office were hectic, as all the circulation district managers brought in their checks, cash, and money orders. Frazzled after totaling everything up and balancing on one such day, we got into a rubber band fight. Without even trying, I managed to loop one over a sprinkler head. About 15 years later, when I stopped by for a visit, I happened to look up and that same rubber band still hung there.

At the News during another break, I got to practice the copyediting and headline writing skills that would become a large part of my career. Bo Connor at the Star helped me get my first full-time journalism job at The Republic in Columbus, Ind.

Dad passed away in 1994, just four years after retiring. The first phone calls I received that day — after Mom, telling me the news — came from 307 N. Penn.

A few years later, the News closed down. Then the Star was sold to Gannett. Then came the move to Circle Centre and the sale of the building. Then came the demolition.

Nothing stays the same, and really, nothing should. Not all change is for the better, and often more change is needed because of it. If we are smart, we learn. Dad, who kept a brick from the old Detroit Times building in his office, would be the first to tell me it’s OK to let go of what was and make room for what will be.

What can we pull from the past and retrofit to work for us now? That’s a question we in print media are going to have to figure out. Most days, I think it comes down to caring about what we do and why, and caring for one another in the process. That’s probably a gross oversimplification, but it’s a place to start.

In the meantime, after we make our next deadline, I just may fire off another rubber band.