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Chapter 13. Cleveland, 1981-82

I may have been in the right place at the right time to have won my Nieman journalism fellowship, but I was in the wrong place at the wrong time to get a new job. Nobody was hiring, not in the news business anyway. The Washington Star, DC’s main afternoon daily, closed in July 1981, just after Anna, Nick and I had returned to Cleveland. The Philadelphia Bulletin died in January, ’82. The Buffalo Courier-Express went in September ’82.  Many others merged with morning papers. Even more were cutting jobs, not hiring.

“Can you wait a year?” came the response to my application to the Los Angeles Times, just one of several papers which had been encouraging me a few months earlier. The recession and ever-advancing TV news had hit circulations and advertising hard across the country.

So in late June, 1981, I was back in Cleveland, back in the office, back in our South Euclid house, leaving Anna to sort out our domestic arrangements – minus Dickie Bird, who unfortunately caught a bug and died whilst being bird-sat while we were galavanting around New England. At least I started to get paid properly again – but at the same level as before.

In our little Boston bubble we had been quite unaware that The Press had been sold on Oct 31, 1980 to Joseph E. Cole, a local businessman whose main interest in the paper was the location of its building, overlooking Lake Erie. He’d had a proposal for the North Point complex – a 41-storey office tower with a glass-encased atrium to replace the Press building – drawn up the year before.

But, after getting concessions from the print unions, he had vowed to keep The Press going with “great improvements.” I think he got a thrill about the excitement of news and public attention – and civic contribution. Cole’s wealth came from his joining, and then owning, the National Key Company in Cleveland, which became the largest key company in America, earning him the nickname ‘Key King Cole.’ That became Cole National Corp, through which he diversified into autos and into the Things Remembered gift stores and corrective spectacle lenses for the elderly. He was active in the Democratic Party (once as Ohio chairman of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign) and poured a lot of his profits into the Cleveland Indians baseball team, in which he held a minority stake.

I don’t doubt Cole thought it was worth an effort to get the Press back into a challenge with the Plain Dealer. He put $3 million into equipment to produce the paper’s first Sunday edition – strong on color and graphics. It first came off the presses on Aug 3, 1981; “A bold gamble,” wrote the New York Times. “in the tradition of the high-rolling industrialists who built this city, appeared on street corners and front porches this morning. The Cleveland Press published its first Sunday edition, a critical move in its effort to challenge the dominance of the morning newspaper, the Plain Dealer, and to arrest the slide into oblivion that has been the fate of other big-city afternoon newspapers.”

I don’t know what that first Sunday front page was about or looked like, but I do know that I filled much of it on Aug 16 with a six-part series on Steel. The masthead in vivid blue, underneath it with a huge blue-bordered blurry painting of a steel works and a pipe in the foreground exuding yellow steel. It had taken a month to do the research and interviews (why did all my big investigations seem to take a month?)

And thar she blew! Like a big bright whale greeting readers on their doorsteps every Sunday. Except that it was ‘only’ 96 pages, while the Sunday Plain Dealer was several hundred pages and carried more ads. Editor Herb Kamm told the New York Times that the objective was to give readers a paper they could finish quickly: “One that’s in tune with today’s lifestyles.” To which the NYT quoted a Plain Dealer executive snorting; “It looks like a comic book sometimes.”

I, of course, was way below all that strategizing. My objective was to find out what ails the steel industry of northeast Ohio, and what to do to fix it. “The basic industry that forms the backbone of the area’s economy has appeared to be in permanent decline,” I wrote. “It has given the rest of the nation a view of Northeastern Ohio as an area without much future.

“But a month-long Press investigation reveals that although the region’s steel industry will never be the same as the “good old days” of the early 70s, there is reason for optimism. Fewer steelworkers will be employed, but a leaner, technology-dominated industry will emerge from a shake-up that may be ending its worst phase.”

Etc etc For days and days. In detail, with figures and graphics, and details about how the Japanese make steel to outperform the U.S. And a whole piece about anti-pollution costs that some have blamed for plant closings. (“A paper they could finish quickly?”) I even dragged up Mrs Figment, columnist Dick Feagler’s fictional character who “lives in the old neighborhood behind Republic Steel where the fallout from the steel industry turns the laundry orange on the clothes line.” Which, of course, hasn’t turned laundry orange for many years.

