Revisiting the past…

A column written in the rough and tumble days of The Alton Telegraph.
A column written in the rough and tumble days of The Alton Telegraph.

In March, 1969, a long drive from Roanoke to an industrial town on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis brought me to my second daily newspaper job.

The Alton Telegraph, known as the “Alton Evening Telegraph” in those days, was a scrappy family-owned newspaper and thorn in the sides of local politicians and government leaders.  It also paid $35 a week more than my salary at The Roanoke Times — a lot of money then.

March of ’69 was the month that two reporters at the paper — Joe Melosi and Bill Lhotka — met with federal investigator Brian Conboy of the Justice Department and gave him a memo about what they had learned about possible involvement of organized crime at a savings and loan in the city.

They never saw or heard from Conboy again and never could verify the criminal connection.  The Federal Home Loan Band Board, however, came in a few months later, shut down what it said was illegal and improper operations of Piasa Savings and Loan and it was taken over by another S&L.

The Telegraph wasn’t afraid to go after crooks and malfeasance.  That same year, another pair of the paper’s reporters — Ed Pound and Ande Yakstis — gained fame and Pulitzer consideration for uncovering and reporting on involvement of a State Supreme Court Justice who ruled on cases involving an Illinois horse race track where he also secretly owned stock in the operation.

The justice went down and to prison.  Ed Pound went on to work for the Chicago Sun Times and then on to Washington as a top investigative reporter for U.S. News & World Report.

Bill Lhotka later joined the staff of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch tne reported to the paper for 35 years. He later wrote a book, “St. Louis Crime Chronicles — The First 200 Years: 1764-1964.”

My first “investigative” piece for The Telegraph was a far-more modest effort:  Exposing unsafe railroad tracks on track that served trains hauling cargo from the Owens-Illinois ammunition plant out of East Alton.

Downtown Alton, Illinois
Downtown Alton, Illinois

Arriving in Alton at age 21, after five years at The Times in Roanoke, I was green and overly self-confident.  It took a lot of patience and mentoring by veterans like Pound, Yakstis, Melosi, Lhotka and city editor Elmer Broz to bring my passions and excesses under control and focus my energies.

During my 12 years at the paper, I won several state writing awards on stories about $800,000 in cash found stuffed into shoe boxes in the hotel room where Secretary of State Paul Powell lived and died; uncovered corrupt activities in the county government and clashed with Illinois Governor Dan Walker, who shouted at me in anger and tried to force State Troopers to remove me from a press conference in Springfield.

I wrote a series about extensive heroin use in the area, another on the growth of teen-age prostitution and examined questionable actions of the Alton City government.

The Telegraph gave me a column to write for the last half of my time at the paper and it allowed me to write opinions and take sides on issues.

Then the boom fell on the aggressive reporting days of The Telegraph when a deputy sheriff delivered a summons on a libel suit against the newspaper from one of customers of the failed Piasa Savings & Loan.  The customer, contractor James C. Green  claimed his business failed after the actions of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board forced cancellation of the loans that kept his business running.

He blamed the paper, not for anything it published but for the memo written by the two reporters to a Justice Department investigator in March of 1969.

That memo surfaced in a Freedom of Information action by the contractor’s attorney.  Because the memo was written on the newspaper’s letterhead, the attorney — Rex Carr of East St. Louis — claimed it was “published” even though the paper never printed a single story that led to actions by the Home Loan Bank Board.

Rex Carr: The attorney who won a $9.2 million judgement against the Alton Telegraph. He died in 2015.
Rex Carr: The attorney who won a $9.2 million judgement against the Alton Telegraph. He died in 2015.

A jury agreed with Carr and awarded a $9.2 million judgement to Green.  The action forced the paper to seek protection under Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

I left Alton for Washington in 1981 — exactly 12 years after arriving — partly because of the lawsuit decision and the effect it was having on the paper and also because a kid I championed in a column about what I felt was as a double standard in justice got released from jail and robbed and murdered a pharmacist in Alton.

That murder shook me and destroyed my confidence.  It left me doubting what I did as a reporter so I sought solace in what I to be a short “sabbatical” from newspapers and went to work as Press Secretary for Congressman Paul Findley of Illinois.

Memories of time in Alton resurfaced last week with the death of Morley Safer of 60 Minutes on CBS.   I had dinner with Safer in Washington in 1981 after I had talked with then network legal analyst Fred Graham about the newspaper that lost a libel suit over something it never published.

Morley Safer back in the early 1980s.
Morley Safer back in the early 1980s.

Graham passed my comments on to Safer and he and his producer came to DC to talk further about the case.  He said 60 Minutes would look into the suit.

Several months later, Safer anchored a piece on 60 Minutes about the lawsuit but he blamed the paper for “not being careful” about how it handled information that was not verified.  I felt then, and still feel, that 60 Minutes was charmed by attorney Carr and overlooked too many facts in the story.

I later found out that CBS lawyers watered down the report and changed it focus, something it was known to do.  The lawyers later interfered with 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace’s report on the actions of Brown & Williamson Tobacco whistle blower Jeff Weigand and kept him off the air until producer Lowell Bergman gave information on the legal interference to The New York Times.

It took a newspaper to disclose uncover shenanigans on a television “news magazine” show.  It was redemption for Wigand and, in a way, redemption for me.  It helped me to walk away from what became a little more than a decade in the political world and return to what I loved — reporting the news and taking photographs for publications.

As Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Robert Hunger of the Grateful Dead said in their song, Truckin’, in 1970:  “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

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