Michael Gartner’s Memories of 715 Locust Street5/29/2013
I first visited the Register and Tribune building in 1941 or 1942, when I was 3 or 4 years old. My mother had put on her white gloves and hat and tailored suit to take me downtown on the Crocker Street streetcar, probably for a doctor’s appointment — in those days, virtually every doctor officed in the Equitable or Des Moines or beautiful old Bankers Trust buildings, all at the corner of Sixth and Locust. Afterward, she held my hand tightly as we walked up the street to 715 Locust to meet my father, who worked in the old third-floor newsroom.
Built in 1918, the building in the 1940s was still beautiful, 12 stories of Bedford stone atop a story of polished granite. A four-story-tall sign listed the latest circulation figure for the Sunday paper — it got at least as high as 525,000. Inside the Alaska marble lobby, big windows smudged with handprints and nose prints of little boys looked down onto the presses in the basement. The four-story annex on 8th Street with its streetside views of the presses wouldn’t be built until 1947, and the shiny skin covering the lovely old building wouldn’t be added for another decade.
Across from the lobby windows, uniformed ladies operated the three elevators that seemed to zoom to the top, where Don Bell and Gene Emerald were among those holding forth at the microphones of KRNT radio — the RNT stood for Register ‘n Tribune — in studios where a nice secretary named Maxine would boost up a little boy so he could wave at the man at the mic.
That was the beginning of a lifetime association with the soon-to-be-abandoned building, the people in it and the newspapers those people put out. I visited at least weekly from 1944 until 1953, going up to meet my dad after my downtown piano lesson from the stern Cornelia Williams Hurlbut, the aunt of Andy Williams and the Williams Brothers, or my allergy shots from the kindly Doctor Lou Noun. I then worked there throughout high school and college, until I graduated in 1960, and I came back in 1974 as executive editor, then editor, then president of the company, until I joined with Dow Jones and others and tried to buy it in 1984. That didn’t work out very well.
I made lifelong friendships in the newsroom, attended weddings, spoke at too many funerals, fired a young reporter for making up stuff, fired an old reporter — Pulitzer-Prize winner Clark Mollenhoff — for being unethical, sent several reporters through alcohol treatment at the urging of Senator Harold Hughes, celebrated with winners of Pulitzer Prizes, marveled at the literary touch of Bob Hullihan, a writer with a tortured life who later killed his wife, his daughter and himself. (I still have an undated note from him. “Dear Michael: Would you please see to it that the following is carved on my headstone? He wrote like a silkworm — and with about the same intellectual content. Thanks, Michael. I trust you. Hullihan.”)
I was smart enough not to interfere with Gil Cranberg, whose brilliance and far-ranging curiosity produced great editorial pages, and to put up with the antics of Don Kaul, whose columns infuriated or enlightened or just entertained. (Once, I came to work to find on my desk a steering wheel like the one from my car. “We have your car,” said a note. “We will return it piece by piece until you give Don Kaul a raise.”) I set up a little TV studio to do cable-TV updates — one of the first in the nation — and watched as a reporter threw up on screen.
I killed a great newspaper, The Des Moines Tribune, fought hard in a Pyrrhic victory to keep the Register from being subsumed into the Cowles-family-owned Minneapolis newspaper company, infuriated business leaders by printing their salaries (but we printed my own and publisher David Kruidenier’s, too), twice held out news stories at others’ requests — one of which I regret (the apparent arrest of a murderer, a story that turned out to be true and newsworthy) and one of which I don’t (a request from Jim Hubbell not to print the fact that his son and daughter-in-law, Fred and Charlotte Hubbell, were in grave danger being held on a hijacked plane in Syria).
I first went to work there in 1953, when I was 15, answering phones in the sports department, taking dictation from Sec Taylor and Bert McGrane and others, flying in small planes to football games to help photographers shooting for the Big Peach, and occasionally covering minor high-school sports or editing small stories. I was paid 75 cents an hour.
