Romantic stories get to me. They always have. And that trait sometimes puts a journalist in an awkward position with others in this particular profession.
Reporters and editors are not just paid to document history or be the eyes and ears of the public, we’re literally trained from the beginning of our careers to be skeptical, even cynical, of nearly everything. To make that point, most of us are told early in our schooling about the mythologized motto from City News Bureau of Chicago: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
The quote emphasizing not to trust anyone – even your Mom – was always attributed to Edward Eulenberg, an editor at the bureau and at the Chicago Daily News. He died in 1998 in Seattle. Eulenberg also said he never said the famous words attributed to him. He instead said, “If your mother tells you she loves you, kick her smartly in the shins and make her prove it.”
Either way, you get the point.
That explains why when I first hear a story that sounds so fantastic, it only takes a few seconds for me to wonder if it’s actually true. This is exactly the reason why the romantic ideals and visions that warm my heart are often in direct conflict with the journalistic values in my head.
A perfect example is when someone I both trust and admire recently told me the story of how Bing Crosby wrote the Christmas classic “Silver Bells” after hearing the Salvation Army bell ringers in downtown Spokane. It’s not true. But that doesn’t make it any less of a great story, just one that’s not based in reality.
This all leads to my favorite Christmas story tied to newspapers. I’m a sucker for the romanticism of both the holidays and local journalism … cynicism be damned.
It’s a story about legendary Bay Area newspaper editor Al Reck, who was the city editor at the Oakland Tribune many generations ago. It supposedly took place in the 1950s. And whether this view is right or wrong, a 1950s newsroom always seems very romantic to me, which is probably why my favorite newspaper movie in the world is from that era.
Making the story even better is that the version I first heard was told by another newspaper legend, longtime Los Angeles Times columnist Al Martinez. It’s been retold many times now and even been published at least a couple of different times by the Los Angeles Times since Martinez first wrote it for the newspaper for a Christmas edition back in the mid-1980s.
Lots of journalists have doubted at least parts of Martinez’s story about his former editor – mostly the dates and time frames, yet for the most part, it checks out. Mostly.
But instead of me telling it, I’d rather let the original storyteller spin the tale. You can read his original column below.
And for the record, I did ask others if my Mom loved me. My Dad confirms that she does. My aunts agree. My brother said it was likely.
Please have a very Merry Christmas.
By Al Martinez
The Los Angeles Times
Dec. 25, 1986
It happened one Christmas Eve a long time ago in a place called Oakland on a newspaper called the Tribune with a city editor named Alfred P. Reck.
I was working swing shift on general assignment, writing the story of a boy who was dying of leukemia and whose greatest wish was for fresh peaches.
It was a story which, in the tradition of 1950s journalism, would be milked for every sob we could squeeze from it, because everyone loved a good cry on Christmas.
We knew how to play a tear-jerker in those days, and I was full of the kinds of passions that could make a sailor weep.
I remember it was about 11 o’clock at night and pouring rain outside when I began putting the piece together for the next day’s editions. Deadline was an hour away, but an hour is a lifetime when you’re young and fast and never get tired.
Then the telephone rang. It was Al Reck calling, as he always did at night, and he’d had a few under his belt.
Reck was a drinking man. With diabetes and epilepsy, hard liquor was about the last thing he ought to be messing with, but you didn’t tell Al what he ought or ought not to do.
He was essentially a gentle man who rarely raised his voice, but you knew he was the city editor, and in those days the city editor was the law and the word in the newsroom. But there was more than fear and tradition at work for Al.
We respected him immensely, not only for his abilities as a newsman, but for his humanity. Al was sensitive both to our needs and the needs of those whose names and faces appeared in the pages of the Oakland Tribune.
“What’s up?” he asked me that Christmas Eve in a voice as soft and slurred as a summer breeze.
He already knew what was up because, during 25 years on the city desk, Reck somehow always knew what was up, but he wanted to hear it from the man handling the story.
I told him about the kid dying of leukemia and about the peaches and about how there simply were no fresh peaches, but it still made a good piece. We had art and a hole waiting on page one. Al listened for a moment and then said, “How long’s he got?”
“Not long,” I said. “His doctor says maybe a day or two.”
There was a long silence and then Al said, “Get the kid his peaches.”
“I’ve called all over,” I said. “None of the produce places in the Bay Area have fresh peaches. They’re just plain out of season. It’s winter.”
“Not everywhere. Call Australia.”
“Al,” I began to argue, “it’s after 11 and I have no idea …”
“Call Australia,” he said, and then hung up.
If Al said call Australia, I would call Australia. I don’t quite remember who I telephoned, newspapers maybe and agricultural associations, but I ended up finding fresh peaches and an airline that would fly them to the Bay Area before the end of Christmas Day.
There was only one problem. Customs wouldn’t clear them. They were an agricultural product and would be hung up at San Francisco International at least for a day, and possibly forever.
Reck called again. He listened to the problem and told me to telephone the secretary of agriculture and have him clear the peaches when they arrived.
“It’s close to midnight,” I argued. “His office is closed.”
“Take this number down,” Reck said. “It’s his home. Tell him I told you to call.”
It was axiomatic among the admirers of Al Reck that he knew everyone and everyone knew him, from cops on the street to government leaders in their Georgetown estates. No one knew how Al knew them or why, but he did.
I made the call. The secretary said he’d have the peaches cleared when they arrived and to give Al Reck his best.
“All right,” Reck said on his third and final call to me, “now arrange for one of our photographers to meet the plane and take the peaches over to the boy’s house.”
He had been drinking steadily throughout the evening and the slurring had become almost impossible to understand. By then it was a few minutes past midnight, and just a heartbeat and a half to the final deadline.
“Al,” I said, “if I don’t start writing this now I’ll never get the story in the paper.”
I won’t forget this moment.
“I didn’t say get the story,” Reck replied gently. “I said get the kid his peaches.”
If there is a flashpoint in our lives to which we can refer later, moments that shape our attitudes and affect our futures, that was mine.
Alfred Pierce Reck had defined for me the importance of what we do, lifting it beyond newsprint and deadline to a level of humanity that transcends the job. He understood not only what we did but what we were supposed to do.
I didn’t say get the story. I said get the kid his peaches.
The boy got his peaches and the story made the home edition, and I received a lesson in journalism more important than any I’ve learned since.
I wanted you to know that this Christmas Day.
Local journalism is essential.
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