Main Body

Chapter 12. Cleveland/Boston, 1980

TWO Cuyahoga Rivers? Essentially yes: the Upper and the Lower. In the 1970s Clevelanders only really knew the Lower, the one many Clevelanders crossed on bridges every day; the stinking, dead, polluting Cuyahoga that flowed sluggishly past the steel plants and into Lake Erie. The one that spontaneously caught fire in 1952 and again, more famously in July 1969, when a spark from a passing train ignited the oil in the river, set fire to the bridge supports and prompted Time magazine to make it the unacceptable face of polluted modern America.

On the other hand the Upper Cuyahoga, 40 miles closer to Akron, was a place of clear water flowing through gorges, old canals, a mill, an old railroad station; where Red Tailed Hawks screeched, Steelhead Trout swam, and the echoes of the original inhabitants lingered.

THE LOWER CUYAHOGA RIVER. The industrial Flats leading into Lake Erie (left) compares to the bucolic UPPER CUYAHOGA RIVER (right) as it meanders after a gorge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park towards Akron.
THE LOWER CUYAHOGA RIVER. The industrial Flats leading into Lake Erie (left) compares to the bucolic UPPER CUYAHOGA RIVER (right) as it meanders after a gorge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park towards Akron.

And where I got caught up in an increasingly-bitter battle between local residents and the federal government over land acquisition policies creating a new national park. It seems I lit a fuse that went all the way back to the US Congress and resulted in the death of the superintendent in charge of the park’s creation..

It wasn’t actually a national park, not like Yosemite or Zion or Yellowstone: people were still living in it. So when it was started in 1974 it was called a ‘national recreation area’ – the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area (CVNRA) – only the third such designated park in America after the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York harbor and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. And that was the problem. The National Park Service kept pouring money into a land acquisition program to remove the shops, houses and farms because that, park superintendent William C. Birdsell insisted, was what Congress demanded.

“Almond,” said City Editor Tony Tucci to me one day in early January, “Can you give this guy a call and find out what’s going on? We keep getting these letters to the editor. This paper supports the park. Are they just NIMBYs?”

He gave me the name of Leonard Stein-Sapir, a lawyer who lived in the park area and headed the Cuyahoga Valley Homeowners Association, vigorously opposed to the government’s land acquisition plans. I not only gave him a call but listened to what he said,  and had a gut feeling something wasn’t right.

I drove out to see him, toured the area, saw the boarded-up homes and talked to the residents. By the time I got back home I knew I had to do a LOT more research into why and how this was happening.

Here I must admit a certain personal bias from growing up in England. There were national parks in England too, but built AROUND the people whose families had lived there for centuries. Some areas of the country became national parks BECAUSE of the people living there. People such as poet William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, author of the Peter Rabbit children’s books, whose home at Hill Top Farm in Cumbria ended up as a national treasure and a tribute to her conservation efforts that played a big part of the creation of the Lake District National Park.

None of Britain’s 15 national parks are truly wild. More than 90 per cent of the Peak District National Park, for instance, is farmland, drystone walls, fields and hedgerows, making a landscape that is picturesque but far from natural. “If you want to see natural landscape in the raw,” people might say in England, “then go to Scotland or parts of Wales.”

Indeed, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) puts Britain’s national parks in the second lowest out of six categories, with Yellowstone in the U.S. being the international model.

But tearing down an old florist shop on a quiet country road just because it wasn’t a natural part of a new national park?  Or a house on a ridge that might be visible from the road below “because it wasn’t natural”? It didn’t seem right, not for this part of the country anyway.

But that’s what was happening in the Cuyahoga Valley.

After a month of investigation I started to write. This wasn’t easy for The Press, its staff or editor Herb Kamm. Like most of us Herb was a city person, a former newspaper editor in New York. He liked parks. So did the City editor. So did I. So did most Clevelanders. We had all been strong supporters of the park since it was proposed in 1970. A place for steel and auto workers to relax and unwind. A place to stop the inexorable land grabs of people and businesses moving south from Cleveland and north from Akron.

What I was writing, therefore, ran against the grain for the Press, historically supporting workers against the landed bosses, politically because we were featuring an area in the 14th Congressional District of Ohio based in Akron, whose Democrat Congressman was John F. Seiberling Jr., who became known as the ‘Founding Father’ of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. He believed that the Yellowstone approach was the right one, and while it was claimed that he got special treatment to stay at his own home in the park while other homeowners were paid to leave, it was going the right way.

