I never wanted to change the world

What came over me to want to be a newspaperman? I’ve been told it was in my blood. My first act of journalism was to sift through someone’s wastebasket. Isn’t this what reporters do? It happened on the floor of the editor’s office at the Daily Traveler in Arkansas City, Kan. The editor, my father, looked down at little Fred with approval as I straightened out his wadded sheets of copy paper. Pop was a newspaperman through and through. He got a journalism degree from the University of Kansas in 1932 (as my sister would do and I as well, 34 years later) and went directly to work at his hometown newspaper, the Daily Traveler . He became its editor in the mid 1940s. A bachelor uncle died in 1951, leaving Pop $75,000, and he used that as seed money to buy a majority ownership of the smallest daily in the state of Texas, the Daily News-Telegram, published in Sulphur Springs, 80 miles east of Dallas.

So yes, newspapers were part of my life for as far back as I can remember. Another early memory is sitting on the lap of Oscar Stauffer, owner of a fleet of Kansas newspapers, including the Topeka Capital-Journal and the Daily Traveler. Oscar was visiting his Ark City paper and came to our house for dinner. Little Freddie was not having a good night. So Oscar picked me up, sat me in his lap, and began to gently swing his pocket watch back and forth, back and forth, until my yells became whimpers and I sweetly asked if I could be forgiven and have dessert after all.

One more thing about my father: I adored him. I wanted to be like him. And I later concluded of F. W. (Bill) Frailey that he was one of the best reporters of his time, his limelight hidden only by the fact that he practiced his craft in a small backwater town. Pop would leave the newspaper’s ramshackle offices at 228 Main Street at 8:30 in the morning, meet his friends at the Chuck Wagon Cafe for coffee and gossip, then make his way through the Hopkins County courthouse, City Hall, and police station, returning at 11 o’clock with enough stories to fill the front page. And have them all written and on the desk of his managing editor, Joe Woosley, by 2 o’clock sharp. Let there be a really big story in Sulphur Springs—like the evening a love triangle ended in gunfire and murder on the city square, or the wee hour when Sheriff Paul Ray Jones hunted down a burglar inside a supermarket—and Pop could fill that front page with a story and sidebars about a single event.

But I can’t overlook another thing that drew me into newspapers. I am hopelessly romantic. I get to the poignant part of a story I’m relating to my wife and I choke up. To my young mind, being a newspaper reporter was the height of romanticism. You dash to follow the cops to a collision. You ask questions of the mayor or the governor or the football coach. You dodge rocks in the middle of a riot. You’re where it’s happening and get to tell people all about it. To be where the action is—it was a powerful pull.

I did not become a newspaperman to save the world, or even change it in the slightest. My first wife became a lawyer to change the world, and in that she was mightily frustrated. I had a lot more fun chasing a story and not worrying about how it would affect the fate of mankind.

The mistake of a lifetime

I looked up from the table containing newspapers from nearby towns to see Artie Stephens about to open the front door of the Daily News-Telegram. I did not like Artie Stephens. He was county attorney of Hopkins County, Tex., not all that smart and a bit of an arrogant prick. But what did I know? I was 20 years old then and pretty full of things myself. From a desk in one corner of the front office, my father, the editor of the Daily News-Telegram, looked up as the front door opened.

Artie took two steps to the counter that separated the entryway from the front office and got right to the point. “Fred, your story in yesterday’s paper about the grand jury indictments?” I nodded, starting to feel a knot in my stomach. “You say they indicted the colored boy for first degree murder. They did not. The grand jury no-billed him.” Artie spoke in a classic East Texas twang; if you recall ever hearing former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm speak, it was the same twang: “They NO-beeled heem.

It took maybe two seconds for those words to make sense, but when they did, I felt like the stupidest, most careless kid on the face of the earth. A “no bill” means the grand jury explicitly refused to indict the arrested man, and I had just named a black man to the 3,000 subscribers of the Sulphur Springs News-Telegram as someone charged with first degree murder. If you define libel as reckless disregard of the truth, then I had libeled.

