A multitude of sins

R. H. Gardner

February 21, 1992|By R. H. Gardner

WE USE the word "newspaperman" (now, the phrase "newspaper person") to cover a multitude of sinners.

Edward C. (Ned) Burks became a sinner early on. Employing a hand press at age 9, he put out a paper for the edification of friends and relatives in his home town of Roanoke, Va. After graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Washington and Lee, he worked on various Virginia journals before joining the staff of The Sun, where I met him on my arrival in 1951.

Balding, with a pencil mustache, he looked like a thin Paul Whiteman. Every now and then he would snort something to nobody in particular, then lapse back into wry silence.

Though his manner bordered on the surly, most of his cohorts liked him -- especially Bataglia, a pimply-faced copyboy who dogged his footsteps, even sitting at his desk when he wasn't there. Answering the telephone, Ned always said, "Bataglia's office."

His beat was Maryland politics -- the state legislature, the City Council, the Board of Estimates, the Liquor Board -- which he covered with all the enthusiasm of a man cleaning out a sewer.

It has always been customary for reporters to head their copy with a word to identify it in the editing process. For example, a typical "slug," as it is called, for a report on a meeting of the City Council might be "Council." A slug for a story on a presidential debate would be "Debate." Ned, fed up with the hot air in the council chamber, coined the slug "Horsht."

The first time he sent over a story with this slug, Ed Young, The Sun's explosive city editor, straightened as if stuck by a pin. "What's this Horsht?" he demanded. "I don't remember scheduling . . ." Then it dawned on him. He blushed, which was not easy for Ed, since his normal complexion was two shades redder than beet juice.

With the coming of the Orioles in 1954, Ned at his own request was relieved of his job at City Hall to report on the team's activities. The next year he was sent to Germany to open The Sun's Bonn bureau, where he achieved something of a journalistic coup by getting in on the ground floor of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

Sun tradition required the head of the news department to make a periodic tour of the paper's foreign bureaus to acquaint himself with whatever problems they might have. The time for such a tour occurred while Ned was chief of the Bonn bureau and Charles H. (Buck) Dorsey Jr. was managing editor.

Unlike most newspapermen, Buck Dorsey didn't take to travel. He didn't even take to traveling around Baltimore. When Ned, intent on showing him the sights of Berlin, pointed out a well-known landmark with the words "See that, Buck? That's the Brandenburg Gate, entrance into the communist world," the managing editor began to press his feet into the floorboards.

"Turn back!"

But Ned, unaware of his boss' reaction, continued on.

Bang! A tire blew out. The little Sun-owned car began to bounce up and down, pitch and toss while the editor clung to a window strap.

"No problem," said Ned when things had settled down. "I'll have it changed in a minute." And he did, Buck Dorsey meanwhile keeping a sharp eye on the Brandenburg Gate only a short distance away. Then they were off!

Another tire blew. Again the bouncing, pitching and tossing. The editor, clinging even more desperately to the strap, shouted, "For God's sake, go down tomorrow and buy a new set of tires!"

Ned, who with the help of Berlitz had taught himself six foreign languages, was fascinated by Old World culture, especially its prostitutes -- not so much the girls themselves as their ambience. This interest eventually became so annoying to Buck Dorsey that the managing editor sent Ned a wire: "I don't want any more stories about whores."

For reasons of economy, Ned drank a cheap brand of bourbon called Colonel Lee. One night, while having one with him at his house, I spotted an unopened bottle of Old Fitzgerald on top of a cabinet. I ask what we were doing drinking rot-gut with prime stuff like that available.

He answered with some embarrassment that the bottle had been a gift from a Baltimore politician and that he planned to return it. Whatever his faults, Ned had ethics.

The next time I saw the bottle it sat in the middle of my desk the day Ned left The Sun for a better job on the New York Times. An attached note read: "I'm leaving this for you. I hope you don't mind that I took a drink." A drink from a bottle belonging to me was all right.

Ned Burks' career at the Times was marked by the same outstanding qualities that had characterized his newspapering since the age of 9. It ended with his collapse in December 1983 at Manassas, Va., where he then lived.

But his memory lingers. I think of Ned as I watch the presidential campaign. There's certainly a lot of "horsht" around these days.

R. H. Gardner, retired drama and film critic of The Sun, is author of "Those Years: Recollections of a Baltimore Newspaperman."

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