On a sunny June day in 1969 I climbed the steps of the Kansas City Star building, passed the bronze relief portrait of founder William Rockhill Nelson that still watches over the front door, and began my career as a newspaperman.
Actually it was only a summer internship, but those three months at The Star provided a crash course in practical journalism, allowed me to show what I could do and paved the way for a full-time gig when I graduated from college a year later.
Up in the second floor newsroom I reported to Don T. Jones, the daytime assignment editor of The Times, then The Star’s morning edition (the two papers merged many years ago).
Don T., as he was universally known, is best described as a chain-smoking bantam rooster. He was very short and trim, had leathery skin (the result of weekends spent on his boat down at the Lake of the Ozarks) and early on provided me with a bit of dubious advice I’ve never forgotten:
“Kid, don’t go verifying yourself out of a good story.”
Anyway, on this my first day at The Star, Don T. introduced himself and announced that I would spend the next eight hours “cruising.”
Back then the word “cruising” didn’t have the sexual connotations it does today, but it still puzzled me.
What, I asked, was cruising?
Don T. explained that I would be paired with one of the staff photographers. We’d drive around town in the photographer’s car, which was equipped with a two-way radio that would allow us to communicate with the city desk (this was way before cell phones).
Don T. would monitor the police radio and direct us to whatever hot spot was generating news. It might be a fire, a car wreck, a robbery or shooting…any newsy event that might end up on the pages of the morning paper.
I was introduced to Les (not his real name), a photographer maybe 10 years my senior although his hair and moustache already were a premature silver (the result of genetics or hard living I was never able to figure out). We loaded up in Les’ car and headed south, making idle chitchat — at least until he parked on the street in front of a three-story red brick apartment building a block north of the Nelson Art Gallery.
“Here’s the deal,” he announced. “I’m going to visit my girlfriend in that building. You stay here and listen to the radio.
“If the city desk calls, tell them we’re getting gas at the 7-Eleven over on Main Street and that I’m in the bathroom.
“Then you go inside and knock on the door to apartment 3B. Got it?”
So here I was, first day on the job, 20 years old, sitting in a car on a shady street while my journalistic colleague — whom I soon learned was married — dallied with his current squeeze.
“Goddam,” I thought to myself. “Working for a newspaper is going to be fun.”
And for 40 years it was.
| Robert W. Butler