Twenty-Five Stories

5 A three newspaper family

Robert McAuley

I’m blessed to this day. I was fortunate enough to be born into a newspaper family.

My Dad, Regis, was a sports writer and sports editor at The Cleveland News and later the baseball beat writer and executive sports editor for The Cleveland Press. He and my Uncle Ed are members of the Press Club of Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame. Ed was a gifted writer – a general columnist and sports writer for The News and briefly a syndicated columnist after The News folded. He died very young at 58. Uncle Logan was circulation director of The Plain Dealer. Brother Tom was a district manager at The PD and Cousin Ray Daull was single-copy sales manager at The PD. All held multiple positions at the paper over the years.

It was a great way to grow up. I remember going to The News sports department on Saturdays with my Dad and sitting on the lap of legendary Sports Editor Ed Bang as he opened his desk to retrieve chocolates. Bang, also a Hall of Fame member, was everyone’s grandpa. Our house, first on E. 147th Streetjust off Lake Shore Boulevardin Cleveland and later on Lincoln Boulevard in Cleveland Heights, was always an unannounced drop-in spot for sports writers, entertainment editors, drama critics, photographers, broadcasters and ballplayers.

Whenever they showed up, the Stroh’s and stories would flow. There was lots of laughter, and the kids were able to sit in and listen.

Christmas gatherings would sometimes include Tribe owner Bill Veeck and in the summer, there would be calls to my Dad from future Hall of Fame Indians pitcher Early Wynn, who would dictate columns he had agreed with my dad to write for The News. The first time he called I answered the phone. “Who is this really,” I asked.

It broke my heart in 1957 when Wynn was traded to the Chicago White Sox. In 1959, when I was just a little guy, he dropped by our Lincoln house with Chicago’s first baseman Earl Torgeson. They asked to see my baseball glove. Embarrassed, I showed them a mitt with the web torn out. Torgeson asked if I was going to the game that night and when I replied yes, he told me to drop by the dugout before the game. When I did, Torgeson came out holding a long leather cord and offered me a choice. I could repair my mitt with the cord, or I could accept a replacement glove that turned out to be Luis Aparicio’s mitt.

I was the hit of the neighborhood that summer as we passed the glove around to play catch. Both Wynn and Aparicio made the All-Star roster that year and went on to play in, but not win, the World Series. Years later, Wynn surprised my new bride and me by picking us up at airport in Tucson, Arizona, on our honeymoon. He, former Tribe play-by-play broadcaster Jimmy Dudley, their wives, my parents and three sisters all crowded into Wynn’s Winnebago and went back to my folks’ home for a party.

In early December 1969, at 22, I had to make another decision.

I had left the circulation department and newsroom jobs that I had held at The Plain Dealer and The Press since my high school days in 1963. I began to sell real estate but had run face first into an economic slump. I had special training and a new real estate sales license from the state, but there were few buyers. No money was coming in. I prayed to the Blessed Mother that I would land a good job and went back to The PD and applied for a Teamster job – driving a delivery truck and managing a district and its paper carriers. Brother Tom gave me a crash course on driving a stick shift truck. It had a long gear shift cut into the floor and I had a high perch on an elevated single front seat. Trial, error, a bumpy ride, and finally I got it down. I passed the driving test.

But the next call didn’t come from HR. It came from the newsroom. It was a day or two from the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Could I hold off accepting the Teamster job and accept a copy boy learner assignment to The Plain Dealer police beat? Johnny Rees, the day city editor and a longtime friend of my Dad, told me that if I worked out reporting on police matters I could become a full-time reporter after a six-month probation. I would make far less money at first. But, if it worked out, I would be better off financially later.

I got that opportunity because a number of reporters had been lost to the Vietnam draft. The police beat was shorthanded. Police reporting was so different then. We had one mobile phone attached to a car equipped also with a police scanner. We had a small room in the Central Police Station. It had a couple of dated typewriters and police and fire scanners attached to the walls.

Reporters didn’t write stories. They called information into a rewrite desk where two writers put everything into a news story. It wasn’t uncommon for one reporter to work on two unrelated homicides and a fatal car crash, plus a major fire in a single shift. I loved the work, especially not having to write my own stories. But I learned a great deal about simple declarative sentences and tight writing from the rewrite folks, especially on lunch breaks when we got together to drink beer in a bar across the street from Central Station.

