Brushes with greatness? Valarie “Val” Lauder, 89, has had plenty. As a young woman in the World War II era working at the Chicago Daily News, she organized a successful press conference with the President of the United States and a group of student editors–perhaps the first of its kind. She penned her own column about the lives and concerns of American teenagers; and covered the likes of Frank Sinatra, Danny Thomas, Jane Powell, Lena Horne and other stars. She even received a personal telegram from Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
At 18, Lauder became the first “copygirl” at the Chicago Daily News. The year was 1944, a time when many men went off at war and women filled the jobs left vacant. When the war ended in 1945 and men returned, Lauder’s career was taking off. By the time she left the Chicago Daily News in 1952, Lauder had accumulated a lifetime of memories. She was 26 years old.
Having witnessed and worked through significant transformations in journalism, Lauder went on to become a popular instructor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she taught feature writing for 30 years.
She published a memoir in 2012, The Back Page: The Personal Face of History. Despite the numerous changes to journalism over the years, particularly with the introduction of new technology, Lauder insists that the field’s true value lies in the hearts and minds of the folks who operate it.
“Whatever the technology, you need the people who will take their responsibility seriously [and] honor [the public] trust,” she said. “I think that is one of things that distinguishes great news organizations and great people.”
Interviewee: Valarie Lauder
Date: March 18, 2015
Location: Carroll Hall 211, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Interviewer: Victoria Karagiorgis
Interview Length: 1 hr 9 mins
Transcribed by/date: Victoria Karagiorgis, April 2015
Victoria Karagiorgis: This is Victoria Karagiorgis and today is March 18th, 2015. I am in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the office of Jan Yopp in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. We are doing an oral history interview for [NewStories and] the Southern Oral History program at UNC-Chapel Hill and I am interviewing Val Lauder.
Val, let’s start with a little personal background information. Tell me about growing up, when and where you were born, and what led you to get into journalism.
Valarie Lauder: I was born in Detroit, Michigan, March 1st, 1926. So two weeks ago, I turned 89, which is one reason I can speak to some of these things that are way back in the history books. I have been privileged to live a long time and to have had a great career and a lot of experiences.
I went to grade school in Pontiac, and junior and senior high school in Lansing, Michigan. Michigan had a six-year grade school, three-year junior high, and three-year high school. In high school, I had a writing class and different things that I wrote. At the end of the week, the teacher would have everybody vote on what had been written—that would go in a book. You could pick two stories for each class week to go in this book, and a lot of mine wound up there. I think someone up in the high school paper [heard about them and used them]—although I don’t remember actually working for the paper. But I had an interest in journalism.
I was a great movie fan. Everybody went to the movies then, and particularly on Saturday and Sunday, I did. A lot of movies were about newspapers then–newspaper business, reporters and editors. It had started with the classic, The Front Page. The Broadway comedy [written by] Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur about a Chicago newspaper, [their editors and reporters, set in] the criminal courts building press room. A woman, Torchy Blane, [was the star reporter in one series]. I had a great interest for some reason. I didn’t care about being a doctor or a lawyer—they also had them in the movies—but I was drawn to it. I liked to write, and different things I wrote people seemed to like, so I just had that interest. In going through different career things, by the time I finished—let me go back.
In junior high, in the ninth grade I remember the radio [broadcasts], and they talked about Hitler. They talked about him all through junior high school because he had been very active, shall we say, in Europe invading or taking over countries. Then I remember what is now called Munich, where Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, went to Munich and negotiated this agreement: if the allies let [Hitler] take over whatever he wanted to take over then, which was Austria, or part of it, as I recall, [Hitler] wouldn’t do anything. [Hitler] wouldn’t go to war against them. Chamberlain went back to England, and that’s when he said, “Peace in our time.” This was the fall of 1938.
The following year, I remember I would go to high school in September, and I was visiting my aunt and uncle in Pontiac. They had a room that had an upright piano. I remember sitting on the piano bench as the radio talked about Poland, because Hitler was then threatening to invade Poland. France and Britain said if he invaded Poland, they would declare war. Well he did and they did, and you had World War Two start. He did invade, and take over Poland, but he didn’t go after France or Britain. I think in the winter he invaded Norway; I have a recollection of that. I distinctly remember in May 1940 sitting in my French class as he invaded France because the linked in my mind. You saw pictures, which you now see in Casablanca, as the Germans are getting near Paris.
My senior year in high school, in December of course, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and this nation went to war. I was talking to a friend yesterday about this—that people today have no recollection or idea of how, I call it “pervasive,” World War Two was in peoples’ lives. Thinking about it this morning—we talked yesterday about rationing. Butter, sugar, and meat were rationed. You went and registered and you got a book—little stamps in a book. When you went to the grocery store you had to turn them in when you bought whatever. When I went off to college, I had to take that because we had dining rooms. We turned them in to the college and they used that to get the sugar and butter and meat for all the students for their meals. When we went home at Christmas, they gave us the book back; we returned it in January, and then when we went home for the summer they gave it to us.
VL: Seems silly now. That’s the only way you could get sugar or butter or meat. Gas was rationed. You had to have a little sticker on your car. I remember an “A” sticker, I think, was the best one that you got the most gas, and that was for doctors, pretty much. They made house calls then, you see.
