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‘Ancient times at the Enterprise'

Stymied by StoryCorps, Howard Riley talks about the days of hot lead and evening papers

October 25, 2008
By PETER CROWLEY, Enterprise Managing Editor

SARANAC LAKE - In classic Adirondack fashion, Howard Riley has done more jobs than can be remembered at once.

But in addition to working for a farm, tuberculosis sanatorium, parking garage, hotel, college, economic-development group, village, town court and the 1980 Winter Olympics, Riley also did almost every job there was to do at this newspaper, often more than one at a time: newsboy, "printer's devil," linotype operator, reporter, columnist, circulation manager, editor, general manager, editor of the weekly Lake Placid News - and now columnist again. His well researched column on local history, called "You Know What...?" runs on Saturdays.

He is probably best remembered for being mayor of this village and editor of the Enterprise at the same time, by the time he was 30. He often tells people, "I'd write an editorial every once in a while saying, 'The mayor's doing a hell of a good job; we ought to re-elect him.'"

Article Photos

Howard Riley speaks about his days at the Enterprise.
(Enterprise photo — Andy Bates)

Riley is also frequently implicated in the hijinks of his pal, the late Bill McLaughlin, longtime Enterprise photographer, reporter and columnist. While many McLaughlin stories you might hear are larger than life, he did, in fact, put in a number of the hoax stories he's remembered for, supported with doctored photos - often on page 1. One, on March 29, 1958, bore the headline, "Is this man from outer space or just another mental case," and had a photo of Saranac Lake police officer Chuck Pandolph and Enterprise reporter Tony Piro questioning what supposedly looked like an alien, but was later revealed to be a boy wearing a bobsled helmet with squiggly wires sticking out of the top. That one drew so many calls, including from national media, that the paper had to print an explanation the next day. Other hoaxes featured dangerous pileated woodpeckers and McLaughlin and Riley's alleged discovery of a timber rattlesnake. These can be read on the Northern New York Library Network's online newspaper archive (news.nnyln.net).

Historic Saranac Lake invited me to interview Riley for the StoryCorps oral history project in June; the idea was to dig into the Enterprise's colorful history. But when he had a conflict with our time slot and tried to reschedule, we ended up on a waiting list, and that was that.

"Who needs StoryCorps?" I told him at the time. "We can do this interview for the Enterprise."

So we did, on Monday. The Q&A lasted more than an hour-and-a-half - he can go on - but I was all ears to hear about, as he put it, "ancient times at the Enterprise."

The part reprinted here is about the process of making the paper in the 1950s and '60s, when hot lead was so dominant that it's amazing guys like Riley and Dave Munn aren't long dead of lead poisoning.

PC: Was there ever a moment in your career at the Enterprise that you can remember where you kind of, all of a sudden, thought, "What the heck am I - this is not normal journalism."

HR: That's probably difficult for me to answer because I didn't know journalism at all when I stared.

PC: Was there a moment where you thought, "This can't be normal?"

HR: Well, that I thought when I more got into the newsroom end. Of course, I'd had all those years in the composing room. You know, I started there sweeping the floor. "Printer's devils," as they called them then, and remelting the lead for the linotype machines. ...

I think that it was so hard to put out the paper then, and so many steps, I couldn't imagine that someone could do that forever. And I also couldn't imagine how they put out the New York Times, which I used to think about then, although I did not read it. But to put out our little sheet, which is nowheres near the size of the Enterprise now - it was always eight pages. Not always. Thursdays it was 12 pages. ...

But, I guess to answer your original question, I never had some big moment like that to say, "God, this is crazy," 'cause we had days like that every week, because the press would break down, or there would be the wrong temperatures. I discovered later, the humidity in the press room where the paper was stored, those huge, huge rolls then ... if it got too cold down there, then the press would start - and of course there'd be 30 news kids waiting up in the thing for their papers for the paper route - and the press would start, and you'd hear, "Snap!" and that paper would tear right across. The whole press had to be rewound again. A "web break," they called it. ...

The whole thing just seemed weird that 24 people, I think, were at the paper then, worked like a son of a gun from 7 in the morning until - you never knew what time the paper was coming out in the wintertime. It could be 3 o'clock. It could be 4 o'clock. It could be 5 o'clock, depending on how the press ran, or how late the pages were made up.

