Twenty-Five Stories

11 Confessions of a wayward reporter

Terence Sheridan

I was a relative short-timer at The Plain Dealer, from the end of 1963 to the beginning of 1970, and when I left, editors celebrated. So did most of my coworkers. The truth of the matter: I was an insufferable pain in the ass.

The days of typewriters, pencils and paste pots.

Take, for example, 1968, the year The Plain Dealer hired five women in a group, the renowned “Class of ’68,” all of whom went on to be excellent reporters and editors.

One of the young women, straight out of The College of Wooster and lovely in tartan skirt, sweater and Peter Pan collar, was doing rookie grunt work, writing obits a few desks from mine. The desk chairs were on rollers so I rolled over and asked — 50 years before “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” — “Are you a virgin?”

She should have stabbed me in the eye with a pencil. Instead, she blushed and typed even faster, sympathetic words about the recently deceased. She was the daughter of a Pennsylvania judge and a Christian. She forgave me, and subsequently did monumental typing at her breakfast table in Gates Mills.

I had written a long piece in pencil on legal pads about a precocious politician, Dennis Kucinich, and she typed it as fast as I could read it — the cover story for the inaugural issue of Cleveland Magazine, April 1972.

The 60s. What a decade. What a time to be in the newspaper business. John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X assassinated; John Glenn in orbit, Cuban missile crisis, civil rights and voting rights, U.S. cities on fire, Vietnam on fire, Neil Armstrong on the moon — a decade ending with Woodstock, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and news of the My Lai massacre.

On Oct. 6, 1968, The Plain Dealer officially became Ohio’s largest newspaper and readers were greeted with: “You meet the nicest people when you’re Number One!” and some stats: 409,414 daily, 545,032 Sunday.

The PD could have been, should have been, the best paper between the coasts. The newsroom was loaded with young talent. Unfortunately it didn’t bewitch the editors, far too many of them semiliterate archivists promoted for loyal time served and given an impressive title and a paltry raise.

Even with honorable old gents who had paid their dues and earned their stripes there was time warp in a wild decade.

Here’s dialogue with one of them in the paper’s elevator. He was running the show in 1965, the year before he retired, and 30 years before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in Cleveland:

“What do you think of these ridiculous names rock and rollers give themselves? The Animals, Lovin’ Spoonful?”

“I like it,” I said. “What do you like?”

“I think ‘Four Freshmen’ has dash.”

The city was beginning to decay from the inside out but high-ranking editors were curiously indifferent.

Four days before Armstrong walked on the moon, July 20, 1969, I walked around a Hough neighborhood that had been ripped by riots, fire and fury in July 1966, chatting with residents who believed that Hough, ravaged real estate controlled by absentee landlords, needed a whole lot of fixing before we messed with the moon.

One of them was a mother of four who lived in a top-floor apartment with a leaky roof and rats in the hallway. The moon shot? “I don’t know nothin’ about that,” she said. “But I have plenty of mices and I can’t keep flour for the roaches in it.”

“I don’t know why we’re running this,” an editor said, shaking his head. “It’s like insulting the moon story.”

This was a man who fervently endorsed a grand jury report defining social and racial unrest in Cleveland as being “Communist inspired,” five days of looting and arson and confrontation between armed black militants and Cleveland police that left seven dead (three policemen, three “suspects,” one “civilian”) and 15 wounded. The “Glenville Shootout” in July 1968.

Still, I was fond of my battered steel desk in the big, sprawling, loud, smoke-filled city room. There were ashtrays, and cigarettes in the ashtrays.

To my left was Roldo Bartimole, before he departed to do his own thing as the muckraking publisher of an annoying newsletter, Point of View. In time, I’d refer to him as “the poor man’s Tom Paine” and “the conscience of Cleveland.”

To my right was Joe Eszterhas, a onetime Hungarian refugee. He was just a kid but a bear for work, and it wasn’t all fiction. Fame and fortune in Hollywood were in his writing future, 19 movies, or thereabouts, and eight books. Who can forget “Basic Instinct”?

On Nov. 20, 1969, the Plain Dealer published pictures that shocked the world, gruesome images of Vietnamese civilians massacred in March 1968 by American soldiers in a 50-man unit armed with automatic rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers — “clumps of bodies.” (Eventually the Army set the number at 347, although the Vietnamese claim 504.)

The pictures were taken by former Army photographer Ron Haeberle and buttressed by an exclusive eyewitness account written by Eszterhas. A Fairview High School graduate, Haeberle called the Plain Dealer because he recognized Eszterhas’s byline. They had attended Ohio University at the same time and Joe was a writer and editor at the school paper.