One of the things I thought about this morning that you wouldn’t think about—to save material for uniforms and everything, women’s skirts—which had been below the knee or mid-calf—were cut off. If you look at any picture of anybody in World War Two years, their skirts—not many skirts, but [they] are right at the knee. They weren’t flared with a lot of material; they were straight. Men’s trousers before the war had cuffs on the bottoms, and to save material they took the cuffs [off]—they were just straight. I don’t think they ever put them back. I think one of the things that came out of the war were shoulder bags. Women went into Auxiliary Units in uniform. They couldn’t go around with a purse because they had to salute and do things. They came up with the shoulder-strap bags.
VK: So they could still salute—
VL: So they had them on their arm and they could [still salute]. Thinking about it this morning, too, [WWII] was in the music. The records were very popular. It was the “Big Band era” but a lot of the songs related to the war. One of the more popular ones was “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me).” You know, all the guys were away; girls were supposed to be true at home. One of Sinatra’s first hits with Tommy Dorsey was [about] a Canadian woman. She had been widowed and she wrote, “I’ll never smile again until I smile at you.” “G.I. Jive” was popular. The “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.” It was in the music. It was in the movies. They even had movies about the war and later during the war, John Wayne [in] “Sands of Iwo Jima.” Or they had it about men going away to war. The father went away, or the husband went away. It was everywhere.
Nylon had just come out and nylon stockings were wonderful things to have. But then they needed all the nylon for parachutes, so you couldn’t get nylon stockings anymore. People smoked in those days. Everybody smoked. But the cigarettes, they sent them to the guys to have overseas, so cigarettes were very hard to get. They did the same thing with cokes. A Coca-Cola, coke, was really a luxury because so many of them [had been shipped overseas]—and that’s right, I don’t begrudge it. I’m just saying, it touched everybody’s life.
Of course, I was a single daughter—only child—my cousins were too young. I moved away after high school so I don’t know what guys in my class went to war or what ones came back. Houses and apartments, [families would have hanging] in the window —it was a satiny kind of material about four inches wide and maybe eight inches long—[a war display]. If you had somebody in the service, you had a blue star and it hung in your doorway or in the window. If your service person was killed, it was a gold star. If you had more than one, you had two stars. Everywhere you looked and went—and there were posters. “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” One was about saving things—make it do. Something, “[Make Do and Mend].” Victory gardens—so that they had more food, they encouraged people to grow their own and have victory gardens.
So, this was the world—and when I went off to college, you had to take the train. [There were] servicemen on the train. I remember one time—he was, you know the part—well, you haven’t been on a train but even on a subway—
VK: Not on a train here.
VL: There’s a place between the door where you walk through where they hook up to the next one.
VK: Yes, yes.
VL: I remember a sailor sitting in there on his duffle bag, [on] one of the trains I was on. They were everywhere. This was part of the world.
So, I graduated from Stephens—it was a junior college—and I think I did a couple pieces for their paper. I thought I’d like to be in the Foreign Service and travel to Paris, London and Rome, and go to great, wonderful parties. Some career counselor said I might end up in Rangoon or something. So, I thought, “Well, I better not do that.”
VL: But then I saw the movie “Foreign Correspondent” and I thought, “Oh, I’ll be a foreign correspondent,” which threw me back to journalism. When I finished Stephens, my father had been transferred to Chicago and I transferred to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. I was in the newswriting class when I was called out one day and told to go to the hospital. My father had a heart attack—
VL: And they didn’t think he would live through the night, but he did. Then they didn’t think that he would ever work again. My mother was a librarian, and I thought, “Well, I shouldn’t be outgo, I should be income.” The girl next to me in my newswriting class was a copygirl at the Chicago Sun—it was just the Sun yet, they hadn’t bought the Times. It was just the Chicago Sun and it was on the seventh floor of the Chicago Daily News building. Northwestern was on the quarter system, so we ended just before Christmas. The Monday after we ended, I got dressed up in my “dress for success” black suit and heels and went downtown to the Daily News building. She had told me it was on the seventh floor so I didn’t even look at the directory; I just went up to the seventh floor. The receptionist called the man in charge of the copyboys and copygirls, which we called copykids. He came out and was as nice as could be, but he didn’t need anybody.
VK: So how did you convince him to let you work?
VL: I didn’t! I had to leave and I went back down in the elevator. When I came out, you faced a sort of a small area that had a building directory. I looked—and it shows what a college education will do you for you—I realized that the Chicago Daily News was in the Chicago Daily News building. It was on the sixth floor, so I went back up to the sixth floor. They didn’t have anybody at the reception desk that day. So I started—around the corner there were double doors that were open and there was this long corridor—and I started down it, sort of like if you go in a house and you say, “Yoo-hoo, yoo-hoo.” I got several yards in and a man came toward me and he said, “What do you want?” I said, “I want to be a copygirl,” and he said, “Well, I’m the one you should talk to. I’m in charge of them.” He pointed for me to go back out. They had a little reception area out there and he interviewed me. I told him I was interested in journalism, my father had a heart attack, I needed a job and I wanted to be a copygirl. He asked me a few questions and he said, “Can you start tomorrow?” I said, “Yes.” He looked at me and said, “Do you have a Social Security card?” I said, “No, I’ve never worked.” I was 18.
VK: Mm-hmm. Fresh out of school.
VL: Fresh out of school. So he told me where to go to get one. Then he beckoned me to follow him back down this long corridor, at the end of which was one of the entrances to the city room. That was my first glimpse of a real newsroom.