Although I did get photographer Van Dillard to snap Ralph Miller, of 3518 Kimmel Road, standing outside his house in his vest and pants scraping some red dirt off the siding of his house near Republic Steel.  

Next up to be investigated was the Ohio National Guard’s training resort at Camp Perry, near Port Clinton, some distance west of Cleveland. It had long hosted a national rifle range, one of the largest in the country. I had a helper for this investigation; Frank Douglas, a new hire who shared the by-line. Again, another colorful sketch splashing over the Sunday front page, this time with a soldier standing to attention with his rifle, the Star Spangled banner and eagle behind him, but surrounded by resort cabins, people fishing from the lake and couples picnicking on the shore. Headline: “Playground for Ohio’s Guard”.

“The facility is run like a private motel, with air-conditioned units, tennis courts, a sandy beach with state-paid lifeguards and a long fishing pier-boat dock. It is perhaps the best National Guard vacation retreat in the nation” I wrote. “The cabins, fishing pier, tennis courts and grounds have been built, renovated or maintained over the last four or five years by National Guard engineer units, often during their annual two-week training program.

“A Press examination of the Camp Perry clubhouse has uncovered a number of questionable activities by the Ohio Adjutant General’s Office, which runs the Guard with a mixture of state and federal – mostly federal – money.”

Other states had broadly similar training locations, but not as luxurious as Camp Perry, mostly because the Ohio National Guard still had a recruitment problem, born of the introduction of the all-volunteer army, the wound-down Vietnam War, and a still-tarnished image from the 1970 shootings at Kent State University.

The series started on Sept 27 and concluded with an editorial saying the frills were embarrassing. The man in charge, Adjutant General James C. Clem, whom we said used the plush Cabin 505 for himself and his family, held a press conference saying that all the building work was good training for welders, carpenters and electricians essential for deployments, and by allowing the public to use the clubhouse area it helped Guard personnel make civilian friends.

“Clem said he does not fear a probe of the camp ordered by Gov. James Rhodes,” wrote Press reporter Barbara Chudzik at the press conference. “He said he was not pleased by The Press inferences that “I’m a bum.”

Frankly, this was one investigation I didn’t have my heart in. I didn’t have full control of it and I didn’t see too much that was a waste of taxpayer’s money. Gen. Clem had already given me five pages of detailed accounting to explain what fund went where that I’d need my own accountant to unpick. I’d already seen Nato reservists building recreation facilities (including burger bars) that they’d use across Europe.

I don’t believe Governor Rhodes’ investigation went very far. And I wasn’t crowned in glory. The next investigation, I vowed to myself, would be much more precise, and I’d run it myself.

It was Federal Judge Frank J. Battisti.

I don’t know what prompted Herb to ask for a profile of him. I had certainly written enough about him over the years for readers to get a pretty good idea about what he thought and how his background influenced his court decisions. It could have been his decision on Sept 1 to send my old pal John E. Gallagher Jr, President of the Cleveland School Board, and board treasurer Paul Yacobian to jail in handcuffs for failure to comply with orders from the court-appointed schools desegregation administrator, Donald Waldrip.

The issue was about pay raises, promotions and extended contracts to the 35 members of Waldrip’s desegregation staff, which the school board refused to sign off because no-one else in the system was getting raises. The jailings lasted only a couple of hours, during which Battisti ensured that the $61,000 check Gallagher and Yaobin refused to sign were legally given to Waldrip to pass on to the employees.

Pretty drastic. But Battisti had done things like this before, with a lot of people not understanding how this apparently-charming, bright and dedicated man could throw his weight around in such a manner – and get away with it. The public did not like it one bit.

So I worked for probably yet another month preparing a deeper background check on him. The headline was, of course, lead of the Sunday edition on December 13. BATTISTI was the single headline, in huge letters, under which was a huge photo of him, somberly looking out with the Stars and Stripes behind him. ‘A PROFILE IN POWER’ was the sub-head, in much smaller type.

