Friday, April 21, 2006

Flashback: 1955 and Looking at the Calendar—Time to Get out of Dodge (St. Cloud). But Not Before I Goof Up Big-Time

[Another installment of my past, written for my kids and grandchildren]

Life was too good in this small city of 25,000: as 1955 dawned, it was a year and a half since I came there from Chicago. No openings on Twin City dailies that paid sufficient to warrant a move (when I calculated the freebees and extra-curriculars it didn’t pay to pack up and leave.) One of the town’s two blue chip lawyers (multi-millionaires: everyone else seemed to be ordinary practicing working stiffs), Fred J. Hughes, an old alum of St. John’s where I went to school) caught my eye every so often when we would bump into each other either at Mass or in the Courthouse. He’d say, “I have something I’d like to talk over with you sometime” which could have meant anything, from swapping stories about court to politics (Hughes was a liberal Republican) to something about our mutual alma mater. I’d say: “Sure, give me a call” but nada. Probably something about a case he was trying. Or as he was a regent at my old University, maybe a request for a donation—which was a laugh.

In the meantime, I made a big mistake while covering an important criminal case in the courtroom of federal Judge Walter Rogosheske, a tiny man who folded his tiny hands and laced his tiny fingers as he listened to the case. Too complicated to explain now, but one morning when nature called, I had to leave the courtroom for a few minutes; returned to find that some significant fact had been elicited by the defense and I missed it. Cribbed from the Associated Press stringer who was there; I misinterpreted the material and ran back to the office to make a deadline. Paper came out not with the error in the headline, thank God, but in the body of the text.

The next morning the Defense howled about the story, wanted a mis-trial, claiming the major daily newspaper in the area misinterpreted its argument, cited the correct version in the Associated Press and argued that many false impressions could flow from the misinterpretation, that the public’s view would be irretrievably compromised etc. Judge Rogosheske looked stunned, but agreed to meet in chambers.

About twenty minutes later, they came back with the Defense looking glum, the Prosecution ebullient and Rogosheske carrying my newspaper. He read the story aloud. Rogosheske read twice, emphasizing phrases differently, showing that the reportage could result in several misinterpretations.

He concluded: “Therefore, one reading of this story would indicate far more credit to the Defense than it has made thus far before this Court. My advice to the Defense is to take the error not as an affront but as an warranted bias which would help the Defense. If the Prosecution does not object to the story—which I see it does not—this Court rules there be no mis-trial and advises Defense to stop worrying about newspaper coverage and concentrate more fully on its preparation.” A loud sigh of relief was mine.

At the conclusion of that day’s trial, he nodded gently to me from the bench, which meant he wanted to see me in chambers. I jauntily sauntered in, cocky at 26, that I had been justified by the federal court.

Then, in chambers he kicked my posterior from one side to the other, demanding to know how I misinterpreted a vital part of the case. The Defense had a very convincing argument that I could have caused a mis-trial, he said. He thought about granting the motion but then he formulated the complex response he gave to the Court. He was satisfied that he had ruled correctly but vexed—to say the least—that by my woefully inept reporting I had caused a problem for him.

“Let me tell you that from here on and until the remainder of your life, you should thank God for the decision of this Court. Because had this Court determined the Defense was correct and a mis-trial occurred, this Court and my colleague, E. J. Ruegemer could conceivably contact the owner of your newspaper—who is it, Freddie Schiplin? Yes? We could easily ask that you no longer be assigned to this Court. And what would happen to your career then? All because of your sloppy reportage.”

I would probably be fired.

“Probably be fired. I agree with that evaluation.”

“Until I saw that jaunty look on your face, I was going to let this pass. But I’m not. Don’t misinterpret my decision on the mis-trial for a favor to you personally. This was a gross enormous error you had written—which made me work doubly hard to clean up your misinterpretation. Do you understand?”

Yes sir.

“How old are you?”