VL: He pointed to a desk near a wall and it had a long bench behind it. He said, “Report to me there tomorrow morning at nine o’clock.” And I did.
VK: You were the first copygirl at the Chicago Daily News?
VL: I didn’t realize it—it was some years later. One of the girls who came in the summer that I knew, wrote a thing in our—the Chicago Daily News alumni has a newsletter. We have a printed one and we’re online. We’re a Yahoo group. She wrote something about when she was there in the summer, somebody told her she was the fifth copygirl. I got thinking about it because I had come several months before. I called her up and we compared notes. From everything we could figure, she was the fifth one in the summer. The ones that had come after me—I had to be the first one.
VK: Did you even realize that there were challenges as a woman in the newsroom?
VL: No, no. He said, “Can you start tomorrow?” and I went—there were all the copyboys. They needed it because, you see, almost every one of the guys there was waiting to be called up.
VL: The draft board—I think they waited until after Christmas or something. But [copyboys] were hard to find; they just didn’t have enough copyboys. So, they took a copygirl. One of the things that made me think it was the case was—men would look [straight at me and] yell, “Copy!” and you would go, because a copykid was an errand [runner]. “Come here!” “Get this!” “Take it there!”
VK: Tell me a little more about what you did as a copygirl.
VL: Well, I will in just a minute. But they would yell, “Copy!” sometimes and I would go. Sometimes [they] would just see me walking and look at me and yell, “Boy!” I thought, “I don’t look like a boy.”
VL: Then I realized later, they were used to it; it was synonymous—copy and boy. One of the duties was we made books. You took five sheets of copy paper, you stapled it at the top, and you stuffed it with four sheets of carbon paper, which you have probably never seen.
VK: No, I haven’t—only everything with the computer.
VL: We had them all—on the rewrite desk and by reporter’s desks—they were little wire baskets. So when they were going to do a story, they reached for that and put it in their typewriter. They had five copies and they had the carbons. When they finished, they pulled out the carbons. They kept one [copy] for themselves, they sent one to the city desk, and I don’t know, others went to other places. Then they had all the carbons in the baskets and every so often we would go gather them up and go make more books.
One of the things, too, about a city room—this I described in my book as a “basketball court squared”—it had pillars to support it, which had clocks and calendars on [them]. They had dark green metal desks with little brass edgings. So many people smoked, in particular at the rewrite desk, [when] they put their cigarettes down they had little nicotine stains on them.
They had landline telephones. A few were the old-fashioned, upright candlesticks that you see in the movies, where it has a hook like a bell shape. But most of them where what they call “French phones.” You picked it up and you had the receiver and you spoke into it. But they didn’t have cellphones—all landline telephones. It was a big part of how the city room stayed connected with their reporters and beat men because you had to have a telephone.
They had deadlines and one of the other things we did—Jack was the man in charge—and he had a calendar desk with the days. It had 20-minute blocks and you had to check off somebody when they went to get proofs. You went down to the composing room and you wound your way through, past the old linotype machines, which were monstrous things with typewriter keyboards where they set the lines of type. It would come in a tray and then when they had the story they would put a little metal block to hold them together. I don’t know, a printer or somebody took it over and they collected them. They would run ink on it and a roller over it with paper, and they’d get proofs, you see. They put them on—they had big nails that stuck out like for the city desk and sports—and one of the copykids’ charges was to go get them. Somebody had to go every 20 minutes and if you looked and it wasn’t checked off, you went. Then you went up and distributed them to sports, and the picture desk, and so on. That was one of the things we did, but basically we were gofers.
VK: What do you mean by “gofers?” Just the running around?
VL: They’d call me. “Get the clips from the library on—” whatever [the person or the subject]. The mayor or a fire, whatever they’d tell you—Roosevelt or Churchill or whatever. You’d bring [what they wanted] to the reporter—rewrite men—they had a rewrite desk. These were four or five deep facing each other. They had the upright telephones on expanding metal frames. So if you sat there and [the editor] said, “( ) pick up 411 on whatever ( ),” [the rewrite man] would pull the phone over. They had a switchbox and he’d flick to pick up 411. They had headphones he’d put on, so he could talk. These were the upright telephones; they just didn’t have the hooks on them.
VL: The hook was where you held the headphones. But see, then you had both hands free. They talked—beat men, they had beat men at the criminal courts building and at City Hall and the South State Street Courts. Or if you were sent out to cover a fire, or you were at City Hall or County Building and you weren’t going to make the deadline, you called it in. Then the city editor assistant would have somebody talk [to them]—and the rewrite men would take all the information and write the story. Then he would hold up his hand or copy or whatever, and I’d go get it and take it to the city editor and when they read it, he’d call me and I’d take it to the copy desk. That’s why you were a gofer—you got things or you took them.
After I’d been there two or three weeks, I was assigned to the make-up desk. That’s where the man laid out all the stories. When I came in at nine o’clock, he was going over the edition that the night people had put out. Every story had a slug to identify it. He would say what the slug was and where it was because they had dummy sheets. He would stand and do that. Then as the day wore on and they got the stories, he and the news editor would confer with the city editor and telegraph editor who handled the wire service [stories]. We had a cable editor who handled foreign news and we had a great foreign service of foreign correspondents. It all fed in, and he would lay out the front page—what went right, what went left, what went below the fold, above the fold—and on the inner pages.