Artie Stephens, who liked me about as much as I liked him, left with a smile on his face. I turned to face my father, who had listened to all this without saying a word. You could almost see smoke coming out of his ears. Then he spoke. “I want you to go to the courthouse as soon as it opens and verify that what Artie says is true. If it is, I want you to write a retraction and publicly apologize for our mistake. I’ll place it above the fold, where your story was yesterday. And call Cameron and ask what he thinks.” Cameron McKinney was the district attorney and based in Greenville, 35 miles to the west of Sulphur Springs, who had supervised the grand jury.

Dad had one more thing on his mind. “Fred, you are my son, and I love you. But if you ever do something like this again, you won’t be working for me any longer.” That last sentence was the worst rebuke I ever got from my father, who I loved dearly—worshiped, actually.

I walked a block of Main Street, then crossed the square to the Nineteenth Century courthouse, a gothic relic. I climbed the stairs to the third floor office of the county clerk, Valton Glover, and asked to see the grand jury’s bills. It had returned 26 of them that week. Artie was right, of course. There were 25 “true bills” that indicted individuals for various felonies. And one “no bill” that explicitly said it was not indicting anyone for first-degree murder. I had never, in my brief newspaper career, seen a “no bill”—didn’t even know such things existed. My mistake was to not read each indictment carefully, but to merely copy down names, ages, crimes those names were accused of and the date of the alleged crimes.

I returned to the newspaper, defeated. I called Cameron McKinney as my father ordered, hoping he knew something I did not that would change everything. Cameron and I got along well. I’d sometimes go to Greenville to take him out to dinner, inasmuch as he could no longer drive a car because he was legally blind. He in turn let me read technical books in his office about violent sex crimes. The DA came right on the phone. “Don’t worry about a thing, Fred,” Cameron said after I told him what I’d done. “This was a colored killing, a fight over a woman. The jury could have gone either way and decided it was murder in self defense. But if this man complains or threatens to sue you, I’ll recall the grand jury and we’ll indict him.”

This I relayed to my father. If anything, he became even more upset with me. What kind of excuse for your carelessness is that, he asked. He had learned that the no-longer-accused killer worked as a laborer for a construction company in Sulphur Springs. Pop was a friend of its owner. He never said as much to me, but I feel certain he called his friend, asked that he convey his personal apology to this man’s employee and explain that it was due to a stupid mistake by one of his younger employees.

Can you sink lower professionally than I just had? I don’t think so! And how does one recover from such a screwup? I never really did.

The man with no name

On Thursday, August 12, 1954, the front page of the Daily News-Telegram contained a photograph quite unlike any I had seen, before or since. It was a two-column facial photo of a dead man, his head on a pillow inside a casket, his body covered by a blanket below the neck. My father agreed to publish the photograph at the request of police, whose attempt to identify the dead man had proved futile. Maybe a News-Telegram reader would recognize him.

Of course, being 10 years old at the time, I was hypnotized by the image. I had never seen a dead person before. He looked alive to me, just asleep, with a nice shock of hair and a handsome face. He appeared to be in his mid-20s. I couldn’t take my eyes off that photo. Dead . . . really?

Very late the previous Monday, Mack Davidson was driving a month-old 1954 Ford from his home near Dallas to Paris, 35 miles north of Sulphur Springs. As he explained to authorities several days later, when he came out of a coma, he picked up a hitchhiker near Dallas. The man said he was headed for Texarkana, Tex., but did not divulge his name, home town or occupation to Davidson.

Near Commerce, 20 miles west of Sulphur Springs, the stranger took over the job of driving and Davidson dozed off. “I woke up in the hospital,” he later said. The hitchhiker took a wrong fork in the road after leaving Commerce, and headed for Sulphur Springs instead of Paris. About five miles north of Sulphur Springs, the car hit a bridge abutment, killing the hitchhiker and critically injuring Davidson.

Police had nothing to go on. The dead man wore blue jeans and a yellow nylon shirt and carried with him a door key, a cigarette lighter, a pack of Kools and a dime.