My seven-part, copyrighted series started on April 14 with the front-page headline: “The valley – beautiful battlefield.  Must homes be razed to preserve it?”  and I presented my findings. As written:

“The National Park Service has followed an ill-defined, poorly planned, confusing and often contradictory program in buying up land in the Cuyahoga Valley.

“More than $42 million of taxpayers’ money has been spent on land, often of questionable need for the park, some apparently just because property owners were anxious to sell. The land acquisition program in the park is about 60% complete.

A detailed land acquisition plan with a list of priority acquisitions was never prepared, although one was ordered by Congress within 18 months of the passage of the Cuyahoga Valley Act. Many property owners have had difficulty finding out what the government plans to do with their land. A preliminary plan has just been prepared.

“Some property owners have sued in Federal Court here, charging the National Park Service with ignoring congressional directives to obtain land only when directly necessary, and to work around private homes whenever possible.

“Complaints from residents and others are forcing the Park Service to rethink its whole national concept of ‘urban parks’, particularly its definition of ‘open space’, ‘cultural identity,’ and ‘historic.’

The General Accounting Office, the government’s financial watchdog which has already issued a report critical of federal land acquisition policies in 19 national parks, is conducting a separate investigation of the Cuyahoga park. The federal government now owns more than one third of the land in the United States.

Land acquisitions have so far outpaced development that it may be many more years, if ever, with massive budget cuts now expected, before boarded-up homes can be rehabilitated or razed, or land developed for hiking trails or picnic sites.

“A park advisory commission appears to have made no impact on major park questions, enhancing the considerable decision-making authority of Park Superintendent William Birdsell. Several of the commission’s 13 members are political or government appointees from the Cleveland-Akron area. Some rarely or never attend meetings, Others are ardent environmentalists.

I added another major finding: “That despite its considerable management and conceptual problems the National Park Service has nevertheless zealously -and successfully – sought to preserve the natural and scenic beauty of the park along 22 miles of the Cuyahoga River. It has kept developers out of the park and been sorely pressed by some homeowners to buy their properties and enable them to move.

“The Press could find no one who disagreed with halting commercial development in the park,” I wrote. “It is the issue of government takeover of existing properties that is causing so much fuss.”

Part Two of the series was about what happened to the community of Everett: 17 houses, a gas station, a small store and a church in Boston Township, inside the new park. Most of the houses were still boarded up and awaiting a park development that I said may never come, due to cutbacks.

RESIDENTS NOT WELCOME. Houses in the village of Everett lie boarded up as the National Park Service acquires properties it deems are illegal in the new national park.
RESIDENTS NOT WELCOME. Houses in the village of Everett lie boarded up as the National Park Service acquires properties it deems are illegal in the new national park.

Nadine Morris, 63, sold her home in Everett to the Park Service and moved with her husband to Cuyahoga Falls, where she told me she only sold up ‘because everyone else was’ and she didn’t want to live there alone. “We liked it there, a close little community.,” she told me. “We used to live in the grocery store. The old men used to come in and sit round the pot-bellied stove and play cards. No, we didn’t fight them. You can’t fight the government and win.’

There wouldn’t even be a grocery store under park service plans. And no gas station either. Instead, any habitable properties in Everett would be occupied by Park Service employees, brought in to man the new tourist attractions. Park Superintendent Birdsell said that what happened in Everett was not the Park Service’s fault, that several homes were in bad condition and their owners were only too willing to sell. He pointed to one family I talked to, the Osbornes, and said they had rights to stay in their house for another ten years. Nobody was being evicted.

“But that’s not the point,” responded Leonard Stein-Sapir. “They no longer own their own homes. They are renters of the government. The fact is this was a real community, and Congress never intended the Park Service to destroy a community. It was instructed to preserve the valley, its culture and history, It has never developed a need for those houses.”

Mark Messing, an aide to Senator Howard Metzenbaum who had studied land acquisition in the Cuyahoga Valley, agreed.

