Behind The Byline Final Issue

June 30, 1996|By James H. Bready

A generation ago, a young Baltimore insurance salesman yearned for the writer's life. How could he get his name on a newspaper's payroll? The advice of an Evening Sun acquaintance was direct: Write an article, sell it to an editor, have a clipping with your byline on it. Have a bunch of clippings.

So he got in touch with Sun Magazine. Shortly afterward, it published an illustrated piece on the city employee whose job included scrubbing, weekly, all 228 stone steps inside the Washington Monument.

It took several additional magazine articles and more than a year but, sure enough, The Sun hired R. H. Gardner; he went on to a satisfying career here, 30 years of it as drama and film critic.

Ben Herman's first magazine story idea came to him in 1950, while he was a Johns Hopkins undergraduate. A Buddhist holy man was visiting Owen Lattimore of the Hopkins faculty. Herman wrote a story about the holy man and sold it to the magazine.

Though tickled by the sight of his name in print, Herman got a day job teaching at North Point Junior High. Off-duty, he scored with other story suggestions, relating especially to Maryland history.

Almost 100 Herman bylines later, the magazine's editor, Hal Williams, sighed and said, "No more." Herman shrugged, turned to fiction, and now is the author of widely praised stories and novels set in his native Dundalk. "But I've never forgotten," he says, "the thrill of that first $15 check."

At the start, in 1946, the magazine's articles were done in-house. But as early as the third issue, two articles were by free-lancers: Raymond B. O'Rourke, a Cumberland newspaperman (on fox-hunting after dark, on foot), and Bonnie Gay (on a teen-age slumber party at 3720 Hillsdale Road).

In February, a free-lancer scored the magazine's first bull's-eye. The Baltimore architect John H. Scarff, on a postwar government mission abroad, had visited southwest Ireland. His photos and prose lighted up a small, different, faraway port named Baltimore.

It was an Eastern Shore free-lancer, Dickson J. Preston, who later startled Maryland by revealing in Sun Magazine that the trunk of the nation's noblest white oak tree, the mighty Wye Oak, was mostly hollow.

The magazine never got anything out of H. L. Mencken, but Gerald W. Johnson, his comrade in the sagacity game, wrote brilliantly on "Why Live in Baltimore" (rather than outside).

The lightly staffed magazine encouraged spec (speculation) pieces by people who knew their subject and who could write. With five columns of type spread over an original page size of 11 inches by 15 inches, the magazine had room for words. Ultimately, it embraced short stories and poetry. For decades, the magazine was Maryland's No. 1 market for the independent writer.

The Sunpapers long denied their own writers more than one byline per issue. A story in one section of the paper, on any given day, meant your name could not appear elsewhere. So, for the plural appearance, noms de typewriter were required. This applied also for outside contributors: Bonnie Gay's real name was Anne Herman Reilly, until she became Mrs. Neil H. Swanson, wife of The Sun's executive editor from 1942 to 1954.

Columns were launched. The magazine's earliest was on child-raising, by Lettice Lee Martin -- an outsider.

A great story wreathes the restaurant column. Charles H. "Buck" Dorsey, managing editor of The Sun for the magazine's first two decades, vowed there would be no such free advertising in his time. He died; the magazine instituted its restaurant column in 1971 (Baltimore's first). The first columnist was from the staff: Buck Dorsey's son, John Dorsey.

What magazine story had the biggest impact? I nominate Ralph Reppert's two-parter in May 1977 on the death of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas and Howard Donahue's explanation of events. A Baltimore County gun expert, Donahue said that in all likelihood the fatal shot came from the Secret Service car immediately following the president's, and was accidental, in response to the sound of Oswald's rifle. No one else has ever accounted for the difference in bullet paths and other characteristics.

The article made Donahue an international figure and led to his testifying before Congress on the "assassination." His investigation also led later to the book "Mortal Error," by Bonar Menninger.

On your ordinary Sunday, however, a reader would rather smile than frown. In September 1949 the magazine editor authorized two Evening Sun staff writers to reopen the Civil War.

The form this war took was parallel pieces, each running 48 column inches, each garnished by a John Stees drawing, and respectively headlined, "Baltimore Is a Northern City" and "Baltimore Is a Southern City." In the gray regimentals, Burke lTC Davis, a North Carolinian whose bonhomie was equaled only by his intelligence and industry; in the blue coveralls, Jim Bready from New Jersey, whose grandfather was 14th Pa. Cav.

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