Newspaper people say the best stories aren't in the paper, the most interesting characters are other newspaper folks, and this business beats working. These are old newspaper axioms that some days come true. They show a less serious side than readers usually see.
Reporter Joe Nawrozki took a call one day at the now-dead News American where they paid $50 for news tips that became stories. The breathless caller said, "Is this the news tip desk for 50 bucks? My brother just keeled over doing the lawn. . . . He's not doing too good." Joe said, "I'm sorry. Who is he?" The guy said, "I can't tell ya right now. . . . I gotta call the ambulance first." Click.
Veteran sports editor Larry Harris enjoys collecting staff excuses for missing work: "A bee flew up my nose." "I had a bad dream". "I locked my keys in the car with the motor running and I watched the car 'til it ran out of gas." "I had to bury a horse." "I got kicked by a chicken." One absent editor said he'd be in soon; he was calling from Bombay. After a bout with spirits, one reporter claimed, "I've locked myself in my apartment."
Another ex-News American writer, Sylvia Badger, The Sun's society reporter, says decades ago her old paper got a tip that a body had been dumped near Laurel Race Course. An editor sent a reporter and photographer to look for it. After half a day of searching, they found the body and called it in. The editor said "It's too late for today's paper, you're on morning Sun time. Just hide the body, we'll find it tomorrow morning". And they did.
Police reporters have a rich collection. Veteran Richard Irwin tells the old tale of a Baltimore policeman who found a dead horse on Auchentoroly Terrace and had it moved around the corner to Fulton Avenue because he couldn't spell Auchentoroly for his police report.
Many stories, of course, seem funny only later. Copy editor George Hanst remembers a multi-alarm South Baltimore fire where all the reporters quoted one man, the store owner, on damage and other details, only to learn a couple of days later the source wasn't the owner but an unknown hoaxer.
Newspapers still employ characters.
Ray Baier qualifies. The Sun's zany communications room czar, an occasional devotee of after-work liquid, called his wife once to say he was working late. Just then a Dixieland band walked through the newsroom tooting away to celebrate some circulation success. "My wife asked where I was calling from and I told her. It was the first time I told the truth, and she didn't believe me."
The Sun has employed a leprechaun named John Ketchum for 29 years as a super-clerk and fractured wordsmith who warns malingerers, "You're treading on thin ground," says good night with "Well, I'm historic" and threatens to quit and "enter a monkery." Friends have collected 430 Ketchumisms over the years.
Eddie Ballard, the News American city editor, told Louis D. Linley, Jr., new to Baltimore with shoulder-length hair, to get his hair cut. Reporters object to dictatorial commands, so the newcomer made a big production to show up his boss. He knew a barber in the last town he worked, so he got on a plane to Montana, had his trim and took his sweet time getting back to work. Mr. Linley later became city editor.
G. Jefferson Price III, The Sun's foreign editor, once helped arrange for an old Arab rust bucket freighter to haul him and 30 other journalists from Beirut to Cyprus when Archbishop Makarios was overthrown on the island and the airport was closed. "It was a ship of fools -- French reporters fought Germans, a former British officer in the Grenadiers brought his deck chair, our boat hit two other ships while leaving Beirut. We made Cyprus in 12 hours -- it's usually a 20-minute plane ride."
Finally, Richard Ben Cramer, a flamboyant ex-Sun reporter, returned in style to his Philadelphia Inquirer years ago from a long tour of duty covering the Mideast. Dressed in flowing desert robe, he walked unannounced into the building with a small camel and two sheep. All rode up to the fifth floor newsroom in an elevator and entered the office of the executive editor.
Three salesmen there were flummoxed, the editor's eyes glazed over ("Why me, O Lord") and one of the sheep urinated on his rug. After appropriate introductions, the party left, but not before Mr. Cramer whacked the shrieking camel on the rump to get him into the elevator for the descent into newspaper legend.
OC Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.