(Here in the interview, at my request, Riley gave a long a detailed description of the steps to producing the daily paper. You can read it online in the North Country Living section of adirondackdailyenterprise.com.)

... Starting at 7 in the morning, there was nothing there. All the ads had to be made up, all the pages laid out. Now we, the printers, laid out the pages. The editor didn't. The only page he laid out was page 1. ...

That's all he had time to do anyway. 'Cause you had to trim the Associated Press wire and mix it with the local stories and make sure the stories and reporters who were going to go on page 1 got to you in time. You know, 12 o'clock, they might just be starting to write a local story. They had a whole lot of other things to do.

PC: So why, after all those years of typing hot lead and reading pages upside-down and backwards, would you possibly want to go into the newsroom?

HR: Well, because that looked so easy compared to what I'd been doing. I mean come on!

The only other little hitch in that: The very first story I ever covered was a Harrietstown Board meeting. Roger Tubby and Jim Loeb bought the paper in - it actually transferred ownership, they closed on it I think the first of June, 1953, and I'd been there a couple years already. (Riley started in the Enterprise composing room in 1951.) So Roger Tubby had been covering meetings, and 'cause he was new he'd get names wrong or something, so I'd correct 'em when I was doing a story on the linotype machine.

So one day after I had corrected some things and sent it back up with somebody's name, and Roger came up. Oh, of course, we used to talk up through this hole where the elevator went, so you wanted somebody upstairs, you just picked up something and banged on this pipe, and then somebody would stick their head in this little door - Geez, when I think of it, it didn't seem funny then. But they'd stick their head in, and you'd ask for whoever you wanted. And they'd bang on the pipe up there if they wanted somebody from down there.

So he said to me, "When you correct these stories," he said, "you should start covering, try covering some of these meetings." The way he said it, I thought he was being sarcastic: "You ought to try it if you think it's easy." I thought that 'cause nobody'd ever been nice to me in, you know, positions of power like that. I said, "No I don't want to cover the meetings. I was just trying to help you by correcting-"

"No, no," he said. "I think you ought to try covering some meetings."

So I don't know if I've told you this story: So he eventually said, "Why don't you go to the Harrietstown Board? There's not a lot happening there, and that's an easy one to cover." ...

I got down there, you know, half-hour early at least. First meeting ever in my life. And Red Plumadore was supervisor. And they were all in this back room where the courtroom is now; the board room was out by where the Motor Vehicle Department is, right? So I went in there, and all the Republicans are there: Plumadore and Mr. McPherson, and Mrs. (Lillian) Bateholt was the town clerk. And they're all just sitting there, so I just walk in and sit down, and everything gets quiet. And of course, Plumadore, I'd never heard of what a tough guy he was, you know? And he was a lawyer - and I didn't know him at all. And he said, "Can we help you?" And I said, "Yes, I'm here from the Enterprise. ... Yeah, I'm here to cover this meeting for the Enterprise. I'm Howard Riley."

"Well, you're not covering this meeting," he said.

I didn't know what to say. Here was the toughest guy in town. I said, "Well, Jim Loeb sent me here to cover it." I didn't know.

"Well," he says, "I'm telling you, you're not covering this meeting," he said, "because you're in a Republican committee meeting and the town board meets in there, at 7 o'clock." Of course this was at like 6:30, I had gotten there so early, and they were all meeting in the back room, 'cause everybody on the board was a Republican, right?

So, I was totally embarrassed by that; anyway, that's how I got to be a reporter. ...

You got to remember, I moved from a farm on Norman Ridge to a farm in Ray Brook and then into town by the time I was 11 or 12. I could have moved into New York City; it wouldn't have been any more startling to me, to move into this big metropolis. I mean, on the Depression farm, I don't even remember being in Saranac Lake ever. Maybe I was; I don't think I'd ever been to a movie or anything like that. ...

PC: What about doing all this newspapering in this town, this paper - I mean it's a small town to have a daily paper. ... You had pretty heavy-hitting people running it, Roger Tubby and Jim Loeb, and McLaughlin probably could have worked for a bigger paper if he'd felt like leaving home, which it sounds like he didn't. My understanding was, it had a lot of local flavor to the whole thing, too, didn't it?