Day & Day Funeral Home had hundreds of inquiries, but all led to dead ends. Two thousand people viewed the body, probably in large part from curiosity. The man’s fingerprints were checked against databases available at the time, to no avail. After ten days, the body of this man with no name was buried in the city cemetery. I imagined he would remain there, until the end of time. Years went by, but I never forgot that remarkable photograph.

Then in July of 1964, almost a decade later, came a surprising development, which I wrote about in the Daily News-Telegram and filed as a story to the Dallas Times Herald, which published it under a three-column headline. A gasoline station owner in Gilmer, half an hour east of Sulphur Springs, called the funeral home. Kenneth Phinney said his brother, John Everett Phinney, had disappeared at the time of the accident.

Could this be the man with no name? Phinney, his three sisters and about 40 others who knew John Phinney all examined the photograph. It was their conclusion that the dead man was indeed John Phinney.

The initial mystery had captured my little town’s attention. The chances of its being resolved a decade later were, to my mind, infinitesimal. I was grateful to write the story of John Phinney’s identity. Strange as it is to say, I was sharing good news about a tragic event.

Friday night lights

Whatever you do, read the last paragraph of this blog.

I’ll never forget the Friday nights. The lights were on, the stands were packed. And there I was in the little press box, all of 17 years old, a sports writer! Yes, I was pretty full of myself, chronicling the up and downs of the Sulphur Springs Wildcats my last two years in high school.

The biggest challenge turned out to be this: How many ways can you describe a loss? The Wildcats’ record those two seasons was one up and 19 downs, in other words 1-19, and at the conclusion of the second season in 1961, the team had not won against a District 6-AAA opponent in five years.

I’ve reread my stories from the 1960 season. Nothing to brag about here—both the writing and the football playing. My stories from those ten games were largely uninspiring in a literary sense.  The best I could do was this, about the season opener: “A gangling, sweat-stained end who performed like a halfback, with only 20 seconds remaining in the game, spelled defeat for the Sulphur Springs Wildcats Friday night and gave the Commerce Tigers their second triumph in two starts, 14 to 13.”

By the 1961 season I was getting better at describing the creative ways the Wildcats managed to lose nine of their ten games.

October 29, 1961: “Perhaps they played their best game of the season. Perhaps they played like it was win tonight or die tomorrow. Perhaps Randy Wilkie’s 83-yard pass run was the spectacular play of the game. But Mt. Pleasant had a fellow on their side named Bernise Alderman. The 140-pound halfback, quarterback, field goal kicker and crack runner set the stage for a first quarter touchdown and kicked a three-pointer in the second period to lead the Tigers to a 10-0 victory in Mt. Pleasant Friday night.” The problem with this lead, of course, is that I never said that “they” were the hapless Wildcats of Sulphur Springs. But I was at least starting to get edgy.

November 5, 1961: “ ‘They’re crying their hearts out,’ said glum Wildcats coach Harry Lander at the end of Friday’s game. ‘They deserve a better fate than this.’ They did deserve a better fate, but spectacular last-minute tactics by the Greenville Lions spelled doom for Sulphur Springs as the visitors grabbed a 14-8 victory here.”

November 19, 1961: “It took the Paris Wildcats 24 minutes on the play clock to warm up here Friday night. And when they did, the Sulphur Springs Wildcats could offer little opposition as Paris rambled past 20-6 for its 23d victory in 26 years in the divisional rivalry.”

I’d show up in the stadium press box, which at home games meant a little shed at the top of the bleachers barely large enough to accommodate me and three broadcasters from radio station KSST. Using an ancient portable typewriter belonging to my dad, I typed a running description of every play—who carried or caught the ball, who made the tackle and so on. A line of my notes might read like this: “10:19 1st & 10. Wilkie over right tackle for 3. Tackle by Wright.”