Then I took it down to the composing room and gave it to the guys who made up the pages. It’s when we were on deadline and I would be lingering down there with the news editors that I saw them. When they lift the type out of the tray and put it in the column where it was supposed to go…they had such nimble fingers because if they didn’t quite fill out the space—they had little overnight fillers for big things, we’ll say it came up like a half-inch short—they would what they called “lead it.” When they lift the type out of the tray and put it in place, if the story didn’t quite fill out the space—they had little overnight fillers for big things, we’ll say it came up like a half-inch short—they would what they called “lead it.” They took pieces of lead that were razor thin, and they would drop them in between the lines of type to fill it up—the visual, I couldn’t detect it.
Later, when they had computers and cold type and I did some layout and newsletters, you could do that [on computers]. If you were a quarter or half-inch short, you did something and you pressed it, and it would fill it out.
VK: Interesting. Speaking about change, can you tell me—describe a little bit about what the newsroom looked like. Tell me what changes you saw over time at the Chicago Daily News, if you saw any—
VL: It didn’t change, because I left in ’52.
VL: And they still had landlines—well, they had typewriters—manual type. No electric typewriters. Old Underwoods, you can see a couple of them on display at the library in windows. It didn’t change that much, it changed later.
The basic change came with the technology when they got the computers. My era was what they called “hot type” because it was hot lead that melted and they did these lines of type. “Cold type” was where they had the computer and you put it up on the screen. I remember having a guest in class from the Washington Post one time. I said, “There you don’t need to take copy to anybody. Do they have copykids anymore?” He said they did, but not as many. I forget, they had some fancy name for them [laughter] and they were what they did. It changed the whole way you worked. And it changed deadlines in a way because it was so much quicker.
VK: Did it change the atmosphere in the newsroom as well?
VL: Well, see, I never worked in the newsroom with that. I just know it came about.
VL: I did read one time, the keys of a computer—everybody knows what they sound like if you use them. I read in Editor and Publisher, which I just happened to see or it was picked up. Some paper, when they switched over, the newsroom, the reporters so missed the sound of the typewriters, they got a recording and played it [laughter] for a few days while people got used to the sort of plastic click.
VK: [laughter] That’s funny.
VL: Isn’t it?
VK: You wouldn’t think that’s a sound that people would want to hear, but—
VL: That’s what you were used to.
VK: That’s really funny. You came to the Chicago Daily News when we were in the midst of World War Two. Tell me little bit about how the war impacted the newsroom there and what kind of stories were covered.
VL: It impacted the newsroom in—as I became a copy girl. Before that the men were called away to war, as they were in every field. One of the famous posters was Rosie the Riveter. Women went into factories and worked. They had to go and teach in schools. Any place that men worked, women had to go and fill in. [The Chicago Daily News] had had several reporters drafted or they enlisted and they had to fulfill those positions. When I went—the best I can remember—there were five women reporters. I remember one was Norine Foley. She had been a legal secretary and she was very good. She had a notebook and she took dictation. I asked one time if should learn that and [she] said, “No, you just have to learn how to take your notes.” Another I remember was Adele Hoskins. Then there was Trudy Blanchard, and there was somebody I can see but I can’t remember her name. I think there was a fifth one. Well I was there when the war ended. I was in the city room for part of it and then I was in the feature department. The men started to come back.
VK: What happened to the women? Did they keep their jobs?
VL: Then the war ended and [the men] came back. One of the things—in World War One when men went off and they came back, their jobs had been filled and they were out of luck. It made a lot of ill feeling. So in World War Two, the Congress [addressed this]. There was a law—if you went off and served, whether you enlisted or were drafted, and you came back, you got your job back. So when the men came back, the women had to make room for them. Norine Foley was so good they kept her. Adele Hoskins was so good they moved her down the hall and made her in charge of—they didn’t have television—radio. Radio listings and the column about what was going on. Trudy Blanchard went to the Lansing State Journal. I remembered that because I’d gone to high school in Lansing, so the name registered. I don’t really know what happened to the other two but they had to leave.
One of the [men] who came back was Peter Lisagor, who then became a Nieman Fellow, went to Washington. He covered the state department, the White House. He became the dean of the White House Press Corps. If you ever go to the National Press Club, they have a room named for him.
VK: Oh, neat.
VL: And they have a Peter Lisagor Award for distinguished [reporting or journalism]. Because he was so—had such integrity and ethics.
I remember everybody was willing to help me because I wanted to learn. Riding a suburban train with [Pete] when we were going home one time, he told me that he had covered an interesting story in court that day. There was an interesting lesson in it. He taught me this: A guy would rob hotel rooms. These were the kind where they had the old key. They used to have key, like a long key, and it would have a black handle so if you forgot and went off you could drop it in the mailbox, and it would go back to the hotel. They always had two. He would go in and he’d pretend to ask the desk clerk something, but he’d look and see what rooms had two keys in them. Knowing that whoever was in there was out, because otherwise they wouldn’t have two keys in there. If somebody had it they would take the key with them. That’s how he knew what rooms were empty to go back; he’d sneak up and rob them.
VL: And what Pete said was—in his lesson to me—if I was covering anything like that to say, “He had a way of determining which rooms were not occupied and then went and robbed them.” You didn’t tell the reader how he found that out—the M.O. as they later said in police dramas. I always thought how considerate that was of him to teach me that.
VK: That is very considerate. That is so that people reading it wouldn’t get any ideas—
VL: Wouldn’t get any ideas. You know, there are different stories, you’ve heard about them and they do withhold—some of it they withhold at the matter of knowing who really knew what was going on, but some of it is so they don’t teach you how to do it.
