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January 27, 2009

The Sun Also Sets Part 1

John W. Ashbury

          After starting a career in journalism with The Frederick News-Post, way back in 1959, it wasn’t hard to jump 50 miles to the east and settle in as a police reporter at the venerable Sun in Baltimore. It was an introduction to a newsroom once populated by such as H. L. Mencken and still the bastion of men long respected as reporters, editors and columnists.


            Though but six years old at the time, my interest in the news began in 1945 when my father became rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hampden, just a block south of Roland Park. The paper was on the porch – not in the driveway as today. Paperboys – and girls, even then – sought to insure a big tip when they knocked on the door at the end of the week to collect. It was a different time, a time devoutly to be wished. But alas….


            Even after moving to Frederick in the early 1950’s, The Sun still appeared in our house, mostly on Sundays. But when big stories exploded anywhere in the world, The Sun was still available at the local newsstand – and it made its way to the breakfast table.


            Four years away at school didn’t deter my devotion to this icon of the publishing business. Returning to attend college meant that it would gather my gaze every day, sometimes only in the college library. It was always something to look forward to – with interest and curiosity. What in the world was happening today.


            So, when college didn’t work out initially, the Army beckoned. And when that Reserve active duty hitch was complete, on a flyer, I applied to and was hired by The Sun. It was eye-opening.


            While the short stint at The Frederick News-Post, under the watchful eye of “Mr. Will” (William T. Delaplaine), and the guidance of editors whose names escape me, I progressed. One of the people with whom I worked closely those first months was Dorothy Eberstadt, whose watercolor paintings of Frederick populate the walls of my home.


            Just about everyone who came to work at 501 N. Calvert Street in those days was required to work the police beat for some months. I was fortunate that Bill Talbott worked that beat for The Evening Sun. He took me under his wing and coached an aspiring reporter in the intricacies of the business. He had a sponge for a student. When I finished my shift for The Sun, usually between 11 P.M. and midnight, a few hours sleep led to rising to meet with Mr. Talbott for his shift, which started before dawn and ended before my next stint began.


            It would be impossible to list the lessons taught and learned in those early days of the 1960s. Suffice it to say that Bill Talbott remains one teacher whose memory will always remain vivid.


            The Sun’s newsroom was populated with characters, as, I suppose, is every newsroom across the country. Dave Maulsby, a re-write man of impeccable skill, kept a “bottle” in his desk drawer. A new one every day as the old one was empty when he went home each night.


            There’s the classic story of Dave’s return from a vacation to Puerto Rico. He was late coming back – by several days. He hobbled into the city room on crutches and a heavy plaster cast on one leg. Everyone seemed ecstatic to have him back. When asked what happened, he replied that he had “missed a step onto the veranda coming out of the bar” and fallen on his face. He added: “I had a drink in my hand and I didn’t spill a drop.” Likely an apocryphal retelling of an old joke, but Dave said it with such a straight face. Truth be told, no one who heard him say it that day doubted for a minute that it wasn’t the truth.


Tomorrow: More characters and lessons at the knee of A.S. Abell’s venerable publication.


[When notice of the decision to halt home delivery of the paper in Western Maryland came, I was initially upset and called the person who signed the letter. Getting no response, I emailed him. His response was to send me a list of all the locations “in my area” where the daily paper could be purchased. The closest location on the list of more than 200 was in Gaithersburg, 45 minutes from my home. All of the places were located in the Washington suburbs.]

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