I was grateful to have the KSST folks at my side. Smooth-talking station owner and general manager Bill Bradford and one of his ad salesmen, Buddy Funderburk, a bubbly and excitable guy, did the play by play. They made a good team. Listening to them with one ear, I made sure I got all the details right. Color commentary came from Gerald Prim, a loyal Wildcat fan and president of the Sulphur Springs State Bank. Prim was a terminally shy man, and he spoke so softly I doubt many KSST listeners could understand him. And if you did hear him, he didn’t have much to contribute. But what are you going to tell your biggest advertiser, who wants to become Howard Cosell? And besides, I liked those three men, who treated this kid as their equal. We had a lot of fun as the Wildcats plowed through two seasons of almost winless football.

After the games, I’d go to the Daily News-Telegram office and spend an hour compiling the statistics—yards rushing and passing, first downs, passes attempted and completed and so on. Next, I would tap out a two-paragraph summary of the game and phone the sports desk of the Dallas Times Herald, acting as that paper’s Hopkins County correspondent. Saturday afternoon’s Times Herald would include two pages crammed with brief descriptions of North Texas high school football games. Finally, I could go to the drive-in restaurant on Gilmer Street and share a Coke and fries with my friends. I had all night to figure out how to write the story Saturday morning for Sunday’s Daily News-Telegram.

Okay, now I think it can be told, the great unpublished story about Sulphur Springs football during my years as its chronicler: Maybe coach Harry Lander’s team couldn’t score on the field. But Harry was scoring regularly on the side, conducting an affair with the wife of the president of the school board. When word got back to the cuckolded husband, a prominent businessman, of what was happening right under his nose, that was it for Harry Lander in Sulphur Springs. Oh, the spilled secrets of small town life then.

The country newspaper in 1960

What was a small newspaper office like half a century or longer ago, in the era of “hot type” generated by huge, complex Linotype machines? I’ll tell you.

The Daily News-Telegram then was housed on Main Street in Sulphur Springs, Tex., (population 9,160 in 1960) one block away from the town’s square. The company leased three storefronts, only one of them with an unlocked door. The public entrance opened to an office with a counter, behind which were the desks of managing editor Joe Woosley, society editor Christine Moelk, the local reporter and sports editor (me, starting in 1960), head clerk and proof reader Nadine Greer, and bookkeeper Elbert Wilkins. My dad, the editor and publisher, occupied an alcove directly behind the front office. (It had no door, and Pop welcomed anyone who walked in,. no matter how tedious or boring they may be.)

Headed back from the front office and that of my father, you entered a nether world that would stun anyone born after 1970—a complex manufacturing operation that on the hottest summer days felt like a scene from hell.

Aligned along the right side were four Linotype machines. Learn all about them on Wikipedia, but they worked like this: An operator at a keyboard typed in a story. Each keystroke brought a matrice of the letter or number into a form. When the narrative filled a line, the Linotype operator would insert a hyphen or a spacer if necessary to make the line justify both left and right. Then the line would be encased in molten medal, which quickly cooled and was shot into a tray behind the previous line of type that had been typeset. At the back of every Linotype machine was a fire that melted the bars of metal (composed mainly of lead).

In my experience Linotype operators were pretty learned people—smart, educated, and interested in the stories they were typesetting. That would certainly describe Jeff Campbell, William Hutchins, and Wilma Anonette, first-rate people who ran the first, second, and third Linotype machines for many years. But at the end of the row was Sam. I cannot remember Sam’s last name, which is just as well because nobody spoke very well of him.

Middle-aged, Sam seemed intensely unhappy, and had no family that we knew of. He spoke only when spoken to. All of that his coworkers could live with. What was harder to understand was Sam’s seeming lack of attention to what he was doing. Words would be reversed. Misspellings were rampant. Entire lines or even paragraphs would be left out. Nadine Greer, who proof read all of the wire service stories, forever complained about Sam, and no doubt begged my dad to fire him. Even I suggested as much.