“The intention is to preserve for future generations scenic and historic aspects of the valley,” he said. “That includes the ‘alternative lifestyles’ part of cultural identity Congress wanted to preserve. Everett is the most obvious community affected by park acquisitions, but not the only one…. I think there is a place for homes in recreation areas. People live in them. Sometimes you have to bend your plans around them.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, even Rep Seiberling, scion of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Coompany, believed the park service made a mistake on Everett. “I don’t think I’d have bought those homes,” he told me. “I think it is important to have people living there. It was a charming little village. I think they (the Park Service) goofed. But as long as they have a rational basis for their decisions I am not going to challenge them. Everett is an exception, not an example, of Park Service actions.”

Next, I went to visit Bill and Carole Erdos, who came to live at 2464 Wheatley Rd in Boston Township in 1967. They built the home up and in 1977 saw it named by Architectural Record magazine as one of the 20 homes across the US to be given an “Excellence for design” award. The Press featured it across two pages of its weekend Home Magazine.

The Park Service wanted to acquire it through eminent domain. Erdos was fighting his case through the court, but Supt Birdsell answered: “If it is incompatible with public use it will probably have to go…. “We have to develop something for the good of all. It’s like the development of the highways. Nobody really wants to force people to move, but it has to be done for the benefit of everyone.”

“FOR THE GOOD OF ALL,” – a phrase that would brand this story for years to come.

The Park Service said it was building the park for ‘future generations.’ But a hundred years from now, critics charged, would Erdos’ 1970s home be considered a brilliant Century Home?  So why tear it down now?

I asked Duncan Morrow, spokesman for the National Park Service in Washington. “I think it is difficult for anyone to look at something modern and see it as potentially historic,” he said. “We have difficulty right now trying to decide what is a typical tract home from post World War II. Part of the problem is there appears to be no sentiment in Congress to appropriate funds for restoration or maintenance of such relatively modern homes.  I think, though, the problems in the Cuyahoga National Recreation Area are making us think more about these things.”

Then there was Brandywine Falls, the highest waterfall in northeast Ohio and one of the top natural attractions in the park.

“But visitors to the park cannot take photos of the falls, cannot stand on the rim of the gorge to see it, cannot, in fact, get anywhere near the falls because it is private property,” I wrote. “And owner Ben Richards will not let the public near it. “

Though the park was five years old the National Park Service had made no move to seize the falls for public use. Its officials said they were ‘in negotiations’ with Richards.

And yet three miles away the Phillips family were living as government tenants in an A-frame house the park service acquired several months earlier, primarily because it could possibly be seen from the Cuyahoga River valley and would spoil the “open space” concept.

“Brandywine Falls and the Phillips house point up the apparent conceptual contradictions in the Park Service’s land acquisition programs: one expensive house is forcibly purchased because it sits on the rim of the valley and might be visible below, while one of the park’s major attractions remains off-limits to the public,” I wrote.

When Congress passed the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area Act in December, 1974, it ordered the secretary of the Interior to submit to Congress a detailed plan of land acquisitions within 18 months of passage of the act.

“They never did come up with one,” Rep Seiberling, prime sponsor of the bill and chairman of the House Public Lands subcommittee, told me. “We raked them over for it. They said the Office of Management and Budget would not give them the money to do it. If we’d had the plan we could have critiqued it.“

One after another I kept finding other ludicrous problems with management practice, including buying one house twice.

One of the most attractive locations was the Wilson Feed mill, with its Ohio and Erie Canal lock and towpath on Canal Rd, a picturesque 19th Century setting that would fit well in an English canal side location. But Thomas Wilson, owner of the mill, was still waiting to hear from the Park Service what plans they had for it. He wasn’t going to spend his own money.

And that was the theme for the final part of the series: little to see.  “Park visitors must hunt for historic sights” was the front page headline. ‘Tourist map misleading. Funding outlook bleak.”  I went through a list of 11 supposed tourist sites that couldn’t be found, were boarded up with ‘U.S. Property Keep Out’ signs, were misdirected or just not there.

No 2. Site of Moses Cleaveland Tree, a white swamp oak, which was growing here when Cleveland arrived in 1796. The property owner, in a spat with the city of valley View, reportedly took away the sign, so you’ll need to know what a white swamp oak looks like. No 6. Ponty’s Camp, where Indian Chief Pontiac had headquarters.  You’ll never find it. There are no signs. No 10. Moneyshop, lair of early counterfeiters, on Oak Hill Rd, I wrote from what the map said. “Don’t strain your eyes. There’s nothing to see and no signs.”