I started out describing a private dinner in Cleveland where some 70 people, including family and friends, had come from all over the country – at their own expense – to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the judge’s appointment to the federal bench. It was right after the Gallagher jailing, but this crowd utterly ignored it. Battisti was in an island of peace and appreciation. And he wept. “Tears streamed down his face as law clerks and secretaries going back 20 years saluted him and told reminiscing tales,” I wrote from a source who was there.

“It is a measure of Frank J. Battisti that while this man, one of the most powerful in North Eastern Ohio, needs round-the-clock armed protection from the public, he is so well regarded by his many friends and by many in the legal profession.’  

One of the main reasons was that he had been heavily involved in some of the most significant social, business and political questions of the last decade, and others that had been highly publicized. The research went through the list, went through his family and early life, who he met and when, including his links to real estate people in his home area of Youngstown. And mentioned his favorite vacation spot: the ranch he owned in Montana, where he loved fly fishing. I went through as many public records as I could find, detailed the finances involved, and started to list his appointments, especially those to bankruptcy court.

Bankruptcy Court was rarely visited by the media. Mostly it was a dry, often tragic series of dismal failures that were buried in reams of financial data and legalese “party of the first part” etc. And at this time of recession it was bulging with cases. I did get in some key names and connections into the story, such as Les Brown, a close friend of Battisti who owned a furniture store at 8511 Euclid Ave, whose back room became a regular meeting place for Battisti and his friends: a Godfather, if you please. And lawyer Mark Schlachet, who married Brown’s daughter Barbara and was appointed a Bankruptcy Judge by Battisti. Plus real estate developer Lewis Zipkin, a friend of Schlachet’s and also a friend of Daniel McCarthy, Cleveland schools desegregation master hired by Battisti. None, however, were developed in my piece.

The profile concluded in the paper the next day, with a reference to Battisti’s deeply-held Catholic religion, which he held to be private yet could still used to his political advantage in imposing school desegregation. This is the story of Battisti and the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe.

“The Basilica of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe near Mexico City is a shrine to which the judge attaches a special significance and has visited several times,” I wrote. “Battisti once spent 45 minutes telling The Press the 400-year-old story of the appearance of the Virgin Mary before the poverty-stricken Indian farmer. In the early 1960s, Battisti persuaded organizers of a state visit to Mexico by President John F. Kennedy to include the basilica in his tour as a way of appealing to the heart of the Mexican people.

“Some years later, shortly after issuing an order requiring low income housing to be built on Cleveland’s West Side, Battisti accepted a long-standing invitation to speak to West Siders at a Catholic church. He was advised not to go because of the hostility of West Siders (to the school desegregation he had ordered).

He went anyway. The subject of his speech? The dark-skinned Virgin Mary of Guadelupe. The West Siders (almost all white) sat quietly.

“You cut their hearts out, judge,” one law clerk said later.

And that was it. Two parts to the series. All over. We can all have a nice Christmas.

Except it wasn’t all over. Those who knew what I had were disappointed. So was I. Left out were pages of detailed investigations I had into Bankruptcy Court that put flesh onto the bones of rumors of collapsed businesses, highly-questionable land deals, of threats and unexplained fires.

Herb Kamm went off on vacation, leaving newly-appointed Executive Editor Bill DiMascio, a former chief of the Associated Press Columbus bureau, in charge of the paper. I told him of my investigations and he said to continue.

To quote Cleveland Magazine, whose investigative reporter Greg Stricharchuk was following my story – and building his own investigation, “It was immediately evident to serious students of the courthouse that the key elements of the judge’s relationships with certain persons were strangely ignored. To those who had awaited publication of the series they had the appearance of being cautiously edited.’

I kept plugging away. Fortunately, I had support from sources within the federal court, administrative and criminal systems. These included Judge John Ray Jr, one of the three bankruptcy judges besides Judge Schlachet, who had been assigned the White Motors bankruptcy, one of the largest in the United States. Ray suddenly found it was switched to Judge Schlachet, enabling the awarding of almost $30,000 in fees to Gino Battisti, Judge Battisti’s nephew.

