Thursday, December 8, 2005

The Year I Became a Crusading Newspaperman: 1953

That year, three years out of college and two years as a copywriter for an ad firm (where I had inherited the Perk dog food account with the portrait of a slobbering hound and the slogan “Dogs Drool for Perk!” which the advertiser loved but which nauseated me), I decided to go with my first love: newspapering. The City News Bureau pursued veterans’ preference and as I was a non-veteran, I determined to return to the then small community near my college: St. Cloud, Minnesota (population: 25,000) and was hired by the St. Cloud Daily Times at the munificent salary of $40 per week. I went there because an old college chum had volunteered to stake me to the rent in his boarding house until I got a raise. The day I arrived with baggage was the day he told me he was getting married and moving out and I would have to pay the rent myself. To make matters worse, the managing editor (my boss) informed me that I was to be the Farm Editor. I said Farm Editor? I’m from Chicago and don’t know a thing about agriculture. He said everybody who is hired in this newsroom starts off being the Farm Editor. Pull some AP stories off the wire, edit them, write the headlines and shut up about being from Chicago. Which I did.

I couldn’t make it on $40 a week so I contracted with the Associated Press to be a stringer in addition for sometimes $10 or $15—but even that wasn’t sufficient. I went to a bar with a piano and told the owner that I could play anything on request which was a falsehood—but the place was so raucous with the patrons drinking what they called “Minnesota 13” that they never found out. One night a farmer in Junior Gilliam overalls eased down next to me at the piano bench and asked softly if I could play “The Blue Skirt Waltz.” It so happened I could and I was delighted to obey. Midway, I looked over at him and asked if he wanted to sing along. He looked at me thoughtfully and then fell off the bench on his head, striking the floor without raising his arms to shield himself from the fall. He was dragged off leaving a trail through the cigarette butts which depressed me somewhat. It was at that point that I wondered if I shouldn’t write my mother and tell her that playing piano in a disreputable saloon frequented by unkempt farmers drinking a barley-corn concoction called “Minnesota 13” was a terrible place for a Catholic boy to be and so I was changing my religion. But I did not and I have stayed a Catholic. Instead after a few weeks I got a raise, principally because the managing editor (a) took pity on me and (b) was gratified that I was eager to give some dramatic impulse to the newspaper. So I left show business and was a full-time journalist.

The idea I had to change the image of the newspaper was this: I came from Chicago to this small, rural city with a Chicagoan’s feel for exciting news. So I made a deal with the wire editor, a spindly little man who was tired of writing the same old headlines for the same old stories: Family Motors to Twin Cities…that sort of thing. It so happened that across my desk one morning came a ragged clipping from a weekly newspaper in a tiny town called Holdingford, Minnesota (population 147) which gave me the genesis of a really exciting story. The correspondent wrote dully that the town constable was beaten up when he tried to convince the patrons of a saloon to observe the legal closing limit. The story was written very drily and took up about two inches in small type on a back page. This, I told the wire editor, is what we do. I will interview that policeman and will describe picturesquely his vow to bring sensible law enforcement to Holdingford. He excitedly agreed.

So I drove my 1947 Chevrolet ten miles out of town through the rolling fields to Holdingford. I inquired for the policeman and was told that his name was Ben Ruhland (I can still remember this after 52 years) and he was nursing some cuts and bruises because he was--. I said: I know, I know: he was beaten up performing his duty. They said weakly: yes. I found him sitting at a desk in the police station in front of an empty jail cell examining his very bent glasses that had been knocked askew in the melee. I said, are you Ben Ruhland? He said he was. I am from the St. Cloud Daily Times, I said, and I came to ask you about the fight. He was quite interested in telling me about it and said he had never been interviewed by a newspaper before much less a big metropolitan daily paper that came out from the press every afternoon as did the St. Cloud Daily Times. He said that there was a bad bunch living in Holdingford called the Opatz brothers. After doing their evening chores at their farm they would drive to town and visit the only saloon there and drink “Minnesota 13” throughout the evening which made great changes in their personality to the extent that they would decline to go on home at closing time.