VK: That’s an interesting fact. I’ve never thought about that in stories.
VL: Well, of course a lot the stories—the war was the big story. Almost—except for a fire or something, or an election, or a robbery or court case—almost all the news flowed from the war.
VK: Did you write any stories about the war?
VL: No, see I was a copygirl and I didn’t write anything. I did want to learn and so I got into where they would let me write these short overnight things. I learned about that—they taught me different things. I remember the first one I did was a Rotary Club luncheon. They had a speaker. The Rotary Club always met on Friday, I think. It was at the Sherman House. I wrote—it was like two paragraphs. I read it over and over and over because I got the press release. I turned it in and fortunately, it was the second assistant city editor, who was very mild and friendly, and he called me over. He tapped it and he said, “Val, it has been the custom at this newspaper—in fact at all the newspapers in Chicago, in fact throughout the country, nay the civilized world—to put the interesting, noteworthy, newsworthy part of the story first, not last,” and handed it back to me.
One of them too, because I thought I guess I was always a natural born feature writer, you can figure what I had written. It came back, I was called over and he said, “Please, Val. Not ‘Bow-Wow: The Chicago Kennel Club Announced It’s Annual Dog Show Will Open.’”
But you learn. I learned by osmosis when they talked to people. Like, “Who said it? How do you know that’s true?,” and so on. I learned from that. But the foreign news, see, all came in on the wires. You’d just—you’d hear them talking. I remember, something I read the other day reminded me, because I’m working on a piece about the end of the war in Europe.
In Japan, they had a woman, American, called Tokyo Rose, who broadcast to the G.I.s, trying to seduce them and tell them the country didn’t care about them, and blah blah. In Germany, they had a British man and they called him “Lord Haw-Haw.” That was about how Germany would win and nobody else could do anything right or whatever. As they were getting close to Germany, he was captured. Somebody said—and I remember the city editor said, “Lord Haw-Haw is now Lord Boo-Hoo.”
VL: So you learn and then you read the paper.
VK: And learn from there as well.
VL: I was a copykid and they let me learn. Then I was promoted to the picture desk and I didn’t want to go, I wanted to be a reporter. But it was only yards away. I had turned 19 by this time. The city editor said no, it would make me a member of the staff and I said, “But I want to be a reporter.” He said, “Think of every caption as a small story.” He kept pressing me and said finally, “Besides, you can age over there.” So I went over there. I’ve always been grateful because it was a good experience and it taught me to value photographs.
VL: In a way I wouldn’t have before I think. I was over there when the war ended, and when it ended—I think it took a couple months for the guys to come back. They started to come back around Christmas time and the ladies would leave. In fact, the war had brought out the importance of teenagers. Partly, it was Sinatra and the bobbysoxers, but partly there was juvenile delinquency. Where before the war, children were sort of to be seen and not heard, like Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen or Nancy Drew or something.
VK: Was that part of the inspiration for your column, “The Keen Teens?”
VL: Well, they wanted something. I was aware of the teenagers and all, but it sort of came together. What happened was the city editor, when I was on the picture desk, came over. He said they were considering a syndicated column and they had some samples; would I read them and tell him what I thought of it. They were what they had always been: advice. Shows how old fashioned it was—“should you kiss a boy on the first date?”
VL: I was listening to something the other day and it’s like, “Do you sleep with somebody on the first date?” Well, that’s a long way from a kiss [laughter].
VK: Yes [laughter].
VL: And “How do you do this?” and “How—.” I was sick of it. So, I think I wrote a memo and said I was sick of it…like everyone had been telling me what to do all my life. They had a column in our paper, and the Times and all newspapers did. It’s called a Broadway column, [about] celebrities, who was in town, who was getting a divorce, who had eloped, and that sort of thing. I said, “Why don’t they have a column like that only of things about high school and college students? Things that happened in class, anecdotes, records that were new that they would be interested in—”
VK: What about anything concerning politics or—?
VL: Oh, no, no. It was all aimed for high school and college students. I [used] some [writing samples] from my high school and college, [which] I told them. I [also] made up a few [writing samples], just examples. I went over to Marshall Field & Company and listened to the new records. I turned in three columns. A year to the day I had started, the managing editor called me in and said, “We’re going to let you do this.” At first, it was going to be one day a week, and then before we could get it started, they said, no, it would be three days a week. When I left—and I was to have two or three weeks to get it sort of revved up, and go out and talk to the schools. So I didn’t come in. When I came in that afternoon, everyone was rushing up. They thought I was one of the ones with the war over that was out of a job. I wasn’t, I was just starting this new thing and had been out of the office.
But it was true and that was the law. When the men came back, their jobs were there for them, which they should’ve been. Nobody questioned them. Their going away brought women in. It brought me in as a copygirl. It brought these five women reporters, two or three who were good enough they found a place for them.
VK: Would you say that it showed that women were competent and that women could work?
VL: Oh, yes.
VK: Which is huge. So, from “The Keen Teens,” did you go on to be a reporter?
VL: There at the very end, there was someone who wanted my job and the managing editor was allied with her. So, my last year, half of the morning I worked as a reporter, and in the afternoon I worked on my column. I did that and I did some pieces. One I remember, when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis opened at the Chicago Theater, they put [my story] on page one above the fold. Dean and Jerry sent me a nice telegram [laughter] about it. Well, of course they liked it, they were on page one—
VK: Dean Martin sent you a telegram?