Rep Seiberling was not encouraging, warning that 40% of the next year’s $60 million national land acquisition budget was being cut, along with the same proportions for the park’s development funds. “I’m going to try to hang on to those development funds,” he said.

At the heart of the problem was Superintendent Bill Birdsell himself. Unmarried, with no children, he was a one-man show, rarely seen out of his National Park uniform and wearing his Ranger hat. He stood over six feet tall and 250 pounds. He worked day and night, and expected his staff to do so too. Softly spoken and totally convinced of his cause he reminded me of another superintendent – Cleveland Schools’ Paul Briggs. But by the time I got to the story Birdsell was already being eyed for replacement by his National Park bosses.

SUPT WILLIAM BIRDSELL. “Our Superintendents do have a lot of autonomy,” said a spokesman for the Park Service in Washington D.C. The Press reported Supt. Birdsell was feared by many of the area’s residents.
SUPT WILLIAM BIRDSELL . “Our Superintendents do have a lot of autonomy,” said a spokesman for the Park Service in Washington D.C. The Press reported Supt. Birdsell was feared by many of the area’s residents.

“With his fate sealed and a new assignment on the horizon, Bill Birdsell nonetheless became enraged by a five-part Cleveland Press series on CVNRA, particularly reporter Peter Almond’s scathing analysis of NPS land acquisition practices” wrote Ron Cockrell, senior research historian for the National Park Service in his 566-page book ‘A Green Shrouded Miracle, An Administrative history of Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, Ohio’, published in 1992.[1]

“The editorial which followed the Almond series called for a managerial change at Cuyahoga. When Birdsell responded by sending letters of his own denouncing the Press and discrediting the articles, Press editor Herbert Kamm called it “intemperate” and “scurrilous” and demanded NPS apologize.”

Birdsell had, in fact, written a strong letter to Rep Charles Vanik, a park supporter, condemning The Press and Herb in general terms. Vanik protested to Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus that the letter was a disservice to the Park Service. Later, Birdsell personally apologised to Kamm. Park Service director Russell Dickenson, to whom Birdsell was to be directly assigned as “chief of the service’s management policy,” said he regretted the letter was written and that one of the two major criteria in a search for Birdsell’s replacement was that the successor must be ‘astute in community relationships.’

“When asked if he thought Birdsell was unable to adjust from traditional ‘open space’ park philosophy, such as that at Yellowstone National Park, to the newer ‘urban parks’ such as Cuyahoga Dickenson answered: “That may well be. Our job will be to make sure we don’t make that mistake again. ‘

This was in the last story I wrote about the park, on August 2, 1980. I was unable to get a response from Birdsell because he was on vacation in Wisconsin. I should have realised he never intended to leave his beloved Cuyahoga Valley. A few days after his return, on Aug 18, he had a heart attack while cleaning out his office – and died. He was 51, and it was suggested he had stopped taking his medications.

One last thing: two years later, as Anna and I were packing up our house in South Euclid just prior to moving to Washington DC, we were visited by a camera crew from PBS, the national Public Broadcast Service, to interview me about the Cuyahoga Valley series. It was for an hour-long Frontline investigative piece by Jessica Savitch, called ‘For the Good of All’ about the park, which heavily featured the series. It went out nationally on June 6, 1983.

Savitch herself died tragically four months later when she drowned as a passenger in a car which went off a road in Pennsylvania.

I hesitate to offer this link because I look like a teenager and sound worse. But it is the only bit of film of me being interviewed in these memoirs, and I include it as a tribute to Savitch, who goes beyond what I wrote and provides an easy visual take on an important part of Cleveland’s history.

I don’t know what happened specifically to any of the people or their properties I wrote about, but I do know that Congress changed its land acquisition laws, that a new superintendent worked WITH homeowners, not against them, and that the park went on to be a major success. It was made a full national park by order of Congress in 2000, its 33,000 acres making it the seventh most popular national park in the country by 2020, with long hiking trails, a 5.3-mile rail ride for tourists, a walkway to Brandywine Falls, and many other features. It remains the only national park that originated as a national recreation area. I don’t know if you can buy flowers commercially there, though.[2]

Memory Flash: Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, August 1980

Anna, friends and I have come to Blossom, surrounded by the Cuyahoga Valley Park, on a warm and still evening to listen to the Cleveland Orchestra play a variety of works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, the British composer. We are seated amongst the audience on a rug, on the grass of a hillside which gently slopes towards the covered but open stage below.