Cleveland School Board member Kenneth Seminatore, another lawyer in the politically-powerful firm of Climaco, Seminatore, Leftkowitz and Kaplan, received at least $200,000 in fees as an examiner in the White Motors case. Another recipient of £25,000 from the White Motors case was also a lawyer in the Battisti orbit, former Common Pleas judge Sam Zingale, who failed to provide sufficiently detailed reports to the government. Linda Battisti, Judge Battisti’s niece, was hired as law clerk by Schlachet.

This despite Section 458 of Title 28 of the U.S. Code stating: “No person shall be appointed to or employed by in any office or duty in any court who is related… within the degree of first cousin to any justice or judge of such court.’

While Schlachet refused to talk me, I was talking to the U.S. federal courts administration in Washington D.C., to the FBI, and even to a state fire marshal about the curious arson that destroyed the bankrupt Nelson Machine and Manufacturing Company in Ashtabula Township.

A public auction had been held for the property in June 1980, but Schlachet ruled the best bid was unacceptably low. He appointed Lewis Zipkin to oversee the sale. Zipkin contacted one John Vitullo, businessman and politically-active figure in Youngstown – a friend of Battisti’s – and suggested he make a bid. Vitullo told me he was interested in the 63 acres because it was good property and adjoined parcels of land owned by his friends William Cafaro, another old friend of Battisti’s, and Donald Cook, who owned 70 acres adjacent to it, on which he planned to construct a shopping mall. At the second auction a higher bid came in, but Schlachet rejected it and sold it to Vitullo.

The case then left bankruptcy court and the Nelson Machine building was leased by Vitullo and his partner Fred Beshara to the owner of one of their interlocking businesses, Robert Moosally, who then moved a number of artificial fireplace logs into the Nelson property. Moosally then tacked the property onto his existing Aetna insurance policy for $500,000 coverage, and a further $500,000 for its contents. On April 1, 1981 the Nelson Machine property burned down, as did the logs and several vehicles stored inside, including an oil tanker reportedly full of fuel oil. It was the biggest fire of the year in Ashtabula Township, involving five fire departments. State fire investigators ruled the blaze arson and were amassing information on the property.

“They even hypnotized a resident of a nearby trailer park to get the license plate of a motorcycle seen leaving the unguarded plant just before the blaze,” I wrote. 

“Aetna Insurance Company officials, after a lengthy investigation, settled the claim earlier this year, reportedly for just over $500,000.  Moosally could not be contacted for comment by The Press.”

There was plenty more like this, but the series sat in the editor’s office for four months, well into 1982. For security, some of my phone calls to my sources were done from home. But even here were odd moments when it felt I was being watched.  Both Anna and I heard occasional clicks on the phone; I once saw a black car parked just up the road from our house, its two male occupants facing our house and making no move to get out.  They were still there three hours later.  No, I didn’t go tap on the window.

“According to some who read all or part of the unpublished articles they were significant and certainly worthy of print,” wrote Stricharchuk in Cleveland Magazine. “But the stories remained in limbo as editors passed the troublesome series around and ultimately sent it off to lawyers for additional scrutiny. Some reporters even suspected the articles were read by Battisti.”

I’m almost certain they were read by him. How else, when I finally received responses from Schlachet, were they in exactly the order I laid out my copy? My strong guess was Herb, whose tax lawyer was the same Daniel McCarthy who was Battisti’s desegregation master.

Memory Flash: Yokohama, Japan, late January, 1982

I’m in one of the latest Japanese steel mills, watching steel being poured in an operation far more efficient – and clean – than any steel mill in Cleveland. Robots glide about the floor. It is almost quiet. I want to write about it, my memories of Jones and Laughlin steel mill in the Flats strong.

I even call The Press – at some highly unsocial hour for me- to ask if they would like an update to my steel series; a Sunday piece datelined ‘Yokohama, Japan’, which might be quite impressive. I’d need an extra couple of days here to set it up.   

As I fear, the answer is no.  

Actually, the editors might be relieved that I am here – anywhere – than in the office. There is, a colleague tells me, a sinking feeling abroad in the newsroom. I should enjoy where I am.  