Bob Daniels was perhaps the best on the rewrite desk. When I was just a copy boy running page proofs to the editors I used to marvel at Daniels laughing and repeating aloud every word the police reporters were calling in. He would type without looking and spout off a list of questions that the police reporter needed to find out. By the time the reporter called back, Daniels had finished the story, leaving blanks where the answers would be inserted. He was so good that it intimidated me.

Chief Police Reporter Donald L. Bean was my first boss and perhaps the most widely known character in the business. Seemingly, every cop in Greater Cleveland knew him. Bean had wild stories about everyone. Some were even true. Recounting some of his antics and stories came from his own hand in writing his own obituary. An excellent obituary writer, Alana Baranick, posted Bean’s obit on a blog:  Ohio Obits Life and Death, Lives and Deaths in Ohio http://obitsohio.blogspot.com/

In the obit about himself, he wrote:

Bean had a stormy shouting confrontation with George Steinbrenner, best known as owner of the New York Yankees, after three employees of his American Ship Building Co. died in an explosion aboard one of his ships being built at the Lorain shipyards. Marsh Samuel, Steinbrenner’s public relations man, told the media the victims’ names would not be released although the families had already been notified.

“Let me talk to George,” Bean requested. Ushered into the owner’s spacious office, Bean pounded on the huge desk and told Steinbrenner, “You, sir, are suppressing free flow of information.” The names were released…

 

Can you imagine that happening today?

And then there were the Bean pranks, like his Soldiers and Sailors monument spoofs, which Bean also recounted in his obit, saying:

One April Fool’s Day, after waiting for one hour at the monument, a male reporter called the city desk and told the then-city editor, Ted Princiotto, “Ted, she didn’t show up.”

“Who didn’t show up?” Princiotto asked.

“The mother of the unknown soldier,” the reporter replied.

“Who sent you down there?” asked Princiotto.

‘Bean did,” said the reporter.

Incredulously, Princiotto replied, “You damn fool! Don’t you know what day this is?”

Another time, Bean sent a beautiful, blonde woman reporter on the same absurd assignment. After she had waited more than an hour on a hot, muggy August night, she called Bean to ask, “Bean, how long must I wait for the mother?” Sarcastically, Bean told her, “Until she is identified.” With that, the reporter gasped and shouted, “Bean, you bastard!” Maybe I was, but it was fun.

 

I was working that August night and had to leave the room when the reporter returned to continue her protestations. It was just too much not to laugh.

One prank almost got my boss fired. As he said in the obit he wrote about himself:

 

It was newspaper tradition to pull the leg (hoax) of the reporter who was taking his first stint as obituary writer, a job nearly all reporters had to do at one time or another.

One night in the late ’70s, Bob Holmes, a talented, athletic, broad-shouldered Englishman who had emigrated to Cleveland from Liverpool, was on the obit desk. Bean couldn’t wait to get to work to pull a hoax on him. . . . He called Holmes about 7:30 p.m., some hours before deadline, and said, “This is the Donald B. Johnson Funeral Home in Northfield, and we might have an obit for the paper.”

Before Bean could say anything further, Holmes said, “I can’t talk to you now. I’m too busy.” He then hung up.

Bean bided his time and called back at 10:30 p.m. — right on deadline. He told Holmes again that he was the mortician from the Northfield funeral home. “I tried to talk to you earlier but you were too busy. We do have the body of Cyrus Eaton in here.”

Eaton was a great Cleveland industrialist, millionaire and railroad owner, and his death would be front page news any time it happened.

Holmes, between a snit and a sweat, panicked. Bean could hear him as he shouted to the night city editor, Vern Havener, a pipe-smoking, no-nonsense WWII veteran, “Vern, oh. Vern!”

In his excitement, Holmes hung up the phone before Bean could tell him it was a joke. Within minutes, the entire city staff sprang into action and just about everyone in the newsroom was busy on the fake obit. All the phone lines were tied up as the staff called notables for comment, worked to update the standing Eaton obituary on deadline and contact the funeral home for confirmation of the death.

Failing to get a line into the city room, Bean knew he had to rush to the city room from the Central Police Station (a block away) to stop the story from seeing the light of print. And also to try to save his job and to at least prove he was sober.

Bean liked to recount that as he approached the city desk with his hat in his hand — and he didn’t even wear a hat — dense clouds of smoke rose from the pipe of a very angry night city editor.