It was when I was in high school, too, that three pals and I decided it would sound really neat to throw a cherry bomb or two into the Register’s truck-loading bay on a busy Saturday night. And it did. It sounded like someone was blowing up a safe. That, at least, is what the police told us as they grabbed us running down the alley and took us to the stationhouse.
I had been hanging around in the sports department for several years, early on discovering that it was the most interesting place to wait for my dad to get off work. It was in the sports department where I got my sex education, starting when I would wander back there at age 11 or 12. A huge, free-standing bulletin board, with eight or 10 big sections that opened like a book, contained work schedules and other business matters on the outside. But open it up, and it got more and more interesting as you turned the big leaves. It was Playboy before Playboy, Penthouse before Penthouse, porn before the Internet. Pictures and drawings and jokes and double-entendres, most of which I didn’t get. It was far more interesting — and informative and accurate and explicit — than the “hygiene” course I had taken at Roosevelt Junior High. And the sportswriters didn’t spare any details of their escapades just because a kid was around.
In those days, the 1950s, the days before computers and the Internet and fax machines and Xeroxes, the sports department printed the scores of every high school game in the state, and it hired cadres of kids to take those scores over the phones every Friday night — and, on Saturdays, to answer the special line, CH(erry)3-2161, to give out scores of the college games to the hundreds of people, probably thousands, who would call in.
Boys being boys, we screwed around a lot in the office. Late one Friday, a few of us were playing a “baseball” game with yardsticks and one-inch-square erasers called ArtGum. We were boisterous, and finally it got to Brad Wilson, the Register’s prep writer, who was on the phone interviewing a coach. He screamed, “Shut up, you son of a bitch,” at one of us, and then quickly said into the phone, “Not you, coach!”
“Not you, coach” became a tag line in the department for the next 10 years.
It was in the sports department, too, where I learned a simple truth about baseball. One evening, after a Des Moines Bruins game, the umpires stopped by, waiting to go out and have a beer with the sportswriters. I had been at the game and seen an umpire kick out a player.
“What does a player have to say to get kicked out?” I asked. “Anything that ends in ‘you,’ ” he replied. And that’s pretty much the rule today.
The executive sports editor in those days was Leighton Housh, the slowest-moving able-bodied man in America. The sports writers would bet one another on how long it would take him to walk the short distance to the water fountain. The baseball writer was the great Bill Bryson — father of the equally great Bill Bryson the author, then a towhead known as Billy — and he and Housh had some long-standing disdain for one another. The solution was simple: Bryson never came into the office during daytime, and Housh never came in at night. Once friends, they never made up. I spoke at both their funerals.
(Bryson, an erudite man, invented a college team — the Agricola Aggies — and slipped the scores into the Sunday Register papers each fall for a few years. Apparently, no one ever noticed.)
It was in this building, too, that Look Magazine was founded. My dad, Carl Gartner, was one of the original staff of four, and it was a combination of today’s People and yesterday’s Playboy. The cover of the first issue, January 1937, shows a scantily clad young woman on a ladder-like device, facing the camera with legs spread and a sword at her neck. “Mystery Girl Can’t Be Killed!” says the caption. “She Hangs on a Sword Under Her Chin — and Isn’t Even Scratched.” Most readers weren’t concentrating on the sword. And across the top of the cover: “News…Movies…Thrills…Adventure…Romance…Sports”
Inside is a story headlined “When Is a Woman Actually a Woman…Today’s Chief Worry Among Athletic Officials.” That kind of stuff. The magazine moved to New York in the early 1940s, and my dad returned to his desk on the paper as the rotogravure editor.
Rotogravure? You can look it up.
Newsrooms are odd places. Two Tribune columnists, Gordon Gammack and Elizabeth Clarkson Zwart, an elegant woman known as Beanie, sat cheek by jowl for years without speaking to one another. My father said it traced back to a dispute about who was going to print a particular little item that both had come across.