I was here only because I and a few other Nieman Fellows of my year had been invited to tour Japan by the Japanese government a year earlier, but for some reason could not proceed as the Canada tour had done. So the Japanese, ever the ones to feel shameful about not living up to promises, had marshalled a handful of us to come on this to see their country.

How could I say no? I knew I would get no help from The Press, so I took a leave of absence (unpaid) and joined my fellow Niemans for ten days of an amazing – and utterly exhausting – free tour of this great country, which included a visit to my Nieman friend Masayuki Ikeda at NHK TV, and went to visit his father and their two Newfoundland dogs, shipped over from Canada when we were there.

(It was young Masayuki who bemused all of us Niemans on the Canada tour when, in St. Johns, Newfoundland, he disappeared for a weekend and returned to the group declaring that he had been to a dog breeder on the island and bought two Newfie pups. He said he would arrange for their arrival in Japan as soon as he returned home. “But Masayuki, you are single and live in a flat. In Tokyo,” we said. “Ah, but they are for my children,” he replied. “What children? You are not even married yet,” we responded. “Ah yes, but I will be by arrangement, and the dogs will be for the children at my father’s house outside of Tokyo,” he said.

Now that’s what I call long-term planning which, in 1980s Ohio, in a deep recession, we had clearly not thought enough about. 

Kamm was now Editor Emeritus, and Bill DiMascio was passed over to succeed him as editor in favor of Associate Editor Jerry Merlino, an aide to Cole and more attuned to business than journalism.

By February, ’82, I had enough updated information on Bankruptcy Court for half a book. But Anna and I had a whole new focus in our lives – a new baby! Jeffrey James Almond, aged six weeks, would be coming to our house as our second adoptee from Children’s Services in Cleveland. A brother for Nick, and another godchild for ‘Aunt’ Dorothy.

By April I was well aware that Cleveland Magazine was preparing its own version of the Battisti saga. I don’t mind saying I talked to Greg Stricharchuk, even offering him some information and contacts, in exchange for the expected publication dates of his investigation.

I told Merlino, and anybody else who would listen, that it would be more embarrassing to Cole if my series was NOT run, because Cleveland Magazine would make the most of it. Did Cole fear Battisti that much?

Finally, Merlino said Yes to publish.

Memory Flash:  Editors office, Cleveland Press, mid April 1982

I’m on my hands and knees on the carpeted floor of Merlino’s office, surrounded by piles of paper, along with the company lawyer, whose name escapes me. We were here yesterday, and will be here tomorrow and the day after that, going through my copy line by line, scratching out stuff here, adding explanation there. Sometimes I take a chunk away and sit at my typewriter and rewrite.

There’s no sign of Cole’s interest. I think he had other fish to fry, as we would find out in a couple of months.  

Cleveland Magazine had already contacted Kamm at his new job at WJW TV Channel 8, and told them he knew nothing about my series on bankruptcy court, but acknowledged he had heard Cleveland Magazine was working on such a story.

“It’s a matter I’m no longer involved in,” he told the magazine. When asked if he was specifically referring to the Almond series, Kamm replied: “I’m not aware of anything. I’m not informed on this matter. I’m not involved in this matter or any other matter. …….”

“Meanwhile,” Stricharchuk wrote later, “some Press reporters, angry and disillusioned, became increasingly convinced that Judge Battisti’s power even extended into their own newsroom.

“So much for the First Amendment”’

Amen to that!

The new Battisti series launched above the masthead of the Sunday edition of The Press on April 18, 1982, backing into the story by citing federal investigations. “Feds investigate judge’s deals,” was the headline. “Question actions in Cleveland bankruptcy court.”

It wasn’t bold and accusative, but the details were still there. I could live with it. When Cleveland Magazine ran its story at the beginning of May it was with cigar-chomping Battisti on the front cover with the headline “A Betrayal of Trust. The back-room Brotherhood of Judge Battisti.“

Meanwhile, I had something else to deal with: the Falklands War, when Argentine forces invaded the tiny British colony in the South Atlantic and Britain sent 127 ships to take it back.  I wrote my first piece as a huge spread in the Sunday edition on April 11 with the headline “Britain Outraged, Off to war in the nuclear age.”

