Friday, March 14, 2014

Calling a Dead Man ... Collect

     I just read the news that a 78-year-old Mississippi farmer named Walter Williams has died for the second time in two weeks. The first time, he miraculously woke up in a body bag as he was about to be embalmed. The second time, his nephew said, "I think he's gone this time." 
Our immortal Walter Williams:
Founder of the Missouri
 School of Journalism
     He's not the first Walter Williams to flirt with immortality. When I was in college, I regularly made long-distance calls to another Walter Williams who died 20 years before I was born. He was the founder of the Missouri School of Journalism, and his academic heirs taught us not only AP style and press law but also how to use the good name of our patriarch to scam the phone company.
     My senior-year assignment was to cover the Mizzou basketball team for the Missourian, the morning newspaper produced by the journalism school for the town of Columbia. This was before cell phones and portable computers, so I would type out my game stories and send them by dictation or telecopiera crude fax that took six minutes per page. Either way, I had to make half-hour long-distance calls from places like Lawrence, Kansas; and Stillwater, Oklahoma.
     Long distance was prohibitively expensive back then, especially when you had to go through the operator to make a third-party billing. So we improvised. In our dorm, for example, it was possible to pick the lock into the utility closet and jump wires so that your call would be billed to a vacant room. (Not that any aspiring journalist in the Woodward-Bernstein era would ever pull such a stunt!) Long-distance charges were such a deterrent that instead of calling home, we actually wrote letters. 
     When reporters needed to call the Missourian from the road, we were instructed to make a person-to-person collect call to Walter Williams. If Walter answered, he could choose whether to accept the long-distance charges. 
     Of course, Walter died back in 1935.
     So the phone would ring at the Missourian, and the operator would announce that she had a collect call for Walter Williams. "Mr. Williams is not in the office," someone in the newsroom would reply. "May I have the number so he can return the call?"
     The operator never wised up to that fib, and she would obligingly recite the number I was calling from. Then we would hang up, and the Missourian would promptly call me back on the university's outbound WATS line, avoiding the cost of the collect call.
     We were so clever, or so we thought. None of us could have imagined that within 30 years, our careers would be undone by our readers using their phones to get the news for free.
     So where is old Walter Williams now that journalists really need him? Not only is our patron saint out of the office, but his beloved newspapers are going out of business. Even the venerable Missourian may be vulnerablebleeding thousands of university dollars every week as it struggles to compete in one of America's last two-paper towns. 
     At The Greenville News, where I worked for nearly 20 years, the iconic Main Street office is for sale, and they will soon stop the presses forever. (See Ron Barnett's video: Oh, the stories this machine has told.) For the dying generation of devoted readers, they can print the paper in Gastonia (which might as well be Estonia) and fold it into USA TODAY. Developers plan to tear down the newspaper building and replace it with an "entertainment district" that will include high-rise condos, high-end shops, and a dine-in movie theater. 
     I understand, but I grieve. Even Walter Williams can't live forever. And this time, I'm afraid that he's really gone. 
FOOTNOTE: I've encountered yet another Walter Williams who found fame in death. Walter Washington Green Williams's death 1959 was an occasion for national mourning, acccording to none other than Ulysses S. Grant III, grandson of the 18th President. Williams claimed to be the last survivor of the Civil War and said he was born in 1842, which would have made him 119, but census records indicate he was actually born in 1855 and was far too young to have served in the war. 

In more optimistic times, the Peace family who owned The Greenville News designed this building with reinforced foundations to support a 25-story skyscraper (below). They envisioned Greenville becoming a boomtown, and their investment in the Peace Center across the street was the first step in transforming South Main into a swank destination. But times and owners changed, and the newspaper building turned out to be expendable rather than expandable.

1 comment:

  1. I too grieve for the future of the place where I met my bride. But, like Camelot, it was a silly place.