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As Long as We Remember...

January 26, 2007

I Hardly Knew Him

Roy Meachum

The headline borrows from a half-remembered book's title, written about John F. Kennedy by Ben Bradlee, once the chief honcho of The Washington Post newsroom.

During my times at the house on 15th Street N.W. that Eugene Meyer built, I never worked for Mr. Bradlee; we met. I always preferred encounters with his wife. Sally Quinn was much, much prettier. And never growled, not when I was present.

Tom Mills generally growled, or so it seemed to me; the founding editor of what was the modern Frederick News-Post struck me as a skeptic who would not believe someone else's version of the time unless his watch agreed. Skepticism is a quality to be admired in the people who run a newspaper's editorial room. Growling seems to come with the territory.

The Washington Post's managing editor during my days was Al Friendly; he wore those Benjamin Franklin half-glasses that enabled him to throw scowls over their tops, the space where normally the lens continued to the eyebrows.

To say I admired the friend I later called by his first name would be a vast understatement. He was the man! I never fully understood why Kay Graham arranged a transfer to the Mediterranean bureau; she wanted his chair for Ben Bradlee, who then worked for Newsweek, another Post property. I suspected corporate politics. Events proved me right.

In the event, his first year out of town, Al Friendly won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Six-Day War. Whatever the competition for the award, the 1938 Dartmouth graduate deserved it. Besides his scowls were legendary and so were those of Tom Mills.

There were other similarities between the editor who gave me that first job in the newspaper business and Tom Mills, who presided over what was the beginning of the end of my long career. I will withhold further comparisons for the sake of nihil nisi bonum, the traditional way of honoring the dead; it means essentially: Nothing but good. In this instance I don't mean the gentleman from West Virginia who passed last week but for other dead men and the living still among us.

The two editors never met; not that I know. But they shared the most precious quality in this profession. They were both men of great integrity who loved what they did. They never dodged the truth unless there were other overwhelming factors, including the best interest of their communities.

But they never lied! And that is the ultimate hallmark of integrity.

Over 21 years ago Tom Mills walked out on East Patrick Street, taking the odds and ends he had accumulated since his former Morgantown intern George Delaplaine asked for help with his family business in Frederick. They made an impressive pair, especially after Tom whistled along Bill Boord who presided over the minutiae that really make a newspaper. Bill died several years ago. George is still very much with us; he offered the first reading at All Saints Episcopal Church Tuesday morning.

Of the three, I knew Tom Mills the least. He left shortly after my first column appeared in the Post and News; they were separate publications still. In little more than a year I learned about his integrity and sometimes it hurt. He provided unlimited space, it seemed to me, for my critics, one Harold Weisberg in particular.

He gave equal space to anything anyone wanted to say against the papers he was responsible for - and that was the best way in this community to teach First Amendment responsibilities that always go along with any privileges. It worked.

Of all the people gathered for his funeral this week, I suspect I probably least knew the person whose remains were covered by the red-white-and-blue, an entitlement he earned serving in the Pacific Navy during World War II. He would have turned 80 last Wednesday.

Fifty four years ago on Sunday I worked my first civilian job, hauling equipment for Washington Post chief photographer Arthur Ellis. It was Eisenhower's first inauguration. I had been discharged from the Army the month before.

I was more than proud to remove my head covering, a beret, when Tom Mills' coffin touched the ground at Mount Olivet cemetery Tuesday. For Tom and also for Al and for the precious few with unquestionable integrity who taught me the most important business about the news business. That list includes George Delaplaine.

To say rest in peace would be a wasted salutation. This is a business that relies on curiosity and probing; its practitioners, men and women, are doomed to ask unanswerable questions. Looking for the truth.

In this world and in the next.

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