The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer
WHEN I WAS a cub police reporter for The Leader, my boss was "Old" Bob Larkin. No drill sergeant ever cussed more colorfully than Bob Larkin, and no sergeant ever got better or quicker results. He never went to college, but he was one of the best journalism "professors" I ever knew.
Old Bob was a cantankerous, scowling, pipe-smoking, spirit-breaking taskmaster. He redeemed himself by doing more than he asked of others and working, if anything, twice as hard as anybody else. He made the entire West Side my "beat." I was held responsible for everything that happened, as he put it, "west of the river" -- the river being the Cuyahoga, whose winding channel splits Greater Cleveland almost in the very center. I had to cover five police stations and an equal
number of fire headquarters, and anything I missed was directly my responsibility.
It was Old Bob's idea that we should walk the "beat," which for me, in the course of a single night, represented about fifteen miles. This had to be done between eight P.M. when I came on duty and four A.M. when the morning deadline made useless any further coverage. Old Bob insisted that we also stop at drugstores, confectionery shops, saloons, and other places between police and fire stations.
"Do that every night and you get to know everybody on the West Side, what they're doing and what they're thinking, and you develop a lot of news sources," he said, in giving me my original instructions.
"And I want you to call me frequently during the night. I want to know where you are, and how fast I can get to you. I'll have all the telephone numbers right here." He pointed to a beat-up index box he kept at hand on a ledge.
At first, I rebelled inwardly at working for Old Bob. He was curt, even rude and cutting, in his remarks when we failed to get all the facts on a given story.
"That the best you can do?" he snarled. "How about these questions?"
In rapid-fire order he would ask a dozen questions which I had overlooked.
"Get back, and get the answers," he ordered.
He also demanded politeness from his young reporters.
"Yes, sir," I replied, very politely.
I went back, and got the information he wanted.
"That will teach you for the next time," he said. "Get it the first time, and you won't have to go back."
After a while I got to know just what Old Bob wanted -- he wanted everything. Just when you thought you had everything, he thought of something else. He never seemed satisfied.
But his method worked. The fear of his disapproval was far stronger than any inclination to take the easy way out.
Old Bob was the fiercest competitor I ever knew in our business, and, when eventually one got to know him, the most lovable character. He never spoke to reporters for other papers. He ignored them entirely.
His paper came first, and there wasn't even a close second to it. He lived and breathed for the paper. Anybody who let it down was worse in Old Bob's book than Benedict Arnold ever dared to be.
For a large part of each evening Old Bob would be on the telephone, calling the "rounds." This was the process of meticulously telephoning every standard news source both in the city and around its principal suburbs. It was a tedious task, but Old Bob insisted upon keeping up this nightly telephone contact himself.
This was done from his "office" on the second floor of the antiquated Champlain Avenue Police Headquarters -- an absurdly small and dark cubicle which once had been an old elevator shaft. His equipment consisted of a single chair without a back, three tele-
phones, and a whole array of boxes in which were phone numbers, clippings, and assorted information that he considered indispensable to his job as Chief Police Reporter for The Leader.
Woe betide a competitor's reporter if he dared loiter within hearing distance of Old Bob. There was a drinking fountain about twenty feet from his elevator-shaft office, the only place on the whole floor where a drink of water could be obtained. But let an opposition reporter bend over for an extra minute to take on a refreshing supply of water, and Old Bob was out of his office, telephone dangling at his "desk," chasing the opposition reporter belligerently. If the competitor didn't take off fast enough, he was helped along in whatever way hands or feet deemed most appropriate.
"Get out of here, and stay out of here," Old Bob would shout.
Among newspaper reporters a practice called "syndicating" was then common -- and today, regrettably, still exists. It is simply the pooling of information among reporters from different papers to render their respective jobs that much easier, and to protect one another against getting "scooped."
