Gone 5 years, News American lives in memories


This goes back maybe 20 years now, to the distant edge of a semi-chaotic city room of a semi-successful newspaper, which some around here may still remember. It was called the News American.

The newspaper is no longer among the living, and neither is the man on the distant edge of the newsroom. He is Seymour Kopf. Seymour died more than a decade ago, while nobody was looking. The News American died five years ago this week, also while nobody was looking.

Twenty years ago, Seymour Kopf is the paper's local columnist and always on the distant edge of something: the newsroom, a story, his own sanity.

Even on a paper that prides itself on a history of characters -- Harry "Fire Alarm" Riley standing on a desk and shouting out train schedules because the spirit moves him; Tom Hughes warning newcomers not to wash their laundry in the men's room sink; John Steadman wearing his old Navy uniform to work for no particular reason -- all would bow to Seymour Kopf as an unselfconscious world-class eccentric.

But this time he's gone too far.

"You have to see this," says Tom White, the gentle soul who is the paper's executive editor and its premier horse player, a man who scans the racing forms between editions and then strolls into the sports office, where he places his off-track wagers with a slight, stooped, unassuming fellow named Walter Penkilo.

White's holding a column Seymour's just written, which will never see the light of day. Across the top of the page, he's typed, "World Wide Exclusive." The column declares formally that World War Three is about to commence.

"I've just come back from Australia," Seymour has written, "and found that the Russians are cornering the market on Australian sheep. They always do this before a big war, to line the coats of their soldiers."

He goes on to explain that the real tragedy of this is all those poor defenseless sheep that are being slaughtered -- to say nothing of a war to end all life on the planet.

Tom White kills the column. Seymour marches sadly into the little office of Lou Azrael, the paper's professorial columnist who sits there with his legs crossed and little puffs of smoke coming out of his pipe.

"Do you know anybody in government?" Seymour asks.

"Why, yes," Azrael says modestly.

Perfect, Seymour says. He's just had this column on Australian sheep killed, and he thinks he wants a career change. He wants to know if Azrael can get him appointed ambassador to Australia.

Why not? A long time ago, in that cramped, cluttered, chaotic newsroom, all things seemed possible. The paper never had much money, never had enough people, yet somehow it not only survived but generally had the biggest circulation of any paper in the state of Maryland.

Some of its survivors got together over the weekend, more than a hundred of us, precisely five years after a front page headline read, "So Long, Baltimore," and the paper breathed its last.

We gathered not so much to light candles for the dearly departed but to remember the characters, and the laughs, and a time when the world and the newspaper business seemed a lot simpler.

It felt like the gathering of a government in exile. Here was Steve Gavin, whose Man About Town column in the '60s sometimes read like poetry. He's a features editor in Cherry Hill, N.J., now. Here was Jimmy Collimore, 81 years old now, who used to write the weekend entertainment column. Here were Linda Linley, Larry Lewis, John Jennings and Eddie Collimore, all familiar by-lines at the News American, now working for the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was important to see people still succeeding in newspaper work. A paper goes out of business and everybody who worked for it gets insecure and wonders: Am I only good enough to work for a failing enterprise? Could I be successful with a winner?

The record of the last five years answers: Yes. There were first-rate people at the News American who got swept off in the tide of journalistic history. In the dying years of the 20th century, newspapers are struggling to hold onto once-faithful readers.

Change is the only constant. Newspapers lose readers to TV networks. The networks lose viewers to cable. Cable loses them to video games. AM radio loses listeners to FM. FM loses them to audio tapes, which loses them to CDs.

And at Lombard and South, where there used to be a newspaper, there is now only an empty lot.

Things change. Seymour Kopf came to work one long-ago morningin a state of agitation. A radio man he liked who'd talked about flying saucers suddenly dropped dead. Seymour had written about flying saucers. He worried about dangerous trends.

"It's a funny thing about people who talk about flying saucers," he said. "They all die."

He was right. Seymour drifted out of town, and one day he died. Fire Alarm Riley's gone, too, and so is Lou Azrael, even though they never expressed much public opinion about flying saucers. And lots more of the News American alumni are gone, and were remembered on Sunday: familiar names like Neal Eskridge and N.P. "Swami" Clark and Mohammed Rauf and Eddie Ballard and Lou Linley.

And Tom White, too. He placed his last horse bet and died a couple of years ago. At White's funeral, John Steadman delivered a beautiful eulogy, and afterward White's niece said something lovely to him.

"Your words were right on the money," she declared, "which is more than we could say for most of my uncle's bets."

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