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The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer

Chapter 17

IT WAS NOW 1926, and I was faced with the greatest crisis of my life.

The day Victor Morgan had hired me, eleven years before, as a $15 a week reporter for The Press, he asked me, "What are you shooting for in this business?"

"Your job," I answered.

He looked startled. I thought he might bounce me out on my ear.

"I hope you get it," he said.

To that purpose I dedicated myself.

For eleven years I had made the paper my principal interest. Long and irregular hours, hard work, difficult assignments -- none of them mattered. I had thrown myself into my job almost to the exclusion of all else.

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My family life had suffered, and I knew it. Marion knew it too, but she was willing to make her own sacrifices to help me accomplish my objectives. Our two children saw very little of their father at a time when they should have seen him most.

In those eleven years it had been my good fortune to do almost everything anyone is ever called upon to do in the editorial department of a paper -- from cub reporter to every beat, every desk, every kind of assignment. At nineteen I had felt myself too inexperienced to be City Editor, and had asked to be relieved of that responsibility; now, at twenty-nine, I felt equally convinced that I was qualified for the top job on the paper.

But I didn't get it. Someone else did.

I was sitting at my desk just outside the Editor's office when the word came. I was so stunned that the editorial half-finished on my typewriter was blurred. I couldn't finish it.

My first act, of course, was to seek out Ted Thackrey, who had received the appointment to be the new Editor of The Press, and congratulate him. He knew how much I wanted the job he now was to fill.

"I hope there are no hard feelings," he said.

"None at all, Ted," I said.

"We'll work together," Ted said, putting his arm around my shoulder.

I walked back to my desk. Before me was the most important decision of my life. Only six months before I had declined the editorship of a big paper outside of Cleveland. Marion and I not only loved Cleveland, but we loved The Press -- and we loved both in the way

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our kindly friend, William Allen White, of Emporia, Kansas, loved his little town and the newspaper which had become the national mirror of himself.

Many people believed, when Earle Martin abruptly left the Editorship of The Press, that I would logically succeed to his place. I was one of them. Ted Thackrey was Managing Editor of the paper, and I was its chief editorial writer, carrying the title of Associate Editor. It was generally assumed around the office while Earle Martin was Editor that I was second-in-command. Martin himself had assumed it.

In the two months' interim, during which the owners of the paper deliberated upon their choice, I was congratulated on all hands as the paper's new Editor. I did my best to scotch the rumor, deplored and ridiculed the idea, pointing out that, as the immortal Scotsman said, there is many a slip between cup and lip. In my heart, though, I had believed it would happen, and I was bitterly disappointed.

I went out of the office and walked along the street paralleling Lake Erie. I stopped at Nick's hat-cleaning and shoe-shining place, a favorite spot.

"I congratulate you, Louie," said Nick. "You the new Editor -- I hear."

"No, Nick," I said. "I'm not the new Editor. Mr. Thackrey is the new Editor."

Nick's greeting was a foretaste of what I was to get all over the town in varied ways.

Information travels fast. I wanted to tell Marion before someone else did, and I went back to the office to telephone her. What words could I use to reassure her

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when I felt that I had just failed the biggest opportunity of my life? I called, but when she answered, I sat at my desk with the telephone open at the other end, not saying a word.

Marion's instinct for divining things had always astounded me, and now her voice came into the receiver:

"I know, Louis. Keep your chin up now. Worse things could happen to us. We'll make out all right."

She had been more practical about it, all along, than I, warning me not to build my hopes too high.

That night I found sleep difficult for the first time in many years. I went to The Press the next morning trying to put everything aside and concentrate entirely upon my work, but it was not easy.

In midmorning I received a telephone call. It was from Earle Martin, whose abrupt resignation as Editor had opened up the post now filled by Ted Thackrey.

"Can you have lunch with me today?" he asked.

Earle Martin had been a good boss, and I had worked hard for him. He was a great newspaper editor, resourceful, enterprising, and fair. I liked him.

Toward the end of the lunch, Martin, who was now publisher of The Cleveland Times, said, "I want you to come to The Times. I believe you would make the ideal Editor for our paper, and the people who own it think so too. We will pay you fifty per cent more than you are now being paid at The Press." And then he smiled, saying, "Of course, I know what you are making there -- I signed the pay roll, remember?"

