WHEN I WAS 17, my father gave me a copy of H. L. Mencken's book "Newspaper Days" for Christmas. I read it three times before New Year's Day and concluded that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in the city room of The Evening Sun, Mencken's paper.
At 21, shortly after graduating from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, I went to the old Sun building, at Baltimore and Charles streets, to ask for my job. Running on an enormous amount of ill-founded confidence, I had no appointment, but I thought they would probably be expecting me.
As I headed for the elevator, I was stopped by the formidable Miss "Bernie" Moorman who stood guard at the reception desk. She informed me that I couldn't go upstairs without an appointment.
She then turned to the next supplicant, but not before I grabbed her hand, shook it warmly and assured her I would see her again soon. She looked at me as if I were a genuine nut case.
After some investigation, I learned that the man to see was Neil H. Swanson, the executive editor of The Sun and The Evening Sun. Over the next year, I wrote numerous letters to him. In between letters, I phoned. He answered all my letters with pretty much the same message, "I regret I must tell you that The Sunpapers have a policy not to hire women reporters. Thank you for your interest. Regards."
Meanwhile, on the telephone, I was becoming friendly with Agnes Gosnell, Swanson's secretary. It never occurred to me to give up. Nor did it occur to me that I was helping to pave the way for anybody but myself.
And then, one lovely Indian summer day in September, I was chatting away to Miss Gosnell, when suddenly she said, "Oh, you poor thing. You've called so many times. If you want to come down here tomorrow and sit in my office, I'll get you in to see him somehow."
I was in her office at 9 the next morning. She handed me a copy of The Sun and told me I might have to wait for several hours. I spent the morning watching and listening to visitors to the office, mostly editors and reporters trying to get in to see Swanson.
I began to get a feeling for the power this man had.
It was shortly before noon when the door to his office opened and there he was, a tall, imperious man, who appeared to be in his early 50s, with shirt sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms, a ,, cigarette dangled from his lower lip as if it were glued on. He didn't even look in my direction.
"Have we got anything, Miss Gosnell?" he asked.
"We're all cleared up, Mr. Swanson," she replied.
He went back in his office and closed the door. Miss Gosnell, a small, gray-haired, bespectacled woman, looked at me and nodded her head. She said: "Now."
With considerable effort, I swallowed hard, opened the door and stood just inside. As Swanson looked up, I thought I saw the slightest twinkle in those cold blue eyes.
"Do we have an appointment?" he asked.
"I think so," I replied in a quivering voice. He motioned me to a chair.
I got directly to the point: I had no experience but I had been editor of my college paper.
We chatted briefly. Then he said the words I was afraid I would never hear: "I was thinking of putting you on the morning Sun but you are too young to go home to Towson at 2 a.m." I interrupted him to say that I wasn't at all afraid, but he kept on talking. ". . . So I'll put you on The Evening Sun. The hours are better."
He picked up his phone and called Miles Wolff, The Evening Sun's managing editor: "Miles, I'm bringing someone over to see you."
He got up and strode swiftly ahead. I followed a few paces behind, but when we hit The Evening Sun's city room, I had to stop abruptly, overwhelmed by the perfection of it -- the thick haze of cigarette smoke, the clatter of the typewriters, the paper coffee cups on every desk, the reporters yelling "copy over."
Oh boy! It was exactly as I had imagined.
Miles Wolff's office was a small, glass cubicle at the back of the room. We entered together, Mr. Swanson and I, girl reporter.
"Miles, I just hired you a new reporter." He did not introduce me.
"Neil, you know I don't like women reporters."
"Well, you have one. She'll start on Monday," he said. Then he smiled at me and left me alone, but not defenseless. I was keenly aware that I had been hired by Swanson himself and nobody, not even this unfriendly managing editor, would be able to unhire me.
When I started the next Monday, I walked into a city room filled with men. I recall just one other female Evening Sun reporter being on staff when I arrived; two other women produced the "women's page."
Of course, I began by doing the lowliest possible job. I rewrote the dozens of overnights that flooded the city room, two or three paragraph fillers, notices of lunches, ladies' auxiliary meetings, benefits and church bazaars.
My progress went slowly, or so it seemed to me, but gradually I moved to better things. But no matter what I was writing, I was always the happiest fish in the bowl.
I liked working Saturdays, always a slow day with more time for talk. I always felt privileged just to be in the city room with all those brilliant, savvy reporters, telling their cynical, back-room stories of improbable adventures. I relished the sport of beating out the News-Post or The Sun. We called that a scoop and it was pure joy.
My most memorable scoop concerned the birth of the Henn quadruplets. Those four babies were the product of a local army private, who was stationed in England during World War II, and his English war bride. When it was discovered that the bride was going to have quadruplets, it was big news, not only here, but also internationally. I got the assignment and, early on, I got acquainted with the family.
I was alerted when the Henns left for Mercy Hospital for the delivery, but I figured that the hospital was not the place to go. I guessed that all those reporters who would be rushing to the hospital would get a prepared release and little more.
Instead, I took a cab to a rowhouse in Catonsville, where the Henns lived with his mother, and I instructed the cab driver to wait for me, no matter how long it took.
Grandmother Henn and I sat at the kitchen table and talked about their plans to take care of four babies and how in the world to house them all in their small three-bedroom house.
It was almost 2 a.m. when we heard Papa Henn's key turn in the backdoor and in he came, a frail little fellow on the point of exhaustion. I sat there while he poured it all out to his mother: the relief, the elation, the fears, the mountainous responsibilities ahead, even brief descriptions of the babies.
I stayed for an hour, and then I got in the cab and went back to the city room. When Ed Young, our incomparable city editor, arrived at 7, I presented him with my story. It was a banner headline on Page One.
It's an established fact that women try harder because they have more to prove, but I really think I tried harder for the sport of it.
In the male world of the Towson Courthouse, when the county commissioners reigned, the annual release of the next year's property tax rate was a big story.
There was a long tradition of timing the release of that information so it would be published first in The Sun. This was so automatic that The Evening Sun county reporter took his vacation the week the tax rate came out. On one occasion, I was substituting for him.
I told Ed Young that I'd try to get the story first. He was smiling, but there was no faith in his face.
All week, I worked on Chris Kahl, a county commissioner, trying to convince him that it was time to give The Evening Sun that story, even if it were only that one time, just to be fair. Our deadline for the main edition was 2:30 p.m. At 2 p.m., I called the city desk ready to dictate the story. It was another banner headline on the front page.
It was glorious fun, and when I had to leave because my husband got a job in New York, I cried all the way to Manhattan. Before we left, I received a letter from Paul Patterson, the publisher, which I carried in my wallet until it dissolved into thin flakes of pale gold. It is engraved in my mind:
Dear Miss Dempsey,
You are aware of my original objections to women reporters. I want you to know that if all my reporters were as good as you, I would have an entire staff of women.
I wish you and your husband success in New York, but if things don't work out, you have only to call me. You are welcome to return here at any time.
Sincerely, . . .
Today, when I see the bylines of so many women reporters, I feel enormous pride. Sometimes, I still can't believe the newspapers have a woman publisher, but it has to be true because there is her name, Mary Junck, every day on the masthead.
The Evening Sun dies today, but not really. In my heart, it is forever there, in the old Sun Square building at Baltimore and Charles streets, and so are all the reporters I worked with and loved. We're all there forever. They're talking and I'm listening, and we're all laughing so hard.
Margaret McManus, wife of ABC sports anchor Jim McKay, is a former reporter and editor for The Evening Sun. She writes from Monkton.