“What do you know about a Cyrus Eaton obit?” Havener asked in the coldest, iciest voice Bean ever had heard.

Bean said, “I know everything about it. I was trying to pull Bob Holmes’ leg.”

Havener replied, “You’ll be pulling your leg on the street.”

To his everlasting credit Vern never filed a complaint against Bean.

 

Listening to Bean’s telephone interviews of police and the families of victims was my best education. Empathetic yet direct, Bean could apologize for calling at such a terrible time and then grill a widow about her husband’s life and career. Many of his and my calls would end moments after they started, but just as often, we were surprised that the survivors wanted to talk and wanted to portray their loved one in the best light.

Violence dominated the news then as now. Cleveland had more than 300 homicides one year when I was on the beat. We went to the scene of most of the killings. We competed with Press reporters on most, but sometimes we just shared our notes because we knew the story would only be a few paragraphs long.

There had been riots in 1966 and again in 1968, a year before I went on the beat. Black Nationalist groups, according to cops, were fighting one another for power. Police relations with the community were horrible.

Reporters got heat from all sides. The Plain Dealer issued police type helmets to reporters and photographers at one point in the early 1970s, but no one really wanted to stick out like a cop, so we put them in the car and didn’t use them. They were available to us but went unused on May 4, 1970, when four students at Kent State were killed by Ohio National Guardsmen and Case Western Reserve students blocked Euclid Avenue, threw rocks and other debris at police and dug four graves in protest.

In 1973, The PD hit on a new theme. We were going to do more “people” stories. In March, I was loaned from my rewrite position to team with Investigative Reporter John Depke and general assignment reporter Tom Andrzejewski to cover the disappearance of 9-year-old Roxie Ann Keathley from her Sheffield Township apartment.

Our first story was a Sunday workup, but we had frustratingly little to write about. Roxie Ann was an aggressive youngster who knocked on apartment doors, sometimes bothering residents, to collect empty pop bottles for spending money. Police thought she might have been kidnapped or run away. Our story noted police believed she was still alive. She had cashed in $1.70 in bottles at a nearby Lawson’s store.

Unknown to the three reporters who were piecing the story together on deadline that Saturday at a local restaurant was a key missing element. At the next table sat Timothy Papp, the 300-pound man later charged and convicted in the child’s death. No doubt he could hear our loud banter as we chatted about each paragraph and quote. Later, by canvassing her apartment complex after her body had been found in the woods, I learned from the man who loaned it to him that Papp had borrowed a footlocker – the one he used to remove the body without others seeing what he was doing. But it was a short Page 1 story about mourners coming to the funeral home that drew so much attention from editors and changed my career path. Really, it was just a few paragraphs on the jump:

 

At one end of a large room lined with wooden chairs, was a small white coffin.

Many of the family’s friends cried as they stopped and offered prayers.

Roxie Ann’s body was dressed in a new light blue dress and had a pink hair ribbon. White lace gloves covered her hands. Beside the coffin was a folded newspaper with a picture of Roxie Ann on Page One.

Above the picture, a headline read: Police Say Roxie Ran Away; Mother Doesn’t Believe It.

Absent from the funeral home for most of the afternoon were Roxie Ann’s parents.

Clarence Carter, the funeral home operator, said: “They just couldn’t take it anymore.”

 

Two months later, I was a general assignment reporter doing investigative pieces.

I moved to a desk in what was called “The Swamp,” a collection of desks held by some of the most talented reporters at The PD, among them political writer Robert McGruder, who would later become managing editor; John Depke, a great investigative reporter; medical writer Paula Slimak.

Don Bean told me it was too much, too soon for a youngster like me. My second week in the Swamp, Slimak chastised me for smelling like vodka in the morning. “You’re way too young to start drinking like that,” she angrily snapped one morning about 9 as I arrived for work with a slight buzz.

What she didn’t know was that I had been trailing a municipal judge to Tasse’s Lounge in Lakewood that morning to watch him down four shots of Dewar’s White Label Scotch. He then left to drive to work. I had to drink, too, so as not to be noticed. We never talked, but we sat a couple of stools apart for days at a time.

The issue wasn’t so much his drinking as his behavior on the bench afterward. In the previous 60 days he had dismissed charges against 19 defendants who later were indicted by a county grand jury. The crimes included rape, burglary and robbery. In one case, the judge granted personal bond to a mother and son charged with the murder of an off-duty Cleveland policeman. After police complaints and our questioning, the judge reversed himself and ordered a $50,000 bond for each. Fortunately, they turned themselves in.

