Saying goodbye to Texas

Early in September of 1965 my internship at the Dallas Times Herald ended. They treated me well—better than well, in fact. I had been accepted by people far more experienced and talented than me as an equal, and I like to think I held up my end. Ken Smart told me to keep in touch during my senior year because he was interested in hiring me. Maggie and I squeezed all that we owned into a tiny U-Haul trailer, and back we drove to Lawrence. I would never again live in Texas.

Yet over the years my experience there hasn’t worn well. I suspect one reason is that because of its Kennedy assassination coverage two years before, I had put the newspaper on a pedestal a bit higher than it deserved. Yes, it more than distinguished itself in November and then December of 1963. But under all that, the Times Herald was just another struggling Texas afternoon newspaper, one that sometimes used its reporters as adjuncts of the advertising sales force.

I enjoyed talking to my fellow reporters after the last deadline in the afternoons. Clearly the star of the city room was a young man named Jim Lehrer. Ten years my senior, Jim had come to the Times Herald from the Dallas Morning News in 1963. He was one of those do-anything people that city editors loved because he could distinguish himself on any assignment.

That summer his mind was elsewhere. As his two young children slept, Lehrer the previous year or perhaps longer had labored over his first book, a novel he called “Viva Max,” an improbable but funny tale about how a guy who couldn’t shoot straight retook Texas for his native Mexico. Yes, a reverse Texas Revolution. Jim stuck around long enough to succeed Ken Smart at city editor in 1968. Two years later, he switched to TV news as anchor of KERA in Dallas and in 1973 moved on to Public Broadcasting Service, where he distinguished himself thereafter (when he wasn’t writing books).

One last thing about Jim: When he learned about my obsession with trains, he confessed his own. His dad had run a regional bus company out of Wichita, Kan., when he was a kid, and forever after Lehrer had this love of busses. I reintroduced myself to Jim decades later in Washington. By then, he had a collection of vintage busses! My wife appeared stunned that someone nuttier than her husband roamed the earth.

Two other people I still remember fondly. One was Ruth Ayers. Barely older than me, Ruth took me under her wing as her younger brother that summer—as well she should have, because my arrival meant she was off the detested obituary beat every other day. Keith Shelton, who covered politics, had been with the Times Herald for six years by 1965. Like me, he thought the competing Dallas Morning News had become complacent, not to mention off-the-charts conservative. But Keith was a thorn in Times Herald management’s side that summer. The Newspaper Guild had gotten enough signatures from editorial employees of the newspaper to force a vote on unionizing the newsroom. Keith seemed to be its most vocal supporter. The vote occurred soon after I left for school, and the Guild lost. Keith resigned to becoming managing editor of the Denton Record-Chronicle.

What the Times Herald experience confirmed was that I ought to direct my sights toward Chicago or Kansas City after my last year of college. At the top of my list was the Chicago Daily News, an afternoon newspaper. Then Charlie Corcoran got to me.

Fred the retail store publicist

NorthPark Center in 1965 became what I believe is the first and certainly then the largest enclosed shopping mall in America, located near Loop 12 and North Central Expressway in North Dallas. For the July 4, 1965, Times Herald, I wrote about the push by stores to hire 3,000 people in the tight job market of that period, to staff the several hundred retail outlets, large and small. The mall’s opening was a mere 18 days away. This was a legitimate news story.

About that time Ken Smart walked around the city room handing reporters a piece of paper with three names scribbled on each sheet. They were the names of stores in NorthPark that had bought ads in a big special section the Times Herald would publish on July 21. We were to write feature stories about our assigned stores to appear in that special section.

Some of my love for the Dallas Times Herald died that afternoon. Felix McKnight, the executive editor and a man I admired very much, was allowing his staff to be publicists for the advertisers.

I was too young to bring perspective to all this. My father published special sections all the time at the Daily News-Telegram in Sulphur Springs, less than two hours away from Dallas. At the drop of a hat, he’d run one—for the Hopkins County Dairy Festival, for instance—and in that case run a dozen stories about dairy farmers and the county dairy industry. Ads from retailers congratulating the hundreds of dairy farmers in Hopkins County would surround these stories. The distinction that needs to be made is that my father didn’t run news articles about the advertisers.

