Of newsboys and newsmen


FRED STOCKING, my college literature professor, values ceremony -- funerals, weddings, birthdays, whatever -- as a way to focus thoughts on important things in life.

Answering a student who debunked graduation, Professor Stocking said, "We could send you all your diplomas in the mail. It would be cheaper and save us a lot of work and dull speeches. You could slip it into a drawer and get on with your life. But would you think about where you are, what it means?"

I remembered Fred Stocking's words through the years and many ceremonies, including informal ones marking the birthday of The Sun on May 17 and The Evening Sun on April 18.

Recently, I and three other middle-aged newspapermen with ties to The Evening Sun and streaks of sentimentality resumed an interrupted ritual. It had begun in Loudon Park Cemetery many decades ago soon after the burning of the Three Rivers excursion boat on the Chesapeake Bay on July 4, 1924.

Columnist Jacques Kelly brought white mums and violet delphiniums. Fred Rasmussen, who writes obituaries, contributed his observations on ceremonies for those above ground as well as below. Dave Cohn, who runs The Evening Sun copy desk, came with feelings about Evening Sun traditions. I carried a card we signed for the dead and a little something for the living.

We were remembering five forgotten Evening Sun newsboys who played in a promotional Evening Sun band that was coming home the fateful 1924 night after a concert on the Eastern Shore. A fire started and spread when the boat was off Cove Point. Many of the 59 newsboys worked dramatically to save themselves and others. But five of the 10 passengers and crew members who died were newsboy-musicians.

Our visit was inspired by a Baltimore resident, Ginger Glindemann. Last winter, she asked why The Baltimore Sun wasn't honoring the newsboys the way it did for decades with a wreath at Christmas and flowers on the July 4 anniversary.

It was a hot July noon when the four of us showed up to pay our respects to the newsboys. A shirtless bicyclist who frequents the cemetery's peaceful lanes was sunning himself on one of the benches that faces the memorial, in the Bethel section. He thought us odd -- four men in shirts and ties on a lunch break carrying flowers for something that happened seven decades ago.

The newspapermen put down the flowers and card. The cemetery regular went back to sleep on the bench. We looked at the copper and stone memorial erected by The Evening Sun after the disaster. A youth played the flute in a recessed statue sculpted by J. Maxwell Miller.

The words were simple:

"In memory of . . .", followed by the names of Vernon E. Jefferson, 15; Nelson A. Miles, 17; Walter Clark Millikin, 13; Thomas A. Pilker, Jr., 13 and Lester Alfred Seligman, 15.

There was a brief description of the tragedy. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Hiawatha" provided the line, "They have moved a little nearer to the master of all music."

The cemetery regular napped. For more privacy, I recalled the last words on earth of Stonewall Jackson, "Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees".

We walked across Hawthorn Road and up an incline to the broad shade of a maple tree. On a tombstone of suitable height, I placed four paper cups and poured a half shot of scotch in each. It seemed a natural thing to do.

The cups were lifted, we said "For the newsboys" and downed the spirits. We remembered the five other victims, too.

It was not a particularly sad occasion. The conversation turned to many topics while the MARC commuter train and then, an AMTRAK train passed on the cemetery's southeast side.

We talked about how John Philip Sousa had once led the boys band. How few people go to cemeteries any more for family Sunday rituals. How the cause of the Three Rivers fire was never officially determined, though smoking was suspected. How brave many of the boys were.

How The Evening Sun's most famous staffer, Henry Louis Mencken, was one of Loudon Park's celebrities but it was hard to find his somewhat secluded grave. How it was still appropriate to memorialize someone's life, somehow. How it was good to remember the newsboys, who would be in their 80s now.

"Where's Mencken?" someone asked. Everyone had ideas. We drove around and around the large cemetery. No luck. Mencken was lost. When we finally figured we were the ones lost, we asked for help and a lovely lady led the way in her car. Below Confederate Hill, we found Mencken on a family tombstone listing other Menckens. It was a different Mencken . . . no bombast, no famous quotes, no put-downs from the iconoclast. Mr. Rasmussen and Mr. Kelly told stories about Mencken the family man.

Ernest F. Imhoff is The Sun's acting director of photography and graphics.

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