Written in Cleveland, and as the paper’s resident Brit, I filled an entire page (cover of three marching sailors in front of a huge Union Flag) explaining why the British, and especially Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, could not accept the Argentine invasion of what President Reagan called “that little ice cold bunch of rocks down there.” It was indeed a small, cold, barren couple of islands (population 1,846) off southern Argentina that Britain had mostly ignored for years.

The outrage was about Sovereignty. If Britain did nothing, and let a foreign government occupy a legal, UN-recognized British territory, effectively making its residents prisoners of war, it would, said the government, be a signal to the Spanish to take over Gibraltar, for China to grab Hong Kong, for anywhere in the world that was still a British territory, or anyone else’s. The world in the nuclear age still had rules.

But it was a gigantic gamble. The Falklands were 8,000 miles away and Britain was already starting to cut its naval and air forces assigned to Nato, where the Soviets were still rattling its cage. Reagan was worried, and offered one of America’s own aircraft carriers to help.  It took a full page to try to explain to Americans why and how Britain was risking the sinking of almost all its major warships – and several cruise liners including the Queen Elizabeth – to rapidly transport thousands of troops to retake an island nobody but the British cared about.

Actually, I wrote two long stories about the Falklands that day. The second was a long interview with Robert Cox, a Nieman colleague at Harvard, who was also a former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, an English-language newspaper published in the Argentine capital. He had been forced to leave Argentina by the Galtieri government in 1980 for publishing stories about tortured and missing persons.

The Falklands War went on, Royal Marines stormed the main island, ships were sunk on both sides, and I went back to London to write the story from there. My first piece was on May 28 – at the bottom of Page 1. Headline “Britons calm on surface, worried underneath” as Royal Marines and Paras seized Goose Green, Darwin and were closing in on the capital, Stanley.

There were two other stories for me to cover at that time: visits to Britain of The Pope, and President Reagan. Pope John Paul II was a joy to cover, not so much because he was the first reigning Pope to visit Britain since King Henry VIII famously broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1536, but because he came to York racecourse, next to my parents’ house. From my old bedroom window I could see 200,000 people assembling, and then got close up to him in his British-built ‘Popemobile’, effectively a Landrover with bullet proof glass where he could be clearly seen by the public. I still have the press pass showing my youthful-looking face, my nationality (American) and name of newspaper: The Cleveland Press, the last time anyone would see one used on an international stage.

I stayed in England long enough to report on President Reagan’s address to Parliament on June 8, his first opportunity to talk to Mrs Thatcher in person about the Falklands and Nato, and to send a special report to The Press from Southampton and Plymouth, where I watched emotional reunions of soldiers and sailors with their families.

Memory Flash: Southampton docks, England, June 10 1982

I have a particular memory of one reunited family on that dock: that of Captain David Hart Dyke, commander of HMS Coventry, a Type 42 destroyer which was hit by Argentine Sky Hawks on May 25, Argentina’s National Day. Their air force threw almost everything they had at the Royal Navy. Coventry, on fleet guard, shot down three Argentina aircraft that day, but 19 of its own crew were killed, more injured, when two bombs ripped through the ship. One of the injured was Capt Hart Dyke, whose face was burned as he escaped the sinking Coventry.

I remember him standing separately from the crowd, with his wife and two daughters, stoically but consciously trying to keep the injured side of his face away from people who approached him.  He gave me a few comments, but not really enough to write about.

What I do clearly remember though was the tall young girl standing close to him: Miranda, his eldest daughter; his younger daughter on his other side. Even at the age of ten Miranda was tall – and quiet and shy. But she grew up to be a comedy actress who made a feast of being an attractive but big, loopy woman – a British TV star adored by her fans, male and female. Her show, simply called Miranda, became one of the UK’s funniest and most loved shows.

I can never forget her standing on that dock next to her injured father, self-conscious and uncertain, but all the family now safe from war.

June 17, 1982. Death of the Cleveland Press.