I asked Ken what I was supposed to do. He said to call the stores, arrange to visit them in the next couple of days and find out what was interesting or unique about their businesses. So I did and wrote three stories which I took pains not to preserve in my scrapbook of clippings.

If the ethics of having your reporting staff write glowing stories about advertisers don’t smell good, what should a newspaper do? The ethical approach is to hire freelance writers to do what I and the other reporters did and then clearly label the whole presentation “Special Advertising Section.” The Times Herald didn’t want to go to that expense.

Now, decades later, I’ll tell you how I feel about this little affair. I am glad it happened, and glad it happened when it did. I needed to be knocked off my high horse, have my Goody Two Shoes scuffed. Life’s a struggle. You don’t always get to do what you think is the “right thing.” If needs be, you hold your nose. And if you can’t do that, maybe you need to think of another line of work, like house painting.

I was never again put in this position. But having it happen to me once, I appreciated the integrity my subsequent employers in the newspaper and magazine worlds displayed. And by the way, NorthPark Center is still there, more than half a century later. Wikipedia says it has 235 stores. Maybe Fred the retail store publicist gave it a little boost to get it going. What do you think?

What does an intern do? Think big!

It was no accident that my first byline in the Dallas Times Herald during the summer of 1965, on June 24, was about railroads. What do you do with interns? You throw them little stories for the longest time, is what. Thus I was, with Ruth Ayres, the every-other-day obituary writer. If I wanted to break out of that routine, I’d have to suggest my own story to be set loose on, and so I did, and by necessity it was about something I knew a little bit about.

The Southwest Railroad Historical Society, based in Dallas, and its 125 members had just acquired three steam locomotives to add to the two already on exhibit at Fair Park, home of the Texas State Fair. SRHS was negotiating to acquire even more. But first the members had to figure out how to get those three teakettles (one of them actually a huge locomotive more than 100 feet long, which Union Pacific had named Big Boy) from where they were stored to Fair Park, a mile away. Would they need to lay track? All this was fodder for a feature story I suggested to the city editor, Ken Smart, and he said go to it.

A steam locomotive, I wrote, is “almost as rare as a whooping crane—the difference is that the crane can reproduce.” By 1965, these magnificent black machines were all but gone from the railroad scene, replaced by diesel-fed locomotives that all looked the same underneath their paint. I see in rereading the piece that I spoke to Dean Hale, a vice president of the society and a writer for a trade magazine. I would get to know Dean later in my life as one of those people who are always going to do some great thing but never get around to doing it. And by the way, I was still in Dallas on August 22 to report that the three steamers finally made it to Fair Park.

The next week, I came back to the railroad beat I seemed to be creating. The Katy Railroad, which ran between Kansas City and Dallas (among other places), thought it had permission to take off its last two passenger trains, the Texas Special and Katy Flyer, due to losses they incurred. My idea was to write a feature story about the trains to appear the day of their last departures, and to ride the last Texas Special out of Kansas City into Dallas the following morning as a followup story.

But on June 30, the day of the last departures, the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered both trains continued another four months while the federal agency held hearings on the matter. Nothing doing, responded Katy’s new president, John W. Barriger. The ICC order came 11 hours before the last departure, he said, and the law requires 10 days’ notice. The spat turned my soft feature story into a nice 18-paragraph news story.

That night I took the last northbound Texas Special to Denison, Tex., about 120 miles, and the morning of July 1 rode the final southbound version of the train. Delayed meeting freight trains in Oklahoma, it left Denison two hours late—too late, in fact, for my story about the last run to appear in that afternoon’s paper. It had to wait for the next day’s editions. But I scored my second byline.

With that, having shown some initiative and proved I could follow through with publishable stories, I started getting better assignments. A big bank robbery prompted Smart to have me write about how banks protect themselves. The resulting story was not a world-stopper, but it is fun to reread. “There’s little to stop a would-be bandit from attempting or even carrying through a robbery,” I wrote. “Only after the criminal has actually gotten a bank’s money does the many-faceted operation of capture begin. That’s when a bandit gets in trouble.” That ran on July 14.