But Bill Frailey valued loyalty, and in any event had no stomach for firing anyone who wasn’t caught stealing money from the safe or threatening other employees. So Sam stayed, year after year, and Nadine kept complaining. Then one noon when I was away at college, Sam got up from his machine to go to lunch and never came back or explained why or gave his resignation.

Most back-shop employees in that era were Daily News-Telegram lifers. Guy Felton, foreman of the back shop, was such a person. Among his duties was to assemble type and other elements of advertisements. Our two pressmen were lifers as well. Robert Irons doubled as boss of our little stereotyping department. There the comics, certain national advertisements, photographs and so forth were turned into plates which were then placed in the metal frames of pages, called “chases.” Robert also melted the type from previous editions to make the metal bars which were fed to the Linotype machines.

Willard, the other pressman, doubled as assembler of the actual pages of the newspaper. In other words, he was the one who took the headlines and typeset stories and ads and photos and actually placed them in the chase. An important part of that task was to make sure the hundreds of pieces of type inside the chase were snug and completely tightened down. That’s because Willard had to lift the chase containing the completed page, probably weighing more than 100 pounds, to a cart and then from the cart to the flatbed press. Imagine the page falling apart as it was lifted! Willard always carefully tested each chase before lifting it, and occasionally had to insert leading to secure loose lines of type. We always joked about Willard’s dropping a chase, causing it to splatter across the floor. But of course that never happened.

To the left of the composing room, at the back of the second storefront, was the press room. Our press was ancient, able to print only eight pages at a time. On days that required more than eight pages, a second press room would start at about noon. I believe the output of this press was about 3,000 copies an hour, so a press run took a bit longer than an hour. The simplicity and relatively slow speed of the press no doubt had something to do with the fact that it lasted long past a normal life cycle.

I should mention that my father also published a second newspaper, the weekly Hopkins County Echo. Almost nobody inside the city of Sulphur Springs read it or even knew it existed. It circulated almost entirely to rural residents of Hopkins County, as well as to former residents. The Echo must have made us a lot of money in its day. That’s because it had little if any editorial or typesetting costs. Rather, it was filled with local stories from the previous week’s News-Telegram. The Hopkins County Echo was printed on Thursdays for mail delivery the next day, and always required at least two press runs.

When my father bought Echo Publishing Company in 1951, in partnership with his cousin Kenneth Kraft, the Echo had by far the larger circulation—I’m thinking about 5,000, versus the Daily News-Telegram’s 1,700. Gradually the News-Telegram added readers and the Echo lost them. The last Hopkins County Echo was published about 2015. By then its readership was down to barely more than 100.

A big component of Echo Publishing was commercial printing, which occupied most of the space behind the second storefront. We were the third-largest supplier of tags and other printed form to Texas cotton gins. I got my start at age 14 in this department. Eventually I was promoted to pressman, and one eventful day I managed to disable three of the four presses. Perhaps that’s why Pop soon thereafter made me his cub reporter, to save his commercial printing business from my destructive acts.

The last storefront held the advertising department. It was staffed largely by Elwood Highfield, Mun Watkins, and Cody Greer (Nadine’s husband), Cody doubling as the newspaper’s photographer.

This was my little word of newspapers, circa 1960. I’ll describe how we put out an edition in a future blog.

Snipe hunting, with the law

Deputy sheriff Joe Kellum turned from the shotgun-side seat of the cruiser and said to me in the back seat, “Fred, you ever been snipe hunting?” This would be the summer of 1961. I was 17 years old and sure, I was naive. But not so naive that I couldn’t understand I was being set up for a practical joke.

No, I replied, quickly trying to size up things. What’s a snipe hunt, I wondered to myself? Where you throw up an object and shoot toward it with your shotgun? No, that’s skeet shooting. “So tell me, what’s this all about” I said, trying to play this out until Kellum and fellow deputy Lonnie Depew, who was driving, might get tired of the game before events took their course and I would, in some manner, be humiliated by the pair of lawmen.