I was back in Cleveland and preparing for a Monday return to work when I heard local TV news saying The Press was preparing a “statement” the next day. The word “closure” was mentioned. I didn’t believe it until I saw scores of people milling around the entrance of the building the next morning. I think it was 9am when Bill Dimascio stood on a table in the newsroom and read a statement from Joe Cole to the assembled staff that today’s edition would be the last.

“The daily paper which we have all known for so many years and in which I have been so deeply involved for the last year and one-half will no longer be published,” said Cole in the statement. “I bought this newspaper full of hope that I could make it viable and successful for our community and for the 900 employees who have given the major part of their lives to its operation.

“It is with great sorrow and disappointment that I must announce that as a result of continuing and significant losses, we are ceasing publication with today’s final edition.”

At first there was silence. Then the sound of sobs, and then a shout of pure anger. The only thing I thought to do was to call Jim Dudas, who I knew was in southern Ohio on vacation with Marcy and would not know he needed to come back. Immediately.

Outside, TV and radio stations had cameras and microphones stuffed in reporters faces, mine included. “How does it feel?” “What are you going to do now?” I didn’t know what to say.

Only slowly did we start to hear the reasons for the sudden closure: the paper was awash in debt – $6 million in 1980, $800,000 in the last month alone, even after the layoffs of 40 people and a new morning edition to compete with the Plain Dealer. There was a belief that creditors were pushing for repayment. Editor Merlino was quoted by the New York Times the next day as saying that Cole had decided to close the paper “rather than a form of bankruptcy.”

Cole was scared of bankruptcy? Oh God! Have I pushed him into killing my own beloved newspaper? 

I doubt what I wrote about Bankruptcy Court would have been the reason, but as time goes on and as I get softer in the brain, it does give me the thought that Cole could have become disheartened that his own paper was embarrassing him with his friends and business contacts.

For the record, what Cole is reported to have said to the New York Times was: “The need to make this announcement is one of the most difficult and painful tasks that has ever confronted me. I had my heart set on keeping Cleveland a two-newspaper town, for I believe in the need for two vibrant and independent voices.”

I didn’t have anything to write that day, just wander around, pick up my clips from the newspaper morgue (library), talk to people (“maybe the Guild will have a court case?” “Maybe the print unions will?” “Will the PD take on our staff?” Maybe a joint operation with the PD, as other newspapers are doing in struggling cities?)  There were 140 Press editorial staff but it turned out the Plain Dealer would not be taking any of us.

We were on our own, but as I found the next morning when I went to commandeer two old filing cabinets, the news editors were working flat out to help find us news jobs. There was some severance pay for us – two weeks for every year of service up to a maximum of 52 weeks – in my case six month’s pay, but not much else.

I drove up to Detroit to audition for a news anchor on Channel 7. But they decided my still slight British accent would not be acceptable for some viewers. (I still have a copy of that tape, unseen because it was a 1980s commercial tape that nobody in Britain seems to be able to play).

There was an offer from WKYC-TV (NBC TV3) in Cleveland, but I turned it down. It was a solid contract for 75 weeks, in two consecutive cycles, with unspecified on-air journalistic responsibilities, and the pay looked OK; a trial contract.

But I agonized over it. “When it came to putting my name on that piece of paper (offer) I felt like the proverbial bridegroom about to say ‘I do’,” I wrote back to Kristin Ostrowski, news director at the station. “The analogy is emotionally apt, in fact, because of my intense relationship with The Press over the last 12 years. With that relationship now over, television has appeared like the alluring new lover. But, as with human relationships, at this time I’d rather we “lived in sin” than get involved in legal contracts.”

Over the top, Almond. I’m my own worst enemy.

I went to Washington and was offered a job as a feature/investigations reporter on the brand new USA Today.  I turned it down because the ‘Macpaper’ as it was nicknamed for its quickly-digested stories, seemed to be well beneath the longer investigations I wanted. I was looking for a big paper with international writing.

Big mistake, as I look at USA Today 40 years later, still going strong and with plenty of foreign news.