Four days later, I was back on the railroad beat with a feature about Dallas Union Terminal. “Late every afternoon,” I wrote, “when jet airliners are arriving every few minutes at Love Field, the large, marble lobby of Union Terminal becomes all the more conspicuous for its emptiness. As they have for 49 years, passenger trains still arrive and depart beneath the trainsheds. But they’re fewer and far less glamorous than the trains of past years. Inside the station, tiny lines form at the two ticket windows. The patrons are now mostly older people. People buy their tickets and then either sit in the two rows of wooden benches or buy something to eat inside the small glass-enclosed lunchroom. Dining cars are getting scarce. Upstairs, above the twin escalators which haven’t run for 13 years, the old, high-ceiling waiting room with its golden chandeliers, and the large original lunchroom, are dusty and bare.”

This is really one of the earliest feature stories I wrote that I can look back upon with a bit of pride. I was learning how to tell a story well.

The Times Herald was an afternoon newspaper six days a week, then published its big Sunday morning edition. Most of that summer I was assigned to work Saturdays, from 2 to 10 p.m. The first three hours most Saturdays were spent at Dallas police headquarters, made famous on November 24, 1963, when nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot president John Kennedy’s accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, to death.

It’s rather terrifying as a reporter to walk into a place like this not knowing the first thing about who to talk to and how to find things out. Fortunately, a Dallas Morning News reporter scarcely older than me showed up my first Saturday and took pity, explaining the routines. For instance, every incident report was typed up in multiple copies, and one of them was quickly placed in the press room for reporters to read. And we listened to the police radios above our desks, although listening to them was one thing but understanding a thing that was said in policespeak quite another. Despite all my Saturdays spent at police headquarters, I don’t recall any crime of consequence occurring. The regular night reporter who came in at 5 o’clock was kept far busier as the evening hours passed.

At 5, I’d go to the Times Herald newsroom and be available for any assignment that popped up. Few ever did. Only a couple of reporters worked Saturday evenings, and we’d usually end up talking to pass the time. One of the Saturday night storytellers was Bill Burrus, the medical writer. Bill had worked for the National Enquirer at one point in his career. The grocery store tabloid was something he didn’t relish talking about. He was a resourceful reporter, however. When Lee Harvey Oswald was shot and brought to Parkland Hospital, where he died in surgery, Burrus happened to be at the hospital and was found hiding behind a curtain outside the trauma room.

Burrus also wrote about Marina Oswald, Lee Harvey’s widow. Her business manager, James Herbert Martin, complained to the Warren Commission that a Burrus piece about Mrs. Oswald was “a very good article and not quite true . . . It embellishes the truth.” Asked for specifics, Martin told the commission that Burrus wrote Mrs. Oswald “continued her studies of the English language and watched television, including her favorite Steve Allen Show.” Said Martin: “She doesn’t even like Steve Allen. And of course she is never studying English. That is the trouble with newspapers. I told Bill Burrus that she watches Steve Allen. She does but just for lack of anything else to do.”

One Saturday, July 23, I was told not to go to police headquarters, but to a neighborhood in south Oak Cliff in the city’s southwest section. As junior reporter, I got to cover the Dallas Soap Box Derby, of which the Times Herald was a sponsor, along with the city’s Chevrolet dealers and the Optimist Club. The derby, begun in 1933 and continuing to this day, has kids racing downhill in motor-less car bodies that today resemble little race cars. But then, the racers were more primitive.

Alas, the Sunday edition’s first deadline occurred before the races concluded. So I phoned in my notes on the early races and racers to another reporter downtown, and he fashioned a story that began: “Saturday was Soap Box Derby Day in Dallas, and with it came hundreds of spectators to watch some 80 youngsters zoom down the new Derby Hill on Kiest Boulevard. To the winner of the annual event went a hefty trophy, a $500 savings bond and a ticket to the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, O., Aug. 7.” Of course the story didn’t name the winner because to that point there was no winner.

When the event ended in early evening, I went back to the newspaper and subbed the early story with my own version, which began like this:

Becoming perhaps the most nonplussed winner of Dallas’ Soap Box Derby, sandy-haired Jim Lamb zoomed down Derby Hill five times Saturday to win the annual event over 67 other contending youngsters.

For five minutes—as his fellow racers pushed his car back to the finish line and his mother searched frantically for his father, Charles L. Lamb of 4007 Goodfellow Drive—Jim said not a word.

