The first time I can ever recall reading a newspaper column was back in upstate New York, in the early 1950s when I was still learning to read and I stumbled across a jumble of letters at the top of a column of type in the daily newspaper, the Binghamton Press. I soon recognized the jumble as a phrase that I had heard adults mutter from time to time: “Matter of Fact.”
The column under that headline was written by a guy named Tom Cawley, and it appeared every weekday in the Press, as well as on Sundays. I began to read it and even look forward to it. The column referenced newsworthy events around town, as well as quirky items that otherwise never would have been encapsulated in print. Sometimes the column would quote extensively from a small cast of recurring characters. It took me a while to figure out that these colorful characters really were characters — figments of Cawley’s fertile imagination deployed to help fill that space every day.
Sometimes there would be no column at all. Instead there might be a small box on the page where the column normally was placed that announced that Cawley was on vacation, and that the column would resume upon his return. Sometimes Cawley would file a column while he was on vacation — often on Cape Cod, as I recall. It took me a long time to figure out that sometimes Cawley really was on vacation and that at some other times he was drying out a local treatment facility.
The years passed. In high school I got a Binghamton Press paper route, delivering 80 papers a day, seven days a week, up and down Norton Avenue in Endwell, New York, part of the Triple Cities that included Binghamton. By my senior year of high school the Press was owned by an up and coming media company called Gannett. I won a Frank Gannett Newspaper Boy Scholarship (newspaper boys really were boys, not girls, back then). The scholarship was huge: $3,000 paid out in four annual installments of $750. That would cover one fourth of my tuition, room, and board at Princeton University — $3,000 a year at that time.
Along with the scholarship came a letter from the publisher of the Binghamton Press, Fred Stein. “You have done yourself and your parents proud,” he wrote (as I have recalled it any number of times over the past 49 years). “If there is ever anything we at the Press can do for you don’t hesitate to ask.” I immediately wrote him back and asked for a summer job. I promptly got hired to work in the sports department of the paper, and reported for work on Monday, June 28, at the Press Building at 19 Chenango Street in the heart of downtown Binghamton.
On my first day of work I drove down to the Press Building at 19 Chenango Street, parked somewhere in the then-bustling heart of Binghamton, the Broome County seat, and entered the lobby of the Beaux Arts, 12-story structure that featured at the sidewalk level a huge plate glass window looking down on the giant web press that cranked out the paper every day.
Built in 1904, and at 12-stories high designed to be the tallest building in what was then the pre-eminent city in the southern tier of New York, the Press Building featured a cast-iron bust of Mercury, the Winged Messenger, on the front of the building facing Chenango Street.
What I quickly realized when I arrived for my first day of work was that this was to be the last week that the Press occupied its namesake building. At the conclusion of business on Saturday night, July 3, the presses would roll for the last time under that plate glass window on Chenango Street and the Press would move to the expanding suburbs, in a brand new single story building on the Vestal Parkway just over the bridge from Johnson City, home of the square deal and another one of the “triple cities.”
It would be the beginning of the end of Binghamton being the big city in the southern tier or even in the Triple Cities. A few years after the winged messenger flew the coop, the main drag through town — Route 17 — was expanded to a four-lane highway that went right through the baseball park that had been home to the Triplets, the New York Yankees’ Class A Eastern League baseball franchise. A few years after the Yankees left town, a modern era mall sprouted along Route 17, causing most of the major retail outlets in the heart of Binghamton to abandon the downtown and take space at the mall.
So I, a few weeks out of high school, showed up nervous as hell, and equally impressionable. The five fulltime guys in the Press sports department — editor John W. Fox, production editor Russ Worman, writers David Rossie (eventually the columnist who would succeed Tom Cawley), Denny Randall, and Bill Dowd — probably spent more time worrying about the forthcoming move to the suburbs than they spent worrying about me and how to use me.
I spent the first two or three days reading through a mound of out-of-town newspapers, with the objective to identify any items of possible interest to readers in the triple cities. I was the 1965 version of a Google alert — mostly it was a way for the established guys to keep me busy while they got the paper out. Later in the week I got to sit at the “rim” of the copy desk, with a “slot” occupied by Russ Worman,
In the early morning hours (we started at 7 a.m.) Worman would pull items from the AP machine clattering in the background. He would hand them out to the writers sitting around the perimeter of the desk, who would pencil edit them, convert the style to Press style, insert local references wherever they could, write a headline, and then hand it back to Worman. He would give the edited copy a quick review before rolling it up, putting it in a plastic tube, and send it through a pneumatic system to the typesetting machines located in some far off corner of the building that I never did get to see.
On Saturday night I was back at the copy desk writing headlines (or trying to write headlines) for the Sunday morning paper that would be the last one ever produced on Chenango Street.
Sometime during the evening Tom Cawley poked his head through the door leading into the sports department. I don’t recall him saying anything, just looking around. We in sports all figured it was Cawley’s farewell tour of the old building in which he had toiled for at least 30 years or so.
I couldn’t wait for the Sunday paper to come off the presses, so I could read what Cawley had to say about that little moment in history — the first such moment to which I had been an eyewitness.
The next morning, Sunday, July 4, 1965, Cawley’s column was in its usual place. I raced through it, looking for some reference to the visual experience I had had in my fleeting week there. But Cawley the columnist took me and his thousands of other readers in an unexpected direction. It wasn’t the sight of that building that Cawley celebrated in his opening sentences, it was the sound:
“One of the loneliest sounds in the world is a printer’s saw screaming through a lead cast on a hot July morning about 3 o’clock.
“The cry of the teeth through the metal pierces the empty streets, asleep with the whole city while the night-side printers get ready for another day. Its shrillness stabs the night and races in all directions and alerts the drowsing cab driver at his stand; keens a whining ‘Hello!’ to a policeman in a back alley, his flashlight throwing little exclamation points of light at locked doors and barred merchants’ windows.
“It dies against the hillsides with a metallic whimper and the only early morning sound then is the ghostly tap-tap-tap of a late-working reporter’s typewriter.
“These are the sounds that have played a small before-dawn symphony at 19 Chenango Street for more than a half-century, and the concert died this morning before the Fourth of July sun came up. The Press packed up, blew a kiss to Chenango Street, and moved to the suburbs.”
This week U.S. 1 packed up, blew a kiss to Roszel Road, where it had had a lovely residence for the past 22 years, and moved to 15 Princess Road in Lawrenceville, offices occupied by its colleagues at Community News Service.
I’m still poking around at 12 Roszel Road, searching for a farewell column that will keen (to steal a verb from another era) a resonant chord with the readers, and that will do justice to Tom Cawley’s work of nearly a half century ago. I’m as nervous as I was on Monday, June 28, 1965. Wish me luck.