Straight ahead was the rewrite desk where the laidback aces, Bob Daniels and Al Wiggins, were always laughing about something as they banged away, making the unreadable lyrical, or at least readable.

But they didn’t screw around when rewriting. Perhaps you were calling in a story and you had a word like “Courvoisier.” You’d start to spell it and one or the other would snap, “Go on with the fucking story.”

Another way of saying, “I know how to spell, genius.”  They believed in short sentences, active verbs, and getting to the tavern on time.

Try to sneak jargon or cliché by them — junk like today’s iconic, surreal, on the ground, end of the day, begs the question, first and foremost, at this moment in time, impacted, or “literally” this and “literally” that — and they might hang up on you.

It was said that each time Daniels was sent out of town, he came back with a wife. I didn’t believe it. Maybe two spouses. Three at most.

Wiggins had only one wife, but he was a poet. At first glance, no big deal, since nearly everyone in the city room except editors was a poet. Even the copy boys (no copy girls) were poets.

Speedy Kucinich, for one, would zip by, deftly depositing his latest work on your desk. The difference was that Wiggins was published with actual poets. When I had something in a coffeehouse rag, he had something in a book.

Nonetheless, many think one of his finest lines was his resignation on a postcard after leaving town in hurry, deeply in debt to two bookmakers and one very angry restaurant owner: “By the time you receive this comma I will have resigned period.”

Me, I argued incessantly with editors about items large and small. I thought it great that Muhammad Ali changed his “slave name” and turned his back on war (“No Viet Cong ever called me nigger”), and that for sure a family newspaper should have room for a feature story on a stripper who read Walt Whitman and used a boa constrictor in her act.

One editor was confused but sincere when he blurted, “Negroes are now blacks?” “Seems so, sport,” I said. “Ask McGruder, the tall Negro who works for us.”

Under the circumstances, I should have been given a pass for doing mad things.

For instance, the day I cut Bob McGruder’s phone line with my penknife because I was tired of waiting for him to go to lunch. At the time, McGruder, the Plain Dealer’s first black reporter, was talking to Carl Stokes, Cleveland’s first black mayor. But I didn’t know that.

Rev. King had a dream; writer James Baldwin had a prophetic spiritual (“God gave Noah the rainbow sign/ No more water, the fire next time”), and McGruder, who would go on to be executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, had a lunchtime story: stopped again by police while driving through a white neighborhood at night — another DWB, Driving While Black.

But no one dreamed that the 44th President would be black man, or that a birther-crazed real estate mogul who spent years claiming 44 was illegal (not born in the United States) would be the 45th President.

McGruder was one of two friends I had at the PD. The other was Don Barlett.  The three of us had lunch daily. Later, McGruder would become the PD’s managing editor. Later, Barlett would win two Pulitzer Prizes working for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Later, the PD would ask me to go to its bureau in Lake County and work for an editor who thought “penultimate” meant beyond “ultimate.”

The paper made it clear that it didn’t want Barlett working with me. I think they were afraid I might corrupt him. A box-like figure who wore button-down J.C. Penney shirts, a beige raincoat, and a dark beret atop a bald dome, he neither drank nor smoked and spoke barely above a whisper.

We fooled them just once, together writing a series about the city’s business elite bankrolling a reactionary ploy to get “anti-Communist” tripe into Cleveland’s public schools. When the PD killed the series, we sold it to Nation magazine.

It became kind of a joke when we got an award for investigative reporting from the Cleveland Press Club, for the first part of the series, the weakest part.

Admittedly, I had a bad attitude. It began at the Alliance Review and continued at the Akron Beacon Journal, where Barlett and I were assigned to the sticks — Barlett in Portage County, me in Wayne County.

They gave you a Rollei twin-lens reflex camera, paid for your gas, and you filled an entire page: pictures, news, features and a column. You learned to write swiftly but day became night mighty fast.

John S. Knight, legendary editor and publisher of Knight Newspapers, had an office in the newsroom. I’d go in and drink his whiskey and smoke his cigars. He was never there at night.

I certainly didn’t expect him the winter night I was sitting in his chair, my feet on his desk, a glass of aged scotch in one hand and a Cuban cigar in the other, when, suddenly, there he was, the great man himself, hanging up his hat and coat and saying quietly, very quietly, “Mind if I use my office?”

That’s all he said, and if he told anyone else, I never heard about it.