After he had accepted his trophy, a $500 savings bond, a kiss from 15-year-old Derby queen Susan England and a soft drink from a friend, Jim finally came to life.

“Hey, can I get up now? My back’s getting cramped.”

Yup, I was now a big city newspaper reporter! The truth of it is, I was not the least bit unhappy at this assignment. Soap Box Derby or not, it was a race, wasn’t it? And I was starting, bit by bit, to develop a style of expression that was totally my own. The process would take decades to come to full fruition, but you have to start somewhere.

Remembering the dead

Ruth Ayres, the young woman sitting next to me in the Times Herald newsroom, was overjoyed at my arrival in June of 1965. As the newest and youngest reporter, it had fallen to her to write all the obituaries—typically 12 to 15 a day. Now I was newest and youngest, and city editor Ken Smart decreed Ruth and I would share the burden, each assigned to obits every other day.

Obituary writing is the last thing most reporters want to do. The reason is that it is boring. I realize that some newspapers, such as the New York Times, assign top-deck writers to write before-the-fact obits of famous business, political, and cultural figures, with the reporter often interviewing the subject. Such obits are held until the person dies and are periodically updated. That’s interesting work, but not what the two of us were doing, starting about 6:30 every morning as the funeral homes began calling.

Usually we never spoke to the dead person’s family. The funeral home would gather the pertinent information and phone the newsroom switchboard, with calls routed to whichever of us was on obit duty that day. Some funeral home callers were entirely businesslike, reeling off the pertinent facts. Others would dictate fulsome narratives they expected us to take down—as in, “Mr. Smith was the loving husband of wife Dorothy, the beloved father of Donna, David, Delores, and Donald, and doting grandfather of . . .” and so on. That is how paid obituaries are composed, but not those on the news pages.

You’re probably wondering whether, considering the era, the Times Herald published obituaries of black Dallasites. The answer is yes, but not often. The deceased African-American had to be a pillar of his or her community to attract the newspaper’s attention. Did I like that policy? No. Did I try to change it? No again.

Later, at the Chicago Sun-Times, I observed that obits called in to the city desk were assigned to whatever reporter seemed least busy at the moment, regardless of that person’s rank or status. I tried sometimes to wiggle out, always without success: “Fred, take an obit on line six.” “ Sorry, Mac, I’m busy.” “Busy? You’re reading the fucking paper! Pick up line six.” “But Mac, reading the Daily News is part of my job, which means I’m busy.” “Good try, Frailey. Line six.”

At the Sun-Times, the absolutely worst obituaries to write were those of servicemen killed in Vietnam. The Defense Department would release names, and presumably by then the families had been notified. But not always. Chicago’s City News Bureau would send out a list of names and family addresses, and Leighton (Mac) McLaughlin or another assistant city editor would distribute the names around the city room, the unwritten rule being that nobody would get more than one family to call. This fell to me a couple of times, and the experiences were painful enough that I’ve forgotten them. Our task in these instances was first to confirm that the battlefield death had occurred, and then to learn what we could about the dead soldier.

But back in 1965 at the Times Herald, I was grateful for anything to do and wrote the obits without complaint. By late morning I’d be finished, and I made myself available for any tasks at hand.

Late one morning the task at hand was a fire reported at one of the tony Dallas department stories. Ken Smart told me to call before going to the department store because the home-delivery deadline was upon us. The store’s switchboard put me right through to one of its executives, who acknowledged there had been a fire. But it was quickly extinguished. He gave me a few more details, then said, “You can’t print anything about this because we’re an advertiser and it would harm our image.” I told the man I’d pass this on to my editor and hung up.

Ken told me to write it up quickly, to meet the deadline, and I did, and it was published, all three paragraphs, somewhere in the bowels of the paper. But that was about all the event was worth. I never heard another word about the incident, and of course the department store continued to advertise.

This is probably a good time to describe the paper’s publishing schedule. The day’s first deadline, for out of town delivery, was 8 a.m., with the press time occurring about 90 minutes later. The main, home delivery deadline for the Dallas area was 11 a.m. The final deadline, for a small run of newsstand papers, was about 1:30 p.m.