HR: Yeah. Roger Tubby had been editor of the Bennington (Vt.) Banner, and of course, he graduated from Yale, and Jim Loeb was a Ph.D. in Romance languages. Before their ownership was up, he'd been ambassador to Peru, and actually recalled by President Kennedy because he got his nose into some coup d'etat down there that he shouldn't have been involved in - I don't mean involved in it, but took sides. But then he was recalled, and then he was made ambassador to Guinea, and then Roger eventually ambassador to the United Nations Mission in Geneva, Switzerland. So those guys were moving around in those kinds of circles while they were here running the paper. They sort of turned on assignments because, you know, the paper couldn't support both of them. ...

But I think when people realized these two Democrats, big shots, had moved into this Republican town - "Oh my God, what's going to happen?" But those guys were so interested in everything that was going on here and helped every fundraiser, every committee. I mean, they had a lot of influence, good influence, on everything that happened. I think people couldn't believe how understanding they were of small-town life, and wanted to be part of it, and supportive of everything, whether it was Winter Carnival to trying to get the college here to all of it. It was really Jim Loeb who was the final - I believe, my personal opinion - sparkplug that got North Country College established. ...

PC: How did the Enterprise differ from other papers of the same size? ... Did it have something to do with the owners? Did it have something to do with McLaughlin, or certain personalities, colorful characters? Did it have something to do with the level of education?

HR: Well, that's what I think. ... What small-town newspaper would have two publishers, co-publishers, with the education and the background - they knew everybody. I mean, Jim Loeb had worked for (New York governor, U.S. secretary of commerce and presidential candidate) Averell Harriman at one time as an advisor. Tubby, he was Harry Truman's last press secretary. I mean, when that level, not just of education but background and experience, comes to a little small-town paper, it's going to be different than any other paper. ...

Jim Loeb would go up there, on a typewriter ... say it was Tuesday and he was going to be away the rest of the week, so he'd go up in his office and type away. "Clack, clack, clack, clack, clack." And I don't know how many words in an editorial space then; it was probably three pages, maybe 250 words to a page, so they were probably 750-word editorials. He'd come down ... "This is the editorial for Tuesday; run. Here's the editorial for Thursday. Here's the editorial for Friday." All typed. No errors. Honest to God. There were no typing errors or strikeovers, 'cause I remember that more than anything about them. But then, so he'd say, "Howie ... Now, if the situation - you've gotta get the New York Times, and you've gotta watch the news. Now if on Wednesday the situation in the Mideast changes" - whatever it was, or the situation in Kansas City with some breaking story - "If that changes by Thursday, take out paragraph 3 and put this paragraph in its place." ... That's the level that these guys were at. ...

PC: Did other papers do Emptyprize or the hoax papers that you and Bill used to do?

HR: I don't think so. I never heard of another one doing that. ... To show you the sense of humor that they (Tubby and Loeb) had, that weather was always up in one corner (at the top of page 1), and then the other corner for a while ... there'd be a quote from somebody every day. ... I had one when I was a printer's devil. ... "Some people wait a lifetime to make the headlines, and I make them every day." But up in the corner for a while, they had a box (on) every paper: "Drive carefully; you may hit a subscriber." I mean, think of that!

PC: These are guys who had been working in the FDR administration, had been dealing with all of the most powerful papers in the world, not even just the U.S. but the world, and yet they felt like that was OK to just vent their sense of humor right in the paper. No other paper would do that.

HR: No, and they let the stuff go with Bill. ...

PC: Yeah, McLaughlin, they just let him go. It's one thing to let your columnist go; it's another thing to let the whole paper do that - and it's great stuff; I mean, you look back at it now -

HR: ... Of course, he had his own darkroom, so he could do anything he wanted to. ...

PC: But that had to go through somebody.

HR: Yeah, I know. Some of them might have gone through me.

PC: That's what I was trying to get at!

HR: They were so good. ...

PC: Did Tubby and Loeb go crazy when they'd see stuff like that?

HR: Most of it, they didn't - some of it, of course, they weren't even here. ...

 
 

 

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