The orchestra plays Lark Ascending, one of his most popular works. I believe Loren Maazel was the conductor. As I look around and see a bird or two ducking and diving after flies and watch the clouds as the setting sun starts sinking behind them my mind’s eye can see English Larks ascending on the bow of the lead violinist.

I don’t remember if it was there or much later that I decided I’d like to have Lark Ascending at my funeral.  Scenes and sounds from home.

Oh, do cheer up, Almond! Conscience bothering you?

Well, yes, I did have some pangs about Birdsell, just as I did when that black teenager was shot by the son of a white newsagent in Cleveland after the lad wanted to read something I had written. And it’s not enough for the Cuyahoga Valley Homeowners Association to write: “Our organization owes a deep dept of gratitude to The Press for its in-depth investigation of the practices of the Park Service in the valley. That investigation is one of the main reasons there is going to be a change in the management in this park.’

I don’t think the death of its lead proponent is any kind of worthy result.

It was time for me to move on.

I’d thought, late last year, that I’d like to have SOME experience of university before I got too settled in my ways – and before The Press ran completely out of steam. So, in February, I applied to Stanford University, California, for a National Fellowship in the Humanities for Journalists, 35 miles to the south of San Francisco and at the heart of Silicon Valley Research. A place I and hundreds of other journos would love to go for ten months. And they paid well!

Not expecting I’d get it I also applied for another journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.  And another to the Nieman Foundation for Journalists at Harvard. This was the biggie, the original journalism fellowship founded in 1929, and always the most in demand. I definitely did not expect to get it, not only because I learned there were 400 American applicants for just 12 places that year, plus scores of others from foreign countries, but because I was a Brit with no college experience at all, on a dying newspaper in Ohio.

But then I did have a wonderful letter of support from Bill Tanner, Press managing editor, who praised my reporting on schools and my “Excellent job on school desegregation (*Bill Tanner, the City Editor who was Peter Almond’s effective mentor at The Press, died in Ft Myers, Florida. on June 29, 2022, aged  97). He was, I believe, the only reporter in town who was able to get the latest inside information from the NAACP, the school board and federal court,” Tanner wrote to Harvard. But then he conceded I was a bit of a puzzle. “Frankly, we don’t know whether it was because of his own character and abilities or his British background that made him so acceptable to these three antagonists.”

And, perhaps surprisingly, I had a nice supporting letter from Roldo Bartimole, the self-appointed watchdog of Cleveland journalism who had tripped me up more than once. Another from Walt Bogdanich, a fellow Press investigative reporter at The Press who had moved to the Plain Dealer. And another from William White, a member of the Cleveland School Board who had been impressed by my school desegregation work and, as a lawyer, was involved in worker’s compensation work (my Diamond Shamrock series).

I sat and waited – anxiously.

In the meantime I did a three part investigation on the Tenna Corporation, a Cleveland company that made car radio aerials and was sliding towards bankruptcy with a lot of highly-questionable financial deals. And In July a big, long, six-part series on SOHIO, the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, which had just been taken over by British Petroleum. It was Ohio’s richest and most successful company and mine was the first public examination of its profits and losses, the benefits and concerns of being taken over by a foreign company. I tried to put it all in the simplest of terms.

“SOHIO,’ I wrote for a huge headline on the front page. ”Love it or hate it, we can’t seem to do without it. Of the thousands of businesses that directly affect Greater Clevelanders and Ohioans, perhaps none has touched our lives as much as the last year or so as Standard Oil of Ohio.  We have praised SOHIO for offering gas prices way below anyone else. We have cursed it for opening its gas stations only a few hours a day and making us wait in long lines. We have screamed ‘rip-off!’every time it raises its prices. We have railed at its enormous profits – although those who own stock in it have smiled happily.”

There followed an examination of the company’s history from John D. Rockefeller on, talking to frustrated gas station operators and drivers, questioning of BP’s senior officers about how discovering and developing oilfields in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, was going to be a major opportunity for Ohioans but also a serious problem in keeping warm oil moving through frozen pipes held above the snow. The series examined technological futures and international politics.

