Opinion

A trip down the Monitor's memory lane

A serious newsroom calls for serious high jinks.

By

This is a time of change and renewal for The Christian Science Monitor.

For me it is also a time for affectionate reminiscence about some of the talented, and occasionally eccentric, journalists who have worked for it during my years at the paper.

I was hired by legendary Monitor editor Erwin Canham. Mr. Canham was a respected and commanding figure. His imposing office in the nonsmoking Monitor newsroom was host to many of his visiting editor friends. One of them, seated across Canham's desk, pulled out a cigar and moved to light up. Then suddenly realizing where he was, he inquired of Canham: "Is it all right to smoke?" Ever the diplomat, Canham replied: "Why yes – of course nobody ever has." The cigar was not lit.

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Geoffrey Godsell was a brilliant, bald, – and there is no other word for it – "rotund" Englishman, ex-Royal Navy, ex-BBC, who spoke five languages, one of them impeccable English. The Monitor's then-cartoonist, Guernsey LePelley, and I used to play a weekly game of squash at the local Harvard club. Once when it was closed we took Geoffrey to play with us at the local YMCA, a somewhat more run-down institution than the Harvard Club, with different sweaty aromas. The attendant dispensing towels had a broad Boston accent and had difficulty interpreting Geoffrey's more plummy one, especially when a profusely apologetic Geoffrey intoned: "Terribly sorry. I wasn't entirely au courant with the drill."

Mr. LePelley was a character in his own right, spending weekends at his Connecticut retreat building a fence around his property to keep in the family's pet goat. The goat showed great interest in this, watching LePelley complete a new section each weekend. But LePelley had not accounted for the goat's athletic prowess. When the fence was finished, the goat jumped over it to complete its exploration of the neighborhood.

Bob Bergenheim (whose son Richard was years later to become editor of the Monitor) was a brilliant, wise-cracking city editor of the Monitor, promoted from the newsroom he loved, to the rareified upper floors of management. One evening as he was leaving, his secretary inquired what his plans were. "Fishing," he told her. "Hah," she snorted unwisely, "ever catch anything?" Next day, after a few hours at her desk, the secretary detected an odd smell. Pulling open the center drawer of her desk she found a very large, very dead, very odorous fish. Mr. Bergenheim had his revenge.

Travel editor Leavitt Morris was a lean and insular Vermonter with a jaundiced view of all editorial management. Leavitt had been moved in a newsroom reorganization by then editor DeWitt John from an old office with a window to a new, but windowless office. Leavitt fumed. Before heading out, he would call DeWitt's phone with this request: "DeWitt, as you know, I have no window in my new office. Could you look out of your window and tell me whether I need to take my umbrella with me?" Only Leavitt could have gotten away with it, and only as nice a man as DeWitt would put up with it.

David Willis was a hyperenergetic Australian who had performed splendidly as the Monitor's national news editor. When I was editor, I made the decision to move him to Moscow.

Instead of a routine farewell party, some of the Monitor's senior editors said we should try something novel. We had the paper's automobile editor borrow a Rolls-Royce from a local auto company and transport six or seven of us to a local McDonald's for hamburgers. It was all good fun, and on the way back to the office someone said we should get a picture. We parked the Rolls on the Monitor's forecourt and I called in to have a photographer come out. The somewhat bemused photographer (who shall remain nameless) dutifully took the picture, not understanding what it was all about. A few days later I was startled to learn the following story being whispered about: "Hughes thought so highly of Willis that he GAVE him a Rolls-Royce!"

Somewhere in my files I have a photo, taken when I was editor, of the paper's page-one conference, with senior editors seated around my desk. They do not have their usual heads. Some wag, knowing of my affection for dogs, transposed a new dog's head for each of them, choosing a breed he considered appropriate for each editor.

As the Monitor is launched on its second century of great journalism, I think I must pull it out as a reminder of past newsroom brilliance – and high jinks.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is currently a professor of international communications at Brigham Young University.

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