Old Bob was instant death on anyone he caught "syndicating." The guilty reporter was fired on the spot. To trip up a reporter under him (or on some other paper) who was suspected of "syndicating" or of benefiting from the unworthy practice, he set up elaborate plans for detection.
On one occasion in particular he put into an unsealed
envelope a story about a shooting scrape, complete with names, addresses, occupations, police officers' names, and all the essential facts for a comprehensive story. The story was a complete fake, and Old Bob arranged with his own office that it was to be ignored completely when it came in.
The young reporter who was charged with getting the unsealed envelope to The Leader office -- an errand he performed several times each night -- somehow was "intercepted" by an opposition representative. The next morning the story appeared in the opposition newspaper, much to Old Bob's gratification, and not, of course, in his own paper, The Leader. He fired the young reporter and, outlining the exact detail of his plot, warned that anybody who made the same mistake would receive the same medicine.
Old Bob likewise was fastidious about facts. He never tolerated a misstatement, an inaccuracy in name or address or any other essential of a story.
"It's up to us to get it right, and by God we're going to get it right, no matter what we have to do to accomplish it," he would say, over and over again.
No young reporter could have had a more severe or more difficult superior for whom to work. By the same token no young reporter could have had a more graphic lesson in the underlying thoroughness and integrity of his business.
I am not alone in expressing the belief that Old Bob Larkin was the best teacher of journalism -- practical journalism -- that the Middle West ever had. There
are, all through American journalism today -- from New York to San Francisco, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf -- men in key positions on newspapers whose dedication to their profession came from the example set by the rugged old police reporter, Bob Larkin.
His steel-rimmed spectacles were always dirty even though he never appeared to take them off, or rub his stubby fingers across them. He kept his evil- smelling pipe in his mouth constantly, and when he talked he sprayed his words at anybody within a few feet. He never saw much that was funny about life, but sympathized quickly under his frigid facade with those who were genuinely in trouble or suddenly confronted with tragedy.
He had an uncanny ability to distinguish the legitimate from the phony, and was impatient with those who tried to soft-soap him, whether in his own business or outside. There wasn't a cop or a fireman who didn't swear by Old Bob Larkin even at the very moment he might be swearing at him.
In many respects he was an eccentric. A beat-up motorcycle was his only means of travel. He wouldn't ride in a streetcar, and certainly not in an automobile. He was penurious about the company's money, and prudent about his own. He never told a lie that any man who ever worked with him or for him detected. We all thought he was utterly incapable of untruth or dishonesty.
Several years later, when I was working for The Cleveland Press, and assumed some executive respon-
sibility, the first thing I did was to prevail upon the Editor to hire Old Bob Larkin.
"Why, he's an old man," the Editor said. "He wouldn't work out for us. He's almost through."
I urged strongly nevertheless that we hire him, pointing out that nobody in our business knew as much about Cleveland, its police and fire business, its personalities, its skeletons, its backgrounds, as Bob Larkin -- and that there wasn't a better journalism teacher anywhere. Finally, I got my way.
Old Bob never permitted that fact to color his attitude. He regarded me as impersonally as he did every boss for whom he worked. It was the paper -- the business -- the sacred process of searching out the cold abstract facts with which to illuminate the day's record that mattered exclusively to Bob Larkin.
In every city in America there probably has been some newspaper personality like Old Bob. He may not always be Chief Police Reporter. He might even be an editor. But, behind the headlines, behind the stories that appear in a newspaper, in cities both large and small, there is somewhere a man dedicated to the principle that the truth is the ultimate mission of a newspaperman's life, that, above and beyond all else. Nowadays, in many places, there may even be a feminine counterpart of Old Bob, although, when his image comes into the mind's eye, that is rather hard to imagine.
When Bob Larkin, in one of his rare moments, put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Son, you never let
me down -- that is, knowingly" -- that was praise from Caesar. I never forgot it, or the man to whom many of us are so much indebted for what we have done, in the profession he loved with the belligerence of an old Bengal tiger.
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