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I asked Earle Martin to give me an opportunity to think it over.

"Take your time about it, Louie -- only be sure you make the right decision," Earle Martin said. "This is really a big opportunity for you."

That afternoon I had a call from O. P. Van Sweringen who urged me to accept the offer from The Times. That night I talked it over with Marion, as I have always discussed every important decision with her. My mind was deeply troubled -- but hers was clear.

"They are both wonderful friends," she said, when I told her about the offer from Earle Martin and the advice I had had from Van Sweringen. "But that isn't the question. The real question is whether we are going to run away from something. The Press has been good to us. They gave you your first real opportunity. Simply because you didn't get the Editorship right now when you thought it should come to you -- and I thought so too -- isn't reason enough to turn our backs on everything we've built up. You wouldn't be happy anywhere else. Your heart is in Cleveland and your heart is with The Press. I think our course is pretty clear, don't you?"

I did. The next morning I refused Earle Martin's offer, and I felt better. The decision had been made. I went back to work, my faith in The Press as a great, independent, courageous newspaper unaltered.

I was on a street corner several days later, waiting for a traffic light to turn, when I felt a light hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw Newton D. Baker. He was a small man, even slighter than I. He knew my great respect for him, for many times we had talked together

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-- or, rather, it would be more accurate to say Mr. Baker talked and I listened.

He asked me to stop in and see him, and that same afternoon I went up to the top floor of the building where he had his big law offices.

"Louie, I want to be direct," he said. "I want to talk with you about what has happened. I know it was a severe blow, but in the long run it will be good for you. Blessings frequently come disguised as adversities. It's a good thing occasionally to have your pride hurt, to be set back in something you want very much to accomplish, to be required to strengthen yourself, to make yourself better for the future."

I knew Newton D. Baker spoke from experience.

We talked for a long time about many things, but those were the words that I both appreciated and remembered.

"It will turn out for the best," Marion had repeatedly said. "You wait and see." And the next two years were for us, by the disguised blessing to which Mr. Baker had so wisely referred, the happiest up to that time we had ever enjoyed.

"The more we think of others," was another of Marion's favorite sayings, "the less time we have to think of ourselves." And she set me a constant example in courage, naturalness, humility, and compassion for others.

Long before this, Marion had begun to interest herself in welfare and civic work. She loved people. Any sick person in the neighborhood found Marion at the bedside. Her warm concern for others became first a

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neighborhood legend, and then, as those things happen, spread out around the city itself. One organization after another invited her to become interested.

Over the years, almost every women's organization in the community has seen her active in some capacity -- and in World War II she worked into the small hours of the night, not for months but for years, helping to form a large group of women who supplied urgently needed personnel in hospitals, hotels, restaurants, offices, and other places. She has shown an astonishing ability to keep her home in meticulous order, take care of our children, and still make herself available for worthwhile obligations elsewhere.

I was happy to see her undertake these responsibilities.

From the time I had been a small boy it seemed to me that women ought to live more in the same world as men. My mother had devoted herself to her family to the exclusion of other interests. Father and his old cronies, as they sat around on our postage-stamp lawn on summer nights, used to debate, among other things, woman's place in the scheme of things. "Woman's place is in the home, tending to her children and her husband," they would say. Even as a small boy, not quite knowing why, I felt anger and resentment at their intolerance.

I didn't challenge Father then, but in later years we talked much about it. He eventually altered his opinion to some extent, but he lived too soon to vary his basic position.

Perhaps it was my intense feeling about my mother

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and my wife that prompted me as an editor to fight vigorously for women's rights and their causes over the years. I have never overlooked a chance to do so.

I had seen too many homes in which husbands went off to work in the morning, lived in their work world, and returned home at night with no bond of interest for the wives who had remained within the four walls of the house all day. I never wanted to see Marion, either by design or unwittingly, shunted off into another world of interests. I wanted her to be in the world where I lived -- and where I felt she, too, belonged.

At the office, under Thackrey's Editorship, I continued to express myself candidly, backing away from no one on what I believed. This put me at cross purposes many times with him. He agreed with me sometimes; sometimes he insisted on his own position. But even when I disagreed with him, I respected his courage, and we got along all right. After a time I became editorially so engrossed in certain big issues that my own interests and concerns were completely subordinated, and oftener than not forgotten.