He asked if I was acquainted with “Minnesota 13” and I said I was because while I had never drunk it, I had seen it consumed at a particular bar in St. Cloud. He said it ought to be banned; it was terrible stuff and transformed the Opatz brothers into ferocious beasts which I quoted him as saying. He gave me the details which I wrote in longhand in my notebook but I still needed a kind of “hook” to pin a fresh newspaper lead on. So I asked him: “Well, Ben Ruhland, now that the Opatz boys beat you up are you going to resign?” He said no, he needed the job. “Are you going to see it through?” He repeated: see it through? I said yes, are you going to see it through? He said he would but on his next visit to the saloon he would hope that the Opatz brothers would be more reasonable but if what you mean by seeing it through is that they should go home at closing time, yes. So I returned to St. Cloud, sat down at my typewriter and wrote this long story about the battered constable who had vowed to see it through. The wire editor liked it.

He liked it so much he bumped some foreign news from the front page and wrote a blazing streamer across the front page typifying the new and flashier St. Cloud Daily Times. The headline read: I’LL SEE IT THROUGH VOWS BEATEN CONSTABLE! We were much impressed the next day when the paper rolled off the press in the basement. I know I watched people pick up the paper and wonder what the hell had happened to reports of the weekly card games at the Knights of Columbus Hall that had been bumped for the story about this out-of-town constable seeing it through. They then reasoned that Holdingford must be a terrible place—not so much as to side with the elderly constable but to call the editor and ask why the St. Cloud Times was going to the trouble of reporting about the Opatz brothers from out-of-town since their elderly aunt lived in St. Cloud and was offended at the salacious publicity. Which taught me that crusading journalism often backfires on the innocent, such as the aunt of the Opatz brothers.

Obviously, the story garnered much attention in Holdingford, Minnesota itself. Unfortunately when the constable came in to the saloon to observe the closing hour the Opatz brothers had read the paper, stomped on it and his stomach, imparting such a beating that he was resolved never to talk to a newspaperman again. In fact, he telephoned me and said never to quote him again. I remonstrated with him saying he should publicize their threats and that together we could beat this violence thing and make of Holdingford, Minnesota a peaceful city. But he shouted no, no, goddamit no--leave him alone; then he turned plaintive, begging me to leave him alone and not record that he called me. A newspaperman, I made only the briefest mention that he called me and I never heard from him again. To this day I wonder what became of Ben Ruhland. But the point of this is, you see, that I saw first hand, at age 23 of the consequences of colorful journalism—and since then I have resolved never to write as vividly as I can because it can cause misunderstanding for someone. Since then I have not been a journalistic crusader. And as far as I know, Holdingford and the Opatz brothers have never received publicity any further.


  1. Garrison's Minnesota is funny until his left knee starts jerking (leftward) -- Tom's Minnesota tales are woebegone but kneejerk-free!

  2. This comment has nothing to do with 1953 or what your or I was doing at the time.
    I attended the Heritage Foundation program on Wednesday. Your comments on media issues were cogent (as opposed to that litany of "me, myself, and I" which we had to endure from Sandy Rios) UNTIL the notion of the Chicago Tribune being "conservative" elicited the hisses and boos it deserved. The real case for the Tribune is actually worse, by far than just not being conservative. Example: the UN oil-for-food scandal was reported in the New York Times in February and early March. It was also brought forth, of course, on FoxNews at that time. The Chicago Tribune to its everlasting shame never mentioned this enormous fraud until September! I wrote to Don Wycliff on almost a daily basis and periodically to members on the Editorial Board to absolutely no avail. The daily question for those of us who continue to subscribe to the Chicago Tribune is not whether it is being more or less conservative. The question is "what is the Chicago Tribune withholding or lying about today?" This is in addition, of course, to the constant soft biases in nuance, placement, etc. After more than 35 years as a subscriber, each morning as I pick up the Chicago Tribune in the driveway the daily question of "why?" is harder to rationalize. If The Wall Street Journal were to bring out a Sunday edition following on its Saturday edition --- and steals Rick Morrisey for sports --- sayonara Tribune!