Memoirs of an Editor

February 12, 1994|By JOSEPH R. L. STERNE

Gerald E. Griffin, editor of this page from 1964 to 1972 and before that chief of The Sun's Washington Bureau, has written ''A Memoir at 85'' that can stand as a model for all those now living who want their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to know what they were all about.

I know next to nothing about my great-grandparents, only a little more about my grandparents and have but a sketchy idea about the early life of my parents. Would that they had written something like Jerry's 166-page memoir. Now it is too late. In written form I have only a small diary written by my father when he was courting my mother.

In the forward to his book, Mr. Griffin wrote: ''This account represents my effort to leave for our children and grandchildren the sort of written record that I wish my parents and grandparents and [wife] Amy's, could have left for us. What we knew of their early years -- their hopes, their travels, the daily fabric of their lives -- came to us in conversations that have become dim and faded by time.''

Jerry now is a man with a cause. ''I'd like to encourage Barbara and you to begin thinking about a similar effort,'' he wrote me. ''I thought about a memoir for a long time until it came together in my mind. After I got into it the words came quite easily. I worked at it about two hours each afternoon for ten months or so and sort of surprised myself."

Memoir writing is not my first assignment from Jerry Griffin. He was my boss during Washington Bureau days in the Fifties and the Sixties. Just as I followed his orders then, I will do so now. Modern technology makes it easy to leave a written, aural or visual record to our progeny.

Listen how Gerald Griffin's memoir begins: ''On my 12th birthday -- December 16, 1919 -- my Grandfather Bergers gave me a .410 gauge single-shot shotgun. Before that I had hunted rabbits with a beat-up .22 rifle; with the shotgun I stepped up as a hunter.''

Think how that portrait must register with his great-grandchildren. This wonderful old man, who now lives in a converted schoolhouse south of Emmitsburg, was once an eager 12-year-old shooting rabbits on a farm in Greenwood, Nebraska!

Or consider the tale of his two -- yes, two -- marriages. When Jerry and Amy were 19-year-olds at the University of Nebraska, they eloped to Kansas in an old borrowed roadster. Then three years later, because they had lied about their age and had only one witness, they put on a real church wedding and got married again. This is the stuff of family lore.

Mr. Griffin's career in journalism had it all: A reporter on the Daily Nebraskan, editor of the alumni magazine, Eastward Ho! to the old Towson Union News, then to The Sun as a deskman, a short stint on a Long Island paper and, in 1934, the biggest break of all. He was hired back on The Sun, reported on the New Deal's Washington, took a two-year assignment in London, served 10 years as Washington Bureau chief and finally became editor.

His memoirs present lively glimpses of his Washington days covering Joe McCarthy and Dwight Eisenhower, Robert Taft and Sam Rayburn. He tells of turning down a plane ride offer from McCarthy as a matter of ethics, of getting chewed out by Lyndon Johnson on a world trip when he wrote that Ike had drawn bigger crowds years earlier.

When Mr. Griffin became editorial-page editor of The Sun in 1964, he described the paper's policy in words that ring true today: ''We were never liberal in the leftist, bleeding-heart sense with which that word came to be associated; we were more like old-fashioned liberals on human rights and were generally quite conservative in finance and economics.''

Perhaps the most moving part of the memoir is Jerry's acknowledgment that he was never close to his mother, who rarely showed interest in his activities as a youngster and resented his moving to the East as a grown man. On her last visit to his home in Chevy Chase near the end of his Washington years, she even told him he acted like a stranger.

I closed the Griffin memoir thinking this sad parting could have been happier had he sat down and encouraged his mother to tell about her life as a girl and as a struggling young housewife. Reconciliation and understanding across the generations might have been the result.

So just writing one's own history might not be enough. Better to interview persons close to you while there is still time. Those who come after will be grateful and you will have achieved a little piece of immortality.

Joseph R.L. Sterne is editor of the editorial pages of The Sun and The Evening Sun.

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