Presidential politics became the big question. It was now 1928, and the big conventions were about to be held.

The first was in Houston, Texas, where the Democrats were once again faced with the question of nominating Al Smith. He had failed to get the nomination in 1924, when Ed Moore paid off his poker bet to me with the John W. Davis scoop. Davis had been severely licked. Now the Democrats appeared to be leaning toward Smith.

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Houston, like New York four years previously, was hot. The convention this time, however, was held in a large tent. There was more air, a smaller crowd, less noise; and it was far more comfortable.

We had been there two days. This was the night that Franklin D. Roosevelt was to put A1 Smith's name before the convention, and coin the phrase, "The Happy Warrior." The convention was excited. The press section was crowded. John H. Sorrells, who had been Managing Editor of The Cleveland Press for several years, and was one of my closest friends, was sitting on one side of me, and Marion on the other.

I was writing a story for the next day's paper, when I felt the pine table upon which I was typing out my story creak under a weight. I looked up.

Bending down toward me was Roy W. Howard, head of The Scripps-Howard Newspapers, owners of The Cleveland Press. The world-famous editor leaned close to me and, in what he intended to be a low whisper so that no one would hear, said, "Louie, I want you to come back by way of New York to see me. You are now Editor of The Cleveland Press."

Both Marion and John Sorrells had heard him, and I was instantly congratulated from both sides. I don't believe I even thanked Roy Howard for the appointment. Many things flew in a rush through my mind -- especially my decision to stay with The Press for my own sake as well as the paper's, which was now so completely vindicated.

In New York, Roy Howard formally turned over The Press Editorship to me. He said simply, and with

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his characteristic emphasis, "It is your paper. Upon what you do with it, you rise or fall. Good luck!" He made no reference to the fact that I had been jumped over on the previous occasion. I respected him for that, as I have respected Roy and the Scripps family throughout my whole association with the Scripps-Howard Newspapers.

The Cleveland Press is the original of these newspapers. It was founded almost eighty years ago by E. W. Scripps, starting out as a militant and independent newspaper -- The Penny Press. It has always been a militant and independent newspaper, owing allegiance to no one except the readers who buy it. From it grew the entire journalistic enterprise now known as Scripps-Howard Newspapers, and which also includes The United Press Associations, a world-wide news-gathering agency; Science Service, endowed by the concern's founder; and Newspaper Enterprise Association, which supplies features and editorial material to hundreds of newspapers and to radio and television stations.

My only contact with the paper's founder took place when I was a cub reporter, soon after Victor Morgan hired me. There was a big fire, and I rushed out of the office to cover it. As I came hurtling through the door, I bumped squarely into the protruding stomach of a large man. He grabbed me by both arms, harumphed, and said, "Young man what's your hurry?"

I was impatient. I had a story to cover. I said, "Let me go -- I'm going to a fire."

He released me. Later, when I returned to the office, I learned to my momentary discomfiture that the

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stranger with whom I had so unceremoniously collided was E. W. Scripps, the paper's owner. He had told Editor Morgan about it, and asked to see me.

"Young man, I admire the way you didn't let anybody interfere with your work," he said, emphasizing his approval with a robust whack on the back.

In a measure greater than any other newspaper organization in America, the Scripps-Howard concern has traditionally accorded independent judgment to its individual editors. I was to make use of this latitude in the future, not infrequently to the acute distress of Roy Howard and others in the ownership and management of the papers. Their unswerving support, even when I am sure they believed me to be wrong, is one of the most gratifying aspects of my approximately forty years with Scripps-Howard.

My feet and mind had wings as I left Roy Howard's office. New York took on a new aura. Its skyscrapers, its parks, its teeming streets, its noise and confusion, suddenly became beautiful.

Marion and I walked up Fifth Avenue hand in hand like a pair of children. We talked and dreamed and planned, and looked forward to a future filled with excitement and challenge. As usual, she brought us both back to reality.