Two bar association panels cleared the judge, Richard Matia, of wrongdoing in the 19 cases and criticized The Plain Dealer for its stories. Matia died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1977 at the age of 62.

In January 1974, amid the Watergate investigation by a pair of Washington Post reporters and others, The PD formed a three-person Investigative Team headed by Depke. It included me. We had a great year starting that same month with a series about a half-dozen physicians selling huge amounts of prescriptions or actually dispensing the drugs for cash.

Reporters Christine Jindra and George Condon Jr., working undercover, purchased prescriptions from one Beachwood doctor, but we had to prove that the doctor actually wrote the scripts.

I had a cold sore, so I went in, handed the receptionist my old real estate card, and said I needed a script to clear up the mess on my face. Instead, the doctor came out and told me to roll up my sleeve. I thought our surveillance of his office might have been detected, but I rolled up my sleeve. He gave me a shot. But then I asked if he knew of a prescription that might work. He pulled out his pad and wrote one. An expensive handwriting analysis later and we proved he was doing the scripts himself. Other doctors in Rocky River and Brooklyn also supplied us with scripts.

The medical board took action against all the doctors and one went to prison for a short stint.

In March we began a month-long series into police corruption starting with a story about how police with automatic weapons stood guard while their partners conducted a bank burglary. You couldn’t make these stories up: Policemen involved in robberies and burglaries; cops who ransacked homes looking for money in full view of supervisors; policemen stealing car parts and accessories; policemen bribed to protect prostitution or cheat spots where gambling and drinking went on unhampered; on-duty cops drinking afterhours in bars and ignoring radio calls; and a policeman paying the rent for and hanging out with a prostitute.

Unbelievably, Mayor Ralph J. Perk appointed five members of the clergy to investigate the police department. It was dubbed the “God Squad” and the federal government sent $100,000 to help pay for the effort. Some police were sentenced to prison based on the FBI’s and straight police investigations. They were already under investigation when our series started. Some police reform and reorganization resulted.

That August, Depke threw a pool party at a club near his West Side home to celebrate our successes.

About 2 a.m. I gathered a collection of box lunches left over from the party and headed to the St. Alexis Hospital emergency room where my wife was working the all-night shift. She was the only RN on duty.

Trudy was seven months pregnant with our first child. Everyone there was grateful for the food. I had some coffee with them and left. A short time later I was back, my face and arms covered in blood and glass shards. I was hit by a bullet in my neck. A rifleman had shot me through the driver side window as I pulled onto Interstate 77.

The bullet lodged near the carotid artery. A secretary went back to warn Trudy. When they got me on the gurney, Trudy inserted an IV into the back of my hand; the staff summoned a priest. Doctors began working on me. I made a quick, foggy confession when the priest arrived, received what was then called the last rites and headed to the intensive care unit while doctors pondered surgery.

Depke and Managing Editor Bob Burdock showed up in the ICU and grilled me about what I might have done to cause the shooting. Their questions agitated me so much that it set off the heart monitor, which summoned nurses who threw them out.

The shooting remains unsolved. I feared surgery might damage the artery so when doctors game me a choice, I decided to keep the bullet where it was.

My little incident soon disappeared from the news. As I sat in my hospital bed awaiting an Indians telecast, the game was pre-empted. President Richard Nixon resigned Aug. 8 at 9:04 p.m. to a nationally televised audience.

Trudy delivered a healthy baby boy, David, that November during a protracted, ugly newspaper strike, which began Halloween night and ended around Christmas. He was the first strike baby so he got his mug on TV. I was a picket captain on the midnight to 3 a.m. shift and freelanced police stories to the Sun Newspapers, which added publishing days to their once a week operations.

Today, I’m Chair of the Board at Rose-Mary, a Catholic Charities nonprofit that cares 24/7 for more than 90 children and adults with physical and developmental disabilities in 17 group homes in Cuyahoga County. Rose-Mary also runs an adult day care program for 30 men and women with disabilities. I’m happily retired from 43 years at The Plain Dealer. The first six were in circulation sales and in the newsroom as a copy boy; the last 25 as an executive in the newsroom, starting with city editor in 1981 and ending in 2006 when I was editor over the Washington bureau and the medical reporters.

It was a great run.

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