John Thomas Ward was 94 Friday. For almost six decades h worked at The Baltimore Sun and may be our oldest living alumnus. So what? he says.
Rather than talk, Mr. Ward would sooner check The Sun or Wall Street Journal to see what's new. He would sooner wonder if he could still hike on Pike's Peak or take a trip around world or see the Orioles at Camden Yards "as long as loud idiots don't sit in front of us like last time."
At 94, he has finally given up challenging cars at crosswalks by rapping hoods with his cane. No more does he check the New Orleans Crescent from an apartment window to see if the train is leaving Penn Station "a few minutes late." Or smoke, after quitting at age 82. Or roam in Asia or Europe as the spirit moved, though "it would be nice to see Tahiti again."
But the life-long bachelor friend of "many girlfriends" still takes buses around town, reads books at the Enoch Pratt and sits at pianos and plays "Believe me, if all those endearing young charms." He wears suits everywhere except the bedroom and bathroom, improving on the sartorial rules of the 1880s, when gentlemen never took off their coats in the office. Only slightly bent now, Mr. Ward is an old school newspaperman. His birthday was just celebrated in an annual ritual at the home of Helen Heisler, widow of Mr. Ward's former managing editor, Philip S. Heisler.
Mr. Ward was delighted over a former colleague's old comment that he had covered the Crucifixion for The Evening Sun. Sixty years minus six months (1920 to 1979) was his span at The Baltimore Sun. He began in Sun sports in March 1920 and soon took up residence in The Evening Sun. In between he did six months with the Baltimore News ("I was fired in one of Hearst's sweeps").
While at Western Maryland College earlier, he almost got into World War I as an officer candidate. Later, for World War II, he volunteered and served four years in Colorado and elsewhere in the Army Air Corps, several times begging to go overseas. He was in his early 40s and never got the chance, but he wrote a Private Knapsack column for The Evening Sun.
He edited the paper's business section for his last 28 years, but that was only the end. He covered area news, the Korean War, worked the copy desk, police, makeup, city desk and, as Casey Jones' alter ego, kept every train schedule since they hammered the Golden Spike in Utah.
I told Mr. Ward I had always wanted to write and print an obit on someone before he died and this was it. John faked a black mood. "Well, I was the obit editor, too, so I'll be reading it closely."
John's most enduring trick was putting out an extra edition of The Evening Sun with just a single printer when the zeppelin Hindenburg exploded May 6, 1937. Everyone else at The Evening Sun had gone home. "It was news and people wanted to read about it. We put out hundreds of papers. . . . Damn big story."
At breakfast the other day, Mr. Ward forgot to eat his eggs, or rather he was too much of a gentlemen to eat while I just drank coffee. And he forgot why he was operated on two years ago (appendix), but he forgot little else.
He recalled dining at one of two "divorce dinners" in October 1920. This was when one morning/evening staff was split into two for The Sun and The Evening Sun, a Baltimore fixture of separate staffs that lasted 70 years until last January: "It was a nice meal at the Merchants Club. Paul Patterson spoke. Mark Watson spoke. Each staff took turns working while the other had its divorce dinner."
Of H. L. Mencken, who worked aloofly from others on the same paper, Mr. Ward said, "I never met the man, either because of my shyness, neglect or lack of preference. He was the Grand Poobah, a great man of letters . . . but it's not my bent to be in awe of great people. I overheard different things he said in his harsh German voice, but nothing was really worth quoting to you."
Of today's Sun: "I read The Sun every day. It's covering a world that moves very fast. The changes in the business section are all right, but I'm still puzzling out putting three markets into one market [a recent move that prompted more than 800 angry complaints]. It doesn't make sense, except to save money, which is why most newspaper changes are made."
Mr. Ward used to love to mess around in the composing room, where pages are put together.
"Many newspaper people have never been there. Where's their inquisitiveness . . . about life itself? Life is too damn interesting not to be alert all the time."
Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.