VK: Dean Martin sent you a telegram?
VL: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis—
VL: They were a team then.
VK: What other kind of people did you interact with?
VL: Oh, see that was part of it. Writing a column—their press people, if somebody was coming to town, would call and ask if you could come have lunch with them.
VL: Or come to a press party, and of course I set up this—when I was at Northwestern, I wanted to interview singer Lena Horne, who was appearing at the Chicago Theater. I went down and the doorman was very nice. He let me wait. He said, “I have to ask her manager.” When he came down from the steps, he had his tie—collar open and his tie loose. He had a cigar. I never forgot. He said, “Honey, if I let you interview her, I going to have to let 130 other school editors interview her.” But he did let me wait in the wings and write about the show. That was a nice feature in the Daily Northwestern. Well, then I went to the News, and I saw it even before I had the column, because I saw other people get—the picture editor, back a couple times when he didn’t want to go to things, said, ”Would you like to go?,” and I went.
I thought, “Well, we should get this together,” so I proposed a press club, that the Daily News would sponsor, of editors of the high school and college papers. It was good for everybody because the celebrity or historical figure could do one, and do all the newspapers—
VK: And cover everybody.
VL: They got publicity because the Daily News had a picture and I wrote about it, and the students went back and wrote [a story] for their newspaper, which was good experience. I always thought it was good because I remember my high school paper—they didn’t have much like that. It was always somebody [that] came and spoke about the evils of alcohol and showed something in a jar that was pickled. So [this] gave them stories.
Anyhow, I set those up, so I got to meet—I met Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis way long before I did the cover thing. And Frank Sinatra—oh, lots of people. Jane Powell, Esther Williams, Peter Lawford, Danny Thomas, Tony Bennett when he was just starting—
VL: Just starting out then.
VK: You did a press conference with Dwight D. Eisenhower, right?
VL: [Yes. The year before, when we’d just started the press club], I heard the president was coming to town. I thought, “Well, he would be a wonderful one,” because the criteria was somebody prominent that would be of interest to the student editors and their readers. I thought, “Well, he fit the bill.” But, I thought, “The president?” I was very timid about asking, but I finally decided I had to. It was the feature editor—they had a new feature editor and he was the one I had to ask. I remember I said, “The president is coming to town. What about getting a press conference with him?” I never forgot this either; he said, “Honey, go out and buy yourself an ice cream cone.”
VL: And I said, “Why?” He said, “You don’t get interviews with the president of the United States.” I said, “Why not?” And he said, “Have you ever seen a presidential schedule on a visit?” I said, “No.” He said, “There isn’t any time.”
Of course, see, I was still 19, and I guess I took it personally a little bit then. I said, “Well, that’s the trouble. Everybody is always talking about how important young people are. Hope of the nation. Future of the country. But nobody has any time for them.” Well, his phone rang and he said, “Give me a memo on it.” But, because of that—if he hadn’t said those things, I wouldn’t have written the memo that I did—I put that in the memo. That nobody had any time for them.
VK: And that’s what caught his attention?
VL: I said if we did this, it was how many schools and the student population. I forget—it was like 150,000 or something—would all be covered. So, I gave it to him. I went over and gave it to him, and I heard later he gave it to the managing editor, who sent it down to the Washington Bureau Chief, Paul Leach, who sent it over to the White House to the press secretary, Charlie Ross, who sent it in to President Truman, who read it and said he would love to—and told Charlie Ross. Charlie Ross told Paul Leach, who called the managing editor. I came back from lunch one day and was called to the managing editor’s office. I never saw such a smile on his face as I did that day.
VK: How exciting!
VL: He said, “You’ve got your press conference.” And it was a big thing. [When the promotion department researched it, they said it was the first—and I believe to this date still is—the only time a President has met with a group of student editors in a formal press conference]. The only condition—the White House didn’t want it announced until they announced it, so we had to work in secret. The managing editor wrote a letter to all the principals—I had already started to set up the press club, but I didn’t have it completely set up—explaining that it would be confidential, what the date was, and we had the time. So for them—it was a Friday sometime—to call a student they selected and tell them what they would be doing and to come to a meeting at the Daily News Friday afternoon to be briefed on it.
Truman announced it—they traveled by train then a lot—when he left Washington to come to Chicago, he announced it. I came in that Friday morning and they had a story on it. Then a lot of people called in, and you know—we took some latecomers. I asked the editors and they thought if it was a legitimate school, we would take them—like Culver Military Academy in Indiana called and we took them. We had 106. In a couple cases [the school newspapers] had co-editors, and we allowed them [to send both] if they had co-editors so they didn’t have to choose; to have both editors come.
VK: I’d say that’s a pretty huge accomplishment at 19 years old to have under your belt.
VL: Well, one of the things, though—I got lucky. I had a neighbor who was a presidential historian, William Leuchtenburg. Look him up. L-E-U-C-H-T-E-N-B-U-R-G. One of the best-known, most famous presidential historians, and he was my neighbor at one time. He was talking—and I think I told him about this—he told me that he had been at the Truman Library doing research when Truman came in. The curator introduced him and he chatted with Truman. Then Truman got word from someone and said he was sorry he’d have to leave, a grade school class was coming in and he wanted to go talk to them. The curator said anytime a school came in, [Truman] went and talked to them. He was interested in that! I don’t know about other presidents, they might have been interested or they might have seen the value, but that struck a chord with [Truman].