The paper had the opposite of a nepotism policy. It was a family affair, with couples and their children all over the place. Jim and Pat Cooney, and at least one young Cooney; Harold and Dorothy Yeglin; Knox and Frances Craig, and a daughter and son-in-law; Frank Miller and his daughter, the amazingly talented Mindy; Carl and Lindy Voss, Bill and Mary Bryson. As well as various fleeting alliances.
Intraoffice romances flourished — sometimes for a night, sometimes for a lifetime — and everyone knew (the room was full of reporters, after all) but no one seemed to mind. An editor was married to the former wife of a photographer, and editor and photographer worked together daily. One afternoon in the 1930s my father slipped across the street to catch a movie at the Orpheum, then on 8th Street. Afterward, when the lights came up, he turned around — and there sitting behind him was another reporter, Lois Thornburg, who had slipped out with the man who owned the paper, Mike Cowles. She later became the first or second of his many wives, settling in on Park Avenue in New York, where she became active in civil-rights issues, and writing funny letters to my dad late into both their lives.
Jim Flansburg didn’t try to strangle a sports-writer named Jim Moackler in the newsroom — it was on a chartered bus taking folks home from Msgr. Joseph Tolan’s annual party in western Iowa — but it became newsroom lore. The next day, apparently, Flansburg quit drinking.
When I returned as executive editor in 1974, Flansburg was one of the first to greet me. He and my older brother had been friends, so I had long known him. “Welcome back,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you that if there’s ever anyone in town you want to get, let me know. I’ll get him.” I was stunned. “You know we don’t do that kind of stuff,” I said. “I know,” he replied, “but I just want you to know the offer is on the table.” Sadly, Flansburg, brilliant in his knowledge of Iowa politics and fearsome to young reporters, now sits with few memories of the newsroom or much of anything else.
There was no security at 715 Locust Street in the 1970s and 1980s, and there always seemed to be nutty people or politicians — or nutty politicians — wandering through. Neal Smith was almost a Saturday-night regular, dropping in unannounced just seemingly to chat. Professor Bill Murray, papers falling out of his rumpled tweed sportcoat, wandered in one day to ask: “Is it okay with you if the Pope comes to Living History Farms?” Sure, I said with a laugh, asking how he was going to accomplish that. “I know a guy who knows the Pope,” he said. Two years later, the Pope was there.
Josef Mossman, the original Grumpy Gourmet, would appear in the newsroom sporadically, often dropping off a note or two. “Everybody I know who goes to hospital has a cat scan,” said one note. “I think maybe I had one once. But I still don’t know what a cat scan is. I thought of phoning Methodist Hospital and asking what’s a cat scan. But didn’t for fear of spoiling my fantasy of them replying ‘It all depends; there’s more than one way to scan a cat.’ ” And another time: “There are days when I can hardly tell a tmesis from an epenthesis. Do you ever have days like that?”
It was in the newsroom when a wizened old editor one night noted that in his life he had never played tennis, been to Missouri, or had oral sex. As the story goes, some young women in the newsroom heard that — and got together to buy him a tennis racket and a bus ticket to Missouri. For 40 years it has been too good a story to check out.
It was in the newsroom, too, where in the early 1970s a brash and strapping teen-aged copy girl went up to a short and dapper 70-hear-old writer and asked how long he had worked there. “About 40 years,” he told her. “In all those 40 years,” she said, “has anyone ever picked you up and given you a great big hug right here in the newsroom?” “Why, no,” he said. “Then let me be the first.” She picked him off the ground and gave him a bear hug. The girl was Barbara Mack. The man was my father. Neither ever forgot it.
And it was Barbara Mack who, seeing a Hollywood-handsome man come into the newsroom, asked who he was. That’s Kenneth MacDonald, the editor, she was told. She knew that MacDonald was beloved and had god-like status in the building. So she marched up to him and said, “Hello, God.” He was, he told me later, amused and bemused. She went on to become a first-rate reporter and, ultimately, a lawyer for the company before switching to become a professor at Iowa State, where she became as beloved in the classroom as MacDonald was in the newsroom.
