May 24, 2010

Bill Nemitz: Once again, the proof of our success will be in tomorrow’s headlines

By Bill Nemitz

(Continued from page 1)

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See our special historic move coverage (slideshow, video and more).

And from 1953: “Three of the major garden clubs of Greater Portland have had as a special Christmas project the decorating of the windows of the Gannett Publishing Co. in a holiday motif.”

The flower ladies’ displays included sleeping children, sugar plums, Santa filling stockings while his reindeer waited patiently on the roof …

Speaking of the roof, here’s a little item from June of 1956: It seemed that Guy Gannett Publishing Co. wanted approval from the Board of Appeals to build a sundeck for newspaper employees atop the roof overlooking Congress Street.
Never happened.

The real legacy of 390 Congress St., though, is not the building itself. Rather, it will be the generations of newspeople who, over most of one century and a small slice of the next, filled this place with energy, excitement and, on occasion, eccentricity.

Long live the legendary copy editor Jack Sprat, who got up from his desk on deadline one night more than a half-century ago and, without a word, walked out the door.

A full year later, or so the story goes, Jack climbed up onto the Exchange Street marquis, crawled through a second-floor window, sat down at his desk and resumed working.

Longtime sportswriter Tom Chard told me last week about the night in the early 1960s when a compositor “who’d had a few” staggered down to the second floor and started raising hell in the newsroom.

Executive Editor Ernie Chard, Tom’s father, would have none of it.

“My dad had been a wrestler at Harvard,” Tom said. “So he got the guy in a half-nelson and held him on the floor until the cops arrived.”

Editorial writer and columnist Mike Harmon will never forget the night he was manning the city desk when a clearly disoriented young man walked into the newsroom – no locked doors or security back in those days.

The visitor announced he was Jesus Christ and needed to find the WGAN television studio (it was on the fifth floor at the time) so he could introduce himself to the world.

“If you really are Jesus Christ,” queried Harmon, “then why don’t you already know where the studio is?”

The cops came that time, too.

Early last week, as I walked around 390 Congress in my ever-deepening funk, I stopped by the cubicle of copy desk veteran Ken Jones and told him I planned to write about the old place.

“Why?” Jones asked with a not-too-convincing shrug. “It’s just a building.”

Two days later, Jones stopped me in the hallway and showed me a brochure, circa late 1940s, that visitors once received during tours of the newspaper. (I noticed Jones keeps it in a protective plastic bag.)

That evening, Jones called me at home, more excited than I’ve heard him in years, with an amazing discovery: According to building maintenance crew member Mark Clark, who got it from colleague Tom Purinton, who got it from his father, Stan, portions of the original Hoe press remain entombed to this day in the building’s sub-basement back by the corner of Exchange and Federal streets.

It seems that when a new press was installed in 1948, owner and publisher Guy Gannett decided it would be too costly to lift out the old unit.

“So they built a concrete wall around it and filled it with sand – and it’s still in there!” said Jones, who then sent me a long e-mail directing me to his find:
“If you come back up from the sub-basement to the regular basement you can probably walk under the sidewalk on the Exchange Street side and thereby walk on top of the press tomb. And if you put your ear against the wall in the sub-basement, you might be able to hear the presses running.”

Sure, Ken. It’s just a building.

So here I sit with that old news clip, printed by those very presses back in 1923, watching with a lump in my throat as history repeats itself.

“Of course, there is much to be done before The PRESS HERALD can say, ‘There, that’s that,’ ” wrote the unidentified reporter. “A finishing touch here and an additional step there must be completed. But the big leap has been taken. The PRESS HERALD is moved.”

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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