August 1, 2011
I took a course in journalism for the first and last time in the eighth grade at Hermann Ridder Junior High School in the Bronx. The school, now an Art Deco landmark, was built in the early 1930s, soon after the most spectacular of the great Art Deco skyscrapers arose to capture the New York skyline. Members of the Ridder family, which owned the Staats Zeitung und Herold (and much later headed the Knight-Ridder media empire), were thrilled that their late patriarch, the founder of the German-language newspaper, had been honored by the city, and they encouraged the school to interest students in the family trade. There were even printing presses at the school, not large enough to print a newspaper but enough to teach us how to set type and how to feed blank pages into their clickety maw.
More important, the family printed our newspaper, the Ridder News, on the presses of the Staats Zeitung und Herold. I would take the copy, the pictures and the layout once a month to the newspaper’s old building on Park Row near City Hall. Copy editors would take the material from me, choose a variety of type faces for the headlines, tinker with the layout, and send it down to the press rooms. In a week or so, packages of our newspaper, printed on thick magazine-style paper, glistening and fresh with the pungent feel of ink, would show up in the Bronx. The Ridder News would win an award from the Columbia University Scholastic Press Association every year.
Journalism was not a separate subject but part of the curriculum of eighth grade English for the top rapid advancement class. Under the pedagogical fashion of the day, the brightest students rushed through the seventh, eighth and ninth grades of junior high school in two and a half years instead of three. This would keep our minds from idling. Extras like journalism were thrown in for the same reason. Our class had 34 pupils, and I discovered at a reunion 50 years later that the class eventually produced eight or nine cardiologists, five or six lawyers, two or three engineers, a couple of businessmen, one psychologist, one oceanographer, one high school principal, one army colonel, and one journalist.
Our English teacher was Sydney O’Kun. Like most of our teachers, Mr. O’Kun was Jewish but he confused the issue, he told us, with “my little trick of an Irish apostrophe.” I would guess now that he was in his late forties then. He was a handsome, balding man with strips of grey in his hair. I remember that the far ends of his eyebrows tufted upward like little horns.
Mr. O’Kun was a lawyer. But many lawyers had little work during the Great Depression. You could see their forlorn shingles hanging in front of apartment buildings, offering an “attorney at law” to anyone who knocked. In one of the few benefits of the Great Depression, dynamic personalities like Mr. O’Kun, who would shun teaching in New York these days, gravitated into the public school system then and regarded themselves as fortunate, despite their frustrations, for the steady salary.
He loved to perform in our classroom, acting out the most complex portions of our reading so we could understand them better. I can still hear him belt out the musical sounds of the names of two of the villains in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe: Brian de Bois-Guilbert and Reginald Front-de-Boeuf. It is all I remember about Ivanhoe now. The witches of Macbeth and the conspirators of Julius Caesar were easy conquests for Mr. O’Kun’s dramatic talents. He pulled the classics down to earth and enjoyed telling us his little joke about the student who felt disappointed after reading Hamlet because it was filled with clichés he had heard all his life.
On journalism days, he taught us all the rudiments: how to cover the five w’s and an h (who, what, where, when, why, how) in every story, how to set down the big news first and the rest in dwindling importance so that an editor could chop as much of the bottom as needed to fit the allotted space, how to count letters and play with words to create headlines that highlighted the news. We learned that the editors at the New York Times put the main story in the upper right corner because that was still visible to customers after the vendors folded the newspaper into quarters and slipped it onto the racks. We also learned how to fold the Times so we could read it in a crowded subway car, even while standing, without whacking other passengers with our arms and elbows. And, above all, we learned that reading a newspaper was a joy, writing for one an exciting and romantic business, and producing a newspaper like the New York Times every single day of the year a modern miracle.
I carried the copy to the Staats Zeitung und Herold by subway because that was one of the duties of the editor of the Ridder News. I wasn’t exactly the editor. I was the chairman of the executive board but it amounted to the same. I rose to chairman through a palace coup.
Mr. O’Kun liked to appoint a new editor every semester but broke with precedent in our case and named Marty to lead us for a full year. We were all supposed to be bright kids — the brightest in a neighborhood chock full of the bright kids of striving Jewish immigrants — but Marty was the brightest of all, reading a page or two of some encyclopedia every night, whizzing through exams with barely a drop of sweat on his lip, quoting formidable figures we had never heard of. We all looked awkward, young teenagers with few social graces, wearing white shirts and funny ties or, if we were girls, middy blouses with skirts. But Marty, when I think about it , was more awkward than most, trying to relate to others by showing off how smart he was. Aside from the subway rides, the duties of the editor entailed assigning stories, editing them, fitting headlines, and, at the last minute, writing more stories to fill up space, all with Mr. O’Kun at his side. The stories were almost all local, with headlines such as “Thespians Entertain Classmates” and “Servicemen Narrate Battle Experiences to School Reporter.” The whole process was supposed to be a lot of fun for all of us, but it wasn’t with Marty in charge. Perhaps we sulked because he made us feel dumb.
Nine or ten of us gathered by the benches on the rim of Crotona Park one evening before the beginning of the fall semester and decided to rebel. The park was our community center where we played basketball and softball, ogled zoftig girls in bobby sox, discussed sinister but meaningful movies like Scarface, and listened to old men in hats argue about the most efficient way to distribute milk and other foodstuffs once communism came to America. We conspirators decided that the time had come to ask Mr. O’Kun to remove Marty. I was not among the ringleaders and felt that many of the complaints were exaggerated. But I went along because I accepted the general thesis that Marty was a pain in the ass. To cloak our perfidy with a touch of class, we decided to inform Mr. O’Kun that none of us wanted Marty’s place as editor. The managing editor, Joan, a chipper young lady adept at selling ads to neighborhood shops such as Cerlaine’s Corset Shoppe and Schechtel’s Strictly Kosher Meat and Poultry, could run the paper. She had not been a conspirator.
The whole plot struck me as a foolish gesture sure to be slapped down by Mr. O’Kun, and I was astounded when he did no such thing. “I’ve been looking for a way to get rid of Marty,” he told us, “and this will give me a good excuse.” He sounded as if he had become one of the conspirators. I am sure now that he must have kept himself going as a teacher day in and day out by pretending his make believe was real. But his decision then struck me as odd and, I guess, wrong. Teachers in those days did not treat pupils as fellow conspirators on a newspaper. The plot turned heavy and dark, for Marty’s mother came to school to protest his removal and berate his classmates for their treachery. But Mr. O’Kun stood his ground, a publisher who had lost confidence in his editor, a determination bolstered by a star-studded staff that proclaimed they had lost confidence as well.
Mr. O’Kun was not comfortable with the new editorial arrangement, perhaps because he did not like the idea of sending Joan on the long subway ride to Park Row. After the first issue under her leadership, he asked me to take over as editor. I reminded him of the solemn pledge of the conspirators. But he dismissed the problem. “We won’t call you editor. I’ll create an executive board with you as chairman. You can edit the paper that way.” It sounded like his little trick of the Irish apostrophe. I was doubtful but would never dare refuse Mr. O’Kun. None of my fellow conspirators objected. They all seemed pleased, in fact, by my leadership. I have always felt my reign of editor of the Ridder News was tainted by all this, but I loved every minute of it.
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