It was a little before seven on the morning of June 1, 1966, when I entered the stately building at 55 East Fourth Street and hurried up the stairs. Just out of high school, I was ready to begin the summer job I had dreamed about for months: copy boy at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch.
When I reached the top, the newsroom was already alive with the sounds of ringing phones, chattering voices, and the rhythmic tapping of typewriters and wire service machines pounding out stories for the afternoon Dispatch. Nervous and a little overwhelmed, I was relieved to see managing editor Harry Burnham, the man who hired me. Harry was a dashing figure who looked as if he had stepped out of an old movie like The Front Page or Deadline USA. The late columnist Don Boxmeyer called him the “Errol Flynn of the newsroom.”
After a reassuring handshake, Harry introduced me around. It was quite a thrill to meet colorful sportswriter Don Riley, movie and music critic and radio DJ Bill Diehl, and beloved “Oliver Towne” columnist Gareth Hiebert. The last stop was my own desk. When Harry said one of my duties was writing short weather reports, I asked if I’d get a byline.
“Oh sure,” Harry deadpanned. “You might even win a Pulitzer Prize!”
Just as I sat down, I got my first call to action. “Hey Tiger,” Don Riley shouted, “grab me headshots of Harmon Killebrew and Mickey Mantle.” I was up and running and didn’t stop for the next four months, providing the staff with everything from files and newspapers hot off the press to carbon paper, sandwiches, and cigarettes for the chain-smoking wire editor. Reporter Karl J. Karlsson called me “Speedy” and said he never saw a more efficient copy boy.
While the job could be hectic and demanding, what made it so gratifying was the relationships I developed. Photographer Hi Paul taught me a lot about taking pictures and was a great storyteller, and I encouraged rookie reporter Don Boxmeyer when he struggled with deadlines. I also loved talking movies with dapper Bill Diehl in his cluttered office. He once asked how the job was going, and I did an impression of Jimmy Cagney in the gangster classic White Heat: “Top of the world, Bill! Top of the world!” He nearly fell off his chair.
But in a moment of sheer stupidity, I went from top of the world to the depths of hell. As a prank concocted by me and some pals, I secretly added the names of friends Mike and Peggy to the list of marriage license applications I got each day at the courthouse. When the Dispatch came out, we had our big laugh and naively thought no one else would notice the names. That night, Mike’s dad phoned me in a panic and said, or rather screamed, he was getting calls from family and friends, including one from San Francisco, asking when the wedding would be. Although I apologized for the nefarious deed, he said he was notifying the paper. I was a dead man.
The next morning, Harry Burnham and executive editor Fred Heaberlin were waiting with looks that could kill. Fred said I’d be out the door if I wasn’t going to college. Harry ended his tirade with an exasperated sigh. “Lou, I really thought you had some smarts. I sure am disappointed in you.” I never felt more ashamed.
So the paper had to print a retraction and I worked hard to make amends, especially to Harry. The staff was very supportive. Don Riley told me to “hang in there, Tiger,” and Hi Paul quipped, “At least you didn’t put their names in the obituaries!” The uproar soon subsided, and the Dispatch got back to more important matters: plans for a new civic center, building of Interstate 94, a probe of feuding motorcycle gangs, and a 40-percent-off sale at the Emporium.
When my last day arrived, there was a party and many well-wishes for success in college and becoming a writer. I thanked everyone for a great learning experience, especially about the power of the press, and hoped I would be remembered for my good work and not one foolish mistake. As I was about to go down the stairs for the final time, I’ll never forget Bill Diehl mugging like Jimmy Cagney and saying, “Top of the world, Lou! Top of the world!”