How much went straight over the heads of Cleveland Press readers I don’t know.

But I do know that most of the questions I received from the ‘average Joe’ or ‘Mrs Joe’  was about the Sohio Babies.

Nobody seemed to know about the Sohio Babies. These were babies born in Ohio on Jan 10, 1955, the 85th anniversary of the founding of Standard Oil. The company gave every Ohio child born that day one share of Sohio stock or its cash equivalent – then worth $45. It was a publicity stunt and 600 babies qualified for it.

I found one of the Babies, Michele Barlock, in North Royalton still with her stock certificate, and told her that the 16 shares grown from the original one share she was given as a baby had grown into $800. She had another $118.51 in dividends. Had she taken $100 of that into two stock options – which she did not – that $100 would have grown to $5,154.

Sohio was the most successful company in Cleveland’s history.

It was taken over increasingly by BP, and was defunct in 1987, continuing as a gas station brand until 1991. I don’t suppose we added one pence to the fortunes of the Cleveland Press with that series – which ran in July – but it filled up space. I was told “Think higher. Think Civic responsibility!” Or words to that effect.

I should go off and be a college professor.

Indeed, by then I’d had the results of my Fellowship applications. First came the invitations to interview for the shortlist. I don’t think I actually went to Stanford University: I must have talked to them on the phone. I know I went to Ann Arbour because the university wanted me to spend two days with them so that I could really see what they were about. And I went to Boston for an interview at Harvard University.

Harvard was the first place where I was asked directly: “Do you think you can make a difference?” I had never heard or thought about journalism in this way. A difference? I was just a reporter. I stumbled. I mumbled, and then I remember the faculty member holding up copies of my Diamond Shamrock series. “You’ve already made a difference,” she said, pointing to the Ohio and federal state responses proposing legal and other changes.

Amazingly, I was awarded all three fellowships!  What?  I picked Harvard. I was to be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, the “pinnacle” of global journalism!

“Peter. Congratulations on being sought by everyone,” said a letter from Harry Press, convenor of the Stanford Fellowships, in a brief letter to me. “You deserve it all, and I know you’ll have a great year at Harvard. Enjoy!”

It seems I was the right person, in the right place, at the right time. An oddball Brit/American, from the Midwest, with a solid daily newspaper background. I had the summer to work out how I was going to do it. It was going to cost Anna and me a lot of money, a fact that Jim Thomson, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, quickly recognised. He wrote to Edward Estlow, President of Press owners Scripps-Howard, to say that the foundation could only pay $10,500 to me for September through late May (almost half of what Stanford was offering) and was asking if The Press or Scripps Howard could make up the difference to my Press salary.

“I do not know if you had considered an arrangement to assist Peter Almond,” Thomson  wrote to Estlow, “But if you could manage to do so, I am convinced that the payoff in morale and productivity during and after Peter’s Nieman year would be of substantial benefit to you, to us, and to him.”

Well, nice try, Jim. Did you get a reply from Estlow? I didn’t see a penny of it. Harvard cost us $12,000 – almost all of our savings, plus hiring a van to take our belongings the 600 miles to Boston and back. Unlike the other journos we couldn’t afford to rent a place in Cambridge, but I did find a nice little home-away-from home in Somerville, the cheaper neighbor of Cambridge. We arranged to rent our house in South Euclid to a visiting German professor at Case Western Reserve University.

The one thing The Press did do – as required by the Nieman Board – was to keep my job open. Truth be told, nobody expected me to come back, and I didn’t either. One by one afternoon daily newspapers were closing, first by the declining economy and second by the ever-rising influence of TV news. Internationally prestigious it may be, but the Nieman prize did not pay my bills.

Prestigious? It should have been. There had only ever been one Nieman Fellow on the Press: Theodore Andrica, nationalities writer, in 1943, of which more in Chapter 1. There was William J. Miller, who was a senior business writer, but he was not a Fellow, although there are claims he was in 1941. He appears to have been on the board of the Society of Nieman Fellows when he wrote the first and most of the second pages of Nieman Reports, Volume 1, No 1, in February 1947.

Miller had joined the Press as a copy boy in 1929, aged 17, and was a “crack reporter, rewrite man and finally a war correspondent for the Press” the blurb on his piece said. He appears to have been played by an actor called Russell Hardie in a movie called The Big Story in 1949.