“You should understand that you are not a kid. Without boast I can tell you that when I was 26, I was married and the father of four, having worked my way through Law at Minnesota. In that year I appeared as an assistant counsel in the Fred J. Hughes law firm representing Minneapolis Honeywell before the United States Supreme Court. Six years later I was the deputy minority leader of the State House of Representatives. I say this not to exaggerate my attainments but to compare how you are spending your tender years. Essentially, you have a lot to do before you match the kind of acumen needed in your chosen profession, Mr. Roeser. This favor I have done for you will not be repeated. Do you understand?”

Yes, Judge. As I crawled miserably to the door, I heard his voice: “Have I dismissed you?”

No sir.

“What would your grandfather—or great-grandfather--Judge Roeser for whom my father worked and revered, whose portrait hangs downstairs in the lobby—think of this?”

Sir, we’re not related.

“I have heard the opposite from Sheriff McIntee.”

Sir, notwithstanding, we’re not related.

A long pause as I sat, eyes lowered, feeling miserable. Then it all came rushing out. I was being reprimanded by the brightest judge on the circuit, in his impressive office which was a repudiation of all I sought to do and be. Suddenly, I was near tears. Silence.

He hit the button on his intercom to his secretary.

“Would you please bring in some coffee for Mr. Roeser and me? Thank you.”

We sipped. He poured cream for himself and me. More silence.

“Why aren’t you with some Twin City newspaper? How long have you been here?”

A year and a half.

Then, the first glimmer of humanness:

“You’re better than anyone else reporting for your paper. Why haven’t you moved up? I read your article on Mrs. Roosevelt, your articles on Hubert Humphrey. You have a deft sense of humor. You’re very good when you write politics. Very good.”

I was still miserable, fighting tears. Thank you, sir.

“Are you weeping?”

No, sir.

“Wrong. You are. Others have wept sitting in that same chair and had far more to weep about than you. Stop it.”

Yes sir.

“Have you called Fred Hughes yet?”

I raised my head, stunned. No sir, he said he would call me—do you know about that, what he wants, or--?

“I asked you if you have called Fred Hughes. And you have not. I would suggest you call him because Mr. Hughes is not in the habit of calling newspapermen. When he says he will call that means you should call. I worked as a junior partner to him. He is one of the outstanding lawyers in this state. He is not in the habit of calling junior newspapermen. He chooses to live in this town when he could easily operate his law firm from the Twin Cities or Chicago. Or New York. He prefers to live here because he loves this community, and because he went to St.John’s nearby where he serves as a Regent. Where I understand you matriculated. Is that right?”

Yes sir.

“Your eyes are still red. Blow your nose, Mr. Roeser. I expect to read your reports about my court in the future and expect they will be--…letter perfect! Do you understand?”

Yes sir.

Sir, I would like to ask a question.


Would you advise me to write a correction for the newspaper, setting the facts straight?

“I would advise you not to. No one has asked you to: not the Defense, not the Prosecution. That is the trouble with you, Mr. Roeser. You jump hastily. If you are asked by Defense to write a correction, you may—but you will not be asked to do so. Why? Because they would not be pleased if you included my words of criticism that I leveled to the Defense. You didn’t think about that, did you?”

No sir.

“That’s another thing about you, Mr. Roeser. You never seem to think ahead. Have you finished your coffee?”

Yes sir.

“Then you may go.” And he snapped on his desk light, lowered his head and began to write.

I dragged my feel to the office, feeling that since the entire town knew that I had goofed up the news story, I could never hold my head up again. I wanted to run away. But to my astonishment, no one had: my egotism had led me to think all of St. Cloud devoured my reports, all of central Minnesota, all of Minnesota: all of the nation! No one cared except the Defense and the Prosecution: and the Prosecution liked my misstatement.

When I came to my desk, a colleague said: “Where have you been? None other than Fred Hughes has called for you. Do you know him? He’s the town’s biggest lawyer. What trouble have you gotten into now?”

[Next time: I go to see Fred Hughes and report a story about a disappeared bar maid which has the potential of getting me into more trouble.]

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