After a year glittering as a reporter in the PD’s Akron bureau but failing as a collegial co-worker (I called the bureau chief an “asshole” because his idea of journalism was to clip Beacon stories and rewrite them), I was eager to star in the PD’s windowless old hulk at E. 18th and Superior.

I was stunned when informed that they first wanted me to serve a tour in the suburbs. I sulked until I was assigned to Criminal Courts.

Now we were cooking. This was the place for me. Good guys and bad guys, though you sometimes needed a program to tell them apart. Every day was drama, with someone doomed to get it in the neck unless a crafty defense lawyer intervened.

The lawyers starred but others made it work, the people who didn’t get their names in the paper — clerks, bailiffs, parole officers and court stenographers.

Need to check your courtroom notes? Run down to the basement and an affable stenographer would consult his or her machine and make you whole.

A grand jury clerk would tip you off to what was coming and you had a scoop. A parole officer would let you peek at a report disclosing hilarious dialogue between members of an incompetent gang drilling a safe in a jewelry store, and you would get a laudatory note from the PD publisher, dapper Tom Vail, the prince of Hunting Valley. (Vail’s notes were commonly known as “Snowflakes” and nearly everyone got at least one.)

After the hardnosed Newhouse family acquired the 125-year-old PD in 1967, it kept the well-bred Vail, born rich, in place.

He was a bright shining bauble with the right high-society business and social connections. But they sent in one of their own men to keep an eye on the bottom line.

In 1965, Newsweek described Vail as appearing “more like an F. Scott Fitzgerald hero than a publisher,” which, I guess, made him our Gatsby, while we were his “young tigers,” according to Newsweek.

You were sadly out of luck, however, if you were an old tiger, such as Bob Manry, a 46-year-old copy editor who was turned down when he asked the paper to sponsor his proposed voyage across the Atlantic in a tiny boat.

Bob said “bye” the day before his 47th birthday and pushed off in a 13-foot sailboat, Tinkerbelle — 78 days from Falmouth, Massachusetts to Falmouth, England, where he was greeted by massive crowds and a flotilla of large and small boats on Aug. 17, 1965.

Meanwhile, small scoops for me, days when there was a feisty rival, the Cleveland Press. One afternoon a court clerk nodded toward a stack of books on the counter, journal entries made by judges. Just a nod.

But in one of the books was a judge’s journal entry reducing Don King’s sentence of second-degree murder to manslaughter, shortly after a jury convicted King, a hot-tempered numbers honcho, of second-degree murder for kicking to death a lightweight former employee in front of Art’s Seafood House at Cedar and E. 100th.

I had covered the trial and it took the jury only four hours, counting lunch, to find the burly defendant guilty of murder. Sam Garrett, stomped and pistol-whipped, owed King $600.

Years earlier, in 1954, 23-year-old “Donald the Kid,” as he was known,  killed a man who was trying to rob one of his gambling joints, shot him in the back, which was ruled “justifiable homicide” — a shootout involving three hoods from Detroit and King returning fire with a Russian pistol.

I got a Snowflake for the journal-entry story, the judge got re-elected, and after nearly four years in prison, Cleveland’s Don King got New York City, where he  grew his hair incredibly high and became the pre-eminent boxing promoter on the planet — “Rumble in the Jungle” (Ali-Foreman), “Thrilla in Manilla” (Ali-Frazier), plus promoting the fights of Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Roberto Duran, and Evander Holyfield, among many other champions, with enough energy left over to vigorously battle lawsuits filed by various boxers alleging he had stiffed them.

In 1992, he took the Fifth when questioned about alleged connections to Mafia boss John Gotti.

In any event, when the trial of the decade rolled around, the retrial of Sam Sheppard in 1966, I was ready. Sheppard, a former neurosurgeon, had spent 10 years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in the bludgeon death of his wife, Marilyn, in their Bay Village home in July 1954.

A federal judge granted Sheppard a retrial on the grounds that the “carnival atmosphere” of the first trial had made a “mockery of justice.” Put that on the afternoon Press, which lasted until 1982 but was now being trampled by the morning Plain Dealer.

Sheppard’s young attorney from Boston, F. Lee Bailey, dazzled with a mix-and-match defense that combined a left-handed mystery intruder with mathematically intriguing blood spatters. After 12 hours of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty.”

The city was packed with out-of-town reporters but the PD did not embarrass itself. Its art, sidebars and main stories were on the money, as was the verdict story, written on deadline, in which I noted that minutes before the jury returned Sheppard removed his wallet and slipped it to Bailey under the table.

Right-handed Sam, who testified in the first trial but not the second, thought he was going back to the slammer.