Then Dick Campbell, who had hired me from England 12 years previously with a simple “$150 a week and you cut the red tape” offer, told me about a post going as press aide to a Republican Congressman in northern Columbus, Ohio. He understood I was next in line to go to the Scripps Howard bureau in D.C. and had assured the congressman that I was the person for the job. The Congressman agreed to take me even though his wife would not be interviewing Anna, as she would usually. The social side, you see. (Just as well. Anna would have rebelled at that).

And I could start the job immediately.

Memory flash: Washington DC, August 1982

I’ve flown down to Washington, taken a cab to Congress and found the Congressman’s office. It is 9am on a Monday and I’m one of the first to arrive. I introduce myself to the staff and am shown the desk of the previous press aide where I will work. The congressman will not be into the office until nearly noon, but my predecessor has left me a long, handwritten note of my expected duties, stuck in an electric typewriter.

As I start to read, an uncomfortable feeling starts to creep down my body. Then horror. I am expected, every Sunday, to have a half hour agricultural report for the congressman ready to read on a local radio station in his district. This will be mainly for farmers, and include soybean and wheat prices, which I will have to look up. Every Sunday, at 9am.  

Campbell didn’t tell me any of this. But why would he know? I had not met or talked to the congressman either. 

I look at my watch. It is 9.30 am. I fight back my panic and look around at the high ceilings, the quiet and orderly staff, and I think. REALLY THINK. Can I do this? Do I WANT to do this? From abandoning newspapers and being an American congressional official?

I called Anna, who told me I must do what I feel I want and need to do. We would survive as a family no matter what. Something will turn up.

I told the staff I could not do this: It was better that I quit before I started. I left a note apologizing to the congressman, vowing that I would apologize to Dick Campbell as soon as I returned, and was in the air back to Cleveland before 11am.

How many times did I take Douglas for a run that summer and into fall? The world seemed silent. The phones didn’t ring, and my calls to old friends, Nieman fellows and others usually ended with the words, ‘Try again next year.’ Some of my friends went off into public relations.

I don’t know if this was a dream, or reality, but my memory tells me Anna, Nick Jeff and Douglas the dog were all lined up in front of me at one point, looking at me patiently but with expressions saying; ‘What are we going to do? ‘

I think it was Larry Nighswander, one of The Press photographers, who called me and asked if I could contact James Whelan, editor of the paper where he now worked, the Washington Times. It turned out Whelan had been a former Latin America correspondent for United Press International, managing editor of the Miami News, editor of the Sacramento Union – and a former Nieman Fellow.

It was a bold startup newspaper, conservative and defiantly anti-communist, a morning daily read most especially by President Reagan. I wasn’t interested in that, but they wanted to take on the Washington Post at their own game, and that needed professional journalists. Many of the editorial staff came straight from the defunct Washington Star. How could the capital of the most powerful country in the world have only ONE major daily newspaper – the left-of-center Washington Post – in a now right-of-center country?

It sounded like a Challenge.

Whelan offered me the post of State Department writer, which I took – sharing my desk in the department with the Russians (a State Department joke which fell flat when the Russians hardly ever appeared). Perhaps the other reporters thought I would be a right wing character, a ringer brought in to ask Secretary of State George P. Schultz only right wing questions at press conferences. But Whelan and the Home Desk assured me they wanted the news straight down the middle. Better straight than biased. I’d leave that to the columnists and editorial writers.

I rented a room at the Motel 50, across the Potomac in Roslyn, and tried to come back to Cleveland every other weekend. The 400-mile, six-hour drive was tough over the increasingly-icy Appalachian mountains in Pennsylvania, but there was no choice. Our house was on the market, but without buyers.

It was unfair on Anna, Nick, Jeff and Douglas for me to be so far away. So, after three months I found an unfurnished house to rent on Williamsburg Blvd in Arlington, Virginia, not far from the Beltway and a direct route to my new office. It was a financial squeeze, and I swear I could hear the heat kicking on in our old, vacant house in South Euclid several times a day or night in the freezing winter 400 miles away – as well as heating our Virginia rental. But the house did sell in the spring.

And so, Cleveland, farewell. You have my heart, and I will return as a visitor. But nothing will replace you. 


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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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