'Remember their service': A Fourth of July toast to the Evening Sun Newsboys' Band — and The Capital Gazette

After five members of The Evening Sun’s Newsboys’ Band died in a July 4 boat fire in Crisfield in 1924, scores of people braved an impending storm to pay their respects at the burial at Loudon Park Cemetery.

Ninety-four years later, a group of more than a dozen Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun journalists came to that same cemetery in Baltimore on Wednesday morning to raise a toast to the teenage musicians — and another to the five members of the Capital Gazette staff who were killed in last week’s newsroom shooting in Annapolis.

“Let’s remember these boys, and remember the boys and ladies lost this past week,” said Ernest Imhoff, 81, a retired reporter and editor who lives in Mount Washington. “We should try to live our lives to remember their service to all of us.”

Ten people died in the 1924 fire aboard the steamship Three Rivers, including the five band members who helped evacuate the burning vessel: Walter C. Millikin, a 13-year-old clarinet player; Lester A. Seligman, a 15-year-old French horn player; Nelson A. Miles, a 17-year-old trombone player; Thomas A. Pilker, Jr., a 13-year-old piccolo player; and Vernon E. Jefferson, a 15-year-old saxophonist.

Five staff members of The Capital, which is owned by The Baltimore Sun Media Group, were killed last Thursday when a gunman opened fire in their newsroom: editor and columnist Rob Hiaasen, 59; Wendi Winters, 65, a community correspondent who led special publications; editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, 61; editor and sports writer John McNamara, 56; and Rebecca Smith, 34, a sales assistant.

For more than 20 years, Imhoff and his group have returned to the cemetery to honor the teenage newspaper couriers each Fourth of July.

Imhoff, who wrote a semi-weekly public column as The Sun’s ombudsman from 1993 to 1994, recalled learning about the band, which was formed in 1922, while researching for a column.

“Afternoon papers did crazy things for promotions,” he said.

The band played free concerts for immense crowds for a decade, and once was directed by John Philip Sousa, according to accounts in The Sun. When the steamboat burned on their way home from a concert in Crisfield, Imhoff said, “it was a big civic disaster.”

Memorials to the victims continued for years after their death. For 72 years before his death in 1998, Melvin Otter — believed to have been the last surviving band member who was on the boat that night — faithfully visited the cemetery to pray the rosary for his lost childhood comrades.

The Sun used to place wreaths each Christmas and flowers each Fourth of July on the monument, which stands next to a semicircle of their gravestones.

“Then they forgot about them,” Imhoff said. “We didn’t know them, but we wanted to remember them. … We’ve got to remember those kids.”

Jim Burger, a photographer who worked in The Sun’s marketing department for a decade, picked up a picture of the band that had been passed around and grinned as he razzed Imhoff.

“This is Ernie up front,” Burger joked, pointing to one of the boys’ faces. “He was a drummer.”

Dave Cohn, 74, of Pasadena, a retired copy editor who spent a combined 37 years at the Sun and Evening Sun, read from a history of the band, including brief profiles of each member who died.

“I just think it’s important to remember the history,” he said. “There were a lot of people over the years who contributed to the newspapers — even a newspaper band. What an era.”

Joan Jacobson and Linell Smith, both 65, said they became friends “on deadline” during their time at The Evening Sun and have kept in touch. The Newsboys’ Band memorial, albeit a solemn occasion, also serves as an annual reminder of good times at the paper, said Smith, who lives in Reservoir Hill.

“It’s the kind of thing most people would never think of doing,” she said. “Why go? Because if you were part of The Evening Sun, it’s a compelling thing to do.”

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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