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March 29, 2013

First Post-Army Job

Roy Meachum

On January 20, 1953 – slightly more than 60 years ago – I carried The Washington Post Chief Cameraman Art Ellis’ equipment for Dwight Eisenhower’s first inauguration. Those days printed media around the world used Speed Graphics, bulky but reliable.


All during my six years and eleven months in the service, I dreamed of becoming an attorney and politician in my native Louisiana. Journalism was simply another job. With a wife and a son, the VA’s allowance was not enough to feed and afford the Greenbelt apartment. We had no car. My daily routine consisted of flagging down a driver who would give a ride to my College Park classes. The Post’s temporary personnel director Elsie Carper hired me as a copyboy.


Although a would-be lawyer, I found activities at 1515 L Street, NW engrossing. A plaque, right in the middle of the elevators, proclaimed the man who preserved The Post on the steps of the old Pennsylvania Avenue building from bankruptcy. I came to know Post board Chairman Eugene “Butch” Meyer by sight; he was frequently around the 5th floor newsroom.


Mr. Meyer in the winter donned an overcoat of pure cashmere. He walked through the desks, tossing the garment flippantly; at one time I fetched it and can attest to the costly material. Sometimes Mr. Meyer wore a pressman’s cap, designed to protect hair from the ink; he did that in honor of the unions that “saved” the paper, going along with the desperate wishes of the longtime financier who was appointed by a string of presidents to federal agencies.


A personal story: At one time I stepped into the elevator to discover the chairman was already in. He always talked to copyboys as if he harbored an amusing thought, eyes twinkling and face poised for smiling. The Washington Post savior, who owned the building and the elevators, noted a copyboy’s presence: On the 7th floor sat the executive suite, all the way down was the lobby that some editor commanded a package from. Knowing the way I was going, Butch observed that I wouldn’t mind was going up with him. The next moment, our guts told us he was riding along with me. It was a short trip that left him smiling good-naturedly.


World famous Herblock tested his cartoon ideas in the newsroom, looking for reaction; his first stop was at the copyboy desk. Before anyone else, I saw Pulitzer Prize-winning “You have always been a good friend of mine, Joseph.” The saying was attributed to skeleton-faced Death wrapped in a cowl and long robe. The communist dictator died that day.


The fate of Simeon Booker was a tribute to segregation 60 years ago; I wrote column about him last March. My fond memories curdle at the thought of the first African American hired as reporter; but then most females were separated by fence from their male colleagues. 1515 L Street NW was built in the late 1930s, not in Victorian times. The segregationist economic pressure from advertisers and the general public made for Simeon a hell, or at least purgatory.


The heroes were brilliant gentlemen: Executive Editor Russ Wiggins, Managing Editor Al Friendly, City Editor Ben Gilbert and the sole Pulitzer winner, before Herblock came from Chicago, Eddie Folliard. Shirley Povich was known for bringing his poetic style to his sports column.


But as the university year’s ended, the Veteran Administration funding ended. My wife and I discussed how we could no longer afford The Post; I resigned to take a better-paying position. However, I returned to the newsroom at 1515 L Street NW in later years.


That’s another column.


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