VK: That’s great and it’s great how it worked out. So you left the Daily News in ’52. What about accomplishments afterwards? What led you to UNC?
VL: I did a lecture tour about all this experience and Eisenhower. When we had the Eisenhower press conference and he answered a student’s question, he publicly revealed, for the first time, the greatest decision he had to make during the war. We had the fun ones, with the celebrities, and also, I’d been a teenager through much of this. So it was principally to high school assemblies but some college and some adult groups. It was two years and it was 21 states or something. Of course, with high schools, the summer was off and that was nice [laughter].
Then I freelanced from home. I worked briefly in New York and then came down here. My father had died and my mother needed to be near good medical facilities, and we weren’t in Massachusetts—close enough. Because I hadn’t completed by degree, I didn’t think about teaching. I worked in an editorial capacity [at UNC-CH]. Through one thing and another, I went to something for editorial people and Professor Carol Reuss was there. We were chatting, and something about what I’d done. She thought the dean would be interested; to bring a scrapbook. I did and left it with him. Then he called me, because they had the summer workshops that Monica Hill [now] does, and they needed a speaker to do the—talking about feature writing. So I did that. The next day he called me and said that I had gotten very good reviews and they needed someone to teach feature writing here that fall in the coming year; would I be interested. I was, so I came. That was the fall of 1980.
VK: How long did you teach for?
VL: Thirty years. I retired in July 2011.
VK: That’s a long time.
VL: It is.
VK: Very long time. What kind of changes did you witness in journalism, in technology during that span?
VL: Well, I saw—because the school had to keep up. Dean Richard Cole, when he saw the computers and all coming in, he got grants. We set up an editing lab and they had computers. Then he got them in the classrooms. I remember the opening faculty meeting in August one year. The then associate dean, Tom Bowers—if you had transferred in, Newswriting 53 was a prerequisite. You had to take it here and if transferred in, you either had to take it—or you had to take a test that showed you knew it. To do that, he needed typewriters. He had 10 students, I think, and he needed 10 typewriters. He couldn’t find them. It had so changed to computers, he couldn’t find [10 typewriters]. I said, “There are a couple typewriters in my classroom, [at the back, on a table].” And they found 10 isolated typewriters. Speaking about the carbon paper, I thought I needed carbon paper to make out something I was doing in triplicate, and I couldn’t find any sheets of carbon paper in the journalism school because it was all photocopy.
VK: Mm-hmm. Interesting. What about your memoir, The Back Page? How did that come about? Was that after retirement?
VL: Well, I think it—oh, yes. I drew on some of the stories in class. Through the years I had told them, and of course it was the lecture tour. I thought people might be interested, and also it was back about how you did it—the “hot type” era. The end of the war and when Roosevelt died—that was just out of the blue, it would be like 9/11. These different things and how it affected the people and how they reacted to get the story—to handle it and get the stories out.
So I thought it might be interesting. I sat down and wrote it one summer. It’s self-published because I sent it to an agent, and he liked it a lot, but he said he would be remiss if he didn’t point out, with an eye to the market, that I was not Katharine Graham. So it’s self-published, but I think they did a good job. I remember it took an extra month or two going over and checking all the typos and things. But I am very proud of it.
VK: It’s great—I read it. It’s a great memoir. In your opinion, and kind of things that you reflect on in your memoir, how do you think technology has changed journalism? Do you think it’s for the better, the way that it is now?
VL: Well, I think [technology] makes [journalism] so much easier and quicker. In writing, you have news. You have the inverted pyramid. I always thought, from watching the make-up men, that was because they needed to cut it; they could just cut the end off. That worked that way, but I also heard it went back to the days of the telegraph, which was the late 1800s and early 1900s. Somebody would be out and sending in a story and the telegraph line went down. So, they knew the editor had the most important thing in all—however much they got out, they went to the inverted pyramid: most important thing first, next most important second, and so on.
I had a guest from the Washington Post one time who [talked about] features. He had the visuals, an inverted pyramid for news. A feature was like a spool, because the lead and the ending are equally important, and then you have the middle. I used that in class. You put the lead up, you have the middle, and then you have—no editor worth his salt would ever just slop that off. If you have to cut it, you go in and you prune and tighten. If you have to cut it, you go in and you prune and tighten. That’s one of the changes. In that effect, they didn’t have to worry about the telegraph [lines going down]; they still did it.
I think that the cellphone has been amazing. Well, of course you’re seeing this with a lot of stories today because people record things.
VL: The SAE Fraternity [March 2015 news story about a racist chant by University of Oklahoma SAE members] was a cellphone, I guess. Somebody sitting in that bus didn’t approve of what was going on and recorded it.
VK: Also, with your computers—with the Internet—everyone is able to see it
VL: And they said that—it goes viral. Things that you might write a story about that nobody would’ve paid much attention to—in fact, a couple of times I think there have been things like this. I don’t know that it’s true with SAE, but we’ll say somebody had heard this a few months ago and wrote to somebody and told on [SAE], and it didn’t catch on. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a good example. Because there have been things I read. They did alert police or authorities or something. Nobody paid any attention. Then they had either that video or another one that went viral and then it’s all the same.