These deadlines, and the pace of events in Dallas and the world, meant that a lot of what we were writing would not be published in that day’s paper, but in tomorrow’s. In fact, anything happening after about 10 a.m. would probably get to readers of the Dallas Morning News the next morning before our own readers saw it later the next day. If you wonder why afternoon newspapers died off one by one, that’s one reason.

How to get your toe in the door

(The Dallas Times Herald did an outstanding job of covering the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. I was lucky to be an intern at the paper two summers afterward, before my senior year in college. But the lessons I learned there were not all uplifting. For example, the editorial excellence it displayed in November of 1963 didn’t extend to coverage of its advertisers, to whom it pandered. Still, I came to work at 6:30 every morning ready to have some fun, and often enough, I did. This series of essays tells of that experience.)

Luck seemed to follow me everywhere in my professional life. In 1987, while at U.S. News & World Report and wishing I weren’t, I was having lunch with the writers whose stories I edited. One of my young writers blurted: “I just turned down the number-three job at Changing Times,” the monthly money magazine later renamed Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. “You what?” I said back, startled. Several months later, I had that job and her to thank for letting me know the opportunity existed. Somewhat the same luck awaited me on June 7, 1965. when I walked out of the elevator into the fourth-floor newsroom of the Dallas Times Herald. I was the newspaper’s summer intern. Who knows how many kids applied for that job? I got it.

Later in life I had a lot of experience with summer interns. They followed people around, spent a week or two in each department doing not much of anything and finally toward the end of summer got to actually report and write something. These weren’t the sorts of internships I would have enjoyed.

Instead, the Times Herald worked my ass off, starting that first day, and I loved it.

The smaller of the two Dallas dailies (the Dallas Morning News was the city’s dominant paper), the afternoon Times Herald was competently run but undistinguished. Its shining hour was coverage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the aftermath in November 1963. I read both Dallas papers and thought the Times Herald did a noticeably better job of documenting those tragic days.

I got my toe in the door there by becoming its Hopkins County “stringer,” or correspondent, my last two years of high school. What this entailed mainly was calling the Times Herald sports desk from Sulphur Springs on Friday nights after home football games to dictate a two-paragraph story and supply the necessary box-score data. These little pieces appeared in the Saturday afternoon edition. Otherwise, if there was some big story breaking in little Hopkins County (there seldom was), I’d call the state editor in Dallas to see if he wanted a writeup.

I did score one coup—a feature story published the spring of my senior year in high school. A dairy farmer by the name of Gene Gibson had refused to let a pipeline be laid under his farm property, threatening the construction crew with a shotgun. Enjoined in district court from interfering with the pipeline company’s right of eminent domain, he threatened the crew again, this time without a gun. “Are you going to let them alone and let them go through?” the judge asked. “Judge, I don’t see how I can,” Gibson replied. So he got thrown in jail for contempt of court.

That was on a Saturday. On Sunday afternoon I visited him in jail. Gibson was in good spirits and said he was ready to comply with the law, “but that doesn’t mean I agree. There’s just nothing I can do. They will put me back in here if I do it again.”

Gibson was a handsome young father of four. He let me photograph him in the slammer. It all had the makings of a good human interest story and I offered it to the Times Herald, which snapped it up. “Hopkins Man Stands Firm,” the headline read, above the byline reading, “By FRED FRAILEY, Special Writer.” I had just started to shave, and now I had a Dallas Times Herald byline under my belt.

I continued to send the Times Herald pieces the next two summers during college vacations while I worked at my dad’s paper in Sulphur Springs. The advantage of this was to make that toe in the door into something more. The people at the Times Herald got to know me. So right after New Years in 1965, I wrote to Ken Smart, the city editor, asking to work as a reporter that summer, between my junior and senior years at the University of Kansas. I showered Ken with pieces I’d written for his newspaper, the Kansas City Star and the Daily News-Telegram in Sulphur Springs. I don’t recall that Smart offered much resistance. He said to show up as soon as classes ended.

On Saturday, June 5, 1965, I married Margaret Hughes at the First Methodist Church of Ottawa, Kan. Our families and a few friends had a brief reception—brief because we had to drive to Oklahoma City that evening. Sunday we got to Dallas and moved into a furnished apartment I had previously reserved. And on Monday, at 6 a.m., I became a Dallas Times Herald reporter. Yes, technically I was an intern, but I didn’t think of it that way and neither did Ken Smart.