MacDonald was the exception to an old adage — actually, I made it up — that “you show me a beloved editor, I’ll show you a crappy newspaper.” He was a lovely man who set the tone of the newspaper for decades, who schooled David Kruidenier — who became his boss — in the ways and wonders of news people and the greatness of the First Amendment. Unfailingly courteous to all, he was also unfailingly tough in defending the journalism of the Register and Tribune against irate advertisers or offended readers. Kruidenier didn’t miss a beat in carrying on that toughness.
But Kruidenier didn’t like to see his own name in the newspapers. Once, he was mentioned, and it noted he lived in “posh” Southern Hills. He sent a sharp note. Southern Hills was not posh, he said. Later, someone was referred to as “old” at 65. He sent another sharp note. Sixty-five is not old, he said. Finally, I put in a new policy: No neighborhood could be called posh if a publisher lived in it. No one could be called old unless he was at least 10 years older than the publisher. No more notes.
Technology brought great changes to newspapering in the 1970s and 1980s, eliminating the jobs of many craftsmen (almost always men) with great skills. One of those was Tom Kollings, a stereotyper who had been my older next door neighbor growing up on 40th Street. Tom was handsome, smart and a fine athlete, and he could have gone to almost any college. But his dad, Leonard, was a stereotyper, and he told Tom that if he’d join the stereotypers’ union he’d be set for life, that college was a waste.
So Tom joined. I knew he was about to lose his job, and he suspected it as well. One evening I went to the stereotype department and found him. “Tom,” I said, “do you ever regret not letting me play with the big boys when I was a little kid?” He knew I could find him work in the building. “Every day!” he said. “Every day for the last 30 years!”
I told him to keep his head down, and eventually he wound up as the very talented outdoor writer for the Register, where he filled the newsroom with the greatest laugh in the state. The stereotypers and the engravers and the printers all were driven out of jobs by the changes in technology, and then, when Gannett bought the papers, the presses were quieted as printing was moved to a big modern plant by the airport. Now, the rest of the workers are getting ready to leave, too, to move a few blocks east to a floor in Capital Square.
Sadly, the paper has been throwing out decades of clippings and photos that once filled rows and rows of files in the newspaper’s library. Finding what you were looking for, of course, was always a challenge. For years, the librarian was a man named Bob Doyle, a nice man who knew nothing about filing. Once, my father was looking for some pictures from World War I. He found a drawer labeled “WAR” and looked inside. There, amidst pictures of bodies and bombers, was a picture of some pigs? “Why are these here,” he asked Doyle. “They’re WARren County pigs,” he replied matter-of-factly.
In all likelihood, the new newsroom will have the organized layout of an insurance office, the steady hum of a law firm, the absent smells of a banking floor. There will still be fine reporters and editors doing fine work, of course, but those who are hired anew in coming years will never know what they never saw — the sights and sounds, the greatness and goofiness, the clatter and clutter of a newsroom.
The Locust Street building, like the newspaper itself, was built and lovingly tended by the Cowles family — the original Gardner Cowles, his son Mike, and then his grandson David Kruidenier. Gardner Cowles would go through the newsroom turning off lights over empty desks, my father told me. Mike Cowles would send notes and ideas to editors. David Kruidenier would come back from lunch and immediately call down with the latest news from The Des Moines Club. If the people dining there knew something, he figured, the readers of the newspapers should know it, too. He couldn’t or wouldn’t, keep a secret. The family loved their newspaper above all else.
After the papers were sold, in 1985, he kept his old office on the ninth floor, which otherwise was empty. In the 1990s, I resumed having lunch periodically with him. Once, I stopped by to pick him up and saw that the building had been evacuated. There was some sort of an emergency, apparently, and everyone was milling around outside. I looked all over for him, but could find him nowhere. I asked, but no one recalled seeing him. Eventually, long after the emergency, he came out of the building, hanging on the arm of, as I recall, a janitor who had guided him down the nine flights of steps.
Blind and alone, he had been in his office. Everyone had forgotten about him. CV