VK: That’s a really good point. Going off of this modern era, how have you really kept up with media since retirement? Since your book, how do you—
VL: Well, I haven’t really. I do email. I did at one time learn how to use PageMaker and that’s why I know about leading type. At the picture desk, I was able to use that—how to scale photos and put them in, and so on. But, I don’t tweet.
VL: And I’m not LinkedIn. People invite me and I think, “Well, I don’t know.” I’m strictly email.
VK: Well, you are very responsive on your email, I must say. You do a good job at it.
Is there anything else that we didn’t cover that you feel is important for me to know and will be helpful in our understanding of change over time with journalism?
VL: [pause] Only that each generation or each change affects whoever is working at that time. They have to adapt. You just always hope that they will use it wisely. I guess that goes to other things. The gun: some people use it for good and some people use it for ill. Anything almost can be used for good or ill…[so] you have to hope.
I’m writing a piece now about when I was at the News. I was a copygirl and I came in this day, and everyone was all excited because AP had sent out a bulletin that the Germans had surrendered. It was expected in a way, because it was so many miles from Berlin, and you know, it wasn’t unexpected. Just nobody knew when. They were all huddled around the copy desk and they had written the headline and they had edited the bulletin. All of a sudden, somebody realized: where was United Press? They hadn’t heard a word from them. Then they thought about the other—that there was nothing on the radio, they hadn’t heard from NBC News, CBS News, or the New York Times. We had a foreign service and we hadn’t heard from any of our people. So, they had the telegraph editor call AP. He said they stood by it.
In World War One, United Press had sent out a false bulletin that the Germans had surrendered. That was very much on the editors’ mind, beyond the responsibility—this is what I’m getting at—whatever the technology, you need people who are aware of the responsibility—it’s a great trust, in a way—that you have this capacity to inform people, to facilitate communication.[The Chicago Daily News editors] didn’t know what to do. AP stood by the story that the Germans had surrendered but there wasn’t a peep from any other source they would trust. While they could’ve gone with that and replayed it at any time, they had a deadline at 10:30. They either didn’t use it at all, or they had to use something on a fire or whatever. I remember the city editor said, “Okay, let’s tell them what we know. The executive editor was the one that had to make the call. He weighed this and he said, “Yes, we’ll tell them what we know.” So they put a kicker on it—the headline. A kicker is a few words or a line above the headline at the left. It usually has a line under it. It’s an intro. It sort of says, “This is what this is about.” It’s a little extra. They call it a kicker. [The Chicago Daily News] said, “The Associated Press Says Germans Surrender.”
VK: So they didn’t want to take the blame.
VK: They didn’t want to take the—
VL: They didn’t know. They said let’s tell them—the public—let’s tell them what we know. They took that trust so seriously that to get a headline, to get an extra, they wouldn’t say something they didn’t know was true. Yet, the AP was saying it was, but nobody else was. [The editors at the Chicago Daily News] were really caught. This bind is ethical by—it was the biggest story in the world. The temptation to go with it was overwhelming.
Your news sense is all, “Oh, the war is over!” But they didn’t know if it was and they did have the historic lesson of in World War One when United Press that time had sent out a false report. They didn’t know it was false but they sent it out, that the Germans surrendered then.
I thought, because I’m working on that now, I’ve thought all the more, what a dilemma that was. How ethical and responsible they had been. They wouldn’t say something was true they didn’t know was true, but since the AP stood behind it they felt the public should know. So they said, “Tell them what we know: The Associated Press Says Germans Surrender.”
You need that. Whatever the technology, you need the people who will take their responsibility seriously, honor their trust—not betray it—under the pressure of a deadline. Sometimes, there are things and you go back and you think, “Well, I can see [how you’d think that… or that could happen] but you shouldn’t. That’s the trust—what you tell people. It’s not quite like yelling, “fire”—it’s the freedom of speech. But that doesn’t give you the power to yell “fire” in a crowded theater.
There is a trust there of what you print or broadcast. I think that’s one of the things that distinguishes the great newspapers, great news organizations, and great people—like Walter Cronkite. I don’t think you could get him, if you remember him. Somebody, I heard the other day, said somebody asked them, “Who’s Walter Cronkite?” He was the great CBS news anchor and you see him when they show Kennedy’s death. He’s the one who takes his glasses off and says, “The White House announces that President Kennedy died—” he looks up at the clock, “at [such and such] central time.” He was the most respected—and Edward R. Murrow—there are certain people.
The fall side of this…the other side of it—with Brian Williams and now Bill O’Reilly embellishing. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Bill O’Reilly says he didn’t, but a lot of people say that it wasn’t a riot and so on. But Brian Williams definitely was embellishing. I know one of the things—he said he was there when the Berlin Wall came down. I know that was not true because Tom Brokaw happened to be there and he was the only correspondent from any network, and I think maybe even any newspaper. Brian Williams apparently had sometimes said he was there, and he holds up this piece of the wall that he got.
VK: Those figures are pretty unethical, you would say.
VL: See, that’s the other side of it. Trust is something—whether personally or anything—if you violate that, it’s very hard to get back. I guess what I’m saying is: this business—whether it’s on a Twitter, broadcast breaking news, bulletin—if you are communicating information that’s that important, or even if it’s minor—it should be as accurate and honest as you know or can make it.
VK: That’s a really good message and something that, being young, I’ll definitely keep in mind too as I go further in this career.
Thank you for meeting with me. It’s been great to hear your insight and—just your insight in this field and some of the incredible stories you have.
VL: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it.
END OF INTERVIEW