I had myself to blame for getting in this fix. Paul Ray Jones, a tall, raw-boned country fellow, had been sheriff of Hopkins County in Northeast Texas for a few years. I got to know Paul Ray, as he was called, a year earlier when I began covering the sheriff’s office for the Daily News-Telegram on Saturdays during the school year and every day during the summer. He always treated me with much more respect than was due a high school-age cub reporter. He liked seeing his name in the paper, I guess, and I was his conduit to achieving that goal and thereby increasing his odds of reelection.

At any rate, I asked Paul Ray if I could ride with him or his deputies on patrol one weekend night. Sure, he said, and that very night Paul Ray and deputy Kellum took me with them. We stopped for a couple of hours on the eastbound shoulder of Interstate Highway 30, comparing licenses plates of passing cars with the plate numbers of known bootleggers. It would have been exciting if we had made a match, but it didn’t happen. The rest of the time, until about 1 o’clock the next morning, we roamed the back roads of Hopkins County. Hopkins is about 20 by 30 miles in size, with Sulphur Springs, the county seat, in the middle. In any event, nothing more exciting than a domestic argument aroused our attention that evening, but I had fun.

Let’s try this again, I decided. So a week later I was with Kellum and Depew. Hopkins County is criss-crossed by paved Farm-Market roads, known as county roads in other states. In White Oak Bottoms, where the creek by that name nears its confluence with the Sulphur River, Kellum turned off the FM highway onto a dirt road, drove a ways, stopped, and cut off the motor. Then he asked if I’d ever hunted snipe.

Kellum explained that one of us—that would be me—stands on the road to yell and scream, to awaken and scare the snipes, which he described as little furry animals. You’ve never seen one, he said, because they’re shy and only come out at night. Then he and Lonnie would catch them somehow as they scurried down the road, to get away from me.

Okay, I said, consigning myself to my fate, let’s do it. I got out. One of them fished among the shotguns in the trunk and came up with a burlap bag. If I caught a snipe myself, I was told, put it in the bag. Bye Fred, they said, and drove off into the night.

So I stood there in total darkness, occasionally yelling in case Kellum and Depew were in hearing range. I was 95 percent certain there was no such thing as a snipe (there is, it turned out). And for sure, I didn’t hear the pitter-patter of little snipe feet. All I heard was the chorus of crickets. After what seemed an hour, but was probably ten minutes, the deputies drove back, expressing disappointment at the outcome of our little hunt. We’ll have to do it again when there are more snipe out and about, one of them said. It was clear that the lawmen liked me for going along with their gag.

The next Monday, Paul Ray Jones said he’d heard I’d been snipe hunting with his boys. How many did you catch, the sheriff asked? None, but I had fun trying, I lied.

I had participated in a rite of passage among American boys almost 200 years old. There’s even a Wikipedia entry on the topic. Had I been more mature, and possessed some nerve, I could have woven a nice little feature story about my adventure. I can imagine the headline Joe Woosley would have written atop it: SNIPE HUNTING, WITH THE LAW.

But I didn’t, and so Joe didn’t. Why is it, I wonder today, that such experiences as this are wasted on kids too young to know what to do with them?

Four days before Christmas

Here is what we know: Thomas Gregory, 17 years old, was driving his Ford to his family’s farm house four miles west of Sulphur Springs. His dad Judson Gregory, 45, a dairy farmer, was in the front passenger seat. Two of Judson Gregory’s grandsons, Douglas McCord and Mark Gregory, both age 2, occupied the back seat. Thomas Gregory steered the car off State Highway 11 onto the dirt road going to his home and drove it up the short ramp leading to the Cotton Belt Route railway tracks. At the apex, with the Ford centered on the tracks, the car inexplicably stopped. The time was 2:55 p.m., four days before Christmas in 1961.

I was on vacation from high school that Thursday and standing in for my dad as the newspaper’s local reporter. In the backshop, that day’s edition had just been locked up and was being placed on the press. Then the police radio atop the desk of Joe Woosley came alive. A train had struck a car on Highway 11 between Sulphur Springs and Ridgeway. Already we could hear the sirens of ambulances. Joe turned to me and Cody Greer, an advertising salesman who doubled as our staff photographer. “Get going,” is all he said.