I got a raise (five bucks), a Snowflake, and a happy new job, general assignment. The paper sent me everywhere. Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago, Miami. One month here, the next there.

Hey, Norman Mailer is running for mayor of New York. His buddy, Jimmy Breslin, is running for city council president. Why don’t you take a look?

See where this is going? This a confession, a long epitaph for a guileless but arrogant loser. If the editors were idiots, how was I getting plum assignments, from homicidal maniacs to U.S. presidential candidates? The fact is, all the editors weren’t idiots, and even the idiots were not idiotic all the time.

The fact is, I was not a nice person and, in many respects, quite dense.

A touch over 5-10 and 145 pounds, I had a history of shooting off my mouth, out of my weight class, and finding barroom floors. As someone said somewhere, I wasn’t tough when I was tough.

All the same, in a matter of weeks I called an assistant desk editor a dope and asked another colleague to step outside. This was a mistake. No one told me he could fight and he kicked hell out of me. However, inside I caught him coming out of the men’s room and punched him.

Regrettably, an editor witnessed it and didn’t believe me when I said we were just fooling around.

In addition, editors didn’t believe me when I denied carnal knowledge of a secretary or that she was giving me copies of management memos, several of them Tom Vail’s omnipresent Snowflakes, including one to me. And yet they seemed ready to cut me even more slack.

A meeting was set with the executive editor. I prepared by drinking lunch. When he asked if I wanted a raise, I said yes. He asked how much and I said I wanted to make what he was making. He accused me of drinking and I said he would have made a terrific reporter.

That did it. The wee man, who had not distinguished himself as a reporter, told me I was going to Lake County and I resigned, with two weeks notice.

Say goodbye to Cleveland bars and hello to the bucolic delights of Lake County?  Lake County when I was begging to go to Vietnam? Not a chance.

But the bosses knew that and I ended up muttering to myself something along the lines of: “Well played, motherfuckers.”

Then something terrible happened. On Dec. 31, 1969, at about 1 a.m., three killers shot to death Joseph Albert “Jock” Yablonski, 59, his wife Margaret, 59, and his  daughter Charlotte, 25, in the family’s 200-year-old house in Clarksville, Pennsylvania. The bodies weren’t discovered until five days later.

Yablonski, an official of the United Mine Workers of America, a dissident reformer, had been challenging William Anthony “Tough Tony” Boyle, president of UMWA, for the top job.

All roads, from D.C. to the hills and hollers of Tennessee, led to Cleveland, where three hillbilly hitmen were presently living.

One of them, an unemployed housepainter, was the son-in-law of the president of the 75-member UMWA local in LaFollette, Tennessee, a low but key link in the dippy Boyle scheme to murder Yablonski, financing the hit with $20,000 in embezzled union funds.

And I had most of it.  Before the murder, during the murder, and after the murder. Who said what to whom, and where they tossed the guns (the Monongahela River); how they didn’t have the heart to shoot the friendly family dog that didn’t bark, Rascal, and how the plot soon went to pieces because Yablonski, the son of Polish immigrants, had noticed the dummies scouting his house and wrote down the license number of their car.

Moreover, before driving back to Cleveland, they left fingerprints behind. They were arrested three days after the bodies were discovered.

It was all sources. A federal agent, a bondsman, a federal prosecutor, a defense lawyer. They wrapped it up, put a bow on it and dropped it in my lap.

While out-of-town reporters hunkered down waiting for federal grand jury indictments, the PD was good to go, a copyrighted story below a banner headline and my byline.

Afterward, I went to Tennessee and paid a young guy $50 to drive me around. Home brew, biscuits, red-eye gravy, and Merle Haggard on the jukebox (“Okie from Muskogee”), genuinely tough people, some of them living on the edge in the natural beauty of LaFollette’s Campbell County, coal and iron ore distant memories but high hopes for tourism.

They condemned the murders but didn’t condone a Yankee sticking his nose in their business. They were courteous only because my driver was kin to most of them, and we traveled hospitably with a bottle of bourbon and a case of beer.

A week later I took a half-bottle of scotch out of my desk drawer and put it beside my typewriter. McGruder and Barlett had done all they could, knocked on doors, pleaded, promising I wouldn’t do it again, but in their hearts knew I would.

And to the men at the top (no women), my resignation was treasure. When I left, I didn’t say anything to anyone and no one said anything to me.

I didn’t leave crying but I wasn’t laughing either. It’s too late, not to mention absurd, to say “sorry” to the dead. But I will admit to the living that my years at the Plain Dealer were the time of my life.

 

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