"It's going to be a big job, and it's going to take everything you've got," she said. "We're going to have to alter our way of living. The demands will be so much greater on you, and we'll have to do a lot of

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thinking about how we're going to manage ourselves as well as the business problems ahead."

It was a sobering thought, and I came abruptly out of the clouds.

Train time approached, and we headed back for Cleveland. Two weeks before I had left home as a combination political editor and editorial writer. Now everything was different.

Usually I slept well on trains -- or anywhere, for that matter -- but that night I tossed around the whole way. I wanted to get out and push the train faster. I wanted to get to work.

When morning came, and the train roared into the huge Cleveland Terminal, something hit me. All night I had wanted to get back home in a hurry. Now that I was here, I felt the challenge of my home town. Here I had to make good, or here I would be a failure.

Marion sensed what was going through my mind. She said, "We're home and we're going to make it go, aren't we?"

Somehow that was all I needed.

I headed for the office, and climbed the steps to the top floor. It was my thought to slip quietly to my old desk, get out my few belongings, and shift them into the Editor's desk without being seen.

When I opened the door leading into the Editorial Department, a loud burst of shouting greeted me. Everybody in the office seemed to be gathered there. They had put up some signs, and I was hit in the eye by one which read: "Try this on for size, Louie."

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It was a small boy's cap. The point was clear. The folks around the office had plenty of ways to deflate any inclination toward cranial expansion.

We were all mostly young, and we had worked together for a long time. In a newspaper office nobody gets started very far down the path toward taking himself too seriously. There are many artful methods for cutting down to size.

After the unexpected mass welcome, I finally made my way to the office. Everybody had gone back to work, and I was alone.

In that solitude I thought of many things in a very few moments. Try as I would to put my mind on other things, images of people and situations tumbled around in my mind -- people who had helped me -- people to whom I was everlastingly indebted -- people who over a long period of years had been good and kind and thoughtful.

The phone on my desk rang. It was Ray Huber, the Business Manager. Ray was a brusque man, but most of his brusqueness was pretense.

"Get to work," he called into the phone in mock severity. "Let's go!"

That brought me out of it. I went to work, and by the end of that first day I was completely exhausted. I had been on the phone most of the day. Problems came at me from every direction. People by the dozens came into the office.

One of the phone calls I had that day was from my friend, Newton D. Baker. Vividly I recalled that other occasion, when I had failed to receive the Editorship,

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and Mr. Baker had given me sound counsel that helped to lift my flagging spirit. I found time, as soon as I could, to go to see him.

After all these years, I cannot, naturally, remember Mr. Baker's exact words. But this is the gist of what he had to say -- and I have never forgotten it:


Louie, you and I had a nice talk when things looked bad for you a couple years ago. Now that things have looked up, I want to say some other things to you.

A lot of people who haven't noticed you in the past are going to seek you out. They are going to make over you, flatter you, make you feel important. That, as you well know, is the way of the world. Many people gravitate toward position and power. They like to be identified with it.

You managed to ride out a bad storm. It took a lot of courage, and you kept your sense of balance. You are faced with a different problem now. It also calls for keeping your feet on solid earth. If you take yourself too seriously, if you let people flatter you into believing you are a big shot, you are going to sacrifice the most precious thing in life -- modesty, humility, naturalness.

It is well to remember that most people will be around looking for you because you are now the Editor of a big and influential newspaper. Suppose, however, you were suddenly to leave that job. How many people do you think would run after you when you walked down the street? Very few. Perhaps, none.Always avoid confusing yourself with the office you happen to occupy. This will enable you to make better judgments of things and people, for one thing, and, what is even more important, to look at yourself in the proper proportions -- uninflated, natural proportions. The decisions an Editor makes, the appraisals of people and issues he assumes to make, and the influence his paper exerts can only be as natural, as sound, as logical as he permits himself to be.

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Between this counsel of Mr. Baker's, and the expert deflationary skills of my wife, who always kept me up when I was down and down when I had a tendency to soar up, my approach to the new world in which I was from now on to move was a relaxed one. I have never ceased being indebted to both.

When I got home that night my family had another surprise for me. It was not my birthday, of course, but they had all joined in baking a cake for me. It had part of Page One of The Cleveland Press on it -- and what passed for a picture of the man who lived there. I never enjoyed a party more in my whole life.