The Monitor's impact ... on a journalist

It's hard for me to believe - but when next Jan. 1 comes around, I will have been with the Monitor for 60 years. The time has slipped by fast.

I've turned recently to rereading Erwin D. Canham's "Commitment to Freedom," a book this greatly respected Monitor editor wrote about the paper as it reached its 50-year mark in 1958. (Hey, we'll be hitting our 100th fairly soon!)

It seems to me that no one has better described the Monitor's impact than when, in his book, Canham wrote that the Monitor was "a newspaper which is to professionals a kind of daily astonishment." Certainly, none of the many non-Monitor people in my profession that I've talked to through the years has been able to figure it out: how our paper could reach such lofty heights journalistically - with highly respected coverage of events on both national and international stages - without the financial help coming from big circulation and the advertising revenue that goes along with it.

Canham interviewed me (I was still in uniform after five years in World War II) and then brought me on the paper, putting me on the copy desk as a sub-editor there simply because, as he said, he had no other opening. "We'll get you out and writing soon," he said. But writing opportunities were few and far between back then - and highly contested. So I spent eight years, first on the copy desk and then as an assistant national editor, before I went to Chicago as a staff correspondent.

But those Boston years were good years: Lots of good fellowship and close friendships made - plus the opportunity to learn from masters of journalism like Harry Hazeldine and Saville Davis.

The memories of those days flow back.

I once sought an overseas assignment and asked our legendary foreign editor, Charles Gratke, for an interview. He said, "Let's have lunch tomorrow." I stopped by his office - timidly - and he came rushing out. Pulling me along, he raced over to the YMCA where, always moving, he quickly donned trunks and swam 10 lengths while I watched from the side of the pool.

Then, after he dressed speedily, we ran to a restaurant where we picked up prepared sandwiches and then, without sitting, we ate on the run back to the Monitor. Still running, Mr. Gratke leapt over the turnstile that blocked visitors from entering the general news office space and disappeared into his office. I never got a job from Gratke. Maybe I wasn't fast enough.

I remember that once, in the late 1940s, Lady Astor visited our newsroom. On her way to Canham's office she had to pass our copy desk, and she spotted one of our old-timers on the desk, George Lawson, looking up at her with a big smile. Whereupon she walked over to George, who was sitting next to me, and while pinching his cheek she said, "You old rascal, you!" And then, laughing, she trotted in to see Canham.

Salaries were low. I made $50 a week at first and then got a $10 raise when our son was born.It was before Monitor employees had pensions or contributed to Social Security, either. The days seemed happy ones then - and do now, in retrospect. But I'm sure glad things got better.

Editors who ran papers were very, very important people back then. (OK, so they still are!) When Canham walked by our desk each morning on his way to his office, we talked of how the floor had rocked as he walked by.

I never quite understood why: But after work - when he wasn't driving - Canham occasionally used to ride home with me (he lived nearby). These were tense moments for me, sitting alongside this prominent public figure for an hour or so. As I drove, Canham would talk and talk - most eloquently - on national and global affairs. And then he would turn to me with, "And what do you think, Budge?" I'd almost strip the gears of my old Ford as I tried to say something that was dimly intelligent after a day of putting headlines on stories that didn't touch on such lofty matters.

But I did, finally, get out to write, in 1953 - to our Chicago bureau, where a former national park ranger (and marvelous whistler) Max Gilstrap became my boss and good buddy. We started right off by writing a series of stories on how the Northwest Territory had changed since Jefferson purchased it in 1803. Both of us were traveling for three months all around that area. What fun!

It was while I was in the Midwest that I found I had a special liking for covering politics. There were such intriguing subjects: Joe McCarthy, Adlai Stevenson, Robert Taft, to name just a few.

From then on, as I moved from Chicago to the New York bureau and then to Washington, it has been politics for breakfast, lunch, and dinner - particularly at the Monitor's breakfasts where, I can say with much gratitude, under my paper's auspices I was able to put together and enjoy those thousands of morning meals with leading public figures.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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