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Manchester's bittersweet Sun memories

BY NOW, two days after his death, the brilliant author and one-time Evening Sun reporter William Manchester should have enough information for the decision he pledged to make two decades ago. Speaking before a large gathering of newspaper men and women at a banquet in Hunt Valley, he recalled old adversaries - Emmett P. Kavanagh, chief labor negotiator for the A.S. Abell Co., original publisher of The Sunpapers - and old newsroom chums - Frank Porter and Jake Hay.

"If I reach heaven," Manchester told us, "and find that Frank and Jake aren't there, and Kavanagh is, I'm taking my business elsewhere."

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That is one of the milder cracks from one of the most unforgettable dinner speeches ever, Manchester's stinging recollections of working, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, for the company that founded and published this newspaper until 1986, one year after his speech. The occasion was the 75th anniversary of The Evening Sun, H.L. Mencken's newspaper, and the late sage's biographer was keynote speaker. Manchester's audience included current and former executives, including publishers, but that did not deter him from ripping the Abell company for its treatment of newsroom employees 30 years earlier.

"Surely ours was the sole paper whose business office refused to honor its reporters' personal checks or collect the money for Blue Cross," Manchester said, as the smile of publisher Reg Murphy disappeared.

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"Sunpaper editorials demanded that new buildings in Baltimore provide parking places for their employees, and when the present structure rose on Calvert Street, Baltimoreans said to one another, 'You can't say The Sun doesn't practice what it preaches.' Well, you could say it because the company was charging us to park there and charging twice as much as lots two blocks away.

"Kavanaugh, the business manager, with his Orphan Annie eyes and his look of injured guilt, told [former Sun reporter and New York Times columnist Russell Baker] and me: 'If you want to make more money, work for one of the great papers in New York and Washington.' Hell, we already were working for a great paper ... and the business office didn't even know it.

"So we worked the streets in rags, wan and emaciated, suckled on the thin broth which was all our wives could afford to feed us and handouts at the kitchen doors of mansions in Guilford and Homeland, several of which, it turned out, were owned by men who worked in the composing room. How could they afford mansions when we couldn't afford 2,000 calories a day? The answer was that they had a union. So we formed a union."

The Sunpapers of that time published stories on those early days of collective bargaining, said Manchester. "The Morning Sun sent out an editorial writer whose admiration for Joe McCarthy was unbounded and whose prose was so dense you couldn't find the non sequiturs in it."

There were great waves of laughter that evening, but they did not emanate from the dais, where Murphy sat, or from the linen-covered table, just below Manchester, ringed with stone-faced executives. Two of them turned their backs to the speaker.

Manchester might have sounded bitter, but his best memories, he said, were "of the paper, not the company," and he said his Sunpaper years were "the seven best years of my life," and he quoted Yeats on the glories of friendship, and the whole, remarkable performance ended well. Except for Murphy grumbling and reportedly pledging that Manchester's obituary would never appear on the front page of The Sun.

But Murphy has long since taken his business elsewhere.

Poetic cicada lover

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The prolific Manchester, who died Tuesday at 82, wrote many acclaimed books. His writing career began with a poem when he was 7. That's the age of Sebastian Stefanovic, a Roland Park Elementary School first-grade pupil of Catherine Gearhart, named last week Baltimore City Teacher of the Year. The recent surge of cicadas inspired Sebastian to verse:

Why does a cicada have red eyes? Why does it seem so wise? Why does it look like it will tell lies?/ Why do the claws look like a shell? Why does the body look like a bell? Why do they make me scream?/ Why do cicadas have leafy wings? Why do the wings go ding-a-ling? I love them. They are so interesting!

17-year lament

A senior citizen wrote with similar excitement about this odd phenomenon but added a melancholy thought that others probably have had but left unsaid: "[The cicadas] should be enjoyed. Rather than squashing them, I rescue them when possible. There is a certain sadness for me, since I'm 81 years old, realizing that unless I live to be 98, I won't see them again."

One-note insects

A friend who plays the trumpet in a jazz ensemble believes the cicadas - at least the ones in Anne Arundel County - are performing a symphony in A flat. He says he matched the pitch as closely as possible on his piano. The problem, of course, is that it's a one-note symphony, with no melody lines, no intermission.


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