Without asking, I knew the train involved, a local freight that ran each weekday from Mt. Pleasant (35 miles west of Sulphur Springs) to Commerce (20 miles east). It would be a short train doing maximum speed, which was 50 miles per hour. Those are all insignificant facts versus the larger picture but all I could focus on as Cody sped west on Highway 11. And I knew what I was about to see would not be pretty.

Just as we reached the accident, an ambulance sped away, headed toward Memorial Hospital. We were told by a highway patrolman it carried two young boys, one of whom, Douglas, would die en route. I asked who else was in the car. The cop motioned toward the vehicle a short distance away, its right (passenger) side crushed against the front of the locomotive. I walked to the driver’s side of the car and looked inside.

There lay Judson and Thomas Gregory, father and son, their heads thrown against the top of their seatbacks. They looked asleep. There was a lot of blood. I stared a few moments and turned away, unable to bear the sight. My god, I thought, right in front of the family farm. They must have driven across the railroad tracks constantly. A private road, it was protected only by the standard buckboard sign. How could this happen? So I went in search of the occupants of the train’s locomotive.

The diesel locomotive was designed in such a way that the operating compartment was near its rear. Its engineer could see everything on the train’s right side, its fireman opposite him in the cab could see everything on the left. That’s why fireman W. O. Philpot witnessed this living nightmare as it unfurled. He saw the car turn off the highway as the train approached, its whistle sounding. The Ford stopped short of the tracks. Then to Philpot’s horror, it began moving again. Keep whistling! Philpot shouted to engineer C. E. Shirey. The engineer began tooting the whistle short and fast. Then Shirey saw the front of an automobile pop into view on his side of the locomotive and stop. The collision occurred immediately afterward.

My story in the next day’s paper quoted police as thinking the car might have stalled. Such almost certainly was the case. The question I did not think to ask then was whether the Ford had a manual transmission. Today I’m surprised Woosley, upon reading my copy, didn’t ask me to call the police and ask. A relatively inexperienced driver like Thomas Gregory may have inexpertly used the accelerator and clutch and caused the car to sputter out at the apex of the climb to the tracks. I’ll never know.

I relate all this because the experience profoundly affected me. I had never encountered the aftermath of violent death, or death in any visible form. A year earlier, I had embarked on what would be a lifelong career as a journalist, anticipating a life of romance and excitement. We go where the action is. We man the front lines of news events.

But I hadn’t bargained on this. What I was unprepared for, and still cannot shake, is the shock of a family destroyed by a boy’s horrible misjudgment or clumsiness as a driver. Thomas Gregory was my age, and I knew him at Sulphur Springs High School. But there he was inside that car, gone. I couldn’t begin to imagine the grief overwhelming Gladys Gregory, wife of Judson, mother of Thomas and grandmother of  Douglas. And it had to happen almost at her doorstep.

I could not then and cannot now detach myself from scenes such as I saw that day. They stay with you forever. If you know a cure, share it with us.

The apprentice

(I started as a reporter for my father’s daily newspaper in Sulphur Springs, Tex.,  at age 16. The Daily News-Telegram was perhaps the smallest daily in Texas then and therefore a good place for me to learn to put words together into sentences and sentences together into paragraphs. I covered high school sports during the academic year and Little League games in summer, while interviewing the city manager in the morning and riding patrol with deputy sheriffs at night. Best of all, when the managing editor took his vacation, I convinced my dad to let me take over, laying out pages and editing all the copy. It was heaven, and I was still too young to vote! These blogs tell of my first job in newspapers.)