“What’s wrong with the newspaper reader” the challenging headline of Miller’s piece demanded in his rough, gruff, simply written way, is that “the public prefers not to think. It prefers to be entertained. So let the perfect newspaper be short, simple, sexy and full of pictures. Let it devote one fourth of its space to a lavish coverage of sports, including who is bribing whom, and another fourth to comics. I predict it will sell like hell. If, on top of that, it is also honest, unprejudiced and unslanted, the public won’t mind.

“‘The press the American people get today is pretty bad, and it is just what they deserve.”

Which doesn’t seem to say much about what I had been writing about, or the high standards the Nieman Foundation wanted to convey. But engaging with the public is just what newspapers were about. A United Press column accompanying Miller’s piece on page 2 of Nieman Reports quoted a polling story that was printed on the first page of the Boston Evening Globe a few days earlier.  The poll of 200 ‘feminine high school graduates (stenographers) showed ‘the modern gal wants sex, disaster and Li’l Abner (comics) in her newspaper. (This WAS 1947!)

Forty percent selected “Man attacks School Girl” was top of interest among a sample of headlines. Second was “Twenty Killed in Plane Crash.”  But a blood-tingling scare-head about the atom bomb aroused only polite interest. More than 97 per cent of the student stenos said they liked the comics best of all; 33% read the funnies first and worked their way through the paper from the sports section to the front page.

“World War II rated as the most important news event during the past two decades with one third of the group. The atom bomb was second. The rest of the girls said they could think of no single outstanding news event within their lifetimes.”  The students were almost unanimous in saying they “questioned the accuracy” of news published in papers, but more than half of them admitted their opinions were ‘influenced by material in newspaper columns.”

I had a lot to study.

NIEMAN FELLOWS. The class of ’81 of Nieman Fellows in Journalism at Harvard University pose in front of Lippmann House, the center of activities and study for the 12 U.S. and eight foreign journalists selected for 80/81 (author is second row right). We are missing one. The foundation’s curator, Jim Thompson, stands slightly apart, left rear.
NIEMAN FELLOWS. The class of ’81 of Nieman Fellows in Journalism at Harvard University pose in front of Lippmann House, the center of activities and study for the 12 U.S. and eight foreign journalists selected for 80/81. (author is second row right). We are missing one. The foundation’s curator, Jim Thompson, stands slightly apart, left rear.

Memory Flash: Interstate 90, Sept 1980

Anna, little Nick, Douglas the dog, Dickie the bird, a few pot plants, furnishings, clothes and food are piled into our car and a U-Haul van for the 650 mile, nine-hour journey to Boston, Massachusetts.  I-90 through Buffalo and Rochester can be very boring. For hour after hour Anna stares at the back of the van with its ‘ADVENTURES IN MOVING’ logo, while I glance back at her in the rear-view with a fern dangling in front of her eyes and an occasional glimpse of a dog’s head and squealing kid.   

But that’s it for the next ten months. I could tell you about taking a course on Power and Influence at the Harvard Business School; a fiction-writing course; lots of research in the Widener Library; seminars with famous editors, writers, historians and statesmen; dinners and picnics; a course on animal ethology that Anna took; Economics 101 with things that can’t be measured (like politics);  lobster-eating in Maine; writing a long paper on the emerging prospects of a new third ‘Middle Way’ party in British politics (which failed); and winter travels from Newfoundland to Vancouver courtesy the Canadian government, hosting ‘afternoon tea’ in the poshest hotel in British Columbia. But I won’t. You’d only be jealous.

We did have visitors to Boston, including Press friend Dick Wootten, my mother.and Anna’s parents. But her father was ill with cancer and died at home not long afterwards, just as she and Nick were boarding a flight from Cleveland to see him.

On a cheerier note, and this being a big year for Women’s Lib, I’ll leave you with excepts from one great female-dominated movie of 1980:

“Nine to Five”, starring Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, which brings back memories of our Nieman group in a movie theater in Vancouver- and laughing away.

  1. Cockrell, Ron, "A Green Shrouded Miracle, The Administrative History of Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, Ohio," National Park Service, 1992.
  2. Cuyahoga Valley National Park Service, 2022.


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From Across the Pond by Peter Almond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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