An Editor's Memories Final Issue

June 30, 1996|By Harold A. Williams

The first issue of The Sunday Sun Magazine was Jan. 6, 1946, and I was the first staff writer. I'd just returned to The Sun after serving four years in the Army. Previously, I'd worked on the city desk as a rewriteman for two years.

During my first year with the magazine, with my byline appearing every week, H. L. Mencken, The Sun's great name, appeared in the Sunday department one Monday morning. In a voice heard by all he asked, "Who's Williams?" I raised my hand, heart thumping. Mencken had seen my latest story. His question, "What happened yesterday?"

In the story I had the wrong last name of a well-known man. When the mistake was discovered the presses had been rolling. To correct the name would have taken hours, with the presses stopped. The solution: Obliterate the wrong name by chiseling it off the type etched in the cylinder. Readers found six or seven dark smears where the name would have been. I muttered the explanation. Mencken said something like, "That's what I thought." It was the only time I had a chance to speak with Mencken during his Sun career.

The magazine was the idea of Neil H. Swanson, executive editor of the Sunpapers. He named Philip S. Heisler as the magazine's first editor, but he was so absorbed in the publication that he suggested story ideas, selected cover photographs, rewrote headlines (he loved puns) and ordered stories rewritten on deadline.

I succeeded Heisler when I was appointed editor of the Sunday Sun in August 1954. Among my duties was editing the magazine. Three or four years later I named Malcolm Allen as editor. He was succeeded by John Dorsey, Margo Hammond and Susan Baer during my Sunday Sun reign. I continued to supervise the magazine closely until I retired.

I could not write a reminiscence of the magazine without mentioning two members of the staff: A. Aubrey Bodine and Ralph Reppert.

Bodine became internationally famous for his magazine photography. His 1948 picture illustrating oyster dredging on the Choptank River won the $5,000 first prize in a national contest. His cover picture for a magazine issue on the port of Baltimore, one of many special issues on the city and Maryland, won the Photographic Society of America medal for the best picture of the year.

Bodine used a tripod-mounted view camera he focused from under a black cloth, almost table-size. It looked like a camera Mathew Brady had abandoned on a Civil War battlefield.

Reppert was the best known of many fine magazine writers we had over the years. He had a light, sure touch and wrote a humor column reprinted in many magazines. We used a lot of humor.

In the '70s "Sundries" was the Page 2 column, modeled on the New Yorker's Talk of the Town. Pieces were offbeat, gracefully written. Other regular features were: "This Was Baltimore, 100 & 50 Years Ago"; Bodine's "Maryland Gallery," full-page pictures of Maryland life and scenes; "Curious Camera," which posed a weekly question to men and women in the street and printed their answers along with their photos; a recipe column, and a layout of a Baltimore or Maryland house.

The longest-running feature -- and the most popular -- was "I Remember When ... " For this, readers would write about a colorful past event or place: Chesapeake Bay excursion steamers, long-gone neighborhood bakeries, restaurants, saloons -- even speak-easies. Some involved celebrities: "I Remember When I Was an Errand Boy for Diamond Jim Brady" (Brady was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital at the time); "I Remember Four Men on a Camping Trip" (in Western Maryland -- Henry Ford, Thomas A. Edison, Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs). Many of these reader contributions were actually ghostwritten by a staff member.

My favorite "I Remember ... " was contrived. I found an old picture of a rickshaw carrying a distinguished-looking man, pulled by what in days past would have been called, without patronizing, a coolie. I gave the picture to Ralph Reppert and told him to create an "I Remember ... ," making it more outrageous as he wrote. It was to appear on a certain Sunday.

Reppert gave the rickshaw passenger an aristocratic, three-part name, and made him an eccentric resident of the same Guilford street as our publisher. He had become rich by selling kitchen matches throughout the Orient. And he had returned to Baltimore with his man and rickshaw, using them in daily trips around town.

The "I Remember ..." was titled "The Fastest Rickshaw on Charles Street." In the piece, Reppert wrote that more than $1,000 was bet at the Maryland Club on how fast the rickshaw could make it from downtown to Guilford in late-afternoon traffic. There were many complications. Last paragraph: The rickshaw operator "celebrates an anniversary this day. It was exactly 50 years ago that he arrived in Baltimore, on the first day of the fourth month, a date which is somewhat famous in its own right: April Fool."

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