In April of 1958, I had just turned 14 years old. Soon I’d be ending the eighth grade and that fall would start high school. One afternoon that month my mother cleared her throat and said we needed to talk. “Fred,” she said, “you’re starting to become a young man, and your father and I have decided that when school ends, so will your allowance.” I was getting $5 a week at that time, enough to buy Cokes and snacks and put some coins in the church collection plate. I must have looked confused. Mom looked nervous, because I don’t think she knew how I would take what she was about to say. “But your father has a job waiting for you at the newspaper. In the job shop. It will pay 25 cents an hour to start, more if you do well. What do you think.”
I did the multiplication in my head. Twenty-five times 40 hours is $10 a week. A fortune to me then! That settled it. I told mom that of course I’d work for Pop. My sister Carolyn, six years ahead of me in school, had been a cub reporter for our dad. Like her and my father, I wanted to become a newspaper reporter, and this was a first step toward that end. I just didn’t think it would start so soon.

My father, F. W. (Bill) Frailey, was editor, publisher, and majority owner of the Daily News-Telegram, an afternoon newspaper in Sulphur Springs, Tex., a town of about 9,000 people then. I once discovered that when he bought the paper in 1951, it was literally the smallest daily newspaper in Texas, with a circulation of 1,700. Until just a year or two prior to his arrival in Sulphur Springs, the paper got its news feed from the Associated Press by telegraph key—that’s right, by Morse code.

Pop was one-quarter of the paper’s editorial staff—that is, when he could find people who would work for what he could pay. His longtime managing editor was Joe Woosley. Joe edited all the stories that appeared in the paper, wrote their headlines, and sketched out the design of pages. Christine Moelk was society editor, writing the wedding announcements and other social news, plus a daily comings-and-goings column. It was finding that fourth person, to be general news reporter and sports editor, that forever frustrated my father. Sulphur Springs was easily two hours from the nearest big city, Dallas, and could be a lonely place for a young man just out of school. And as I said, the money wasn’t much. What he could offer an ambitious young reporter was a lot of experience.

For several years my dad found such a person in Tony Price, a personable young fellow of considerable talent, who my dad took under his wing. Tony stayed around longer than anyone my dad hired, for maybe two years, before getting a better job for more money at the Galveston Daily News. My father later said he knew he’d lose Tony, but it still hurt; they stayed in touch with each other for years afterward. Thereafter, more often than not, my dad not only managed a company with 30-some employees but was also his newspaper’s only general reporter. Small wonder he wanted me to help out!

Of course, at age 14 I wasn’t ready to be a reporter. Instead, that summer of 1958 found me working in the bindery of the newspaper’s commercial printing operation. Echo Publishing, parent company of the Daily News-Telegram, specialized in printing forms for scores of cotton gins throughout Texas. My job in the bindery, working for a woman in her sixties named Lorraine Wise, was to collate printed copies of pages into book size, perforate them when necessary, bind them into books using staple machines and binding tape, and finally trim them to final size on a paper-cutting machine.

If that sounds even faintly interesting, believe me, it wasn’t. And of course, as the boss’s son I had to endure a lot of good-natured hazing. Right away I was sent across Main Street to a competing print shop to ask its owner, Rex Flippin, for a “type squeezer.” I knew damn well no such device existed—it would be like asking for a rock squeezer. But the job shop foreman, Eddy Guidry, barely able to contain his laughter, insisted I do as instructed. Rex responded to my request by saying he had lent his only type squeezer to a third printing shop.

At least I was having fun at such moments, even if I was the butt of the joke. Otherwise, I was incredibly bored; I swear the clock would stop in the bindery that first summer as minutes took hours to pass. But the money was good—Pop raised my pay to 35 cents an hour after six weeks and to 50 cents at the end of summer. Yes, bored or not, I asked to work after school and on Saturdays during the school year, because I needed the money. Believe it or not, you could get a driver’s license in Texas at age 14 in that era, and by the end of summer I had saved enough money ($300) to buy a blue 1949 Ford two-door coupe. Now I had to insure and fuel it. My parents said if I owned a car, I’d have to pay every penny for its cost, and I did.

In 1960, after my sophomore year in high school, Pop gave me the promotion I had been waiting for. I was to be his reporter, covering local sports and on Saturdays, helping out with police and municipal news. Yup, I was now a newspaperman, or maybe newspaperboy.