Tim Woodward: How a nonrestaurant served great memories

The quirks, characters and chaos of an old Idaho Statesman newsroom dwell in the silence of its new inhabitants.

Idaho StatesmanJune 9, 2013 

One of my daughters recently gave me a tip on a great new restaurant in one of the old Statesman buildings. We miscommunicated on which building it was, but that was OK. The memories waiting for me at the wrong building were worth the confusion.

"Do you mean the white marble building at Sixth and Bannock? I asked her.

"Yeah … I think that's the one."

That was the building where I cut my teeth as a rookie reporter in the 1970s. It was converted to offices after the Statesman sold it. The prospect of dining in my onetime haunts was intriguing enough that a few days after my daughter recommended it I made a point of going there for lunch.

It was clear without even getting out of the car, though, that my daughter had been mistaken about the Bannock Street location. There was no sign of the restaurant she'd recommended, which turned out to be in an even older Statesman building at Sixth and Main. But as long as I was in the neighborhood. …

Expecting to be confronted by a receptionist, secretary or security guard, I stepped inside.

No one. Not a soul anywhere.

Offices occupied what had been the newspaper's bustling lobby. Where a gaggle of busy advertising and circulation workers once served customers, closed doors blocked access to quiet spaces. A sign on the door to what once was the inner sanctum of legendary publishers Jim Brown and Margaret Ailshie identified it as the current quarters of the Idaho Department of Lands. The department also had taken over the onetime pressroom, where pedestrians on the Sixth Street sidewalk used to be able to peer through windows and watch the paper being printed.

I stopped, listened. Not a sound.

Then, "Hey, Woodward. Get on and we'll ride up together."

It was the jumbo-sized ghost of Jim Poore beckoning from the elevator, as he'd done the morning I reported for work for the very first time. Then the paper's star sportswriter, he armed me with tips for nervous rookies as we rode upstairs to the newsroom. By the time we got there, I felt as if I'd known him for years. We were friends for the rest of his life.

The elevator door opened on a hallway with an entrance to offices. A young man, presumably a receptionist, sat at a desk beneath a sign with the name of a law firm. No one else was in sight.

"May I help you?" he asked.

"No, thanks. I'm about 40 years late."

What a difference. The elevator in those days opened on a scene of modified chaos - clattering teletypes, bells ringing when a big story came in on the wire, reporters, editors and copy boys scurrying everywhere in the daily rush to meet the deadlines.

The managing editor's office was a sharp left from the elevator. I could almost see brooding Dick Hronek, poring over budget papers on the cluttered desk behind his closed door. Our first meeting was where I made my first rookie mistake. He'd paused after offering me a job as a bureau reporter and telling me what it paid. The old timers later told me that the pause was my chance to protest the low salary. If I had, they said, I'd have gotten another 10 bucks a week.

The man was a fine journalist, but he wasn't a people person. He could squeeze a budget until it bled. Only with reluctance did he comply with a newsroom custom of ordering food for those who had to work late on election nights. When a type setter wandered into the newsroom one election night and helped himself to a sandwich, the penurious editor ran - not walked - after him, snatched the partially eaten sandwich out of his hand and shouted, "You can't have that! That's a newsroom sandwich!"

I could almost see Hronek at his desk, sharpening his budget pencils.

A few yards away was John Corlett, long known throughout the state as the "dean of Idaho political reporters." Always dapper in a suit and tie, he covered every national political convention for decades until Mr. Brown, as the publisher was universally called, broke his streak for reasons now lost in time. Corlett was not happy about it.

A few weeks later, Brown suggested they take a stroll together. This was in the days when all of Boise's car dealerships were downtown.

"Which one do you like best?" Brown asked as they admired the new models in a showroom window.

"That one there," Corlett replied.

"It's yours. I know you were upset that I didn't let you go to the convention, and this is my way of making it up to you."

So, just like that, John had the new car of his dreams. In some ways, the good old days were.

It's a safe bet that few if any of the lawyers who work in what then was the Statesman's newsroom have ever heard of Brown, Corlett, Poore and other onetime pillars of the newspaper's past. If I closed my eyes, I could see their faces:

• Walter Johnson, the epitome of the old-time newspaper editor - rumpled shirt, bow tie, green eyeshade. Universally liked, he was wise and kind, the perfect mentor for a green kid who had a lot to learn about being a reporter before getting a shot at writing a column.

• Betty Penson, the closest thing the newsroom had to an aristocrat. She was the editor of the "women's section." Her byline: a drawing of a bee, a pen and the sun: B. Penson. Known (but not to her face) as the Queen Bee, she was not a woman to be crossed.

• Bob Lorimer, the columnist's columnist. His "Boiseana" column was easily one of the best-read things in the paper. I still remember the way one of his columns began:

"I woke up this morning to the sound of snow falling.

"Oh, yes you can." From there he went on to explain, as only he could, what falling snow sounds like.

The old newsroom wasn't much to look at - cramped and chaotic, a patina of age and grime on just about everything, a clutter of desks arranged in a way that would only make sense in a newsroom. Every desk had a typewriter, a mountain of books and papers, a gluepot and a box of soft lead pencils. When you finished a story, you glued the pages together end to end to form a continuous sheet anywhere from one to eight or 10 feet long and carried it to your editor, who marked the pages, skewered them onto a desktop spike and shouted "copy," whereupon a copy boy would obligingly materialize and rush them to the copy desk.

The copy desk was a circular affair with a cast of editors who were nothing if not colorful. One night two of them got into a rousing fistfight. When it ended, they got into a second fight over which one could fire the other for breaking the company's ban on striking editors. (Apparently you could strike all the reporters you wanted.)

The place may have been old and run down, but it was also bustling, vibrant, teeming with noise and life. Seeing it again reminded me of how lucky I was to have worked in what was, if not the golden age, certainly a golden age of journalism. Walking the old building's stairs and hallways a career later, the thing that struck me most was the almost total absence of sound. There had to be people working behind all those closed doors, but they were unseen, unheard. Compared with the controlled chaos I remembered, it was eerie.

It was good to see some of my departed colleagues and spend time in the old haunts again.

But the silence was unnerving. I think I'd have liked it better if it had been a busy restaurant.

© 2013 Idaho Statesman

Tim Woodward's column appears every other Sunday in the Life section and is posted on his blog, www.woodwardblog.com, the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@ hotmail.com.

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